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.
“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.