Bliss Hang Tough Without Sweet

Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton remembers the thought that flashed through his mind.

He remembers feeling good during last Saturday’s game against the Saskatchewan Shockers, with the Bliss comfortably ahead in a key game against a tough opponent.  He remembers Bliss LW Lance Sweet skating toward the corner to pick up a loose puck.  He remembers Shockers D Wyatt Barnes going after the same puck.  He remembers Sweet skidding on a bad patch of ice and getting tangled up with the burly Barnes.  He remembers both players slamming into the boards.  He remembers Barnes getting up, claiming the puck, and skating away.  And he remembers Sweet staying down, writhing in pain.  He remembers the stretcher coming out onto the ice to carry the winger away.

And he remembers the awful, sinking thought: “Oh no, there goes our season.”

Lance Sweet

You can’t blame Milton for his feeling of doom.  Sweet is one of Hershey’s leading scorers, and a member of their famous “Love Line.”  And perhaps no SHL team is more familiar with heartbreak than the Bliss.  In 2015, Sweet suffered a serious lower-body injury that caused him to miss a third of the season and tanked the team’s shot at a division title.  In 2016, the Bliss blew a division title on the last day of the season by allowing four unanswered goals to Washington in the third period, turning a 3-1 victory into a 5-3 defeat.  Last season, on the heels of a stunning Finals win over Anchorage, Hershey got off to an abysmal 3-16-1 start that left them in too deep a hole to climb back to contention.

This season, the Bliss have been at or near the top of the East for much of the season.  But they’re in a tight battle for the playoffs, with the Hamilton Pistols and New York Night neck-and-neck with them and the Quebec Tigres lurking just behind.  So losing a key contributor – and just after the trading deadline, too late to acquire a replacement – had the potential to derail a promising campaign.

Post-game examination confirmed Hershey’s worst fears: Sweet would require surgery and will almost certainly miss the rest of the season.

“This one’s tough on us, real tough,” said C Justin Valentine.  “As a friend and a teammate, you just feel awful for him.”

But a funny thing seems to have happened: the Bliss haven’t fallen apart.  Facing a week on the road against some tough opponents, Hershey has kept winning and kept up in the playoff chase.

“We’re determined that we’re going to win this [title] for Sweets,” said Valentine.  “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

On Sunday, in the first game after Sweet’s injury, the Bliss faced the Seattle Sailors at Century 21 Arena.  The Sailors have been having a terrific season, and they’ve been nearly unbeatable on home ice.  But Hershey blitzed the Sailors with a four-goal first period and held on for a 6-4 win.

Things didn’t get any easier on Tuesday, as the Bliss headed north of Alaska to face the Anchorage Igloos.  The trip to Anchorage is always tough on visiting teams, and the Igloos are in the middle of their annual second-half surge.  But that didn’t stop Hershey from coming from behind with a four-goal third to hand the Igloos a stunning 4-3 defeat.

After the jet-lagged Bliss dropped a 4-3 decision in Dakota on Thursday, they went to Kansas City and thumped the Smoke 5-2.  Valentine scored, completing a seven-goal week as he picked up the slack for his fallen teammate.

“I think we’ve faced enough adversity over the years that we’re ready to handle this,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “We’re like a well-tempered chocolate: we’ve been forged by the heat and we’re nice and firm and smooth.  We’re not going to crumble the minute something happens to us.

“Would we rather have Sweets out there?  Of course we would.  But are we going to hang our heads and give up just because he’s out?  No way.  We believe we can win this, and we will.”

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Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown

The Eastern Division race is as hot as it gets right now.  With the trading deadline coming next week, both playoff spots are up for grabs, and four of the division’s six teams have a real shot at the postseason.  With such a fierce and wide-open competition, the stakes of each game are heightened – especially when two contenders face off.

Sunday’s game between the Hershey Bliss and New York Night was a case in point.  Neither team is particularly known for playing rough; they generally focus on scoring rather than fighting.  But this time, they produced a notably chippy, nasty game in a 5-2 Hershey win.  If this is a preview of coming attractions down the stretch, the East could be in for a wild ride.

“There was a lot of hate out there on the ice today,” said Night D Dominic Sanchez.  “It was fun and scary at the same time.”

This was the back end of a home-and-home between the Night and Bliss, who entered the game tied for first place in the East.  Hershey came into the game hungry for revenge: New York had won Saturday’s game 3-2 at the Chocolate Center, handing the Bliss there fourth straight loss.

