2017 SHL Finals – Game 5

HERSHEY BLISS 6, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

Few people thought the Hershey Bliss would make it this far.  Coming into the SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos were the heavy favorites; the biggest question seemed to be whether they would win in four or five games.  After their 6-1 blowout in today’s Game 5, the Bliss find themselves one win away from the Vandy.  It was a game that came at a heavy price for both sides, however, as each team lost a key contributor for the rest of the Finals.

“We’re really excited to be one win away from the ultimate goal,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Now we’ve got to win one more, and we’re going to win it for Justin.”

That’s right; Hershey will need to win a game on enemy ice without their leading scorer, C Justin Valentine.  The Bliss captain went down with seven minutes left in the game.  Valentine was exiting his own zone and trying to get loose for a breakout when Igloos D Ted Keefe checked him low.  Keefe ducked as he made contact, causing Valentine to cartwheel over him and land awkwardly on his right leg.

Valentine lay on the ice for over a minute as the crowd at Chocolate Center fell silent.  Valentine limped off the ice on the arms of linemates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart and did not return to the ice.  After the game, Barber confirmed that Valentine was done for the series.

“Justin hyperextended his knee and strained his hamstring when he got hit,” said the Hershey coach.  “He really wants to get back out there for the rest of the series, but he can’t even walk at this point, much less skate.”

Valentine’s injury was a particularly crushing blow after this game, when he and the rest of the Love Line lit up the scoreboard.  Valentine, Hart, and Sweet combined to score four of Hershey’s six goals (two by Valentine himself), and assisted D Reese Milton on another.  “We hated to see our brother go down like that,” said Sweet.  “It’s gonna be tough doing it without him, but we’re going to get this done and win it for him.”

Anchorage didn’t emerge from Game 5 unscathed, either.  Midway through the first period, Bliss RW Sven Danielsen and Igloos D Olaf Martinsson got tangled up in front of the Anchorage net and slid into goalie Ty Worthington, twisting his arm underneath him in the process.  Worthington remained in the game, but he seemed to have trouble reacting to shots, especially on his stick side.  Igloos coach Sam Castor reported that his netminder had suffered a separated shoulder and would not be able to play in Games 6 or 7.

“I’m amazed that Ty managed to make it through the game, to be honest,” said Castor.  “He was in incredible pain.  But he’s an incredible competitor.”

With Worthington sidelined, the Igloos will face back-to-back do-or-die games with backup Riley Lattimore in the crease.  Lattimore was a reliable second-stringer this season, going 11-6-2 with a 2.96 GAA and a .909 save percentage.  Still, he represents a significant step down from Worthington.

“We have complete confidence in Riley Lattimore,” said Castor.  “All we have to do is defend our home ice, and we’ll bring home the Vandy.”

Technically, Castor’s statement is accurate, but it suggests normality in a Finals that has been anything but normal.  Can the Igloos win two with Lattimore in net?  Can the Bliss keep their offense going without Valentine?  Can Hershey win one more and claim a thoroughly unexpected Finals win?  Luckily for us, the only way to find out is to play the games.

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 4

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HERSHEY BLISS 1

Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor insisted that it was not a must-win game for his team.  “Look, we’ve got to break serve,” Castor told reporters before the game.  “We know that.  They won one in our barn, so we have to win one in their barn.  What order we do it in doesn’t matter, as long as we do win one.”

Despite Castor’s statement, the coach must have been relieved that his team was able to prevail over the Hershey Bliss in a close contest, 2-1, and tie the series at two games apiece.  “Really good to see the boys take care of business today,” said the Igloos coach.  “I think this one really swung the series in our favor.”

After a couple of slower-paced, defensive games, the Igloos turned on the jets and dominated possession of the puck, outshooting Hershey 41-23.  “We hadn’t had a game yet this series where we’ve really been in control,” said C Jake Frost.  “This time, we were able to dictate the play.”

Although they were able to dominate the puck, the Igloos weren’t able to run away with the game thanks to the heroics of Bliss goalie Brandon Colt.  The Hershey netminder made a number of dazzling saves to keep the game close.  In the first two periods, the Igloos were only able to pierce Colt once, when D Dave Frederick put a rebound just inside the right post with five and a half minutes left in the first period.  The score would have been much higher if not for multiple acrobatic saves by Colt, as he bounced around the crease and made save after save.

