The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business. The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship. But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.
“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox. “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away. We were all hungry for revenge.”
Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied. They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep. Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.
“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”
Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium. The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation. The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history. Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win. “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.
The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2. They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win, Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort. “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh. “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”
With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28. Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph. Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period. In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury. But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.
The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series. “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh. “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors. Onward and upward!”
Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship. “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon. “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there. We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”