Nick Foster

And per his usual, Night coach Nick Foster rubbed salt in the wound during his postgame press conference.  Foster, who has ridiculed the Bliss as soft all season, came to the podium holding a roll of Charmin.  “I brought this because it reminds me of Hershey,” said Foster.  “It’s really soft, easy to squish, and I love wiping my [butt] with it.”

Foster’s jibe riled up the Bliss clubhouse, which made it clear that they were going to respond physically.  “We’ll show Foster who’s really soft,” one Hershey player said.

Sure enough, less than two and a half minutes into the game, Bliss D Steve Cargill dropped the gloves with New York blueliner Donald Duckworth.  The two traded blows until Cargill wrestled Duckworth to the ice – no small task given Duckworth’s rugged physique.  Both sides smacked their sticks on the boards in appreciation.  The Bliss had made their point; outside observers might have assumed that was the end of hostilities.  In fact, though, said hostilities were just beginning.

A couple minutes after the Cargill-Duckworth scrap, Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak hit Night star Brock Manning with a high stick, opening a gash next to Manning’s left eye.  Nahorniak claimed the high stick was accidental; the Night insisted it was intentional, and called for the Hershey winger to be ejected.  Nahorniak received a double minor instead.

Manning dashed into the locker room to be patched up, then returned and scored a game-tying power-play goal, then pointed at Nahorniak.  (Manning finished out the first period, but did not return to the ice after that; he also missed the following two games.)

Not to be outdone, Hershey proceeded to score a pair of goals a little more than two minutes apart.  Each time, their celebration “coincidentally” wound up in front of the Night bench.

A couple minutes after that, New York C Tom Hoffman avenged Manning by ramming the butt end of his stick into Nahorniak’s stomach in the middle of a scrum in front of the Hershey net.  That earned Hoffman a double minor penalty of his own.  The Night committed a couple more penalties before the period ended, but the score remained the same.

Tensions didn’t ease in the second period.  After only 46 seconds, Night D Andy Ruger challenged Cargill to another fight.  Cargill gladly accepted the challenge; this time, Ruger got the better end, bloodiyng Cargill rather badly.  Both players received majors for their trouble.

Less than a minute after that bout, Bliss C Vance Ketterman scored to make it 4-1.  With the competitive portion of the game essentially over, both teams turned the physicality up even further.

Night D Rocky Winkle enraged Hershey by spearing Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick in the groin.  This time, it was Hershey calling for Winkle to be ejected; instead, he received a double minor.  Bliss RW Remi Montrechere upset New York with a high stick that nearly caught Night C Rod Remington in the teeth.

Early in the third period, Hershey LW Lance Sweet dumped New York LW Chase Winchester into the boards with a hard cross-check.  The Night were angered that Sweet received only a two-minute penalty, instead of a major or an ejection.  On the ensuing power play, Duckworth and Winkle combined on a score; they celebration by flashing their middle fingers at the Hershey bench.  They weren’t penalized, but Bliss D Reese Milton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a little bit later for squirting his water bottle at the New York bench.

The rest of the game unfolded with a slew of hard checks and minor penalties, but no major conflagrations.  After the game ended, both teams dissolved into a fit of pushing and shoving that didn’t quite turn into a line brawl.

After the team, both teams pointed fingers at their opponents.  Bliss coach Chip Barber focused on the two Night spearing penalties.  “Butt-ending is one of the dirtiest plays in hockey, and everyone knows it,” said Barber.  “Normally, you might get two of those [penalties] in a year.  But two in one game?  That’s just ugly hockey.”

Foster, meanwhile, noted the attack against some of his top players.  “I know [the Bliss are] desperate to show me how tough they are,” the New York coach quipped, “but this is ridiculous.  They tried to take Brock’s head off, then they tried to put Chase in a wheelchair.  Okay, we get it, you’re big tough boys.  Now put your [genitals] away and play some hockey next time.”

The league declined to hand out any supplemental discipline, but Commissioner Perry Mitchell warned that they wouldn’t be so lenient next time.  “We know that emotions run high in games like this,” Mitchell said in a statement.  “But there’s a line between good hard hockey and dirty hockey, and both teams came too close to that line.  If it happens again, the league will act appropriately.”

Continue reading “Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown”

Bliss Celebrate V-Day in “Sweetest” Style

Thursday was Valentine’s Day, and the SHL celebrated with a full slate of games.  Most teams didn’t make much of the holiday, but the Hershey Bliss pulled out all the stops for their game against Kansas City and treated their fans to what the team called “The Sweetest Game on Earth” (a play on the city’s slogan, “The Sweetest Place on Earth”).

