CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title

The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business.  The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship.  But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.

“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox.  “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away.  We were all hungry for revenge.”

Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied.  They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep.  Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.

“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”

Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium.  The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation.  The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history.  Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win.  “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.

The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2.  They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win,  Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort.  “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh.  “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”

With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28.  Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph.  Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period.  In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury.  But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.

The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series.  “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors.  Onward and upward!”

Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship.  “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there.  We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”

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CHL Update: Rhinos, Freeze Advance to Finals

The first round of the CHL playoffs mirrored the first round of the SHL playoffs in a number of ways.  One series ended in a sweep, with the victor headed to the finals for the second straight season, trying to avenge last year’s shocking loss.  The other series went the distance, with both teams holding serve on home ice; the winner is making their first-ever trip to the championship round.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos felt as though they should have won the title last season, even though they were upended by Utah in 5 games in last season’s final.  “I think we all had the belief that the better team lost last time,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “We are on a mission of revenge.”

The Rhinos played with purpose and passion in the division playoff, dispatching the Oshawa Drive in three straight.  Despite the fact that Virginia thrived on scoring this season, they relied on stout defense to succeed in this playoff; they shut out the Drive in each of the first two games. They won Game 1 by a 4-0 margin, with C Tanner Brooks getting a short-handed goal to open the scoring and LW Yuri Laronov recording a power-play tally to end it.  The Rhinos eked out a 1-0 victory in Game 2, with RW “Real” Hank Diehl scoring the lone goal on a deflection early in the second period.  Goalie Gus Parrish was at the top of his game, turning aside 22 shots in the first game and 19 shots in the second.  In Game 3, with the series moving north of the border, Virginia opened up a 3-0 lead before D Ingolf Gudmundsen finally recorded the Drive’s first goal of the series late in the second period.  Oshawa LW Norris “Beaver” Young struck on the power play two minutes into the third period to close the gap to one, but they couldn’t muster the tying tally as the Rhinos completed the clean sweep.

“Everyone in this locker room is focused on one thing: winning the Howard Trophy,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “If we have to go over, under, around, or through our opponents to make it happen, that’s what we’re going to do.  We’re like Andy Dufresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ climbing through that sewer pipe on our way to freedom.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Freeze had a bumpier road than the Rhinos did, as the Colorado Springs Zoomies pushed the series to the limit.  But like their parent club, the Anchorage Igloos, the Freeze survived and will advance to the Finals.

Game 1 was a back-and-forth affair, with the Freeze and Zoomies trading goals, and it ultimately went into overtime.  D Julian Staples ultimately nailed the game-winner six minutes into the extra session to give Minnesota a 4-3 win.  Game 2 was another close contest; Zoomies RW Joel Hagendosh got a short-handed goal midway through the third, and the game wound up in overtime once again.  One extra period wasn’t enough this time, but C Mason Alpine ended it a minute into the second OT with a slapper from the point that lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 victory.  Back home for Game 3, Colorado Springs kicked their offense into high-gear, rallying from a two-goal deficit to snatch a 6-4 win that staved off elimination.  In Game 4, the Zoomies made the most of the man advantage, scoring all three of their goals on the power play.  Even though the Freeze outshot them 39-23, Colorado Springs goalie Sonny Kashiuk stood on his head, making 38 saves in a 3-1 win.  In the winner-take-all Game 5, Minnesota again dominated on offense, outshooting the Zoomies 35-17.  But even though the Freeze scored four goals in a wide-open second period, the Zoomies hung tough, ultimately coming up short by a 5-4 score.

The Igloos sent their minor-league club a congratulatory video, with Anchorage players calling on their minor-league counterparts to help the organization capture both championship.  “We’re going to prove that we’re the best team right now,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We’re hoping you guys can go out and prove that we’re going to win the future too.”

Although Minnesota finished the regular season 11 points ahead of Virginia, most observers expect a closely-fought battle in the Finals.  The Rhinos will be looking to win the title they felt they were robbed of last year, while the Freeze will be looking to make their parent club proud.  The series begins Sunday at Northwoods Auditorium in Duluth.