“Colter was like Inspector Gadget out there,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.  “Anytime there was a shot that looked like it was going in, he’d shoot out his arm or his leg and make a crazy stop.  He was keeping us in it.”

Bliss RW Christopher Hart tied the game eight minutes into the third period by whistling a shot just underneath Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left pad.  The crowd at Chocolate Center came alive, and on the visiting bench, the Igloos became agitated.

“We felt like we’d been getting the better end of the play, but it wasn’t showing up on the scoreboard,” said Anchorage C Nile Bernard.  “We felt like the next goal was going to win it, and we had to make sure it was us.”

Bernard was right; the next goal did decide the game, and the Igloos got it.  The winning tally came from a somewhat unlikely source.  LW Ben Summers arrived in Anchorage this season as a free agent, and he quickly became a favorite among fans and teammates alike as a quality third-line contributor.  But the top line has driven the action for both teams in this series, so few were expecting Summers to be the difference-maker.  But with less than five minutes remaining in the game, he deflected a shot from RW Tyler Cloude past Colt for the go-ahead tally.  There were some anxious moments for Anchorage while the referees reviewed the goal, since Hershey argued that Summers had played the puck with a high stick.  But after review, the goal was upheld, and the Igloos celebrated.

“Benny really came through for us,” said Frost.  “Just like he’s come through us all year.”

It was another physical game, with Bliss D Ruslan Gromov drawing the ire of some on the Anchorage bench after getting into his third fight in the last two games, this time going after LW Les Collins.  Castor indicated that he thought the league should consider suspending Gromov, because “he’s not playing hockey out there.  He’s trying to turn this series into a street fight.”  He paused, then added with a smile, “Of course, we’ve got the upper hand, so we’re not going to press the point.”

Do the Igloos really have the upper hand in a tied series?  Hershey coach Chip Barber reacted to Castor’s confident talk with a smirk.  “Sam’s a sly one, I’ll give him that,” said Barber.  “He’s walking around like M&Ms wouldn’t melt in his mouth.  But he’s more nervous than he lets on.  This is a wide-open series, and anyone can win it.  He can’t talk that away.”

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 3

HERSHEY BLISS 1, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

If you’d had to identify the weak link for the Hershey Bliss coming into the SHL Finals, odds are you would have pointed between the pipes.  Critics of the Bliss frequently argue that Brandon Colt is not an elite goaltender, and that he wouldn’t be able to handle a top-notch offensive squad like the Anchorage Igloos.  And after Colt was beaten 5-1 in Game 1, it looked like the critics were right.

Since then, though, Colt has been brilliant — and that’s proven essential in a series that has proven to be lower scoring than expected.  After holding Anchorage to a single goal in Hershey’s Game 2 win, Colt was even better today.  He stopped all 34 shots he faced, allowing the Bliss to claim a 1-0 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.

“I knew Brandon would bounce back after that first game, but even I never expected him to stand on his head like he has the last two games,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Getting the kind of performance we’ve got from him is like finding an extra chocolate bar in your pocket.”

For his part, Colt credits his success to staying calm and focused.  “I’ve been studying meditation and mindfulness,” said Colt.  “In the chaos and energy of a playoff game, you need to be able to find that stillness and quietness inside yourself.  I’ve really been able to pull that off in the last couple games.”

This game was more physical than the previous one, with the Igloos setting a hard-hitting tone and Hershey responding in kind.  The first period was a bit rough, with each team taking a pair of minor penalties and neither establishing much of an offensive rhythm.  “I think we were both playing a little cautious,” said Igloos D Ted Keefe.  “Feeling each other out a bit.”

The pace of play opened up a bit in the second period, with both teams getting several quality chances but failing to light the lamp, as Colt and Igloos netminder Ty Worthington both made stupendous saves.  Later on in the period, the chippiness and ferocity of the game boiled over, with Bliss D Ruslan Gromov and Igloos D Olaf Martinsson dropping the gloves and trading blows.  “That was a real heavyweight bout,” said Hershey LW Russell Nahorniak.  “Just a couple of big boppers going at it.  Real old-school stuff.”