For starters, all fans attending the game received a heart-shaped box with the Bliss logo on it, filled with (what else?) Hershey’s Kisses.  The team replaced its usual in-game musical selections with romantic tunes, from “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to “As Long as You Love Me” to “Let’s Get It On.”  The theme continued on the ice, as the team’s usual chocolate-bar shoulder patches were replaced with heart-shaped patches, as were the captain’s “C” and alternate’s “A”.

nibs

The Bliss turned their mascot Nibs into Cupid, complete with toga and angel wings.  Throughout the game, Nibs went through the stands looking for loving couples.  When he found them, he gave them gifts ranging from flowers to giant Special Dark bars to Hersheypark tickets to gift certificates to local restaurants.

“We wanted to show our appreciation to the couples who chose to spend their Valentine’s Day with us,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Because what could be more romantic than a hockey game for two?  That’s what I’ve tried to convince my wife, at least.”

The Bliss didn’t forget their single fans, either.  The team held a “Blind Date” promotion, in which fans who bought special tickets in Section 214 were randomly seated beside other single Bliss rooters.  Those who hit it off were offered two tickets for a future Bliss game.  Lawrence said that several fans in the section took the team up on its offer.  “Who knows?  Maybe someday there will be a marriage out of it!” said Lawrence.

Unsurprisingly, the “Love Line” (Hershey’s top line of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart) featured heavily in the promotion.  The team held a silent auction to raffle off each of the trio’s game-worn jerseys, as well as a date with Hart (the only “Love Line” member who is still single).  Proceeds from the silent went to the local Boys and Girls Club.

“To me, this is a really cool opportunity to give back to the community,” said Hart.  “I mean, I go on dates all the time, but I don’t usually do it for charity!”

Perhaps inspired by all the love in the air, Hershey rolled to a 4-0 shutout win.  The Love Line played their part in the rout: Valentine scored a goal and Hart had an assist.

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber felt that the “Sweetest Game” was a fun promotion, and he hopes the team will do it again in the future.  He did have one suggestion, though.

“You’re handing out all this chocolate to the fans, which is great,” said Barber.  “But what about me?  I was expecting to come in and find a bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries on my desk, or one of those big Special Dark bars or something.  But I got nothing.  Where’s the love for the coach?”

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.

Night’s Foster Calls Bliss “Soft”

New York Night coach Nick Foster, who has earned a reputation around the league for taking verbal jabs at opposing teams, seems to have identified a new target for this season: the Hershey Bliss.  New York traveled to Hershey to face the Bliss on Sunday.  After the Night sent the Bliss fans home unhappy with a 5-1 beatdown, Foster added insult to injury by firing some salvos at the Keystone club, accusing them of being soft.

Nick Foster

Foster wasted no time jabbing at the Bliss in his postgame press conference.  “Hey, I’ve got a mystery for you guys,” the coach told reports.  “Can anyone tell me how Hershey managed to luck into the Vandy two years ago?  All these old-time hockey types talk about how hard-nosed defense wins championships.  So how did a team like Hershey, who’s as soft as a roll of Charmin, manage to win one?  They must have bribed somebody.”

Pressed to elaborate, Foster cheerfully did so.  “I mean, look at who they’ve got.  Their top line is basically a boy band in skates.  Those cuties are afraid to muss up their hair, much less lose a tooth or get a black eye.  Their top blueliner [Reese Milton] plays with squirrels.  They had one guy who could fight worth a damn [Ruslan Gromov], but he retired.

“They’ll take a few cheap shots here and there, but challenge them to back it up, and they run and hide.  But if you so much as look cross-eyed at any of those cute little boy banders, they’ll cry and scream to the officials.”

Foster went on to claim that other teams shared his view of the Bliss.  “Everyone knows how soft they are.  Ask around the league, and people will tell you about it… off the record.  No one wants to say it on the record, because the league wants to make stars out of the boy-band cuties.  Apparently they think we can tap into the 12-year-old girl fanbase.  But I’ll say it out loud, even if no one else does.”

Justin Valentine

The Bliss responded with a few pokes of their own.  “I don’t know whether we bribed anybody or not, but I do know that we have a ring and [Foster] doesn’t,” said C Justin Valentine.  “And I know we worked and fought hard to get there.  Also, I don’t know why he keeps calling me ‘cute.’  I guess I’m flattered?”

