Hungry Wolves Dominant in Early Going

When the Michigan Gray Wolves were swept out of last year’s Western Division playoff, some observers felt it was a watershed moment for a team that has regularly been among the SHL’s best.  Were the Wolves getting complacent after multiple seasons of success?  Was their aging roster starting to catch up to them?  Were they about to be passed by the rising young teams in Seattle or Saskatchewan?

As it turns out, rumors of Michigan’s demise were greatly exaggerated.  The Wolves are playing their most dominant hockey to date, smothering the life out of their opponents and threatening to turn the Western race into a battle for second place.

“The way they’re playing right now, no one can even lay a glove on them,” said Seattle Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “They’re not even on the same dimension as the rest of us.”

The Wolves are relying on their tried-and-true formula, built around airtight defense and goaltending.  They’ve been able to dictate the pace of games, often forcing high-flying opponents to play at Michigan’s preferred deliberate tempo.  They’ve held opponents to 27.3 shots and under a goal per game.  Even by the Wolves’ usual rugged standards, that’s domination.

They’ve already recorded six shutouts, more than most teams manage over an entire season.  You might be tempted to credit elite goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist for that achievement, but two of those shutouts were recorded by backup Art Cowan.

Michigan’s sternest test yet came on Tuesday, when they faced off against the Anchorage Igloos, the longtime rivals who knocked them out of the playoffs last year.  The Igloos are off to an underwhelming start, and they were eager to deal the Wolves their first loss.  Anchorage managed to break Michigan’s defensive pressure and outshot them 41-20.  But thanks to a sterling performance from Lundquist, the Wolves walked away with another shutout victory, this time by a 2-0 margin.

Ron Wright

Ask Michigan players for the secret to their success, and they’ll point to coach Ron Wright.  The Wolves’ bench boss is a master motivator, and he reinforced the team’s commitment to hard work coming into the season.

“Coach Wright knows how to get the most out of this team,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “He knows just how hard to push us without going too far.  He demands a lot from us, but he’s taught us to demand even more from ourselves.”

Throughout the offseason, every time Wright came across an article or broadcast segment suggesting Michigan might be on the decline, he texted it to the team group chat.  “We saw every bad thing anyone said about us,” said D Fritz Kronstein.  “We were too old, too slow, over the hill.  We were overconfident and rested on our laurels.  The game is favoring youth and speed, and we were dinosaurs.  It just fueled our fire.  When we got to the first day of camp, Coach just smiled and said, ‘So, ready to prove them all wrong?’”

As great as the Wolves have looked, they know full well that this won’t guarantee them anything.  They’ve had a history of getting off to hot starts, although never quite this hot.  Both last year and in 2015, they started strong but ended up without a title.  Michigan’s players, however, show no sign of letting up, which can only be bad news for the rest of the league.

“We know that we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win the Vandy,” said Bailes.  “But we’re in it for the long haul.  We’re all in to get the title, and we’re not going to let up until we get there.”

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CHL Update: Cleveland’s Cowan Charges Favoritism

The CHL’s Cleveland Centurions were officially eliminated from playoff contention this week.  There are a variety of reasons why the Centurions won’t make the playoffs.  The team’s generally stout defense was undermined by a mediocre offense (440 points, 7th in the league), a struggling penalty kill (76.9%, worst), and an inability to win on the road (8-15-3, third-worst).

Art Cowan

According to goaltender Art Cowan, though, there’s another key reason why Cleveland isn’t a playoff team: they didn’t play him often enough.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Cowan told reporters on Friday after watching the Centurions’ 4-3 loss to Maine from the bench.  “I clearly demonstrated myself to be the #1 goalie here, but I didn’t get the ice time.  If I’d been the #1 starter, we’d be in the playoffs.  I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Cowan charged that the only reason he wasn’t named the top starter was because coach Chad Grimes favored rookie Jonas Schemko over him.  “From the beginning, it was clear to me that Schemko was the coach’s pet,” said Cowan.  “Even in training camp, I could tell that Coach wanted Schemko to succeed and he didn’t care about me.  Even after the season started and it was clear I was the better netminder, the coach never wanted to admit he was wrong, so he kept giving Schemko chance after chance.  I don’t know if I pissed him off or what, but it was obvious that I’m never going to be top dog around here.”

Jonas Schemko

The statistics seem to validate Cowan’s argument.  He posted a 14-7-4 record with a 2.66 GAA and a .907 save percentage, while Schemko has gone 11-18-1 with a 3.02 GAA and a save percentage of .892.  Cowan’s .640 winning percentage, extrapolated over a full season, would indeed put Cleveland in the playoffs.  But Cowan has actually started fewer games than Schemko (25 vs. 30).

According to Grimes, this is not a case of favoritism; rather, it’s a player development issue.  “The plan all season long was to split the minutes between them,” said the Cleveland coach.  “I want to win games as much as the next guy.  But ultimately, our main goal here is to develop players for the big club [Michigan Gray Wolves].  From an organizational perspective, the big club wants to see both guys and find out what they can do.  And they know more about what Artie can do, because he was with them last year.  So they need to see a little more of Schemmer, to get a better picture.”

Cowan was not mollified by this explanation.  “Every other team in this league has a #1 goalie, even though they’re all supposed to be ‘developing players.’  The better goalie gets more ice time, just like on a normal team.  But not here, for some reason.  So I’m not buying a crap excuse like that.”

Cowan said that he had not yet demanded a trade, but he hoped that he will play elsewhere next season.  “I hope they let me go in the expansion draft, or that they deal me somewhere else.  Clearly they don’t think I can do the job, and they want Schemko.  Fine, then let me go somewhere else where I can get a shot.”

