Change of the Guard Seems Imminent in SHL’s Last Week

Going into the final week of the 2017 SHL season, neither division race is terribly close, unlike the last couple of seasons.  Barring a seismic shift in the coming week, we aren’t going to see anything as dramatic as the 2016’s Hershey-Washington last-game showdown for the division.  Nonetheless, even if things unfold as expected, the results will still have their share of surprises.  As it stands, neither of last year’s Finals opponents will make a return trip this season.

In the West, the Michigan Gray Wolves head into the season’s final week trailing the Anchorage Igloos by 6 points.  The Wolves and Igloos have been the division powers since the league’s inception, so it’s no surprise that they will finish one-two yet again.  But the Wolves have been unable to make up the ground they lost when top scorers Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow went down with injuries in midseason.  “We’ve fought hard all year, and I know we’re going to keep battling to the end,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “But we’re in a difficult spot right now.”

Michigan’s best chance to narrow the gap came on Wednesday, when they faced the Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  The game was a true heavyweight clash, as the Wolves stifled Anchorage’s league-best offense, with the Igloos responding in kind.  After two scoreless periods, Michigan actually drew first blood seven minutes into the third, when Lunsford dented the twine on a hard slapshot between Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s legs.  “That got us fired up,” said Lunsford.  “We thought this was the goal that was going to set us on a run to take the division.”

But with just over a minute left in the game, the Igloos tied the game on a fluky goal by D Sebastian Pomfret, who flicked a rebound that bounced off the back of Michigan netminder Dirk Lundquist back and into the goal.  That sent the game to overtime, where Wolves C Wesley Knight committed a tough holding-the-stick penalty.  15 seconds into the power play, Igloos LW Les Collins beat Lundquist stick-side to seal a 2-1 win.

“That was a back-breaker,” admitted Lunsford.  “To go from thinking you’re on the road to the division to feeling like you’re on the brink of elimination… it’s a kick in the gut, no question.”

As surprising as the West race has been, things have been even more shocking in the East.  The Washington Galaxy have won the division in each of the last two seasons and established themselves as the class of the division.  When they caught fire out of the All-Star Break, winning 10 in a row and snatching first place away from the Hershey Bliss, it looked like they were set up to run to yet another title.  It hasn’t unfolded that way, though, as the Bliss have grabbed the lead right back over the last couple of weeks.

And while Hershey has played well, the race in the East has been a story of Washington collapse.  The Galaxy have dropped 11 of 15 over the last three weeks, and they head into the final week of the season 8 points back of the Bliss.  For a team with a reputation for stepping it up in the second half, their dismal performance has been completely unexpected.  “We can’t figure it out,” said LW Casey Thurman.  “We know we can do better than this, but it’s kind of like we’re stepping on the gas and there’s nothing there.”

Certainly, the Galaxy’s using scoring punch has been absent during their recent skid.  They’ve fallen from sixth in the league in goals scored to second-to-last, ahead of only Quebec.  Several of their stars, including Thurman (2 goals in the last 15 games), C Eddie Costello (3 goals), RW Jefferson McNeely (3 goals), and C J.C. Marais (2 goals), have been in slumps.  But the offense hasn’t been the only culprit.  The normally stout defense, which allowed fewer than two and a half goals per game over the first two-thirds of the season, has allowed over three per game during their slide.  Backup goalie Ron Mason has lost his last five starts.  Their special units have flatlined over the last three weeks, with their power play dropping from a league-leading 24.1% success rate to a middle-of-the-pack 19.6%, and their penalty kill going from 82.9% efficiency to 78.8%.  “It’s like it’s all falling apart at once,” said Costello.

For the Bliss, who have heard over and over that they’re too soft, too sloppy, or too star-dependent to beat the Galaxy, the turnabout has been pretty sweet.  “We’ve taken a lot of crap over the years about how we can never win the big one, or how Washington’s got our number,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’ve never bought into that story, but we knew we were were going to keep hearing it until we proved it.”  On Saturday, Hershey came into Constellation Center and walloped Washington 5-1.  “That one definitely felt good,” said Valentine.  “To be able to go into their building and shut them down like that… it gave us confidence that this isn’t going to be like the other years.  It’s a new era for us.”

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In the Stands: A Fan’s View

In lieu of our usual interview segment, this week we’re running a very special feature.  We’ve invited one of the SHL’s biggest fans to tell her story!  Amber Bonner is a partial season-ticket holder for the Washington Galaxy.  We invited Amber to tell us about why she loves the Galaxy and the SHL.  Her story is below.

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As a fan, I get to enjoy sitting and watching the game. To a real fan it is a much more immersive experience. While I won’t say that it is like I am playing in the game, it does feel like I am a part of it.

