Bliss Claim Final Playoff Spot

Coming into the final week of the 2020 SHL season, three of the four playoff spots were spoken for.  The Portland Bluebacks, Anchorage Igloos, and Hamilton Pistols had all secured their tickets.  But the Hershey Bliss and Quebec Tigres were locked in a battle for the final berth in the East.  In the end, it was the Bliss, powered by a red-hot offensive attack, who earned the spot and a rematch with the defending champion Pistols.

“When this team needed to come up big, they did it,” said Hershey coach Chip Barber.  “They have the heart of a champion, and they played like champions this week.”

The Bliss opened the week one point up on the Tigres.  Facing a home-and-home with last-place Washington, Hershey rolled to a pair of routs, outscoring the hapless Galaxy by a combined score of 13-5.

Justin Valentine

“That was a pair of trap games right there, but we didn’t get caught in the trap,” said C Justin Valentine, who scored four goals in the Bliss’ 8-3 Sunday win at Constellation Center in DC.  “We didn’t let ourselves take those games for granted; we kept our foot on the gas and kept piling it on.”

Meanwhile, Quebec faced a home-and-home against the Pistols.  They won the front half at Centre Citadelle 5-4, but in the return engagement, Lasse Koskinen stopped all 38 Tigres shots en route to a 2-0 shutout.  The loss pushed Quebec to the brink of elimination.

On Thursday, the Bliss went to Boston seeking a closeout win against the scrappy Badgers.  Boston took an early lead, holding a 2-1 edge after the first period.  But Hershey hung tough, essentially grinding the home team’s offense to a halt for much of the rest of the game.  D Reese Milton tied it up on a shot from the faceoff circle in the first minute of the second.  In the third, Hershey broke the game open by scoring four times on their way to a 6-3 win.

As the Bliss celebrated their third postseason trip in the last four years, team captain Valentine paused the thumping music and celebrated his teammates’ resilience.  “Everybody outside this room was ready to write us off,” he shouted as he wiped the champagne from his eyes.  “Everybody thought Quebec was going to chase us down, but we held on and sent them packing.  Now everybody’s expecting Hamilton to wipe us out.  Let’s go shock the world one more time… wait, make that two more times!”

Meanwhile, Quebec sat in silence and pondered their near miss.  “It is a great disappointment, yes,” said RW Stephane Mirac.  “To come this close and not succeed, it is an arrow to the heart.  But we cannot feel ashamed; we gave a great effort.  Still, I wish we had won.”

Tigres coach Martin Delorme praised his team’s competitiveness.  “Although we fell short of our goal,” Delorme said, “we can hold our head high.  We gave every ounce of our devotion and our effort.  We have the components of greatness here.  And next season, I believe we will achieve it.”

The Bliss open their series in Hamilton on Friday.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 14

Riki Tiktuunen

The SHL selected Quebec Tigres G Riki Tiktuunen as its Player of the Week.  The Tigres had an undefeated week, going 3-0-1 to move into a playoff spot in the East, and Tiktuunen’s performance in net played a key role in Quebec’s success.  For the week, the Finnish-born goalie went 2-0-1 with a 1.55 GAA and a .952 save percentage.

All three of Tiktuunen’s starts this week went to overtime.  On Sunday, he stopped 39 shots as Quebec played to a 1-1 tie with league-leading Portland.  On Tuesday, Tiktuunen made 35 saves as the Tigres knocked off Anchorage 4-3 in extra time.  Then on Thursday, Tiktuunen turned aside 26 shots and Quebec notched a literal last-second victory over Washington, 2-1.

“As the season goes on, Riki is more and more playing up to his greatness,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “If we make it to the playoffs, Riki gives us a chance to win any game.”

