Who’s going to win the SHL’s Eastern division? Who knows? If the first three weeks of the season have proven anything, it’s that there’s no clear favorite.
“Maybe, instead of beat each other up for 60 games, we should just pick the winner’s name out of a hat,” said Washington Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle. “That would probably be just as fair.”
Reagle’s Galaxy were the division favorites coming into this season after essentially going wire-to-wire last season and pushing the champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in the SHL Finals. But much like the Igloos, Washington has struggled to stay above the .500 mark. Unlike the Igloos, however, the Galaxy haven’t had to deal with any major injuries.
So what’s plaguing Washington? Offensive malaise. While RW Jefferson McNeely has bounced back from a disappointing season to be an elite scoring force, LW Casey Thurman has gotten off to a slow start (5 goals, 11 points).
The primary culprit, though, has been the Galaxy’s third line. Last year, the line was a secret weapon for the Galaxy, providing a consistent offensive presence. This year has been a different story. Washington lost LW Todd Douglas and C Drustan Zarkovich in the expansion draft; their replacements, rookies Henry Van Alpin and Barry Sullivan, have struggled badly. Van Alpin failed to record a point in 10 games, and has been a healthy scratch in three straight games. Sullivan, expected to be a strong two-way force, has posted only 1 goal and 2 assists so far. The current points leader on the third line: stay-home D Bill Corbett.
“Obviously, we’ve had some growing pains with the third line,” said Reagle. “If we can get them producing the way we expect, I think we can start to pull away.” So far, though, they haven’t. Their 8-6-1 start has them on top of the division by a single point.
If any team in the East was expected to challenge Washington, it was the Hershey Bliss. They stumbled to a disappointing third-place finish last year after a major injury to star LW Lance Sweet sank their season. This year, though, Sweet was back to 100%, and the team seemingly strengthened itself on both ends in the offseason.
The result? So far, not much. Hershey’s 6-7-2 record puts them fourth in the division, three points back. The “Love Line” – the famous first line that won the fan’s hearts last season – is off to a so-so start after providing the bulk of the Bliss offense last year. Neither Sweet, C Justin Valentine, nor RW Christopher Hart leads the team in goals this year; all three trail rookie C Spencer Kirkpatrick, who has 7.
At the other end of the ice, the leaky goaltending that bedeviled the Bliss last year remains a problem. Hershey dealt last year’s starting netminder, Riley Lattimore, to Anchorage and handed the crease to 21-year-old prospect Buzz Carson. It hasn’t worked out so far, as Carson has posted a 1-5-1 record and a 3.67 GAA. Like Lattimore before him, Carson is in danger of losing the starting job to veteran backup Milo Stafford.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with what we’ve seen in net so far,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “It’s like biting into a nice tasty chocolate bar and getting a big squirt of lemon juice. A burst of sour in the middle of the sweet. We’ve got to get better.”
With neither Washington nor Hershey taking control, the door is open for some surprise contenders.
Last season, the New York Night finished in second place more or less by default with a 28-29-3 record. Their high-caliber offense was undermined by a near-total indifference to defense and spotty goaltending. This season is largely the same story – the Night are first in offense and last in defense once again – but despite being outscored on the season, their 7-6-2 record has them only a point behind Washington.
Tied with New York is the Hamilton Pistols. The Pistols were widely perceived to be writing off the season as part of a rebuilding effort, but had a surprisingly strong first week and remain in the hunt. Powered by a brilliant performance from their potent first line and a comeback showing from goalie Brandon Colt, the Pistols remain stubbornly above the .500 mark.
Even the expansion Quebec Tigres, whose offense has cratered after an injury to Zarkovich and who have slid into the cellar, are only six points behind the first-place Galaxy.
Will Washington and Hershey right the ship and take control of the division? Will Hamilton and New York be able to spring a major upset? Will Quebec be able to keep up? Anything seems possible in this wide-open division.
The ever-optimistic Reagle sees a bright side. “Look at the NFL,” the Washington coach said. “For years, they’ve managed to sell widespread mediocrity as thrilling and competitive. We can do the same! Tune in next week for As The East Turns.”