The Bliss managed to kill off a couple of minor penalties in the penalties with the help of some ten-bell saves from Colt.  After two periods, the game remained scoreless.

The game became even more physical in the third, as Anchorage tried to knock Hershey off their game.  But the Bliss stood firm and gave as good as they got.  “We can hang with whatever kind of game you want to throw at us,” said Bliss D Reese Milton.  “You want to fly up and down and play firewagon hockey, we can do that.  You want to bang bodies and play it rough, we can do that too.”

The minutes ticked off the clock, and still the game remained 0-0.  That changed after Igloos D Tony Citrone was hit with a minor penalty for holding the stick.  On the ensuing power play, Hershey C Justin Valentine crashed the net and deflected a shot past a screened Worthington for a goal that brought the Chocolate Center to ecstasy.

As the second half of the period wore on, Gromov got into another scrap, getting into it with Citrone.  Anchorage argued that Gromov started the fight and should have received an instigator penalty, if not being ejected entirely.  Instead, both players got matching minors, drawing howls of protest from the Igloos bench.  D Hans Mortensen continued to jaw with the officials until he was finally whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct.  That forced Anchorage to kill off a penalty in the waning minutes of the game, which irritated Igloos coach Sam Castor.

“You never want to see the refs decide the game,” said Castor.  “Calling a penalty like that, that late in the game… that’s inserting yourself into the story, and I don’t think that’s right.”

After Mortensen’s penalty expired with less than two minutes remaining, the Igloos launched an all-out assault on the Hershey net.  But Colt came up strong again, and the Bliss caught a break when C Jake Frost rang a slapper off the post with 45 seconds left.

With the Bliss holding a surprise lead in the series, Valentine urged his team to keep the pressure on.  “Let’s keep our foot on the gas and see if we can close this out at home,” Valentine urged his teammates.  “We can’t let [the Igloos] off the mat.  They’re too good.”

Castor remains confident that his team can turn the series around.  “The last two games could have gone either way,” the Anchorage coach told reporters.  “It so happens that they both went the other way, but we won’t let that get us down.  We’re still the better team.”

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 2

HERSHEY BLISS 2, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1 (OVERTIME)

After the Hershey Bliss were embarrassed 5-1 in the first game of the SHL Finals, many observers were ready to declare the series over.  The heavily favored Anchorage Igloos had bludgeoned the Bliss, goading them into taking foolish penalties and stonewalling their shots.  Although Bliss coach Chip Barber pointed out that it “only counts as one loss,” many wondered if Hershey would be able to recover.

Turns out that they could.  The Bliss shook off the sting of the previous game, and although it required overtime, they managed to top the Igloos 2-1, tying the series at 1-1.

“When it comes to the playoffs, you’ve got to have a short memory,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet, who scored the game-winning goal.  “If you led a bad game get in your head, you might as well forfeit.  We weren’t going to let that happen.”

In the first game, Hershey committed four penalties in the first period and giving up three goals, digging themselves into a big hole that they were never able to climb out of.  With that in mind, Barber cautioned his team to avoid taking cheap penalties in this game.  It appeared that the Bliss hadn’t heeded their coach’s words when, less than a minute into the game, linesman Ken McGillis made a controversial offsides call that nullified a potential odd-man rush for Hershey.  A frustrated Henry Constantine slammed his stick into the boards and was assessed a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“I was so mad at myself,” said Constantine.  “I thought we’d been ripped off on a bad call, then I went and made it worse.”

But the Bliss managed to kill off the penalty, and avoided taking any others in the period, which ended with no score.  Hershey also managed to avoid taking any penalties in the second period, after which the game still remained scoreless.  Through two periods, the game was about as evenly matched as possible: both teams had taken 18 shots, committed one minor penalty, and not managed to record a goal.

“Coming into the locker room after that second period with it still 0-0 really made us feel good,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “Our confidence level was rising like, ‘Hey, we can hang with these guys.  And we can win this.'”

In the third period, Hershey went on the power play two minutes in when Igloos D Olaf Martinsson received a double minor for spearing Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak.  The Bliss needed only five second to convert, with Valentine blistering a close-range shot off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s shoulder and into the net.  “That really silenced the crowd,” said Valentine.  “They knew that the way we were both playing, that might be the only goal of the game.”

