Tigres Stun Pistols to Steal East Title

For much of the season, the East’s playoff picture has seemed fairly stable.  The Hamilton Pistols seemed likely to finish atop the division, while the Quebec Tigres and Washington Galaxy would battle it out for second place.  Then the Galaxy collapsed after the All-Star break, and a Pistols-Tigres playoff looked likely, with Hamilton still on track to finish first.  Even when the Tigres went on an 8-1-1 stretch to close within 4 points of the Pistols, that margin persisted for weeks, as both team stumbled down the stretch.

But as the season entered its final week, a strange thing happened: Hamilton continued to struggle, while Quebec starting winning.  That set up a showdown on the last day of the season at Centre Citadelle: If the Pistols won, they’d hold on to the top spot.  If Quebec won, they’d tie Hamilton in the points column but would win the division based on having more total wins.

Steven Alexander

“We’ve come so far this season,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “Now we’ve got to go out there and finish the job.”

Unfortunately for Alexander’s club, they ran into a stone wall in the form of Quebec goalie Riki Tiktuunen, who stopped all 30 Hamilton shots.  The game remained scoreless until Tigres LW Rupert MacDiarmid went five-hole three and a half minutes into the second period.  Quebec took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, scoring twice to secure a 3-0 victory.  The orange-clad throngs roared their approval as the Tigres traded high-fives and waved their sticks in appreciation.

Martin Delorme

“This is a tribute to this wonderful team,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who joins his team in making his first trip to the postseason.  “They have been doubted and dismissed many times, but they have ignored the critics and worked hard and won.  I am sure the same doubters will believe that they cannot win the Vandy, but we are prepared to keep working hard and win it.”

As for the Pistols, who were on top of the world last week after punching their first-ever playoff ticket, they’re now faced with the cold reality of losing home-ice advantage in the upcoming series after losing 10 of their last 13 games.

“Obviously, we haven’t finished up the regular season the way we wanted to,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re going to put that behind us.  It’s not like we forgot how to score, or that the talent that got us this far suddenly dried up.  We just have to keep playing our game, keep believing in ourselves, and we’ll get ourselves back on track.”

Continue reading “Tigres Stun Pistols to Steal East Title”

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Bliss Reflect on “Nightmare” Season

For the Hershey Bliss, 2018 has been a strange year.  Last year, they won a title nobody expected them to win, upsetting the heavily-favored Anchorage Igloos in 7 games for their first Vandy.  But this season’s results have been even more shocking; they plunged into the basement with a terrible start the first month, and were never able to dig themselves out.  The Bliss appear to be on track for a fifth-place finish as the season winds down, while upstart young squads in Hamilton and Quebec head on to the postseason.

This week, several of Hershey’s top players reflected on a season gone wrong, and what they’ll need to do to turn things around in 2019.

Justin Valentine

C Justin Valentine is Hershey’s captain and anchors the much-beloved “Love Line.”  He likened the first month of the 2018 season to “a fun-house nightmare.  It was like a bad dream that we couldn’t wake up from.  We were playing solid, dictating the pace, making our shots, but somehow at the end of the game we’d lose.”

Valentine cited a couple of games in particular that left the Bliss feeling “like we had a hex on us.”  In the first week of the season, Hershey outshot the Boston Badgers 37-25, but lost 4-3 when Badgers RW Charlie Brooks banked the game-winning shot off the crossbar, then off the back of goalie Brandon Colt.  Two weeks later, they outshot Michigan Gray Wolves 34-22, but managed to lose 3-2 in overtime on another fluky goal by C Hunter Bailes that deflected off a Hershey skate boot.

After games like that, “we’d just sit there and stare at each other and say, ‘How the hell did we lose that one?’” Valentine said.  “We couldn’t figure it out.”

Chip Barber

Four weeks into the season, Hershey was sporting a 3-16-1 record that left them only one point ahead of Boston for the league’s worst record.  At that time, coach Chip Barber sent shockwaves through the clubhouse by offering to resign.

“I was feeling the same shock and frustration as the rest of the team,” said Barber.  “Even thoughwe were playing better than our record, I felt like there was no excuse for us having that poor a record, and I wanted to take responsibility.”

The front office quickly rejected Barber’s offer, and the team seemed to rally around their coach, doubling their season win total the following week.  But then disaster struck the next week, in the form of an upper-body injury to LW Lance Sweet that put him on the shelf two weeks.

“That was just devastating to me,” said Sweet.  “I felt like we were getting ready to turn things around, then I went down.”

It was the second significant injury of Sweet’s career, and it stalled the Bliss’ momentum; they went 5-4-1 in his absence.  Since his return, the Bliss have played respectably, but they never caught fire; they haven’t won more than three games in a row all season.

