The first regular season of the Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s minor league, is now in the books. (They finished a week ahead of the SHL due to the fact that they didn’t have an All-Star break.) Now the league is looking forward to its first postseason. The CHL will have a four-team playoff field, a setup that the SHL plans to adopt next season. The division playoff will be a best-of-five matchup, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven series for the league championship. Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:
The Eastern playoff will feature a battle of contrasting styles. The Virginia Rhinos got off to a strong start this season and never looked back on their way to claiming the division title. The Rhinos built their success on the strength of a potent offense; their 223 goals were the most in the league by a considerable margin. They had three of the league’s top 10 goal scorers in LW Yuri Laronov, D Blake Blacklett, and RW Colton Jabril. Their high-octane offense is backed up by netminder Shawn Stickel, the league’s winningest goaltender, who went 30-16-1 with a 2.54 GAA and a .913 save percentage. “We’ve got a mighty force here,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “Anyone who’s going to stop us is going to have to put up a hell of a fight.”
The Maine Moose might just be a team capable of giving them that fight. The Moose are the best defensive team in the CHL, true to the spirit of their parent club, the Quebec Tigres. They are well known for their slow-down style, which is focused on denying opponents offensive zone time. Maine’s rigid defense allowed only 1551 shots, over 100 fewer than their nearest competitor. They also have the leagues stingiest penalty kill, stopping 87.8% of power plays cold. “We might not be the prettiest team out there,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge, “but our style is darned effective.” The Moose aren’t all about defense; they have scorers, too. LW Aaron Knorr, who was the only player in the CHL to put up a four-goal game, scored 23 goals in the season; their top defensive pairing of Richard McKinley and Kirby Hanlon scored 18 apiece. “Momentum’s been on our side,” said Knorr. “If Virginia thinks we’re going to be an easy mark, they’re in for a shock.”
Ever since they emerged from the pack in the West after the first quarter of the season, the Omaha Ashcats have been regarded as perhaps the CHL’s best team. They’re not a team with a lot of flashy stars, but they’re a team with impressive strength and depth, as their league-leading +49 rating attests. They have the league’s top three in plus/minus (LW Kendall Bannon, RW “Action” Asher Ravenbloom, and C Dale Wilcox), with D Duncan DeShantz close behind. “This isn’t a team that relies on star power,” said coach Randy Bergner. “We get our strength from the fact that we play as a unit. All for one and one for all; it may sound corny, but we believe it.” Goalie Gus Parrish provides some veteran experience to back up a young squad (24-12-1, 2.72 GAA). Small wonder that Omaha is generally considered the favorite to win the CHL championship.
It’s certainly not a surprise that the Ashcats are a huge favorite over the Utah Owls, who slipped into the playoffs with a less-than-breathtaking 31-24-5 record and are probably best known around the league for their rambunctious antics on the road. Even though the Owls saw a couple of their top prospects, LW Sylvester Catarino and D Rocky Winkle, called up to the parent New York Night early in the season, they still held their own. Utah’s greatest strength is their goaltending. Veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross was the starter for much of the season and he was excellent, but prospect Sherman Carter rejoined the team down the stretch, and his numbers (2.30 GAA and .929 save percentage) suggest a player who could give the Ashcats fits. But the player who really puts the fear of God into opponents is D Donald Duckworth. He’s a two-way threat, the only player in the league to be in the top 10 in both goals (25) and penalty minutes (108). “That guy’s just plain crazy,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax. “You look at him the wrong way, and he’s liable to knock you into next week. If you make him mad, God help you.” Utah also finished the season hot, going 13-3-4 over the final month. If the Owls can keep their penchant for on-the-road revelry (which have contributed to their 12-16-2 road record, the worst by far among playoff teams), they might give Omaha a run for their money.