CHL Update: Rhinos to Defend Title Against Spuds

This year’s CHL finals present an interesting contrast.  One team has been in the finals every year of the league’s existence, and is bidding for back-to-back titles after surviving a back-and-forth first-round series that went the distance.  The other club is in its first year in a new city, and is trying to go all the way in its first-ever postseason appearance, coming off of a surprising sweep of the league’s best regular-season team.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos are getting to be old hands at the postseason; this is their third straight trip.  Despite losing a number of key contributors from last season’s title-winning squad, the Rhinos managed to eke out the top seed in a closely-packed division.  But Virginia wasn’t the least bit embarrassed or deterred by their narrow playoff qualification; they remain fixated on the ultimate goal.  “We’re all focused on the repeat,” said RW Chris Quake.  “No one in here doubts that we can pull it off.”

In the division playoff, they faced the Cleveland Centurions, who sported the league’s best regular-season defense.  The Rhinos hunkered down for what they knew would be a tense, hard-fought battle.  Game 1 was a chippy affair with a slew of penalties, a couple of fights, and not a lot of offense (28 shots between both teams).  Virginia got goals from Quake and LW Jayden Gunn, while goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 16 Cleveland shots for a 2-0 shutout.  In Game 2, the Rhinos rallied from behind with a pair of third-period tallies just 29 seconds apart from C Marvin Cascio and LW Yuri Laronov, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.  The action shifted to the shores of Lake Erie for Games 3 and 4, and the Centurions battled back.  In Game 3, Rhinos C Trent Harlow notched a third-period goal to erase another deficit and force overtime, but Cleveland C Phoenix Cage scored 36 seconds into the extra session to stave off elimination with a 2-1 win.  In Game 4, Centurions netminder Eugene Looney came up big, stopping all 27 shots in a 3-0 triumph to force a fifth game back in Virginia Beach.  But in the deciding game, it was Chislic’s turn for another shutout (24 saves) as D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta netted two to lead the 3-0 series-clinching victory.

“That was a tough series, for sure,” said Corbetta.  “But it got us tuned up, and we’re firing on all cylinders now and playing our best hockey.”

Virginia’s Finals opponent will be the Idaho Spuds, who played to sellout crowds after moving from Muncie in the offseason.  The Spuds came into the postseason with the CHL’s top-ranked offense (3.6 goals per game), but they had a lackluster performance in the last few weeks of the regular season, and they were largely written off in their first-round series against the heavily favored Omaha Ashcats.

But the boys in russet brown not only beat the Ashcats, they did so in a stunning three-game sweep.  In Game 1, they buried Omaha in an avalanche of shots (45 vs. the Ashcats’ 22) and scored three goals (from LW Rick Crisak, D Victor Addison, and LW Terry Cresson) before the game was 3 minutes old, on the way to a 4-2 win.  For Game 2, Ashcats coach Butch Slazenger switched goalies from Bill Bates to Jim Fleetwood.  Fleetwood did a better job, stopping 28 of 30 shots, but Spuds LW Van Dyke Browning scored three minutes into overtime for a 2-1 win.  In order for Omaha to rally in the series, they’d have to win twice on enemy ice.  Slazenger raised a number of eyebrows by going back to Bates for Game 3, a decision that looked foolish when Idaho went up 2-0 by the first minute of the second period.  The Ashcats rallied back to tie thanks to tallies from blueliners Trevor Lockwood and Lowell Sharkey.  With just over three minutes left in regulation, however, Spuds C Jacob Cunniff scored a power-play goal that would prove to be the difference in a 3-2 contest.  Treasure Valley Arena – sold out as usual – exploded in cheers as the players formed a celebratory circle in front of their net.

“We’re probably going to be the underdogs again in the final, since [the Rhinos are] the defending champs,” said Idaho coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “But we like that underdog role.  If anyone’s thinking of sleeping on us, they’d better think again, because we’re ready to shock the world.”

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CHL Update: Ashcats Celebrate Playoffs With “World’s Smallest Parade”

This season has seen a remarkable turnaround for the Omaha Ashcats.  Last season, the Kansas City Smoke affiliate finished dead last in the West, thanks in large part to a late-season swoon that got so bad that superfan Karl Loesser (aka “Krazy Karl”) staged a “live-in,” during which he refused to leave the arena until the team won.

This year, thanks to an influx of young prospects, the Ashcats have been at or near the top of their division all season long.  They sent an impressive four players to the CHL All-Star Game, several of whom have since been promoted to the SHL.  The Omaha fans have largely stuck by the team in good times and bad, but the atmosphere has definitely been more festive now that the team is winning.

This week, the Ashcats completed their turnaround by clinching a playoff spot with a 3-2 win over the Utah Owls.  Naturally, the fans wanted to celebrate… and Krazy Karl was there to lead the way.

“No one lives and dies with this team quite like Krazy Karl,” said Ashcats GM Steve Galesko.  “This season has been a real thrill ride for him.”

In order to celebrate the Ashcats’ triumph, Loesser wanted to hold a parade in downtown Omaha.  He quickly realized this plan would be impractical.  “Permits, building floats, all that stuff… that’s not for me,” the superfan told reporters.