“I feel like if we’d been able to run off once good long winning streak to get some momentum, we could have climbed back into it,” said Valentine.  “But it never worked out that way.”

Netminder Colt believes that the team’s failure rests in large part on his shoulders.  Last season, Colt went 24-16-4 with a 2.94 GAA and a .909 save percentage, then stood on his head in the Finals to capture MVP honors.  During Hershey’s nightmare month to open the season, Colt’s numbers tumbled, as he went 3-12-1 with a 3.57 GAA and an .879 save percentage.  He’s rebounded since then, but he remains among the worst starters in the league on a statistical basis.

“It’s frustrating, because I feel like I’m dragging the team down,” said Colt.  “Our defense is tight, and our offense is solid.  If I was on top of my game, I feel like we’d be in the playoffs.”

Colt’s teammates, however, disagree with his harsh self-assessment.  “Everyone’s taken a step back from last year, myself definitely included,” said Valentine.  “Blaming the whole year on Colter is like blaming the Chicago fire on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  We all played a part in it.”

Looking toward next season, Sweet is optimistic that the Bliss can return to contention.  “We’ve got the talent and the team to do it,” he said.  “We just need to avoid that brutal start and have some bounces go our way.  After this year, we’re due for some major puck luck.”

But the Bliss have a couple major obstacles to their contention plans: the two teams that will be going to the postseason in their place.  The Pistols and Tigres are both talented teams that are widely considered to be on the rise.  Even the New York Night are showing signs of respectability.  If the Bliss want to go back to the Finals, they’ll have to earn it.  And in order to do that, says their coach, they’ll need to rediscover their hunger for winning.

“Flags fly forever and all that,” said Barber.  “But winning your first title is like taking your first bite of really good Swiss chocolate.  You get that taste, and you can’t stop craving it.  It’s all you want.  We’ve got to bring that hunger with us next year.”

Night’s Foster Accuses Officials of Anti-NY Bias

Nick Foster

In a bizarre coda to the New York Night‘s 6-5 victory over the Washington Galaxy on Saturday, Night coach Nick Foster used his postgame press conference to accuse referee Brandon Fosse and his crew of being biased against New York.  Foster went on to argue that the league was “scared of” his team and determined to keep them out of the postseason.

In a lot of ways, the game was a successful one for the Night.  They outshot the rival Galaxy 47-32 and secured a key win that all but guarantees them a third-place finish in the East.  But the third period was a harrowing one for New York, as Washington scored four unanswered goals that nearly erased a 6-1 Night lead.  Many observers thought the late rally was evidence that the Night took their foot off the gas, or that netminder Jesse Clarkson was continuing his recent stretch of shaky play.  But to Foster, the real cause of the Washington rally was a string of penalties called by Fosse and his crew.

“It’s pretty impressive that we pulled that one out, considering that we were playing against 10 guys there in the third,” said the Night coach, referring to the six Washington players and the four officials.  “They really didn’t want us to win this one, but we got the W anyway.”  Asked to elaborate, Foster said, “Come on, you’re all smart guys.  You’ve got eyes.  You think it was a coincidence that all the whistles went against us down the stretch?  I’m not sure what we did to piss [Fosse] off, or if the call came from upstairs, but he had it in for us.”

Foster continued, “I’m going to talk to the league; I don’t want his crew working our games any more.  I don’t think they’ll listen, though.  Now that we’re getting better, they’re scared of us winning.  The last thing they want to see is us in the playoffs.”

On the surface, it seemed Foster’s complaint might have some merit.  The last four penalties of the game, called in the latter half of the third period all went against New York, including two in quick concession that gave the Galaxy a 5-on-3 edge for over a minute and a half.  Foster contended that the fatigue of the extended penalty-kill shifts left his team exhausted and vulnerable to a late rally.

On the other hand, only one of Washington’s third-period goals actually came on the power play.  And Foster’s accusation ignored the fact that over the game as a whole, New York actually had more power plays than Washington.  In fact, the Galaxy didn’t go a man up even once until the third.

Fosse and the other officials join a lengthy list of people and teams with which Foster has feuded this season, including the Hamilton Pistols, their star Steven Alexander, the Dakota Jackalopes, and the Corn Palace.

The league did not make Fosse available for comment after the game, but they did take swift action against Foster, fining the coach $5,000.  “The idea that our referees or our league are biased against any of our teams is ludicrous,” said Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “I don’t know why Coach Foster would make crazy accusations like that.  It’s disappointing on a personal level; more importantly, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle, on the other hand, reacted to Foster’s accusations with amusement.  “I’ve got to hand it to that guy,” Reagle said.  “Ordinarily, after a game like that, you’d figure he’d be answering questions about why his team can’t close out a game, or why his goalie couldn’t stop a cold.  Instead, he’s got us all talking about whether the refs and the league have a vendetta against his team.  Talk about post-game spin!”