Wolves GM Tim Carrier denied that the organization has anything against Cowan.  “We really like what we’ve seen from Artie this season,” said Carrier.  “Obviously, up here we’re committed to The Bear [Dirk Lundquist] up here, but we consider Artie to be a major part of our future.”

For his part, Schemko said he was confused by the controversy.  “Artie is my friend,” Schemko said.  “I like that we both get to play together.  I’m sad that he’s not happy.  I hope we both get to stay and play again.”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 6

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2

A lot of things had to happen for Ron Wright to become the coach of the Michigan Gray Wolves.  The Wolves had to come up short to Anchorage in the Western race.  The SHL had to decide to expand to Quebec, and incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme had to decide to leave and coach his hometown team.   Wright had to have a falling-out with Hamilton, the team he coached last season, and decide to leave.

Both Wright and the Wolves couldn’t be happier that everything worked out the way it did.  The fit between the gritty, hard-working, serious-minded team and the driven, fanatically prepared, and hard-nosed coach was perfect.  The Wolves thrived under Wright’s leadership, and they completed their mission today, defeating the Washington Galaxy 3-2 to win the SHL Finals and claim their first Vandy.

“No way do we get this far without Coach Wright,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “When we got off to a strong start, he was on us to make sure we didn’t slack off or take our foot off the gas.  And when Warren [Marlow] went down, he made sure we kept our heads up and didn’t let it get to us.  He was our guiding light all the way.”

Wright, meanwhile, gave credit to the players.  “It’s a privilege to coach these guys,” said the Michigan boss.  “As a coach, you can give them a map and show them the way, but they’re the ones who have to take the journey.  These guys have never hesitated; they’ve been willing to pay the price to be great.  They’ve worked hard, practiced hard, kept their noses to the grindstone.  This is the payoff.  The champagne tastes pretty sweet.”

The Wolves looked set to run away with the Finals after they captured the first two games by a combined score of 6-0.  But after the series shifted to Washington, the competition became much tighter.  The Galaxy took two of the three games at Constellation Center, and each game was decided by a single goal.  The Wolves suffered a major blow when Marlow, their second-line center, went down with an apparent concussion in Game 4.

As the series came back to Cadillac Place for Game 6, the Wolves were eager to close out the series.  “We weren’t panicking, for sure,” said D Frank Mudrick.  But we definitely didn’t want it to go seven.”

The first period was an action-packed one, as the teams combined for 23 shots.  Michigan struck fairly quickly, as Bailes beat Galaxy goalie Roger Orion with a backhand to the glove side less than five minutes into the game.

“That helped settle us,” said Bailes.  “Definitely better to play from ahead.”

But Washington didn’t fold.  They held the Wolves to that 1-0 lead for the rest of the period.  And a couple minutes into the second period, Washington got the equalizer on a slapshot by LW Casey Thurman.

Midway through the second, a much slower period offensively, Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely was hit with a double minor for spearing the Wolves’ Jorma Seppa.  On the ensuing power play, RW Oskar Denison buried a shot from the top of the faceoff circle to give Michigan the lead again, and they carried that 2-1 edge into the dressing room at the end of the period.

During the break, Wright urged his team to turn it up a notch.  “A one-goal lead isn’t safe,” Wright told his men.  “Get the next one, and we can break their back.”

Unfortunately for Michigan, the team didn’t heed Wright’s admonition.  Less than two minutes into the third period, McNeely tied it up again by firing a low slapper past a screened Dirk Lundquist.  As the third period wore on, the Wolves’ repeated attempts to reclaim the lead went frustratingly awry: they pushed several shots just wide, and Denison fired a head-hunter that got past Orion but banged off the crossbar.

In the final minute, with both teams seeming content to play for overtime, Wright called timeout and admonished his team.  “You look dead on your feet out there!” the coach barked.  “There’s no ties in the playoffs.  Let’s go out there and win this right now!  They can’t hold out much longer.  Go out there and knock ’em out!”

Wright’s pep talk paid off.  The Wolves came out of the timeout with more energy, winning the faceoff and storming down into the Washington end.  Wolves D Fritz Kronstein fed a beautiful pass to a streaking Seppa, who fired a hard, low shot.  Orion made a tremendous sprawling save, but couldn’t corral the rebound.  The puck bounced out to Bailes, who elevated it just out of Orion’s reach and dented the twine with 27 seconds left.

“We knew it was over then,” said McNeely.  “We knew we weren’t coming back from that.”

After the final horn sounded, the victorious Wolves celebrated with boisterous elan.  A jubilant Lundquist hopped on top of his net and waved his stick to lead the crowd in cheers and chants, then clambered down and did a pair of cartwheels on the ice.  Bailes, Seppa, and RW Gordon Lunsford fired their helmets and gloves into the crowd, giving several fans priceless souvenirs of an unforgettable night.  Backup goalie Art Cowan raced onto the ice with as many bottles of bubbly as he could hold in his jersey, and the players sprayed each other and the fans.

A little later, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell emerged with the Vandy and handed it to Wolves owner Luke Faltura, saying, “If ever there was a team that balanced style and grace with blood and guts, it’s got to be the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Enjoy a trophy well-earned!”  There was a brief awkward pause, as the team sorted out who would have the honor of taking the trophy on its first ceremonial lap around the ice.

Finally, Bailes and Lundquist grabbed Wright, hoisted him on their shoulders, and handed him the Vandy.  As Wright circled the ice, supported by his players, he waved to the crowd and blinked back tears.

“That was a metaphor for our whole season,” said Wright.  “From the first day of practice to our ultimate moment of glory, we did it together.  That’s what makes this team so special.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 6”