The Igloos stepped up their pace after that in an effort to tilt the ice and overwhelm the Bliss.  Hershey held strong for much of the period, but with just under four minutes remaining, Igloos C Jake Frost and LW Jerry Koons got loose on a two-man breakaway that ended with Koons going top-shelf and finding the back of the net to tie it up.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena exploded as their heroes received new life.

The din only got louder a couple minutes later when Bliss LW Vonnie McLearen accidentally clipped Igloos LW Ben Summers in the face and got a minor for high-sticking.  The Igloos sent Worthington to the bench for a 6-on-4 advantage.  “We knew we were really going to be tested,” said Valentine.  “We knew we needed to stand strong.”

Stand strong they did, fighting off the penalty and sending the game to overtime.  The Bliss dominated the play in overtime but couldn’t quite break through until Igloos D Hans Mortensen was whistled for slashing, putting Hershey on the power play.

The Bliss didn’t press or panic with the man advantage.  They kept control of the puck, passing it around and waiting for an opportunity.  Sweet finally saw one when Bliss D Reese Milton faked a shot and slid it over to Sweet.  With Worthington out of position, the Bliss winger was able to find the open net, ending the game and giving Hershey a much-needed victory.

After the game, Barber highly praised the work of netminder Brandon Colt.  After a rough outing in Game 1, some fans were calling for Colt to be benched in favor of backup Milo Stafford.  But the coach kept faith in his starter, and Colt rewarded him with a strong game, stopping 33 shots.

“A lot of people were saying Brandon couldn’t handle it at this level, that he melts in the clutch like a bag of Kisses in a hot car,” said Barber.  “I don’t think they’ll be saying that after tonight.  This is a wide-open series.”

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, HERSHEY BLISS 1

The Anchorage Igloos entered the Vandenberg Cup Finals as heavy favorites.  The “favorite” label can come with considerable pressure in the playoffs, as anything can happen in a short series.  In Game 1, at least, the Igloos didn’t let the pressure get to them, as they scored three goals in the first period and cruised to a 5-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“If all the games are this easy, it’ll be a short series,” said Anchorage RW Nicklas Ericsson, who had a goal and two assists.  “But we know they won’t all be this easy.”

The Bliss put themselves in trouble in the first period, committing four penalties.  The Igloos took advantage, scoring a pair of power-play goals.  Four minutes into the game, Hershey D Nikolai Kulkarov was whistled for hooking when he brought down Anchorage C Derek Humplik in order to prevent a breakaway.  Igloos C Jake Frost buried a slapshot from the top of the faceoff circle to make it 1-0.  Late in the period, Bliss C Henry Constantine flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.  Before they could kill it off, D Joel Baldwin tried to draw a tripping call, but was called for embellishment.  Igloos RW Remi Montrechere cashed in during the waning seconds of the period, putting a rebound home past a sprawled Brandon Colt.  In between, LW Les Collins scored during 5-on-5 play, and the Igloos went to the locker room with a 3-0 edge, depsite being outshot 19-8.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena razzed the visiting Bliss on their way into the locker room.

“We were a little shell-shocked,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine of the first 20 minutes.  “We’d dominated long stretches of play, but look at the scoreboard and they were wiping the floor with us.”

In the second period, Baldwin tried to fire up his struggling team by starting a pair of fights.  In mid-period, he responded to a rough check by RW Tony Citrone by throwing hands with him.  Late in the period, he scrapped with Collins after the two traded jabs during a faceoff.

“I felt like we needed to shake things up,” said Baldwin.  “And I thought a good fight or two might change the momentum.”

Baldwin’s fisticuffs failed to spark Hershey, however, as Anchorage LW Jerry Koons scored the only goal of the period, yet another power-play tally.

Bliss LW Noah Daniels salvaged some dignity for his team, scoring four and a half minutes into the third period to foil Anchorage netminder Ty Worthington‘s shutout bid.  But Ericsson put one more home for the Igloos to restore their four-goal advantage, and that’s how the game ended.

Hershey coach Chip Barber was crestfallen after the game.  “Not the way that we wanted to start this series,” Barber told reporters.  “This loss was as bitter as biting into a chunk of backer’s chocolate.  But it only counts as one loss, thank goodness.”

