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.