CHL Update: Teams Punch Postseason Tickets

The Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s junior circuit, also ended its regular season this week, and their playoff field is now set.  Like the SHL, the CHL’s playoff field features a pair of returning postseason combatants as well as two new faces.  Just like season, the division playoffs will be best-of-five, with the victors meeting in a seven-game series for the league title.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos captured the division title for the second straight year, despite losing a couple of key contributors from last year – G Shawn Stickel and RW Colton Jabril – to their parent club in Saskatchewan.  Just like last season, the Rhinos have thrived on fast-paced, high-scoring hockey; the led the league with 224 goals.  Their offense was driven by Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, the CHL’s highest-scoring blueliners (with 33 and 31 goals, respectively).  Netminder Gus Parrish made the playoffs last year with Omaha; he signed as a free agent with Virginia this offseason and turned in another solid campaign, going 24-13-2 with a 2.48 GAA.  In addition to their potent offense and solid goaltending (as well as a league-best 88.4% penalty kill), the Rhinos bring a big chip on their shoulder and a fierce desire to claim the title that eluded them last season.  “We’re just the right amount of crazy to win this thing,” said coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Not, like, underpants-on-your-head crazy.  Just hockey crazy.  Crazy enough to be dangerous.”

The Oshawa Drive were not expected to make much noise this season.  They came off an underwhelming 2017 season where they finished last in their division, then saw the parent Hamilton Pistols call up several of their top players, such as LW Jamie Campbell, RW Michael Jennings, and D Buster Kratz.  So how did they turn things around to clinch their first-ever playoff spot?  They got strong seasons from players who washed out with the big club: LW Norris “Beaver” Young led the team with 72 points, and RW Jean-Michel Pireau put up a dozen goals and two dozen assists.  And several of their returning players stepped their game up a notch, including RW Anders Pedersen (64 points, 17 more than last season), D Elvis Bodett (29 goals, nearly double last year’s total), and G Hector Orinoco (whose GAA went down by three-fifths of a goal, and save percentage went up by 14 points).  Oshawa has developed a healthy dislike of the Rhinos, which should make for a hard-fought series.  If it turns chippy, keep an eye on Drive coach Peter James.  Several of their returning When these two clubs clashed early in the season, the normally mild-mannered James manhandled a Virginia defenseman who scrapped with the Oshawa bench.  Will the coach go into bouncer mode again if the Rhinos act up?  “I wouldn’t count on it,” James says.

Western Division

The Minnesota Freeze came a long way in order to win the division.  They executed a worst-to-first turnaround after a dismal 2017 campaign, and they soared in the second half, going 22-7-3 to erase a 12-point deficit in the standings.  Their turnaround was sparked by a potent offense, led by LW Jean Pierre Fleury; he topped the CHL with 42 goals, nearly one-fifth of Minnesota’s total output.  And while the Freeze’s defense was so-so, they got considerable help from their goaltending tandem of Curt Freeze (27-10-4, 2.27 GAA, .920 sv%) and Darren Lovelette (14-7-2, 2.71, .899).  One potential X-factor: the Freeze were terrific on the road, posting a league-best 20-9-3 mark away from home, including a 12-3-1 mark during their second-half surge.  “When you’ve had to deal with a winter as long and cold as ours,” said Freeze coach Patrick Chillingham, “it makes you tough.  So a hostile crowd in a road barn isn’t going to rattle us.”

Although the Colorado Springs Zoomies are making their first trip to the postseason, the same group of players (more or less) made the playoffs last season as the Omaha Ashcats.  The Zoomies are still smarting from last season’s upset loss to the eventual champion Utah Owls in four games in the Western playoff.  They’ve got a couple factors working in their favor this time.  Last year, Utah’s Sherman Carter was the league’s best netminder; this year, the Zoomies’ Sonny Kashiuk laid claim to that title, going 29-16-3 with a 2.03 GAA and a .925 save percentage.  Colorado Springs also got an unexpected breakout season from RW Philippe Durien, who surprised everyone by finishing among the league’s top 5 goal scorers with 34.  The Zoomies also led the league on the power play, converting 23.8% of their opportunities.  On the downside, the Zoomies have cooled off considerably since their hot start, going a mere 15-15-2 in the second half, including a stretch shortly after the All-Star break when they lost 10 out of 13 games.  Coach Artie Gambisch is confident that his team is ready for the postseason.  “We’ve had our highs and lows this season, but the tough times have only made us stronger,” he said.