“I’m mad that [Foster] seems to be biased against squirrel lovers,” said Milton.  “But if he or any of his players want to fight about it, I’m ready to go!”

“Everybody knows what Nick’s up to at this point, and I’m not interested in rolling around in the mud with him,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “I’ll just say that there are plenty of fake tough guys out there, all talk and no action.  Our game is as smooth as melted couverture chocolate, and that’s how we like it.”

The New York coach went on to claim that his team now “owns” the Bliss, and predicted that his team will sweep the season series against Hershey.

“We’ve got plenty more games yet to come,” said Foster.  “It’s a long season, and it separates the men from the boys.  You’ll see.”

Continue reading “Night’s Foster Calls Bliss “Soft””

Bliss Run Wild At Sheetz as Season Ends

The Hershey Bliss saw their disappointing season wind to an end this week.  The players have long since resigned themselves to the fact that they won’t have a chance to defend their title.  As a result, they weren’t consumed by sadness or anger as the regular season drew to a close; rather, they were possessed by a feeling that C Justin Valentine described as “a really deep, deep weirdness.”  That weirdness boiled over on Saturday in a most unusual rest stop.

All of Hershey’s games this week were on the road, so the team spent the week flying from one Eastern city to another, including two separate trips across the border and back.  “We were all pretty punchy this week,” admitted Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick.  On Thursday night, they flew back in from Quebec.  Rather than heading to Washington, site of Saturday’s finale, the Bliss went home to Hershey to participate in an autograph session scheduled at a local mall on Friday.

Then on Saturday morning, the team boarded a bus down to DC.  “Somehow, it felt like our season in a nutshell,” said Valentine.  “Instead of getting ready for the playoffs, here we are rolling through the countryside in a bus, on our way to a meaningless game against our supposed rivals, who aren’t making the playoffs either.  I think something kind of snapped for us on that ride.”

When the bus got to Thurmont, Maryland, the team insisted on stopping.  The bus pulled into the Sheetz just off of US Route 15, and the team descended on the convenience store.  “We get a lot of buses through here,” said Sheetz clerk Alvin Clark, “but something about the way these guys came in told me they were going to be trouble.”

As the Bliss wandered the aisles, they began behaving (in Valentine’s words) like “a bunch of four-year-olds on a sugar high.”  Valentine and his fellow “Love Line” mates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart grabbed sodas out of the case, snuck up on their teammates, and poured the sodas over their heads.  The team’s defensemen grabbed a 24-pack of beer and engaged in a drinking contest.  Kirkpatrick and RW Noah Daniels monopolized the Made-to-Order food screens, trying to top each other with increasingly elaborate custom orders.

LW Trevor Green cleaned out the store’s entire supply of jerky, reasoning that “maybe we’ll get in a crash, and this will buy us a day or two before we have to resort to cannibalism.”  Meanwhile, RW Sven Danielsen (known as the team’s “den mother”) bought one of every medicine on the shelf, saying that “you can’t be too careful on the road.”

Goalie Brandon Colt took things to another level when he grabbed a couple of donuts out of the pastry case and used them to play Frisbee with his backup, Milo Stafford.  The pair knocked over display racks left and right as they dove for donuts.

Chip Barber

After about 15 minutes of this madness, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber (wondering where his team had gone) came into the store.  As he took in the chaos around him, the coach’s eyes bulged and the veins on his forehead throbbed.  “What the hell is going on here?!” Barber shouted, as his players froze.  After a couple of them mumbled attempts at an explanation, the coach held help his hand.  “Never mind, I don’t want to know.  You’ve got two minutes to clean this up and get out of here.”

The players sighed and obeyed the coach’s orders.  Just as the bus was about to pull away, however, Stafford came running out of the store, hollering after his colleagues.  As he got on the bus, Stafford explained that he’d found something he had to buy.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out an inflatable water toy in the shape of a rubber duck.  “I love rubber ducks!” Stafford said by way of explanation.

“I don’t know if I’m a coach or a zookeeper,” sighed Barber.  “Those guys were basically looting that poor store.  And they didn’t even grab any chocolate bars!”

Somehow, in spite of all the craziness of the morning, Hershey managed to win the game that night, defeating rival Washington 4-3 in overtime.  For the Bliss, it was a day to remember at the end of a season to forget.  “It was a cathartic experience, and I’m glad we did it,” said Sweet.  “Even though they’ll probably never let us in that Sheetz again.”