Tigres, Bliss Dueling for Playoff Position in East

The SHL’s playoff picture is slowly but surely coming into focus.  The Portland Bluebacks officially clinched the Western title this week, and the Anchorage Igloos have established a clear upper hand for the second and final spot.  In the East, the defending champion Hamilton Pistols are almost certainly going to make the postseason for the third straight season.  But the Pistols’ opponent remains very much up in the air.  The Eastern playoff will feature a rematch from one of the last two years, but which one?  Will Hamilton face their opponent from last season, the Hershey Bliss, or their 2018 foe, the Quebec Tigres?

For most of the season, the Bliss have been the odds-on favorite for the spot.  They’ve been in one of the top two spots in the division for almost the entire year.  As usual, their offense has been paced by the “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet (25 goals, 50 assists), C Justin Valentine (34 goals, 32 assists), and RW Christopher Hart (17 goals, 45 assists).  Goaltending has long been a problem for Hershey, but this year they seem to have located a reliable tandem.  Christien Adamsson, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, has been a solid starter (20-18-4, 2.89 GAA, .911 save percentage).  Meanwhile, rookie Nash Gould (8-5-1, 2.91, .909) has excelled in a backup role.  Add in a defense that’s been solid if unspectacular, and it’s no surprise that Hershey has been a contender.

Chip Barber

“We’re just playing good steady hockey,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Not too high, not too low, as smooth as a perfect ganache.”

The Tigres have little use for the kind of graceful, balanced game played by the Bliss.  Martin Delorme‘s crew relies on a rugged, hard-hitting defense to win.  It might not be pretty, but it is effective.  Quebec allows a paltry 28,9 shots per game, the stingiest mark in the league.  Relatedly, they lead the league in blocked shots (16.6 per game) and goals-against average (2.32)

“Everyone on our team is working together on defense,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “We work together to make the other team’s life miserable.”

Until recently, Quebec’s grinding defense was good. but not quite enough to get them into contention.  Then at the trading deadline, the Tigres acquired C Warren Marlow from Michigan, strengthening the team’s weakest position.  Marlow has been reasonably effective with Quebec ( 8 points in 14 games), but more importantly, he seems to have been the missing piece that unlocked Quebec’s most effective lineup.  After a brief losing streak following Marlow’s arrival, Quebec is now on a nine-game unbeaten streak.  Fittingly, it’s been a rather homely streak; four of the games were ties, and two others were overtime wins.  But the Tigres have been slowly accruing points and climbing in the standings.

On Saturday, the Bliss and Tigres faced off at Chocolate Center.  Despite coming off a streak of five straight overtime games, Quebec came out full of energy.  The Tigres outshot the Bliss 14-9 in the first period, and RW Weldon “Candy” Kane got Quebec on the board in the first period with a rebound from the slot.  In the second, Hershey has a 14-9 shot advantage, and C Spencer Kirkpatrick got a power-play tally to even things up.  Early in the third, D Steve Cargill had another man-advantage tally to put Hershey in the lead.  But the Tigres, showing their trademark grit, fought back.  LW Rupert MacDiarmid evened the scored with a laser-beam shot from the left faceoff circle midway through the third, and RW Stephane Mirac put Quebec ahead a couple minutes later.  After that, the visitors managed to grind the clock and hold on for a 3-2 victory.

The win lifted the Tigres into second place with eight games to go.  “We’ve fought really hard to get this far,” said Mirac, “and now that we’re here, we’re not going to let go.”

If the Bliss do come up short, they may look back with regret at the trading deadline.  Like the Tigres, they inquired about Marlow.  As the deadline approached, however, they pulled out of talks and instead struck a deal with Dakota to acquire RW Arkady Golynin – a deal that was vetoed by the league as too one-sided.

“We can’t let ourselves think about that,” said Barber when asked about the vetoed trade.  “We have to focus on what we can control.”

So it call comes down to this: eight games for all the marbles, including one more head-to-head match on Tuesday in Quebec.  Will the Tigres’ unyielding defense outlast the Bliss’ balanced attack?  Fans across the SHL look forward to finding out.

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