CHL Update: Freeze Turn Up the Heat

The CHL’s Minnesota Freeze have one of the most apt nicknames in sports.  They play in Duluth, the northernmost city in one of America’s northernmost states.  Sub-zero temperatures are not uncommon in the wintertime, and the city is frequently blanketed with substantial blizzards.

However, it’s been a particularly long winter in the Midwest, and freezing temperature and snow threats have continued to hang on even well into spring.  Next week’s forecast calls for highs in the 30s and 40s and the potential for more snow.  The seemingly endless chill convinced Minnesota GM Kent Rivers that it was time to take action.

“I’m not a superstitious person by nature,” said Rivers.  “But I can’t help but notice that we’ve been up near the top of the standings all season, and that it’s been unseasonably cold.  Obviously, we’re not going to start losing just to usher in spring, but if there’s something we can do to help, we’re up for it.”

In order to try to chase winter away, the Freeze changed their name for one game.  On Sunday, they competed against the Baltimore Blue Crabs as the Minnesota Thaw.  “I know our fans are ready for a little warmth around here, so at least they’ll find some inside the arena,” said Rivers.

In addition to the name change, Minnesota changed up their uniforms as well.  Instead of dark blue, their threads were reddish-orange.  In lieu of the typical “Freeze” wordmark in letters that appear to be made of snow-capped ice, the “Thaw” wordmark appeared to be melting, with puddles forming underneath.

In addition, the team changed up its playlist to feature songs focusing on heat.  Tunes like “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter and “Burn’ for You” by the Blue Oyster Cult allowed the fans to think warm.  In between periods, the Jumbotron featured clips of Minnesota players dressed in beach wear, engaging in summer sports like swimming and sand volleyball.

To top it all off, all fans in attendance received a pair of Thaw-branded sunglasses, with the message “Think Hot!” emblazoned on the temples.

The promotion went over well with the winter-weary fans of Duluth.  “For one night at least, I got to pretend it was summer,” said local fan Rick Schneider.  “I know it’s going to be about 15 outside when I leave, so reality’s gonna be a slap in the face.  But this was fun.”

Rivers stressed that the promotion was a one-night-only event.  “We’re not changing our name for good, and we’re not going to wear the [Thaw] jerseys again,” the GM told reporters.  “After all, we’re about to go to the playoffs!  We’ll stick with what got us here.”

CHL Update: Theroux Finds Fan Love in Maine

When the Quebec Tigres acquired Phil Miller at the trading deadline to be their third-line center, it spelled trouble for Florian Theroux.  The journeyman has traditionally been popular with the fans, but his marginal on-ice contributions and goofy personality have often frustrated coaches.  Quebec boss Martin Delorme was no exception; he nicknamed Theroux “Coo Coo” on the rare, exasperated occasions when he spoke about the player.

Florian Theroux

As such, it came as little surprise when Theroux was banished to the Maine Moose, Quebec’s CHL affiliate, to make room for Miller.  “I knew as soon as the trade was made, my bags should be packed,” said Theroux.

The story does have a bit of a surprising ending, however: Theroux has sparkled with the Moose, and the fans have embraced him even more than the fans in Quebec did.  He already has a fan club, and some female Moose backers have even proposed marriage.

“I think maybe I should run for mayor,” he quipped before Saturday’s game against Colorado Springs.  “I have never been this much loved.”

The key to Theroux’s popularity was displaying even more of the goofy personality for which he is known.  Although Theroux is a famously superstitious player, he did his best to keep that in check around the serious-minded Delorme.  “I knew [Delorme] already thought I was crazy,” Theroux said.  “And I knew I was not good enough that he would not get rid of me if I was too crazy.”

