Old Rivals Prepare to Face Off In West Playoff

Before the season, most SHL observers took it for granted that the Michigan Gray Wolves and Anchorage Igloos would wind up facing each other in the Western playoff series.  They are widely regarded as the best teams in the division, and have taken turns winning the division since the SHL’s inception.  As it turns out, the Wolves and Igloos did make the postseason, but the race didn’t unfold quite as expected.

Michigan led the West from wire-to-wire, and were never seriously threatened along the way.  As usual, the Wolves’ success was built on its dominating, smothering defense; they allowed only 24.7 shots per game on average, more than two shots fewer than their closest competitor.  This allowed the team to thrive despite the fact that goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist wasn’t quite up to his usual exceptional standards (38-12-4, 1.69 GAA, .936 save percentage).

Ron Wright

“We’ve succeeded because we’ve adhered to our core identity,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “We haven’t forgotten that greatness is purchased with blood, sweat, and hard work.  Will over skill, that’s what our team is about.”

Anchorage, meanwhile, experienced a much bumpier path to the playoffs.  For much of the season, the Igloos seemed to be suffering the hangover of  their upset loss to the Hershey Bliss in last year’s Finals.  They struggled to keep their head above the .500 waterline for the first half of the season, with the upstart competitors in Seattle and Saskatchewan nipping at their heels.  It got bad enough at one point that coach Sam Castor called out his team for their lackadaisical effort.  But they finally got their season turned around after the trading deadline, going 19-3-2 down the stretch to make the playoffs going away.

Jake Frost

“It took us a long time, too long, for us to get our heads in the right place,” said C Jake Frost, who led the team with 46 goals.  “But we know that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  We’ve rediscovered ourselves and our best hockey just at the right time.  We’re confident that we can match up against any other team in the league, which is good, because Michigan’s the best there is.”

On paper, the Wolves are the strong favorites in this series; they finished 14 points ahead of Anchorage, and Wright has his team focused on the goal of being the first ever to win multiple Vandys.  But there’s more to the story than a cursory glance at the standings might suggest.  Anchorage and Michigan split their regular-season series, with each club winning 3 of 4 on its own ice.

“No one in this locker room is taking this matchup for granted,” said Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison.  “We finished ahead of them, sure, but that doesn’t mean anything.  They always play their best hockey when they’re playing us, and we do the same against.  This series is going to be an all-out war, and it could swing either way.”

Hunter Bailes

If there’s one thing that might swing the series in Anchorage’s favor, it’s their health.  The Igloos will have all of their regular starters available for this series, while the Wolves suffered a major injury during the last week of the regular.  On Thursday, C Hunter Bailes exited Michigan’s 5-4 win over Saskatchewan after taking a slash to his right arm.  He was later diagnosed with an upper-body injury, and is expected to miss the entire first round of the playoffs.  Bailes’ injury is a major blow to Michigan’s offense, as he led the team in goals with 35.

Wright says that he isn’t concerned about having to face the Igloos without Bailes.  “Look, our team doesn’t rise or fall on a single guy, not Hunter or even The Bear,” the coach told reporters.  “Our success is built on total team effort, with everyone contributing.  Would I rather have him in there?  Sure. But are we supposed to give up or run away crying because Bailes is hurt?  That’s ridiculous.  We’ve got everything we need to win this series, as long as we go out there and play like we know how.”

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SHL Player of the Week – Week 13

In an unprecedented move, the SHL named the entire Michigan Gray Wolves‘ defense as its Players of the Week.  “Up until now, we’ve always limited the Player of the Week honor to a single player,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “But we felt that Michigan’s defensive work needed to be recognized, and we couldn’t single out any one player for it, so we’re recognizing them all.”

The Wolves’ blueline corps – which includes “Mad Max” Madison, Fritz Kronstein (who won solo Player of the Week honors three weeks ago), Frank Mudrick, Brooks Zabielski, Sam Bergdorf, Bjorn Tollefson, Lyndon Bullock, and Cedric Berlinger – were in top form with the playoffs approaching.  Michigan allowed only two goals in their four games this week, thanks in large part to the shot-suppressing ability of their defenders.  The Wolves’ opponents averaged less than 16 shots this week.  In Sunday’s showdown against Hamilton, a potential Finals opponent, Michigan held the high-flying Pistols to only 19 shots in a 3-0 win.  Then in consecutive games against Dakota and Kansas City, the Wolves limited their opponents to 12 shots each, allowing them to edge the Jackalopes 1-0 and stop the Smoke 4-1.

“Our core identity is defense,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “And it says a lot about the group we have here that even though I’ve been rotating guys in and out this week, giving the starters a little rest, we haven’t missed a beat.”