My tickets are right in the first row. Being able to sit right in front of the glass has the action literally right in front of your face. Once you get over the feeling like they are going to ram into to you whenever a player skates near your seat, it becomes a much more enjoyable experience… where the adrenaline rush is transferred from the players to the fans.

It isn’t required to sit right in front to get a rush; just being in the stadium gets me hyped! I love how you are able to feed off of the energy of the players, staff, and of course the other fans. It is a truly amazing feeling to know you are a part of a large group of people who all share the same goal as you: to win the game. It is also really cool to be in the same building as all of your favorite players acting like they are celebrities. You get to see them doing what they love, what they have a passion for: playing hockey.

If you are able to sit up close, you get to see the true precision and accuracy the players use just to skate on the ice, let alone take shots and make passes. You get to see how it’s like a well-oiled machine, where all of the players of your team are working together to make it function. It is quite beautiful to watch as the skates glide along the ice and turn in a fraction of a second.

I also love how hockey is a constant action sport (except for intermission of course),  meaning there is something to watch at all times. As a person with a limited amount of money, it is great to be able to really get the bang for your buck in terms of entertainment. Even if you aren’t super interested in the game, you can just watch all of the fans cheering, holding up posters, and having a good time watching the game. I recently went to a game which ended up tied at the end of regular time and had to go into OT. It was truly fascinating to see that something as simple as the end of a sports game can bring such strong feelings to so many people who aren’t really affected by the outcome. As a fan, you become a part of the team; that’s an experience I would never trade for anything else.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 8

Ron Mason

The SHL selected Washington Galaxy G Ron Mason as its Player of the Week.  The 33-year-old backup appeared twice this week, and both times he turned in a splendid performance.  On Sunday, Mason stopped 27 shots as the Galaxy stuffed Seattle, 7-1.  Then on Tuesday, Mason blocked all 33 shots he faced as Washington notched a 1-0 win over Anchorage.  Mason’s play was a key part of the Galaxy’s undefeated week, which helped them take over first place in the East.

For the season, Mason has been excellent, going 9-4-0 with a 2.68 GAA and a .918 save percentage.  The only backup in the league with better numbers is Hamilton’s Dennis Wampler.  Washington’s goaltending tandem is tied for the league’s second-best save percentage and is third in goals-against average, trailing only Michigan and Anchorage.

“People tend to ignore backup goalies,” said Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle.  “But having two quality netminders is great for a team.  If your main guy gets hurt or needs a breather, you know you won’t miss a beat between the pipes.  Ron’s a cagey vet, and he knows all the angles.  He never gets caught out of position and he doesn’t let in cheapies.”

Galaxy Trade for Sailors D Gallagher

The Washington Galaxy are in a great position as they look to capture their third straight division title.  They’ve gone undefeated since the All-Star break, and they just passed Hershey to take the lead in the East.  It would have been easy to imagine them making no moves at the deadline, not wanting to mess with a good thing.  Instead, though, the Galaxy made a small but smart move, bolstering their defensive corps by grabbing D Stan “Animal” Gallagher from the Seattle Sailors in exchange for minor-league D Woody Fairwood.

Stan Gallagher

The pickup of Gallagher should stabilize Washington’s third defensive pairing, which has been a season-long conundrum.  The position opposite Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom has a revolving door, as the Galaxy have rotated between veteran Bill Corbett, young banger Jurgen Braun, and rookie Graham Bellinger.  All three have done credibly, but none of them has played well enough to seize the job full-time.

The 27-year-old Gallagher should provide Hogaboom with a strong running partner.  He scored 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists) with Seattle, playing largely on their top pairing.  He earned his “Animal” nickname for the fierce enthusiasm he puts into his skating and checking, which will make him a good fit beside the pugnacious Hogaboom.

“Did we need to make this deal?  Probably not,” admitted Galaxy GM Garnet “Ace” Adams.  “But does this deal make us a stronger team than we were yesterday?  Oh yeah.  The Animal’s got a well-earned reputation around this league, and putting him and Boomer on the ice together should unleash some havoc.  Graham will have the opportunity to go down to the minors and play every day, which should help him develop.  And Corbs and Brauny will get opportunities to contribute off the bench, where we know we can count on them.”

In the run-up to the deadline, it was rumored that Washington was pursuing a bigger deal.  The Saskatchewan Shockers were reportedly dangling D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, and Hershey was said to be in hot pursuit of them.  It was speculated that the Galaxy were also after Oflyng, if only to block the Bliss from getting him.  But Adams said that Washington wasn’t making a serious attempt to land the Shockers blueliner.

“You never say never in this job,” said Adams.  “But we figured Oflyng was going to be too rich for our blood, and frankly, we didn’t need an upgrade like that.  We just wanted a solid vet for the third pairing, and we got him.”  As it turned out, Hershey wasn’t able to meet Saskatchewan’s demands for Oflyng either; they might have turned to Gallagher as a fallback option, but Washington beat them to it.

