Both Divisions Decided on Final Day

The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years.  Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec.  But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale.  This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.

Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors.  The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale.  The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game.  “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”

The Sailors got off to a fast start.  Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead.  Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0.  The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.

In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear.  In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board.  Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score.  A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen.  But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads.  Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win?  For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango.  In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home.  Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.

“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.

With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division.  The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy.  “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols.  The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead.  But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs.  Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.

Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory.  Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner.  Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead.  Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game.  “You’d hate to see that.  It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”

Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols.  Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York NightNick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.

“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said.  “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”

The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them.  But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in.  Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.

LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants.  Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter.  Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.

In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again.  The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside.  When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.

In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title.  (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)

True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division.  As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice.  In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music.  “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes.  “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart.  It really does.  If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”

The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude.  “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate.  Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage.  And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”

Alexander was more blunt than his coach.  “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything.  They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic.  Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”

CHL Update: Omaha Surges in West

A month ago, the CHL’s Western division was wide open.  No dominant team had emerged; the top four teams were within three points of each other, clustered around the .500 mark.  Now, though, one team has broken away from the pack.  The Omaha Ashcats have gone 15-4-1 over their last 20 games, and they are now tied with Virginia for the league’s best record.  They are 15 points ahead of their nearest competitor in the West.

How have the Ashcats done it?  “The talent’s been here all along,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “I think we’ve taken a while to gel as a team, but now that we’re all used to playing together and the guys are getting used to our offense, everything’s really clicking.  We’ve had the instruments, but it took us some time to write the symphony.”

Omaha’s offense has been the prime driver of their success.  They’ve been one of the CHL’s most prolific shooting teams, second only to the Rhinos in that department.  They lead the league in plus/minus rating at +30.  They have two of the league’s Top 10 goal scorers (LW Jarmann Fischer and D Bud Gatecliff, both with 19) and two of the Top 10 assist men (C Nikolai Valkov with 43 and RW Philippe Durien with 35).  Unlike Virginia, which relies heavily on its top line for its offense, the Ashcats spread the offensive load over their top two lines.  Omaha has seven of the league’s top 11 in plus/minus, with representatives from their top six and their top two defensive pairings.

“Our team isn’t about stars,” said Fischer.  “We are all about working together to make ourselves greater as a group.  The team is the star.”

The same team-first mentality applies to the team’s unselfish defense, which is among the league’s top units.  Similar to the Rhinos, it’s all backstopped by an SHL washout trying to rebuild his reputation in the minors.

Gus Parrish was the goofy, easy-going, well-liked backup in Washington for the last two seasons.  In the offseason, though, the Galaxy got an upgrade (signing veteran free agent Ron Mason) and shipped Parrish to the Seattle Sailors, Omaha’s parent club.  With a much more porous defense than he was used to in Washington, and thrust into an everyday role after an early injury to starter Rocky Goldmire, Parrish flopped.  He went 0-7-0 with a 6.55 GAA and an .848 save percentage before being demoted.  “The game was moving too fast for me, and I wasn’t used to it,” Parrish admits.

It took Parrish a bit to get over the blow to his pride, but in Omaha he found a welcome landing spot.  “Right away, it felt more like a college dorm than a locker room,” Parrish said.  “It was a fun environment with a bunch of young guys who took hockey seriously, but didn’t take themselves too seriously.”  The team regarded Parrish as an older brother, asking him about life in the majors.  He was able to forget about his disastrous experience in Seattle and just focus on the game.  His growing comfort has been reflected in his results, going 14-6-1 with a 2.84 GAA.

“I don’t have to do a lot of hand-holding with Gus,” said Bergner.  “He hasn’t been a prima donna or anything.  He’s down here having fun and doing a solid job.”

Bergner is already starting to look forward a bit to a possible championship series with Virginia.  Most of his players, though, have their eyes on a different prize: a callup to the struggling Sailors.  With the expansion draft looming, Seattle has been hesitant about calling up players, potentially showcasing them only to lose them later.  “We all love it here,” said Fischer, “but we don’t want to stay here.”

For now, though, the young Ashcats are happy to be playing well and looking forward to the future, whatever it may hold.  “I always tell the guys: enjoy the ride and don’t take anything for granted,” says Parrish.  “Don’t be in a hurry to get past right now, because right now can be pretty great.”