Barber highlighted a couple of areas for his team to improve on in Game 2.  “Obviously, we’ve got to cut down on the penalties,” the Bliss coach said.  “Against a team this good, you can’t give them extra chances.  And we’ve got to find ways to get some more pucks past Worthington.”  The Igloos goalie made 38 saves in the game.

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Favored Igloos, Underdog Bliss Prepare for Finals

On paper, the 2017 Vandenberg Cup Finals look like a mismatch.  The Anchorage Igloos finished the season 20 points ahead of the Hershey Bliss, and they outrank Hershey in virtually every statistical category.

The Bliss have a strong offense that put up 206 goals and 586 points, both good for third in the league.  But the Igloos were first in the league offensively, outscoring Hershey by 100 points.  Hershey’s “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart is undeniably impressive, with Sweet and Valentine both finishing among the top 10 point scorers.  But Anchorage’s top line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson all finished among the top 4 in the league in points.

Hershey’s defense was respectable, allowing 1953 shots, fifth in the SHL; Anchorage’s was better (1897 shots, second).  Between the pipes, the Igloos’ Ty Worthington (31-6-4, 1.78 GAA, .942 save percentage) outshone Bliss netminder Brandon Colt (24-16-4, 2.94, .909).  The only category in which Hershey is clearly superior is their league-best power play (21.9%).

But the Finals aren’t played on paper, and Hershey is plenty confident heading into the series.  “I’m already tired of all the sweep talk,” said Valentine.  “Nobody seems to think we can win this.  But nobody seemed to think we could beat Washington and win the division, either.  Nobody seemed to think we’d ever get over blowing it last year.  Believe me, we’re making note of everyone who’s writing us off and taking it all in.”

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber echoed Valentine’s defiant tone.  “The so-called ‘experts’ seem to think we’re just going to roll over and play dead,” Barber told reporters.  “That kind of talk just fuels us, like a chocolate bar in the middle of the afternoon.  We look at this as a chance to prove ourselves on the biggest stage.  Don’t be surprised if the Vandy’s filled up with chocolate by the time this is over.”

For their part, the Igloos don’t appear to be taking this matchup lightly.  “You can throw out what happened in the regular season,” said Anchorage coach Sam Castor.  “It’s back to 0-0 now.  We haven’t won anything yet.  We know we’re going to need to stay sharp and play our best if we’re going to win thing.  No one in this locker room is taking anything for granted.”

Added Frost: “This is going to be a tough series.  We’re going to really have to be on our toes.  But we’ve been really strong this year, and I think we’re ready.”

2017 SHL Final Team Stats

Team Totals

===================================================
Team             GP    SH    G    A  Pts   PP%  +/-
---------------------------------------------------
Anchorage        60  2554  238  448  686  19.8  101
Dakota           60  2626  218  402  620  18.8   -7
Hershey          60  2200  206  380  586  21.9   20
Saskatchewan     60  1910  185  346  531  17.7   -9
New York         60  2402  179  338  517  18.1  -50
Hamilton         60  1998  177  334  511  20.9  -14
Seattle          60  1795  174  323  497  19.9  -85
Washington       60  2196  171  312  483  19.5   27
Michigan         60  1987  169  307  476  16.7   64
Quebec           60  1453  109  192  301  16.9  -47
===================================================

=================================================================
Team             GP   W   L   T   GAA   SH   SV    SV%   PK%  PIM
-----------------------------------------------------------------
Michigan         60  40  16   4  1.64 1696 1596  0.941  85.9  506
Anchorage        60  42  12   6  2.16 1897 1766  0.931  84.7  527
Washington       60  33  27   0  2.54 1920 1767  0.920  78.0  592
Quebec           60  20  33   7  2.77 1927 1758  0.912  80.2  535
Hamilton         60  29  30   1  2.83 2091 1920  0.918  87.1  581
Hershey          60  32  22   6  2.94 1953 1774  0.908  79.3  477
Saskatchewan     60  23  35   2  3.28 2333 2135  0.915  77.5  474
Dakota           60  23  35   2  3.85 2225 1992  0.895  76.5  481
New York         60  21  36   3  3.98 2586 2345  0.907  76.4  557
Seattle          60  20  37   3  4.15 2493 2242  0.899  82.4  532
=================================================================

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