SHL Playoff Field Nearly Set

With two weeks left in the SHL season, the playoff picture is coming into focus.  The expanded four-team field hasn’t been officially set quite yet, but it’s all but certain which teams will head to the postseason.

In the West, the matchup features a pair of old rivals and longtime powers.  The Michigan Gray Wolves officially punched their playoff ticket last week, which comes as no surprise; they’ve been the division all season by a wide margin. On Saturday, they clinched the division title with a 5-2 win over Boston.

“This is one step on our journey,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “What we’ve accomplished is a testament to the hard work we’ve put in this season.  Obviously, our goals are larger than this.  If we win the division but don’t win the Vandy, we won’t consider the season a true success.  But we don’t expect this to be an easy road; we know we’ll have to fight for it.”

Meanwhile, the Anchorage Igloos have not been performing up to their usual high standards for much of the season, but they’ve gotten hot down the stretch, going 12-3-1 in their last 16 games.  The Igloos are now on the brink of clinching a playoff spot, and prepare to face Michigan for a chance to go to make their third trip to the SHL Finals in four seasons.

“They say it’s important to peak at the right time,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Well, we believe we’re right where we need to be.  We’re playing our best hockey of the year going into the playoffs, and that’s perfect.  Michigan better not take us for granted.”

Meanwhile, the Eastern playoff is set to feature a pair of rising powers and playoff newcomers with very different styles.  The Hamilton Pistols were widely considered to be a strong contender in the making, but most observers figured that they were still a year or two away.  But with the defending champions Hershey Bliss stumbling out of the gate and the two-time division winner Washington Galaxy falling apart down the stretch, the Pistols are set to punch their first-ever playoff ticket.

Hamilton’s success has been built on a fast pace and a highly efficient offense, with LW Steven Alexander leading the way.  Second-year netminder Lasse Koskinen, nicknamed the “human goal eraser,” has taken care of business in the defensive end.

“We’ve got a frisky bunch of young pups here,” said Hamilton coach Keith Shields.  “We’ve got the talent and the desire to go all the way.  We’ll see what happens come playoff time, but I’m thrilled to pieces with how far we’ve come already.  I couldn’t be prouder of my boys.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec Tigres are also close to making their first-ever trip to the postseason.  Unlike the Pistols, who try to turn every game into a track meet, the Tigres succeed by slowing the pace, using their stout defense and goalie Riki Tiktuunen to keep opposing attacks muzzled.  The acquisition of free-agent LW Walt Camernitz has proved huge, as he has helped propel Quebec’s offense from awful to adequate, which has been enough to lift the Tigres from the basement to the penthouse.

When coach Martin Delorme left a powerhouse Michigan squad to coach his hometown team, some thought he’d made a huge mistake.  It’s been a sweet redemption for him, as three years of effort are starting to bear fruit.  “For those who thought I could never make the playoffs with this team,” the coach told reporters, “where are you now?  This season, the critics have suddenly lost their voices.”

What remains to be seen is which of the Canadian teams will have home-ice advantage in their matchup.  Hamilton has been out in front throughout the season, but they’ve cooled a bit lately, and Quebec has crept within 4 points of them.

“I don’t know if we’ll finish on top or if they’ll beat us out,” said Alexander.  “But I don’t think it really matters.  We’re both damn good teams, and I think it’ll come down to who can set the pace and dictate the game.  Should be a hell of a series.”

Announcer’s Joke Sparks Fish Incident in Michigan

The Anchorage Igloos have faced a lot of obstacles this season as they’ve attempted to defend their division title.  They’ve struggled to put together lengthy winning streaks.  They’ve lagged far behind their rivals, the Michigan Gray Wolves, in the standings.  Lately, as they’ve tried to nail down a playoff spot, they’ve been hit by a rash of injuries.

On Saturday, the Igloos came in to Cadillac Place to face the Wolves.  They expected a challenging game against their rivals, but they also had to contend with an unexpected challenge: a hail of rotting fish showered down on their bench.

“You figure you’ll have to dodge some tough checks in a game, and maybe a beer sometimes,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “You’re not really expecting to have to dodge fish.”

Michigan Gray Wolves color commentator Blackie Sprowl.
Blackie Sprowl

The whole thing was triggered by an offhand comment on the Wolves’ radio broadcast during last week’s 13-0 thrashing of Seattle.  In the third period, color commentator Blackie Sprowl was trying to find something to talk about, since the game was completely out of hand.  He wound up launching into a comic monologue about the challenges of the commentator’s life.

“You know, this job is harder than the fans might think,” Sprowl said to play-by-play man Philip Shelton.  “It’s not all free food and fast women, you know.  We got to fly to Anchorage.”

“Yeah, that’s always a tough trip,” said Shelton.