Instead, Krazy Karl talked to the Aschats management about a smaller-scale parade that could take place inside the arena.  On Saturday, the team staged what Loesser dubbed “The World’s Smallest Playoff Parade.”  As he put it: “You know the saying ‘Go big or go home?’  I decided to go small instead.”

The parade route consisted of a loop around the main concourse of the Ashcats’ arena, the Switching Yard.  Loesser naturally led the parade, wearing a drum major outfit and a sash with the words “#1 FAN” and blowing his trademark railroad whistle.

Behind him came a series of “floats” that rode on top of little red wagons.  The “floats” included cardboard cutouts of Omaha players, mannequins dressed in Ashcats uniforms, inflatable hockey goals, and a paper-mache rendition of the team’s logo, built by Krazy Karl himself.  “It’s not exactly true to life,” admitted Loesser, “but hey, it’s my first time with paper mache.”

In lieu of a marching band, the parade featured a group of elementary schoolers wearing Omaha jerseys and railroad engineer hats, playing songs on recorders, kazoos, and slide whistles.  “They sure were… enthusiastic,” said one parade-goer.

Galesko, coach Butch Slazenger, and several players also appeared in the parade.  In a normal parade, they might have ridden in the back of a convertible or on top of a bus.  In Krazy Karl’s version, they sat on lawn chairs on top of platform trucks pushed by members of the Cool Cats, the team’s fan club.  The players and staff threw plastic necklaces, candy, stress balls, and leftover promotional items to the fans lining the concourse.

“It was pretty cool,” said D Lowell Sharkey, who rode on one of the makeshift cars.  “I think the guy pushing me had had a few beers, and he had a hard time pushing in a straight line, but it worked out okay.”

Engineer Eddie, the Ashcats’ mascot, ran up and down the parade route high-fiving fans, signing autographs, and handing out trinkets.  At one point, Eddie hopped up on Sharkey’s platform and began wiggling his tail at passersby.  “I think Eddie might have had a few beers too,” said Sharkey.  “I don’t know why he didn’t bring me any.”

Loesser proclaimed the parade a “total and unqualified success.  This was a true fan’s celebration, and it just proves again that the fans here in Omaha are the best in hockey.  Krazy Karl out!”

“Overall, it was a really fun experience, and our fans loved it,” said Galesko.  “The credit goes to Krazy Karl, for dreaming this up and figuring out a way to see it through.  The only downside of it for me is that they put me right in front of the kids’ band, and all those recorders.  But I’m sure the headache will go away eventually.”

CHL Update: Meloche Fights His Way to Spotlight

The SHL’s new minor league, the Continental Hockey League, has completed its first week of play.  So far, there aren’t any dominant teams, top-flight goal scorers, or dominant netminders.  In general, the league’s leaders have yet to emerge… except one.

Cedric Meloche

When it comes to penalty minutes, there’s an undisputed leader: Albuquerque Screaming Eagles defenseman Cedric Meloche.  In his first five games, Meloche has already racked up 26 penalty minutes, twice as many as his nearest competitor.  He has earned that lofty total largely through his fists, as he has already gotten into four fights.

“I like to fight,” Meloche admitted cheerfully.

The 20-year-old attributes his professional success to his pugilistic abilities.  “When i we were young, we all wanted to be hockey players,” said Meloche.  “But I was a little guy and could not skate too fast or shoot too good, so I had to fight.  I learned to fight good, so I moved up.”

It took all of 42 seconds for Meloche to get into his first professional bout against the Minnesota Freeze.  When Freeze D “Chilly Willy” Calligan gave Eagles C Vance Ketterman a hard check into his own bench, Meloche took exception and clocked Calligan in the chest, touching off a donnybrook.  Late in the third period, it was Calligan’s turn to take umbrage after Meloche enthusiastically fouled a couple Minnesota players, and the two wound up throwing hands again.

On Saturday, Meloche against fought twice in the Eagles’ game against the Muncie Squirrels.  In the first period, Squirrels C Britt Cadmium leveled Eagles RW Ashton Starhawk with a vicious hit that was not penalized.  Meloche responded by hauling Cadmium down from behind.  Surprised and irked, Cadmium bounced up and stared Meloche down yelling, “You wanna go, little man?”  Meloche replied, “Yes, I wish to go!”  They proceeded to drop gloves and trade blows, with Meloche bloodying Cadmium’s nose before they could be separated.

Two periods later, Meloche and Muncie D Zander Phthalo began jostling vigorously during a faceoff.  The jostling escalated to shoving and then to punching, and Meloche wrestled Phthalo to the ground before they were separated by the referees.

After Saturday’s slugfest, league officials threatened to suspend Meloche if he continued racking up fighting majors at this rate.  Eagles coach Butch Slazenger, recognizing Meloche’s value to the team, also counseled his blueliner to rein it in.  “I love Cedric Meloche,” said Slazenger.  “He’s my favorite player.  And all the guys love that he has their back.  But he’s not just a goon.  He’s strong on both ends, and we can’t afford to have him suspended.  So I told him to pump the brakes a bit.  Try not to get into multiple fights in a game, watch out for instigator penalties, stuff like that.  Don’t give them an excuse to suspend you, because we need you.”

Meloche said he will try to heed his coach’s advice.  “I always play the way I play,” said Meloche, “so I will stand up for my team and fight.  But I know it is bad if they throw me out, so I will maybe not fight so much.  I want to do the best thing for my team.”