Pistols Clinch First-Ever Playoff Berth, Celebrate in Style

From the beginning of this season, the Hamilton Pistols have made it clear that they’re a force to be reckoned with.  They’ve led the Eastern Division wire-to-wire, and they haven’t faded as the season has gone on.

Keith Shields

But whenever a reporter has asked Pistols coach Keith Shields a question about the postseason, he as always balked.  “We haven’t clinched anything yet, and I’m not about to assume,” was his refrain.

Shields can officially let go of his refrain now.  On Tuesday, the Pistols defeated the Kansas City Smoke 4-2 to clinch their first-ever trip to the postseason.

As soon as the clocked ticked down to 0:00 at Heartland Telecom Center, the Pistols raced to center ice and formed a pig pile.  They whooped and hollered as they flung their gloves and helmets in the air.  “If we’d been at home, we’d have gone up into the stands to celebrate with the fans,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye.  Instead, they spotted a couple of fans in Hamilton sweaters behind the bench and invited them on the ice to join the celebration.

After they finished their on-ice celebration, they adjourned to the locker room to continue the party.  Songs like “My Shot” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” blasted over the stereo while the young Pistols showered each other with beer, champagne, barbecue sauce, and whatever else they could find.  They took turns making up impromptu raps to honor each other.  They smoked giant cigars.

“I know you’re supposed to be cool and act like you’ve been there before and save the big celebration for the Vandy,” said Shields.  “But you know what?  We’ve got a young bunch of guys, and they haven’t been here before.  It’s only your first time once, so why not enjoy it?  There’ll be plenty of time to be cool and mature later.”

Steven Alexander

The dynamic duo that powers the Pistols, LW Steven Alexander and RW Claude Lafayette, spent the evening hugging and toasting each other.  Alexander blinked back tears as he reflected on the journey that got him here.  “Claude is my brother,” Alexander said.  “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing hockey.  I might be dead in an alley somewhere.  But he got me here, and ever since then we’ve been working and dreaming for this moment.  Now we’re here, and we’re not throwing away our shot!”

Shields heaped praise on his team.  “Ever since the first couple of weeks, when we got off to such a good start, I’ve been warning them, ‘It’s not going to be this easy.  There’s a lot of good teams in the division, and they’ll make a run at us.  We can’t take anything for granted.’  And they haven’t!  They’ve worked hard and stayed strong.  I don’t think anyone’s going to want to face us.”

C Henry Constantine, who won the Vandy last season with Hershey and signed with the Pistols in the offseason, is impressed by this club.  “We had a good, talented club [in Hershey], but this team is scary,” he said.  “I don’t know how anybody keeps up with our top line, they’re so fast.  And we’ve got good depth, and more speed on the bottom line.  We’ve got a rough, hard-hitting bunch on defense.  This is a crew that can hang with clubs like Michigan and Anchorage and give them real trouble, now and for years to come.”

Before they can vie for the Vandy, though, the Pistols will need to win the Eastern playoff.  Their likely opponent, the Quebec Tigres, will do their best to frustrate and slow down Hamilton’s speedy forward lines.  “Quebec’s a tough team, and they’ll push us hard,” said Shields.  “I’m certainly not going to look past them.”

But the challenges of the playoffs are tomorrow’s problem.  For today, the young Pistols are happy just to celebrate how far they’ve come.  “History has its eyes on us,” said Alexander.  “But when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.  Let’s have another round tonight!”

Foster Pokes Fun at Dakota, Corn Palace

Continuing their annual tradition, the Dakota Jackalopes hosted a game at Mitchell’s famous Corn Palace.  For this season’s “Corn Classic” on Tuesday, the Jackalopes faced off against the New York Night.  New York coach Nick Foster made waves by turning his pre-game press conference into a roast of Mitchell, the Corn Palace, and the Midwest generally.

Nick Foster

Foster made his speech in response to a reporter who asked him how he liked it in the Dakotas.  “I always enjoy our trips to flyover country,” the coach replied.  “It’s always nice to see how the other half lives.”

Foster then poked fun at the town of Mitchell, calling it “the actual middle of nowhere.  I mean, I thought that our usual games here [in Rapid City] were the middle of nowhere.  But this time, we flew in, then got on a bus for two hours just to get here.  It’s a nice clean little place, though.  I took a walk around downtown today.  Took me five minutes, but it was nice.”