“You go on a 30-hour flight, then you land in this snow-encrusted outpost in the middle of nowhere.  There’s more moose than people, and the whole place smells like rotting fish.  Then you’ve got to take another 30-hour flight back to civilization.  These are the kind of hardships that we put up with for you, fans.”

“Okay, Anchorage isn’t quite that bad,” Shelton interjected.

“Sure it is,” retorted Sprowl.  “Whole place smells like rotten fish.  You know, the next time the Igloos come here, we should put some rotten fish in their dressing room, just so they feel at home.”

“Rotten fish in the dressing room.  Okay,” said Shelton incredulously.  “Sorry, folks, this is what 10-0 does to you.”

“I think it’s great,” said Sprowl.  “They’ll smell those rotten fish and say, ‘Hey, smells like home in here.'”

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it.  But when Anchorage arrived for Saturday’s game, a group of jokesters showed up with some day-old trout, and during breaks in the action, they began flinging it at the visiting bench.

The first salvo missed the mark, but the second hit Igloos D Ted Keefe flush on the front of his jersey.  The blueliner stared quizzically at the offending fish, then tossed it aside as the fans cheered.  As trout continued to rain down, though, the Igloos’ mood changed from confusion to frustration.  A couple players started checking the fish back at the fans, while others complained to the ushers.  Before long, the section behind the Anchorage bench was chanting “Fish! Fish! Fish!”

Eventually, the PA announcer warned the fans that “anyone throwing fish or other objects at the benches will be ejected.”  The fans booed, but the chucking of sea creatures came to a halt.

The Igloos wound up winning the game, 3-2.  During coach Sam Castor‘s postgame press conference, the first remark out of the coach’s mouth was, “What the hell was with the fish?”  A local reporter explained the story, whereupon Castor rolled his eyes and said, “Listen, my suit costs more than the monthly paycheck of those clowns.  The Wolves can expect a bill from my tailor.”

Igloos C Nile Bernard said that the team took the fish-flinging in stride.  “In fact, we’re packing the fish up and bringing it back home for Petey,” said Bernard, referring to mascot Petey the Polar Bear.  “We’re not going to let that stuff go to waste.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 10

Fritz Kronstein

The SHL selected Michigan Gray Wolves D Fritz Kronstein as its Player of the Week.  Kronstein is one of the league’s rising stars, and his two-way skill was on full display this week as he helped his team to a 4-0-1 record.  The 25-year-old blueliner had a 10-point week, including 9 assists, while providing his usual lock-down defense.  With Kronstein leading the way, Michigan outscored opponents 24-3 on the week.

On Saturday, Kronstein had a goal and five assists in the Wolves’ 13-0 mauling of Seattle.  On Tuesday, he had a pair of assists to key a 5-1 win over Kansas City.  On Friday, Kronstein set up the game-tying Hunter Bailes tally as Michigan came from behind to beat Saskatchewan 2-1.

“Strong team defense is the engine that drives this team,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright, “and Fritz is one of the cylinders in that engine.  He’s such a hard-working, unselfish player.  Whatever he can do to help this team win, he does it.”

Wolves Sink Sailors in Record-Breaking Fashion

After the Seattle Sailors made a couple of major acquisitions at the trading deadline, they considered themselves ready to grab a playoff spot.  And they didn’t hesitate to let the world know it.  “Michigan and Anchorage better be on notice,” said RW Vince Mango after the deal were announced last Thursday.  “Their time is almost up; we’re coming for them.  We’re building a new dynasty in the Pacific Northwest.”

The Sailors had their first chance to back up those bold words on Saturday, when they traveled to Cadillac Place to face the Michigan Gray WolvesRon Wright’s club was well aware of Mango’s boasts, and were prepared to teach the upstarts a lesson.  “Believe me, [Mango’s quotes are] up on our bulletin board,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.

Come Saturday night, Michigan had indeed taught the Sailors a lesson in particularly brutal fashion.  The Wolves came away with a 13-0 victory, the most lopsided game in SHL history.

“Maybe next time [Seattle] wants to call themselves a dynasty,” said Wright, “they might hold off until they finish over .500 for once.”

The game was a front-to-back thumping.  Nine different Michigan players scored goals, and everyone except D Brooks Zabielski recorded at least one point.  “We pride ourselves on having the kind of depth that most teams can’t touch,” said Wright.  “As I’m sure Seattle is learning, it takes more than a couple of big stars to win championships.”

Things went sideways for the Sailors early on, as they ended the first period down 3-0.  Bailes and RW Oskar Denison scored 21 seconds apart less than three minutes into the game, and C Warren Marlow added another tally with 6:45 remaining

Marlow scored twice in the second period to complete the hat trick.  “Marlie’s not the type to get his name in the papers all the time,” said Bailes, “but he just goes out there and gets the job done.  We like that.” Marlow completed his hat trick just over 11 minutes into the period.  The game was delayed for ten minutes while fans flung their hats to the ice and the arena crew cleaned them up.  The Sailors huddled on their bench and tried to regroup.  “We knew we needed to do something to change the momentum if we were going to get back in it,” said Seattle coach Harold Engellund.