Woody Fairwood

For Seattle, the 21-year-old Fairwood may not match Gallagher in the character department, but he should provide similar production.  Fairwood had been playing with Washington’s minor-league club in Baltimore, where he notched 50 points (9 goals, 41 assists) and a +7 rating.  He was tied for the team lead in both categories

“I knew I was probably going to have a hard time making my way up to DC,” said Fairwood.  “It was a good organization and I’ll miss my friends there, but to get a shot at some real minutes at the major-league level, that’s exciting for me.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 7

Jefferson McNeely

The SHL selected Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely as its Player of the Week.  The Galaxy had an amazing week, going 5-0-0 and moving within two points of first-place Hershey, and McNeely’s performance was key to Washington’s week.

McNeely scored 9 points on the week (3 goals, 6 assists).  On Friday, McNeely became one of the few players in SHL history to record a five-point game (2 goals, 3 assists) in Washington’s 6-2 rout of Dakota.  On the season, his 34 points is second-highest on the team behind C Eddie Costello, and his 15 goals is second to LW Casey Thurman.

“He’s just a joy to watch,” said Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle of McNeely.  “He has an electric star’s presence.  The whole arena just lights up every time he goes out on the ice.  Just an incredible talent.”

Galaxy Stokes Rivalry with “Hershey-pocalypse”

The Washington Galaxy and Hershey Bliss have forged one of the SHL’s strongest rivalries.  They have proven to be the strongest teams in the East since the SHL’s beginning. Last season, the teams battled for the division title all the way to the very last day.  Yet in spite of their spirited competition, the Galaxy and Bliss have remained fairly cordial; the coaches and players largely seem to get along, as have the teams’ fan bases.

That may change going forward, as the Galaxy turned up the temperature on the rivalry this week with a controversial promotion that left both teams talking.

Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Bliss at Constellation Center, the Galaxy asked each fan to bring a Hershey bar with them, but didn’t explain why.  When the fans arrived at the gate, they were asked to turn in their Hershey bar.  In exchange, they each received a Milky Way bar.  The choice of the replacement candy bar was symbolic on two levels.  The first is the obvious connection with the “Galaxy” name.  Second, the Mars corporation (which manufactures the Milky Way bar) is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, a DC suburb.

“We wanted to offer our fans the chance for a superior chocolate-eating experience,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “And we want to encourage them to support their hometown candymaker, not our rival’s.”

But the promotion didn’t end there.  Between the second and third periods, the song “Candy Man” began playing over the arena speakers.  A brown rabbit bearing a suspicious similarity to Nibs, the Bliss mascot, skipped out onto the ice pushing a bin full of the turned-in Hershey bars.  He was greeted with scattered boos.

Suddenly, the Galaxy’s mascot Rocketman came out onto the ice, accompanied by a pair of talking M&M mascots.  They came up to the rabbit and knocked him down, confiscating the bin of Hershey bars, as “Candy Man” stopped playing, replaced by “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”  Then members of Washington’s operations crew wheeled a wood chipper onto the ice.  Rocketman and the M&Ms began feeding the Hershey bars into the wood chipper, with the spit-out fragments landing on the fallen rabbit.  The fans cheered this display wildly.

Once all the Hershey bard has been shredded, the rabbit jumped up and ran off the ice, chased by the M&Ms.  Meanwhile, Rocketman glided around the ice, flexing his muscles and tossing out coupons for Mars products.  Meanwhile, the PA announcer crowed, “Welcome to the Hershey-pocalypse!” and stated that henceforth, “any fan bringing Hershey candy into the arena will be ejected,” which was met by a roar of approval.  The crowd’s mood only improved after Washington completed a 5-4 win.

Washington coach Rodney Reagle was a big fan of the promotion and the attempt to stoke the rivalry.  “Personally, I’ve always been a Snickers man, because the peanuts fill you up and help you make it through those afternoon blood-sugar crashes,” said Reagle.  “But I’ll happily eat any of the fine Mars family of products.  They taste great, unlike Hershey bars, which taste like somebody scraped them out of the bottom of a bird cage.”

The coach added, “I’m all for fanning the flames of this rivalry.  I mean, it’s a little one-sided, since we’ve won all the titles.  But hate makes the world go round – sports hate, anyway – and I’m all for stirring the pot.  So come on, Galaxy fans: put a little hate in your heart!”

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber objected to the between-periods display, saying “it’s a waste of good chocolate, and I can’t get behind that.”  He added, “A lot of guys in this room took notice, and they didn’t appreciate it.  We will proudly stand up for the superiority of Hershey’s chocolate any time.  We know that America’s best chocolate comes from central Pennsylvania, and we’ll fight anybody who says otherwise.”

Asked if the Bliss planned any revenge for the activity, Barber said, “The best revenge will come when we win the division this year.  But yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if our guys come up with something.”