But in the minors, Theroux decided to let all of his quirks run free.  For instance, when the Moose come onto the ice at the start of each period, Theroux always enters last and skates in the opposite direction of his teammates.  He tapes his stick with alternating white and red strips of tape, like a candy cane.  During warm-up shooting drills, he performs an elaborate ritual of rhythmic stick taps.  On the bench, Theroux knocks back Diet Pepsi instead of Gatorade, making sure to finish one can per period and always picking up the can with his right hand.

Perhaps most notable of all, before the teams line up for the opening puck drop, Theroux kneels down and kisses the logo at center ice.  It was this ritual that first garnered the attention of teammates and fans.  “The first time he went down to the ice, we thought he’d pulled something,” said D Hampus Olsson.  “But then we saw him kiss the Moose, and the fans all started cheering.  It was weird.”

Quickly, the fans began embracing Theroux’s superstitions.  (The fact that he’s been highly productive with Maine, with 15 points in as many games, likely helped.)  They handed him Diet Pepsis as he came down the tunnel.  They clapped in time with his pre-game stick taps.  They held up signs with slogan such as “Kiss Me Like I’m Center Ice.”

The forward revealed that since he arrived in Maine, he has received numerous date requests and even marriage proposals both in person and on social media.  “I am amazed by these women lining up for me,” said Theroux, who is single.  “It is wonderful and strange.  I guess crazy is sexy now.”

This newfound adulation represents a double-edged sword for Theroux, whose contract is up at the end of the season.  While he clearly loves life in Maine, it’s likely that he’ll want to look for an SHL job next season.  He’s a capable enough player to land a job almost anywhere, and a starting spot on some teams.  Given that, this love affair seems likely to be brief.

But neither Theroux nor Moose fans appear worried about that.  Rather, the minor-league town and the goofy forward with the crazy habits are just happy that they’ve found each other.

CHL Update: Omaha Superfan Stages Live-In For A Win

When the Omaha Ashcats switched parent clubs this offseason from the Seattle Sailors to the expansion Kansas City Smoke, most fans assumed that the team would take a step back in the standings.  For the first month of the season, the Ashcats defied expectations, posting a respectable 11-8-0 record.  Since then, though, gravity has reasserted itself: the team has gone 6-24-2 to sink into the Western division basement.

By and large, the fan base has accepted this decline with a shrug, as attendance in Omaha has remained strong all season.  One diehard Ashcats fan, however, is distressed by his team’s slide – and is going to great lengths to bring his team some good luck.

43-year-old Karl Loesser, known as “Krazy Karl” to the Omaha faithful, has proclaimed himself “the Ashcats’ biggest fan.”  He is a well-known and very vocal presence at the Switching Yard.  He comes to games with a railroad whistle, which he blows to fire up the crowd, and a seemingly endless supply of posters and banners – “I’ve got one for everyone on the team,” he told reporters.

“If someone claims they’re an Ashcats fan but they’ve never heard of Krazy Karl,” said Omaha GM Steve Galesko, “then they’re not really a fan.”

When the Ashcats went on a lengthy losing streak earlier this season, Krazy Karl made an “offering to the hockey gods” by burning a T-shirt with the logo of that night’s opponent in front of the arena.  But when the team hit the skids again after the trading deadline, he suspected that stronger measures might be needed.

As a result, Krazy Karl is now living inside the arena… and vows to keep doing so until the Ashcats win again.

“I’m offering myself up to the hockey gods this time,” Loesser said this week.  “I don’t know what we did to piss them off, but it must have been huge.”

Krazy Karl approached Galesko to request permission to stay in the arena, and the GM was hesitant at first.  “I love Krazy Karl, don’t get me wrong,” said Galesko, “but our security staff wasn’t wild about having a guy wandering around the arena in the middle of the night.”