Unfortunately for Engellund and his team, that momentum shift never came.  The wheels really came off after Marlow’s hat trick, as Michigan scored three more times before the period ended.  Wolves fans taunted Seattle goalie Rocky Goldmire with razzing repetition of his name and a running tally of the score every time the puck found the back of the net.

Engellund finally yanked his goalie after the second period was over.  “Rocky was looking a little shell-shocked out there,” said the Sailors coach.  “I knew he just needed to go get a shower and a beer.”

Ordinarily, with a virtually insurmountable lead and a whole period left to go, Wright would have ordered his team to take their foot off the gas.  But instead they kept the hammer down, putting five more goals past backup netminder “Jersey Mike” Ross.

“Were we sending a message?  You bet we were,” said Wright after the game.  “[The Sailors] said they were ready to play with the big boys.  We wanted to show them what that was really like.”

In the visiting locker room, the Sailors struggled to absorb their shellacking.  “Man, I really pissed them off, didn’t I?” said Mango.  “It’s just like when we were in school; stand up to the bully and he beats you to a pulp to teach you a lesson. Lesson learned, I guess.  But I can’t wait until we turn the tables and beat them up next time.”

For the Wolves, Mango’s boasts lit their competitive fires at a critical juncture of the season.  “Honestly, I should be thankful to Mango,” said Wright.  “It can be a struggle to find motivation when you’re as far ahead as we are.  But he ran his mouth and gave us all the motivation we needed.  I might have to hire him to come get us fired up again before the playoffs.  His calendar should be wide open then.”

Continue reading “Wolves Sink Sailors in Record-Breaking Fashion”

Interview of the Week: Ron Wright

This week’s interview is with Michigan Gray Wolves coach Ron Wright.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with Ron Wright, the bench boss for the SHL’s best team, the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Coach Wright, thanks for speaking with us.

Ron Wright

Ron Wright: Don’t mention it.  Speaking to the press is part of my job.

SHLD: I’d ask you about the playoff race, but for your team, there really isn’t one.  You’ve been out front of your division since the start of the season, and now you lead the West by over 20 points.  Are you surprised at how easy it’s been?

RW: Let’s be clear; nothing about a professional hockey season is easy.  Whatever we’ve achieved, we’ve paid for in blood, sweat, and hard work.  That said, we were definitely not expecting to have a lead this large at this point in the season.

SHLD: Having a lead like that must make it tempting to take your foot off the gas and cruise.  How have you kept your team focused and productive?

RW: I’ve always told my guys that we don’t measure ourselves by the competition.  We measure against ourselves.  And they know that I’m not going to ease up in practice or slow down just because we’ve running away with the division.  Dedication and intensity is what wins championships.

SHLD: Speaking of championships, the East is looking stronger this year.  The Hamilton Pistols look like a serious contender, and they’ve played the Wolves tough all season, including a 1-1 tie this week.  What do you think of them?

RW: They’ve come a long way in a short time.  [Keith] Shields has done a hell of a job with them.  They’ve got a powerful offense, and they’ve really integrated their young guys into the program.  Their style is an interesting match for ours; they play faster and more offense-oriented.  And that’s definitely a matchup that could go either way.  We couldn’t take that for granted.

SHLD: The Quebec Tigres are another Eastern team doing well, although their style is more similar to yours.

RW: Yeah, they’re also focused on defense and shot suppression, slowing the pace down.  That’s the matchup that the league is dreading, because it would be so boring.  But that would be a real chess match.

SHLD: The trading deadline just passed, and almost all of the contenders made moves to improve.  The Wolves, on the other hand, stood pat.  Did you consider making trades?

RW: I’m sure [GM Tim] Carrier kicked the tires on a couple things, but no, we weren’t looking to upgrade.  My team is on the ice.  Trying to integrate a new player in midseason is always a challenge; if you’re going to do that, you’d better be confident that it’s a risk worth taking. I’m satisfied with all of my guys.

SHLD: Some thought that you might make a move after [center] Wesley Knight was hit with a 15-game suspension for PED usage.  How have you dealt with that?

RW: Let me say first, that was a real shock and a disappointment when I learned about that.  He’s too good a player to reach for a crutch like that.  But we’ve got Phoenix Cage, who’s stepped in and done a good job in that spot.  He’ll be able to hold the fort until Knight is back.

SHLD: Well, thanks for a wide-ranging and interesting conversation.  Good luck the rest of the season!

RW: Thank you.  I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish.