Wolves’ Unexpected Struggles Draw Wright’s Ire

Last season was a bitter finish for the Michigan Gray Wolves, who collapsed in the season’s final month to finish out of the West’s top two for the first time.  This season, they hoped to prove that last year’s stumble was an anomaly.  Instead, they’ve struggled to clear the .500 mark, and they’re threatening to be left behind in the division race by red-hot Anchorage and Portland.

Ron Wright

Coach Ron Wright minced no words following Tuesday’s embarrassing 3-2 home loss to the Washington Galaxy, who are sitting in last place in the East.  “We were just going through the motions out there, and it makes me sick,” Wright told reporters.  “It seems like we were taking this win for granted, but the way we’re playing lately, we shouldn’t be taking any wins for granted.  There was no drive out there tonight, no intensity.  That needs to change.”

In the past, Michigan’s players have generally accepted the truth of Wright’s rare public critiques.  This time, however, some Wolves pushed back.  “We work twice as hard and twice as long in practice as any other team,” said one anonymous player.  “And then [Wright] wonders why we don’t have any energy.  It’s because we waste it all in morning skates.”

This is Wright’s fifth season with the Wolves.  In that time, the team has produced tremendous regular-season results.  However, they’ve only made the Finals once, in the coach’s debut season.  And some team sources wonder whether Wright’s trademark intensity is starting to wear out the players.

“The drill-sergeant routine only holds up for so long,” said one player.  “It works okay when you win, but when the winning stops, your patience for running a million drills does too.”

Why are the Wolves struggling?  Part of it is the same problem they’ve long struggled with: generating offense.  The team’s top line is producing in line with career norms, but the bottom two lines, and the bottom blueline pairing, are struggling badly.  Wright has tried giving more ice time to the team’s reserves, but they aren’t producing either.  And the constant lineup shuffling may be interfering with the team’s ability to gel.

But offense isn’t the team’s most troubling issue.  Rather, it’s the underperformance of the player widely regarded as Michigan’s rock: goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  While it’s true that many big-name goaltenders have struggled this season, Lundquist isn’t just another goaltender.  He’s been the SHL’s standard of netminding excellence since its inception.

Dirk Lundquist

Lundquist has been so consistently brilliant over the years that it’s easy to assume that he is immune to slumps.  But this season’s results prove otherwise.  After never posting a GAA above 2 or a save percentage below .932, this season’s marks are 2.58 and .919.  It’s reached the point where some fans are calling for backup Brandon Colt to get more starts.

“It’s definitely frustrating for me,” said Lundquist.  “I’m used to the team counting on me to bail them out, to make the impossible saves.  Now, I feel like I need them to bail me out, and that’s not a situation I ever want to be in.”

Wright remains adamant that Lundquist is the Wolves’ starter.  “He’s proved his worth over the seasons,” the coach said.  “I’m not worried about him pulling his weight.”

But if Michigan doesn’t rediscover its typical winning ways, will there be changes in store?  Will Lundquist lose the unquestioned starter’s mantle?  Will Wright lose his job?  Will the Wolves become trade-deadline sellers for the first time ever?  As unlikely as those possibilities may seem, they become increasingly realistic the longer that Michigan stumbles.

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

2019 SHL Playoff – Game 4

Eastern Division Series (Hamilton wins, 3-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, HERSHEY BLISS 1 (OVERTIME)

A month and a half ago, Eddie Costello was going nowhere.  The veteran center, who is in his contract year, was biding his time playing meaningless games with a Washington Galaxy team that was mired in the depths of the division.  Though Costello had numerous friends on the team, he longed for the excitement of a playoff race.

Then the Hamilton Pistols came along and acquired Costello at the trade deadline.  The Pistols were firmly fixed on winning the Vandy, and they felt that the center would provide the secondary scoring they needed.  He didn’t come cheaply – he cost the Pistols two top prospects and a first-round pick – but they felt his speed, scoring touch, and postseason experience would be just what the young club needed.

Today, Costello repaid the investment that Hamilton made in him, scoring an overtime goal that propelled the Pistols to their first-ever SHL Finals appearance with a 2-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“The playoff excitement, this is what you live for as a player,” Costello said in the middle of a boisterous Hamilton locker room, as teammates pounded his back and poured beer on his head.  “I didn’t think I was going to be here this year, but these guys took the plunge, and thank God they did!”

Costello’s goal brought an end to a tense, close game that bore no resemblance to the Pistols’ 5-0 blowout the night before.  In that game, the visiting Bliss seemed rattled by the din at Gunpowder Armory, and never got their heads into the game.  This time around, Hershey didn’t allow the noise to distract them.

“We’re all professionals, and we’re not going to let a little crowd noise throw us off our game,” said C Justin Valentine before Game 4.  “We just need to tune it out and focus on what happens on the ice.”

Indeed, Hershey played with an edge and a hunger that was missing in the previous game.  Even when the seemingly unstoppable Steven Alexander scored on a first-period power play to put the Pistols ahead and whip the crowd into a frenzy, the Bliss didn’t panic.  They hung tough and didn’t let the Pistols add to their lead through the remainder of the first and through all of the second.

In the opening seconds of the third, Hamilton D Hercules Mulligan took a cross-checking penalty.  Although Hershey’s power play had been missing in action since Game 2, they clicked this time, with Valentine jabbing a rebound underneath the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to tie the score.  The crowd quieted suddenly, and the normally mild-mannered Valentine capped his hand to his ear, mocking the silence.

The game remained tied through the remainder of regulation, even through a bizarre stretch that saw a Bliss penalty followed by two Pistol penalties in the span of 33 seconds.  As the game went into overtime, the fans resumed their raucous cheering, albeit with a bit of a nervous edge.

Just over six minutes into the extra session, Bliss LW Sven Danielsen was attempting to bring the puck into the offensive zone when he was leveled by a ferocious check from Pistols D Burt “Hacksaw” Hampton.  The crowd cheered the hard hit, but Pistols RW Kenny Patterson spotted the puck trickling free in the neutral zone.  He scooped it up just ahead of a couple Hershey players, then flicked a headman pass to Costello.

Costello sailed through center ice and past the blue line.  All that stood between him and the net was Bliss goalie Brandon Colt and D Nikolai Kulkarov.  The center bore down on the net, using Kulkarov as a screen, and fired a low line drive toward the right post.  The puck eluded Colt’s catching glove, banked off the post, and went in.

Costello turned around, dropped to his knees, threw his arms in the air, and slid toward his jubilant teammates, who engulfed him near the blue line.

“Bring on the Igloos!” roared Alexander during the postgame celebration.  “What are they gonna do to stop us?!”

In the visiting locker room, Bliss coach Chip Barber praised his team in defeat.  “My guys gave it a heck of a ride this season,” said Barber.  “When you consider where we came from last year and everything we overcame, there’s nothing to hang our heads over.  We just ran across a team that was a little better.  It would have been good to get a few more bites of the chocolate bar, but it’s still a sweet season.”

 

E Final - Game 4, Hershey @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey            0   0   1    0   1
Hamilton           1   0   0    1   2

Hershey                G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Milton          D      0   1   1   0   0   Alexander       LW     1   0   1   0   0
Valentine       C      1   0   1   2   0   Smyth           D      0   0   0   0   0
Baldwin         D      0   0   0   2   0   Frye            C      0   1   1   0   0
Hart            RW     0   1   1   0   0   Risch           D      0   0   0   0   0
Nahorniak       LW     0   0   0   0   0   Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0   0
Meloche         D      0   0   0   0  -1   Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   1
Kirkpatrick     C      0   0   0   2  -1   Mulligan        D      0   1   1   2   0
Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0   0   Glasco          D      0   0   0   2   0
Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   4   0   Patterson       RW     0   1   1   2   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   0   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0
Kulkarov        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   1
Daniels         RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Marais          C      0   0   0   0   0
Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0   0   Hampton         D      0   0   0   2   1
Swindonburg     LW     0   0   0   4  -1   Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0   0
Cargill         D      0   0   0   0   0   Costello        C      1   0   1   2   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3  14   0   TOTALS                 2   3   5  12   1

Scratches:
HSY:  Minnik, Chappelle, Lapointe, Sweet (DL)
HAM:  Constantine, Baker, Klemmer

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                32    30    2  0.938

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            40    39    1  0.975


First Period
------------

GOALS:
05:36  HAM  Alexander PP (Frye, Mulligan)

PENALTIES:
02:14  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (Tripping)
03:15  HAM  Hampton 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
05:28  HSY  Valentine 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
15:42  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
19:38  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Delay of Game)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
09:00  HAM  Costello 2:00 (High-sticking)
12:32  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Roughing)
14:21  HSY  Baldwin 2:00 (Tripping)
18:08  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (High-sticking)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
00:34  HSY  Valentine PP (Hart, Milton)

PENALTIES:
00:09  HAM  Mulligan 2:00 (Cross-checking)
07:30  HSY  Kirkpatrick 2:00 (High-sticking)
07:51  HAM  Patterson 2:00 (Diving)
08:03  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Tripping)

Overtime
--------

GOALS:
06:31  HAM  Costello (Patterson)

PENALTIES:
None


SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey           11  12  14    3  40
Hamilton          12   8  10    2  32

POWER PLAYS
-----------

Hershey          1 for 6
Hamilton         1 for 7

INJURIES
--------

None

2019 SHL Division Playoff – Game 3

Western Division Series (Anchorage wins, 3-0)

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, SEATTLE SAILORS 1

When it comes to the SHL Western Division Series, the Anchorage Igloos can’t be beat.  Literally.  Last year, facing the heavily favored Michigan Gray Wolves, the Igloos dispatched them in a shocking three-game sweep.  This year, facing a Seattle Sailors team making its first postseason appearance and riding high on the emotion of their impending move to Portland, the Igloos once again didn’t drop a single game.  Today’s 3-1 victory in Game 3 completes another sweep, one that sends Anchorage to the SHL Finals for the third year in a row.

“We know how to play our best hockey at this time of year,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We’ve been here before, so we know what it takes to win.  We don’t hesitate to step up our game, whether that’s pulling longer shifts or sacrificing our bodies to make plays.  It’s second nature to us, because we’ve been here before.”

As has been typical for this series, the game was fast-paced and filled with offense.  Both Anchorage’s Ty Worthington and Seattle’s Rocky Goldmire were under siege from the beginning, as the teams combined for 33 shots in the first period.  Both goalies were up to the task, though, and only one shot made it through: a bouncer from Igloos RW Ben Summers that deflected off the stick of a Sailors defender and into the net, giving Anchorage a 1-0 lead at the midway point of the period.

Seattle struck back early in the second, as C Marco Venezio finished an 3-on-1 rush by putting the biscuit into a wide-open net.  The crowd at Century 21 Arena roared its approval, and Igloos coach Sam Castor called time and admonished his team to tighten up on defense.

“I told my guys that there’s a difference between playing up-tempo and playing firewagon hockey,” said Castor after the game.  “I felt like we were trading chances with those guys, and we’re better than that.  I told them I didn’t want to see any more odd-man rushes.”

Heeding their coach’s instructions, Anchorage played a more disciplined game afterward, slowly suffocating Seattle’s chances.  The Igloos’ work in the third period was particularly masterful, as they repeatedly frustrated the Sailors’ zone entries while maintaining offensive pressure of their own.

“The third was just a clinic by our guys,” said Castor.  “It’s like we set up a brick wall at the blue line and wouldn’t let [the Sailors] in.”

The Igloos got the lead back just over four minutes into the final period.  C Nile Bernard picked the pocket of Sailors RW Elliott Pepper as he crossed through center ice.  Bernard then fired a perfect pass to LW Les Collins, who streaked past the Seattle defenders and beat Goldmire on the blocker side.

A couple minutes later, Sailors RW Vince Mango took a rare penalty for high-sticking on a failed lift check.  On the ensuing power play, C Jake Frost collected the puck in the slot and put it past Goldmire, giving Anchorage a bit of insurance.

Things got a bit hairy for the Igloos in the final minute of the game, as they took a pair of penalties in quick succession and the Sailors pulled Goldmire for a 6-on-3 advantage.  But the Igloos penalty kill and Worthington held strong, and the game ended with the lead intact.

The Igloos now await the winner of the Eastern playoff between Hamilton and Hershey.  “I think we feel pretty confident against either of those teams,” said Frost.  “They’re both strong teams, but neither one has the kind of experience we do.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund expressed remorse at the sweep.  “I really hoped we could at least win one for our fans here at home,” said Engellund.  “Would have been a nice going-away present.  But those guys, they’ve just got so many ways to beat you.  I hope we can learn from the experience and come back stronger next year.”

 

W Final - Game 3, Anchorage @ Seattle, Century 21 Arena

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Anchorage          1   0   2        3
Seattle            0   1   0        1

 
Anchorage              G   A PTS PIM +/-   Seattle                G   A PTS PIM +/-

Koons           LW     0   1   1   2   0   Argent          LW     0   0   0   0   0
Keefe           D      0   0   0   0   1   Lambert         D      0   0   0   0  -1
Frost           C      1   0   1   0   0   Beasley         C      0   0   0   0   0
Martinsson      D      0   0   0   0   1   Lidjya          D      0   0   0   0  -1
Ericsson        RW     0   1   1   2   0   Mango           RW     0   0   0   2   0
Collins         LW     1   0   1   0   2   Lane            LW     0   0   0   2   1
Bernard         C      0   2   2   0   2   Mortensen       D      0   0   0   2   0
Frederick       D      0   0   0   4   0   Derringer       C      0   0   0   0  -2
Summers         RW     1   0   1   2   2   Gatecliff       D      0   0   0   2   0
Miranda         LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Pepper          RW     0   0   0   0  -2
Citrone         D      0   0   0   2   0   Gaspard         LW     0   0   0   0  -2
Theroux         C      0   0   0   2  -1   Fairwood        D      0   0   0   6   0
Calligan        D      0   0   0   0   0   Venezio         C      1   0   1   2   1
Fleury          RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Durien          RW     0   1   1   0   1
Kerasov         D      0   1   1   0   0   Gallagher       D      0   1   1   0   0
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 3   5   8  14   1   TOTALS                 1   2   3  16  -1

Scratches:
ANC:  Pomfret (DL), Kennedy, Zhlotkin
SEA:  Snelling, Bacon, McElvern

 
Anchorage           SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Worthington         40    39    1  0.975

Seattle             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Goldmire            38    35    3  0.921

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
09:55  ANC  Summers (Kerasov, Bernard)

PENALTIES:
02:31  ANC  Koons 2:00 (Roughing)
04:01  ANC  Frederick 2:00 (High-sticking)
05:53  SEA  Fairwood 2:00 (Hooking)
06:19  SEA  Venezio 2:00 (Diving)
12:05  SEA  Fairwood 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
12:15  SEA  Mortensen 2:00 (High-sticking)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
01:48  SEA  Venezio (Durien, Gallagher)

PENALTIES:
02:16  SEA  Fairwood 2:00 (Slashing)
09:29  SEA  Lane 2:00 (Slashing)
10:46  ANC  Ericsson 2:00 (Tripping)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
04:08  ANC  Collins (Bernard)
07:21  ANC  Frost PP (Koons, Ericsson)

PENALTIES:
01:35  ANC  Summers 2:00 (High-sticking)
04:14  ANC  Citrone 2:00 (Diving)
06:41  SEA  Mango 2:00 (High-sticking)
12:11  SEA  Gatecliff 2:00 (Tripping)
19:15  ANC  Frederick 2:00 (High-sticking)
19:22  ANC  Theroux 2:00 (Diving)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Anchorage         14  10  14       38
Seattle           19  10  11       40

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Anchorage        1 for 8
Seattle          0 for 7

 
INJURIES
--------

None

 

Eastern Division Series (Hamilton leads, 2-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, HERSHEY BLISS 0

Coming into the postseason, the Hamilton Pistols felt that they had a secret weapon: their rowdy home crowds.  The Gunpowder Armory is the league’s oldest arena by far, and Hamilton’s hockey-mad fans know how to rattle the rafters with their claps, stomps, and cheers.  During last year’s playoff against Quebec, the Pistols looked like a different team in front of their home crowd; they had an extra spark, some extra crowd-fueled energy.

“We’ve got good working-class fans here who love the game,” said coach Keith Shields.  “And when they’ve got a couple beers in ‘em and they’re feeling that playoff energy… well, they make a ton of noise, and it really fires our guys up.  We’ve got the best fans in the league, if you ask me.”

In today’s Game 3, the Armory was at full crazy, and the Pistols responded.  They blew past the shell-shocked Hershey Bliss, and moved themselves within a game of their first Finals appearance with a 5-0 shutout.

“[The Bliss] didn’t know what hit ‘em,” said Shields.  “As soon as they took the ice and heard our fans hollering their lungs out… you could see it in their eyes.  They didn’t know how to handle it.”

The roar in the building was deafening at opening puck drop.  It didn’t get any quieter when Bliss D Cedric Meloche was penalized for tripping just ten seconds into the game.  And when Pistols RW Kenny Patterson found the lower left corner of the net on the ensuing power play, it felt as though the old arena might just tumble to the ground.

“The bench was literally shaking,” said LW Steven Alexander.  “It was kind of like, ‘Holy [crap], is this an earthquake?’”

The crowd shouted hosannas to Patterson and jeers to the Bliss.  The hubbub had barely died down when Patterson scored again, this time on a sharp angle shot that Bliss goalie Brandon Colt couldn’t quite reach.

For Patterson, a veteran winger who was contemplating retirement before signing an extension with Hamilton last summer, the playoff atmosphere validated his decision to return.

“As a player, this is what you get up for,” said Patterson.  “The energy in the building was just through the roof, and we definitely fed off of that.”

The Bliss managed to keep the Pistols off the board for the rest of the period, and the crowd’s buzz dimmed a bit as the scoreless second period unfolded.  Late in the period, though, Hershey D Bruce Minnik made the fateful decision to pick a fight with Hamilton D Clayton “Crusher” Risch.  Minnik said later that he was trying to fire up his team.  He may have done that, but the fight also woke up the crowd, which got back to full boil in the final minute of the period when Bliss LW Russ Nahorniak was sent to the penalty box for hooking.

At the start of the third, Hershey found themselves in a 5-on-3 situation when D Steve Cargill was sent off for cross-checking.  The Bliss managed to kill of the penalty, but they couldn’t get the puck out of their end, and RW Claude Lafayette made the exhausted visitors pay with a redirection of a Vitaly Dyomin slap shot that beat Colt.

“We knew we’d won at that point, and so did they,” said Lafayette.

The Pistols gave their fans plenty to cheer in the remainder of the period: goals from LW Magnus Gunnarson and D Albie Glasco, and a rousing fight between D Hercules Mulligan and Cargill.  But as the minutes wound down, the crowd had a different goal in mind.  For the last ten minutes, chants of “Over in four!  Over in four!” echoed through the old area.

Alexander is on board with the fans’ desire.  “We want to get this done, right here, and celebrate with our fans on home ice,” he said.  “They’ve come this far with us, and they deserve it.”

 

E Final - Game 3, Hershey @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey            0   0   0        0
Hamilton           2   0   3        5

 
Hershey                G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Milton          D      0   0   0   4   0   Alexander       LW     0   1   1   0   2
Valentine       C      0   0   0   0  -2   Smyth           D      0   2   2   0   2
Baldwin         D      0   0   0   0  -2   Frye            C      0   1   1   0   2
Hart            RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Risch           D      0   0   0   7   0
Nahorniak       LW     0   0   0   2  -2   Lafayette       RW     1   1   2   0   2
Meloche         D      0   0   0   2  -2   Gunnarson       LW     1   0   1   0   1
Kirkpatrick     C      0   0   0   0  -1   Mulligan        D      0   0   0   5   0
Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Glasco          D      1   1   2   0   2
Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Patterson       RW     2   0   2   0   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   0   1
Daniels         RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Dyomin          D      0   1   1   0   2
Minnik          D      0   0   0   5  -2   Marais          C      0   1   1   0   1
Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0  -1   Hampton         D      0   1   1   0   2
Swindonburg     LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Estabrook       F      0   0   0   2   1
Cargill         D      0   0   0   7   0   Costello        C      0   1   1   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 0   0   0  20  -4   TOTALS                 5  10  15  14   4

Scratches:
HSY:  Kulkarov, Chappelle, Lapointe, Sweet (DL)
HAM:  Constantine, Baker, Klemmer

 
Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                30    25    5  0.833

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            23    23    0  1.000

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
01:19  HAM  Patterson PP (Smyth, Glasco)
06:55  HAM  Patterson (Smyth, Costello)

PENALTIES:
00:10  HSY  Meloche 2:00 (Tripping)
18:01  HAM  Estabrook 2:00 (Roughing)
18:48  HSY  Milton 4:00 (Spearing)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
15:03  HAM  Risch 5:00 (Fighting)
15:03  HSY  Minnik 5:00 (Fighting)
19:18  HSY  Nahorniak 2:00 (Hooking)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
02:51  HAM  Lafayette (Dyomin, Alexander)
09:47  HAM  Gunnarson (Hampton, Marais)
15:14  HAM  Glasco (Lafayette, Frye)

PENALTIES:
00:01  HSY  Cargill 2:00 (Cross-checking)
10:48  HAM  Risch 2:00 (Hooking)
14:12  HAM  Mulligan 5:00 (Fighting)
14:12  HSY  Cargill 5:00 (Fighting)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey            9   5   9       23
Hamilton          15   7   8       30

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Hershey          0 for 2
Hamilton         1 for 4

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2019 SHL Division Playoff -Game 2

Eastern Division Series (Series tied, 1-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 8, HERSHEY BLISS 4

The Hamilton Pistols live by the credo best expressed by D Hercules Mulligan: “If you knock me down, I get the [heck] back up again.”  After the Hershey Bliss knocked the Pistols down by winning Game 1 of their playoff series and taking a two-goal lead in Game 2, the boys in red and black got back up and started swinging back hard.  They rallied to take the lead, then applied the knockout blow with a five-goal third period to seal an 8-4 win, evening up the series at a game apiece.

“When we say we’re young, scrappy, and hungry, this is what we’re talking about,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander, who scored a hat trick in this game.  “We’ve got a great chance to win the Vandy, and we are not throwing away our shot.”

Just over six minutes into today’s game, it looked like the Bliss were well on their way to taking a 2-0 series lead, thanks to goals by LWs Russ Nahorniak and Gabriel Swindonburg.  But Alexander struck back just 12 seconds after Swindonburg’s goal, blasting a slapshot through Hershey netminder Brandon Colt.

Hamilton swung the momentum in their direction in the second period.  Five minutes into the stanza, LW Magnus Gunnarson finished a breakaway by going five-hole on Colt to tie the game.  Four minutes later, D Raymond Smyth picked off a lazy pass by Hershey D Cedric Meloche and fed it to RW Claude Lafayette, who beat Colt on the glove side to give the Pistols a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

It was the third, though, that turned the game into a rout.  Alexander scored his second goal 20 seconds into the period.  Five minutes later, C Calvin Frye deflected one into the back of the net to make it 5-2.  A frustrated Bliss D Joel Baldwin took a holding-the-stick penalty shortly after that, and LW Jamie Campbell scored on the power play that followed.  The teams traded goals a couple times after that, but the win was assured.

Alexander angered the Bliss by completing his hat trick on a power play with 13 seconds left to go and Hamilton up by three.  The closing seconds of the game turned into a scrum, and Hershey’s players said they would remember the disrespect.  “Him spiking the football like that, it didn’t sit well with us,” said D Reese Milton.  “I’d expect there will be more coming.”

After being rocked for all eight goals, some observers called for Colt to be benched for Game 3 in favor of backup Oliver Richardson.  Bliss coach Chip Barber said that he planned to stick with his starter.  “Brandon’s the one who got us here,” said Barber.  “And I’m not going to panic over one game.  We’re looking past it, and we’re focused on the next one.”

But with the series shifting north of the border, have the Pistols seized the momentum for good?  Coach Keith Shields thinks it’s possible.  “My guys were all the way awake in this one,” said Shields.  “If we keep playing like this, I don’t see who’s going to stop us.”

 

E Final - Game 2, Hamilton @ Hershey, Chocolate Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton           1   2   5        8
Hershey            2   0   2        4

 
Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hershey                G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     3   1   4   0   4   Milton          D      0   3   3   0   1
Smyth           D      0   4   4   0   5   Valentine       C      1   1   2   0  -4
Frye            C      2   3   5   0   4   Baldwin         D      0   0   0   2   0
Risch           D      0   0   0   4  -1   Hart            RW     1   2   3   0  -4
Lafayette       RW     1   2   3   0   4   Nahorniak       LW     1   0   1   0  -4
Gunnarson       LW     1   0   1   0   1   Meloche         D      0   0   0   4  -5
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Kirkpatrick     C      0   1   1   0   1
Glasco          D      0   1   1   2   5   Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0  -1
Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   2  -1
Campbell        LW     1   0   1   0  -1   Aubin           D      0   0   0   0  -5
Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   0   Kulkarov        D      0   0   0   0   0
Marais          C      0   1   1   2   1   Daniels         RW     0   0   0   2   1
Hampton         D      0   0   0   2   0   Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0  -1
Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0   1   Swindonburg     LW     1   0   1   2   1
Costello        C      0   1   1   0  -1   Cargill         D      0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 8  13  21  10   4   TOTALS                 4   7  11  12  -4

Scratches:
HAM:  Constantine, Baker (DL), Klemmer
HSY:  Minnik, Chappelle, Lapointe, Sweet (DL)

 
Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            39    35    4  0.897

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                44    36    8  0.818

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
02:16  HSY  Nahorniak PP (Hart, Milton)
06:14  HSY  Swindonburg (Kirkpatrick)
06:26  HAM  Alexander (Frye)

PENALTIES:
00:27  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Elbowing)
07:58  HSY  Daniels 2:00 (Cross-checking)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
05:03  HAM  Gunnarson (Glasco, Marais)
09:20  HAM  Lafayette (Smyth)

PENALTIES:
01:10  HSY  Meloche 2:00 (High-sticking)
09:52  HAM  Risch 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
00:20  HAM  Alexander (Frye, Smyth)
05:19  HAM  Frye (Lafayette)
07:00  HAM  Campbell PP (Costello, Smyth)
07:16  HSY  Valentine (Milton, Hart)
10:59  HAM  Frye (Alexander, Smyth)
15:50  HSY  Hart PP (Milton, Valentine)
19:47  HAM  Alexander PP (Lafayette, Frye)

PENALTIES:
05:39  HSY  Baldwin 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
13:02  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (Cross-checking)
13:17  HAM  Marais 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
14:11  HAM  Hampton 2:00 (Tripping)
17:07  HSY  Meloche 2:00 (Slashing)
18:06  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Cross-checking)
19:55  HAM  Risch 2:00 (High-sticking)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton          14  11  19       44
Hershey           18  10  11       39

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Hamilton         2 for 6
Hershey          2 for 5

 
INJURIES
--------

None

 

Western Division Series (Anchorage leads, 2-0)

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, SEATTLE SAILORS 1

The Seattle Sailors’ first-ever trip to the playoffs is threatening to be a short one.  The Sailors had no answer for the Anchorage Igloos – C Jake Frost and G Ty Worthington in particular – and they never recovered from another early deficit on the way to a 5-1 Game 2 defeat that left them one loss away from elimination.

“We’ve got to dig deep and find another level,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent, “or we’re going to die quick and quiet.”

The game unfolded at the fast pace that both the Sailors and Igloos prefer.  But Worthington was up to the challenge – making 37 saves – while Seattle’s Rocky Goldmire was not.

Anchorage coach Sam Castor lavished praise on his netminder.  “Ty always answers the bell, doesn’t he?” Castor marveled.  “When the spotlight is on and we need a big game, no one in this league does it better.  Nothing rattles him.  He makes our whole team better.”

As in Game 1, the first period set the tone for the game.  LW Waldo Miranda put the Igloos on the board when the game was less than two minutes old, potting a juicy rebound that Goldmire couldn’t control.  Sailors D Doron Lidjya evened it just before the midway point of the period, but then Frost took over.

When Seattle D Benny Lambert went to the box for cross-checking a minute and a half after Lidjya’s tally, Frost made the Sailors pay with a shot that ticked off of Goldmire’s glove and went in.  Then with less than two minutes left in the period, Frost got behind the Sailors defense and beat a helpless Goldmire to make it 3-1.

Frost made it a hat trick less than five minutes into the second, firing up the crowd and deflating the Sailors.  “After Frosty scored, I looked up and down [the Sailors’] bench, and their shoulders just sagged,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “They were beat already.”

Koons finished the scoring early in the third with a redirect of a Nicklas Ericsson slapper that found the roof of the net.  For much of the rest of the game, the crowd amused itself by serenading the dispirited Sailors with repeated choruses of “Na-Na Hey-Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

Seattle coach Harold Engellund predicted that his team would be rejuvenated for Game 3 as the series shifted to Century 21 Arena.  “Playing in front of our home fans, it should put a little pep in our step,” said Engellund.  “It’ll have to, or we’re going to be done.”

 

W Final - Game 2, Seattle @ Anchorage, Arctic Circle Arena

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Seattle            1   0   0        1
Anchorage          3   1   1        5

 
Seattle                G   A PTS PIM +/-   Anchorage              G   A PTS PIM +/-

Argent          LW     0   1   1   2  -2   Koons           LW     1   1   2   0   2
Lambert         D      0   0   0   2   1   Keefe           D      0   0   0   0  -1
Beasley         C      0   1   1   0  -2   Frost           C      3   0   3   0   2
Lidjya          D      1   0   1   0   1   Martinsson      D      0   0   0   4  -1
Mango           RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     0   4   4   2   2
Lane            LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mortensen       D      0   0   0   0  -3   Bernard         C      0   0   0   0   0
Derringer       C      0   0   0   0   0   Frederick       D      0   1   1   2   3
Gatecliff       D      0   0   0   0  -1   Summers         RW     0   0   0   2   0
Pepper          RW     0   0   0   0   0   Miranda         LW     1   0   1   0   1
Gaspard         LW     0   0   0   0   0   Citrone         D      0   1   1   4   1
Venezio         C      0   0   0   0  -1   Theroux         C      0   1   1   0   1
Snelling        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Calligan        D      0   0   0   0   1
Durien          RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Fleury          RW     0   0   0   0   1
Gallagher       D      0   0   0   0  -3   Kerasov         D      0   1   1   0   3
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3   4  -3   TOTALS                 5   9  14  14   3

Scratches:
SEA:  Fairwood, Bacon, McElvern
ANC:  Pomfret (DL), Kennedy, Zhlotkin

 
Seattle             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Goldmire            38    33    5  0.868

Anchorage           SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Worthington         37    36    1  0.973

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
01:41  ANC  Miranda (Theroux)
09:20  SEA  Lidjya (Argent, Beasley)
12:11  ANC  Frost PP (Ericsson, Koons)
18:04  ANC  Frost (Ericsson, Kerasov)

PENALTIES:
05:39  ANC  Citrone 2:00 (High-sticking)
09:27  ANC  Ericsson 2:00 (Slashing)
10:49  SEA  Lambert 2:00 (Cross-checking)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
04:49  ANC  Frost (Frederick, Ericsson)

PENALTIES:
05:59  ANC Citrone 2:00 (Tripping)
09:01  ANC  Frederick 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
13:24  ANC  Summers 2:00 (Roughing)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
01:26  ANC  Koons (Ericsson, Citrone)

PENALTIES:
11:28  ANC  Martinsson 4:00 (Spearing)
19:08  SEA  Argent 2:00 (High-sticking)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Seattle           13  11  13       37
Anchorage         16   9  13       38

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Seattle          0 for 6
Anchorage        1 for 2

 
INJURIES
--------

None

East Playoff Features Teams That Learned From Adversity

If it’s true that champions are forged in adversity, this year’s Eastern playoff features a pair of opponents who are hard as iron.  One team won the Vandy in a massive upset two years ago, then stumbled through a disaster of a season in which everything seemed to go wrong at once; this season, they’ve weathered the loss of a star player and clawed their way back to the top.  The other team sailed through a breakout 2018 before stumbling down the stretch and losing an agonizing five-game playoff; this year, they shook off a disappointing first half to charge into a playoff spot.

The Hershey Bliss and the Hamilton Pistols are both well-balanced and battle-scarred, they both finished with 78 points, and they’re poised to face off in what should be an epic best-of-five series.

“This one should be a treat for the fans,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Two talented and well-matched teams trading haymakers until someone falls.  I can’t wait to get started!”

Both teams have learned from their past struggles and made adjustments.  For Hershey, they had to shake off the damage of a season when it seemed that every break went against them, and they were dismissed as an accidental champions, a team that lacked the heart and physicality to be a real contender.

Chip Barber

Coach Chip Barber taught his team to tune out the naysayers and just play loose.  “I mean, all the bad breaks we got last season, we couldn’t possibly have that many again,” said Barber.  “We’d been through the worst, and we survived.  So this season, instead of waiting for the next thing to go wrong, let’s just relax and laugh it off.”  The result was a cohesive, resilient locker room that responded to the loss of top-line LW Lance Sweet without missing a beat.  The Bliss dedicated the rest of the season to their fallen comrade and went 13-7-0 without him.

Many around the league thought goalie Brandon Colt might be finished after his poor performance last season at age 33.  But Hershey hired a new goaltending coach, Jayson Frink, who helped Colt with the mental side of his game, visualizing performances beforehand and learning to refocus quickly after goals.  The veteran responded with a strong bounce-back season (29-16-1, 2.68 GAA, .909 save percentage).  “Frinker really turned everything around for me,” said Colt.  “He gave me a whole new toolkit, a different way to see the game.  I’d probably be done if he hadn’t come along to help me out.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s major weakness was an overreliance on their star, LW Steven Alexander.  Historically, stopping the Pistols meant stopping Alexander.  Even as the team got deeper and developed additional weapons, Alexander tended to fall back on his old do-everything ways.

This season, assistant coach Jack Thornberry worked with Alexander to help him learn to trust his teammates and moderate his famous intensity somewhat.

Steven Alexander

“I’ve always felt like I had to be the hero,” said Alexander.  “I’ve always felt like everything relied on me.  Coach Thornberry helped me understand that it’s okay to spread the load around, and that it actually hurts the team if I try to carry it all myself all the time.”

It took a while for the lessons to take root, and Alexander’s struggle to adjust was one reason for his subpar first-half numbers.  But the young winger was also distracted by his impending marriage, which took place at Gunpowder Armory in the last game before the All-Star break.  And in the second half, everything changed for Alexander.  He scored an incredible 70 points post-All-Star Game.  And it wasn’t all goals, either; Alexander set a career high in assists with 48.  With their newly-married star leading the way, the Pistols become red-hot in the second half, going 20-10-2.

Hamilton is a strong two-way team, with the third-most goals scored (223) and the fourth-lowest GAA (2.50).  They dominated in 5-on-5 play; their +64 plus-minus was by far the best in the SHL.

This matchup figures to be a very close one; a good or bad bounce here and there might prove the difference.  Hamilton looks slightly better statistically, but Hershey is stronger on special teams.  The Bliss have an edge that may prove critical: home-ice advantage.  Although both teams finished with the same number of points, Hershey had more total wins, earning them an extra game at Chocolate Center.  Home ice proved crucial in last year’s Eastern final; will history repeat itself?

“We’re not worried about any of that stuff,” said Alexander, when asked about Hershey’s home-ice advantage.  “We just need to go in and play our game, and that will be enough to win.  Simple as that.”

Bliss Clinch Postseason, Complete Rebound from ’18 Fiasco

It’s been a long, strange trip for the Hershey Bliss over the last couple of seasons.  In 2017, the Bliss won the East for the first time, then stunned the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos in the Finals to win the Vandy.  Then last season, they got off to a mystifyingly awful start and never recovered, ultimately finishing fifth in a “nightmare” campaign that ended with the team starting a near-riot at a Sheetz.

This year, Hershey shook off the heartbreak and embarrassment of last season.  They ran the gantlet of a much more competitive East and survived the loss of LW Lance Sweet to a major lower-body injury.  And on Thursday, they officially completed their winding journey back to the postseason, beating the Hamilton Pistols 3-2 at Chocolate Center.

“It feels good to be back!” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “I’m so proud of our players for persevering and climbing all the way back.  We’ve been looking for Mister Goodbar for the last two seasons, and we finally found him!”

Lance Sweet

Sweet, who has been away from the Bliss while rehabilitating from his injury, joined his teammates in the locker room for the postgame celebration.  “I told everybody that we were going to win it all for Sweets, and this is step one on that journey,” said C Justin Valentine.  “Now, let’s not stop until we’ve got another Vandy!”

This season has been a particularly emotional one for goaltender Brandon Colt, on whose slender shoulders Hershey’s fortunes seem to hang.  In 2017, he was recognized as the Finals MVP after a brilliant performance to thwart the mighty Igloos.  Last year, he stumbled through a poor performance that left many around the league wondering if he was washed up.

The Bliss tried hard to find another starting goalie this offseason; when they wound up re-signing Colt to a one-year deal, it was viewed as a last resort.  But the veteran netminder rebounded with a solid performance that showed he’s far from finished, and he managed this in the face of personal tragedy; his parents both died in a house fire in the spring.

“I’ve been doing all right with things so far, but now all I can think about is that I wish I could call Mom and Dad and tell them about this,” said Colt, who choked up as he spoke to reporters.  “But I know they’re up in heaven and they’re watching, and I know they’re proud.”

In order to earn a trip to the Finals, they’ll need to make it through the division round first, and they’ll likely face a tough opponent in the Pistols, who will be eager to erase the memories of last year’s first-round loss to Quebec.  Hamilton will clinch their second straight trip to the playoffs with one more win or a New York loss.

“We have a ton of respect for those guys,” said Barber of the Pistols, “and we know they’re a real talented bunch.  It should be a doozy of a series, but we like our chances.  We’re looking forward to another crack at the big prize.  If we win the Vandy again, maybe we’ll see if we can turn it into a chocolate fountain!”

Continue reading “Bliss Clinch Postseason, Complete Rebound from ’18 Fiasco”