But the GM worked out an arrangement with his superfan.  Loesser spends the nights on a couch in the Ashcats’ locker room and uses the team showers in the mornings.  He eats breakfasts and some lunches with team employees; during games, he has unlimited access to the concessions stands.  For exercise and to pass the time, he walks laps around the concourse.

“It’s not a bad life, to be honest,” said Krazy Karl.  “But I want the team to win so I can go home!”

Thus far, the Ashcats have not fulfilled his hopes.  On Friday, they blew a late lead against Colorado Springs and fell 3-2 for their ninth straight loss.  But Krazy Karl remains optimistic.  “The hockey gods will recognize my sacrifice and reward us with a win soon,” he said.  “It’s meant to be.”

CHL Update: Squirrels Owner Forfeits Team

The Continental Hockey League was thrown into turmoil this week, as the owner of the Muncie Squirrels abruptly announced that he was abandoning his franchise due to mounting debts and poor attendance.  With a month left in the regular season, the announcement led to league-wide concerns about the fate of the Squirrels and their players.  The league quelled the fears by week’s end, though, ensuring that Muncie would finish out the season.

On Wednesday, Squirrels owner Kenny Cheswell held an impromptu press conference at which he announced that he was “waving the white flag.  I’m tapped out, friends.  I’m taking a bath on my car dealerships, and I’m taking a bath on this hockey team.  I ain’t in the charity business, and neither are the banks that hold my paper.  Something’s gotta give, and it’s gonna be the team.”

The timing of the announcement was a surprise, as was the fact that Cheswell had apparently not informed anyone on the team about his plans.  But it wasn’t a shock that the Squirrels are in rough shape financially.  Muncie finished second-to-last in CHL attendance last year; the team that finished behind them, the Albuquerque Screaming Eagles, moved to Colorado Springs in the offseason.  This year, the Squirrels’ attendance has fallen further, dipping below 2,000 per game on average.  The team’s most popular promotions have been themed around TV painter Bob Ross, who recorded his shows in Muncie, but the allure of those promos has diminished over time.  Given that the team is not likely to make the playoffs, which might provide an additional windfall, Cheswell decided to get out now rather than wait for the season’s end.

Although the players (who are being paid by their parent organization, the Dakota Jackalopes) have been receiving their paychecks, team coaches and staffers reportedly have been getting paid late or not at all in recent months.  “I’m not going to say that you can hear the checks bouncing in the hallways,” joked coach Ross Roberts, “but it’s definitely been an anxious time around here.  Just ask my landlord.”

At the time Cheswell made his announcement, the Squirrels were in Milwaukee getting ready for that night’s game against the Hogs.  “We weren’t sure what was going on,” said Squirrels D Zander Phthalo.  “We were sitting in the hotel, eating beef jerky and Cheez-Its, trying to figure it out.  We didn’t know if we were going to play the next night, or if they’d pay to fly us home, or what.”

After some frantic phone calls between Roberts, the Squirrels front office, and the league headquarters, the team went ahead and played on Wednesday night, battling to a 2-2 draw with Milwaukee.  “We weren’t sure if we would get paid, or if we were even really still a team,” said Phthalo.  “But the league told us to keep going, so we did.”

By Thursday, the league officially stepped in, announcing that the Squirrels would remain in business under league control until the end of the season.  In the meantime, the league will seek a buyer to take over the team going forward.  “Obviously, this is not something we envisioned happening,” said CHL Commissioner Denny McNerny.  “But once it did, we knew we had to take action.  We had to protect the integrity of our league, and the future of these young players.  So we’ll make sure they get to finish out the year.”

The Squirrels were delighted and relieved with the late-week stay of execution.  “I really wasn’t sure where this was going to wind up,” said Roberts.  “I didn’t think they’d just send us home, but I also didn’t think our owner would quit in midseason.  I didn’t even know you could do that.”

The league is taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.  McNerny said that going forward, he would ask team owners to put up performance bonds to guard against this sort of situation.  In addition, the league plans to perform a more vigorous financial vetting of prospective owners.  “We all need to understand that this can’t happen,” said the commissioner.  “If you’re going to buy in, you need to make the commitment to play the whole season, come what may.”