Corn Palace

The coach then poked fun at the Corn Palace.  “I figured in a place this small, we’d be playing on a rink in someone’s backyard,” Foster said.  “But instead, we came here.  Somebody took a barn and slapped a bunch of corn on the outside and called it a ‘palace.’  Wow!  I guess it gives you guys something to do out here.  And I have to admit, it’s the nicest corn-based art I’ve ever seen.”

Predictably, Foster’s jibes inspired outrage among the Jackalopes and the Dakota fans.  “I’m sorry if our town and our arena aren’t fancy enough for him,” said Dakota LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  “But some of us like the life out here.  It might not be as glamorous as New York, where everyone lives on top of each other and the air smells like hot dogs and bus exhaust and the rats are as big as dogs.  But we love it.  We love our state, and our city, and our Corn Palace.”

Jackalopes coach Flim Dahlgren added, “I don’t want to get into this, because I know it’s all part of Nick’s act.  He likes to pretend he’s a wrestling heel, and he’s always trying to stir the pot.  But if you come here and make fun of the Corn Palace, we can’t let that stand.  We have to defend the corn.  Let’s go out there and win big!”

The sellout crowd of 3,200 greeted Foster with boos and signs bearing slogan like “Yankee Go Home” and “Shuck You, Foster.”  As the New York coach came down the tunnel to the bench, one irate fan dumped a can of creamed corn on his head.  Foster responded by tasting the corn and flashing a thumbs-up in response.

The Jackalopes delivered their best revenge to Foster on the ice, edging the Night 3-2 as D Matt Cherner scored a pair of goals.  “We may have a small crowd here, but it feels like they’re right on top of you,” said Cherner after the game.  “I think we have the best home-ice advantage in the league here.  And with [Foster’s] comments, that gave the whole thing a little extra juice.”

Dakota now joins the growing list of places where Foster has made himself persona non grata; earlier in the season, he infuriated the fans in Hamilton by calling their arena a “dump” and accusing Pistols star Steven Alexander of cheating.

“At this rate, I’ll have every other city in the league hating my guts by 2020,” Foster said.  “Dare to dream!”

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Sailors’ Mango to Star in Reality TV Show

Seattle Sailors star Vince Mango has never conformed to the expectations of a typical hockey player.  He hails from South Florida, not Canada or the American rust belt.  He flouts old-school conventions with his theatrical goal celebrations, which one earned him a brutal retaliation from an angry opponent.  He freely admits that his real passion is food, not hockey.  He devotes almost as much time to curating his Instagram feed as he does to preparing for games.  In short, he’s a polarizing player; traditionalists think he’s a showboat who’s wasting his talent, while younger fans consider him a breath of fresh air.

Vince Mango

Mango’s latest announcement will only make him more controversial among SHL fans.  This week, he announced that he and his girlfriend are developing a reality television show, “Meet the Mangos,” which is expected to air this fall.

“My fans have been clamoring for a chance to know me better off the ice,” Mango explained during his press conference on Friday.  “Now, they’ll have a chance to peek into my home life, see how I live when I’m not at the rink.”

The stars of the show will be Mango and his girlfriend of 2 years, Linzee Gaines, an aspiring actress.  Most of the filming will take place at and around their bungalow in Los Angeles, where they live in the offseason.  Mango’s parents, now divorced, will also feature prominently in the show.  His father George is an advertising executive in New York.  His mother Bonnie Faluto is a yoga instructor who lives down the street from Mango in LA.

Given the Seattle star’s passion for cooking, it comes as no surprise that he plans to include a segment of each show in which he prepares a recipe that he loves.  “Food is such a big part of my life, and my show wouldn’t be complete without it,” Mango said.  “I want to introduce my fans to the dishes that I love and the stories of how I learned to make them.”

Mango said that he’d spoken with the Sailors and the league about filming himself in practices and at games for use in the show, but that the team turned him down.  “I can totally respect that,” Mango said.  “From a creative perspective, they kind of did us a favor.  Because everyone knows what I do on the ice.  This allows us to focus on the Vince you’d meet off the ice.”

Mango’s teammates were generally supportive of the idea.  “Congrats to Vince on making it happen,” said RW Elliott Pepper.  “It’s not, you know, something that I think I’d want to do myself; not my style.  But it’s something he clearly wants to do, and more power to him.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic.  “What am I supposed to say about it?  I’m a hockey coach, not a TV producer,” Engellund told reporters.  “He’s promised me that it won’t interfere with the team, and I’m going him hold him to that.  Beyond that, what Vince does off the ice is his business.  I have no comments.  If you have questions about the show, talk to his producer.”

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.”