Bliss Reflect on “Nightmare” Season

For the Hershey Bliss, 2018 has been a strange year.  Last year, they won a title nobody expected them to win, upsetting the heavily-favored Anchorage Igloos in 7 games for their first Vandy.  But this season’s results have been even more shocking; they plunged into the basement with a terrible start the first month, and were never able to dig themselves out.  The Bliss appear to be on track for a fifth-place finish as the season winds down, while upstart young squads in Hamilton and Quebec head on to the postseason.

This week, several of Hershey’s top players reflected on a season gone wrong, and what they’ll need to do to turn things around in 2019.

Justin Valentine

C Justin Valentine is Hershey’s captain and anchors the much-beloved “Love Line.”  He likened the first month of the 2018 season to “a fun-house nightmare.  It was like a bad dream that we couldn’t wake up from.  We were playing solid, dictating the pace, making our shots, but somehow at the end of the game we’d lose.”

Valentine cited a couple of games in particular that left the Bliss feeling “like we had a hex on us.”  In the first week of the season, Hershey outshot the Boston Badgers 37-25, but lost 4-3 when Badgers RW Charlie Brooks banked the game-winning shot off the crossbar, then off the back of goalie Brandon Colt.  Two weeks later, they outshot Michigan Gray Wolves 34-22, but managed to lose 3-2 in overtime on another fluky goal by C Hunter Bailes that deflected off a Hershey skate boot.

After games like that, “we’d just sit there and stare at each other and say, ‘How the hell did we lose that one?’” Valentine said.  “We couldn’t figure it out.”

Chip Barber

Four weeks into the season, Hershey was sporting a 3-16-1 record that left them only one point ahead of Boston for the league’s worst record.  At that time, coach Chip Barber sent shockwaves through the clubhouse by offering to resign.

“I was feeling the same shock and frustration as the rest of the team,” said Barber.  “Even thoughwe were playing better than our record, I felt like there was no excuse for us having that poor a record, and I wanted to take responsibility.”

The front office quickly rejected Barber’s offer, and the team seemed to rally around their coach, doubling their season win total the following week.  But then disaster struck the next week, in the form of an upper-body injury to LW Lance Sweet that put him on the shelf two weeks.

“That was just devastating to me,” said Sweet.  “I felt like we were getting ready to turn things around, then I went down.”

It was the second significant injury of Sweet’s career, and it stalled the Bliss’ momentum; they went 5-4-1 in his absence.  Since his return, the Bliss have played respectably, but they never caught fire; they haven’t won more than three games in a row all season.

“I feel like if we’d been able to run off once good long winning streak to get some momentum, we could have climbed back into it,” said Valentine.  “But it never worked out that way.”

Netminder Colt believes that the team’s failure rests in large part on his shoulders.  Last season, Colt went 24-16-4 with a 2.94 GAA and a .909 save percentage, then stood on his head in the Finals to capture MVP honors.  During Hershey’s nightmare month to open the season, Colt’s numbers tumbled, as he went 3-12-1 with a 3.57 GAA and an .879 save percentage.  He’s rebounded since then, but he remains among the worst starters in the league on a statistical basis.

“It’s frustrating, because I feel like I’m dragging the team down,” said Colt.  “Our defense is tight, and our offense is solid.  If I was on top of my game, I feel like we’d be in the playoffs.”

Colt’s teammates, however, disagree with his harsh self-assessment.  “Everyone’s taken a step back from last year, myself definitely included,” said Valentine.  “Blaming the whole year on Colter is like blaming the Chicago fire on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  We all played a part in it.”

Looking toward next season, Sweet is optimistic that the Bliss can return to contention.  “We’ve got the talent and the team to do it,” he said.  “We just need to avoid that brutal start and have some bounces go our way.  After this year, we’re due for some major puck luck.”

But the Bliss have a couple major obstacles to their contention plans: the two teams that will be going to the postseason in their place.  The Pistols and Tigres are both talented teams that are widely considered to be on the rise.  Even the New York Night are showing signs of respectability.  If the Bliss want to go back to the Finals, they’ll have to earn it.  And in order to do that, says their coach, they’ll need to rediscover their hunger for winning.

“Flags fly forever and all that,” said Barber.  “But winning your first title is like taking your first bite of really good Swiss chocolate.  You get that taste, and you can’t stop craving it.  It’s all you want.  We’ve got to bring that hunger with us next year.”