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.

SHL Season Begins with Scoreless Tie

The 2020 SHL season officially started just after noon Eastern time on Sunday, when the Hershey Bliss and Boston Badgers faced off at the Chocolate Center.  Prior to the game, the Bliss started a pool on which player would score the season’s first goal, recording their predictions and dollar amounts on a white board in the locker room.  C Justin Valentine and LW Lance Sweet were the most popular picks.  In the visiting clubhouse, the Badgers didn’t have a similar pool going, but their players were equally aware of the possibility.

“Scoring the first goal of the season… that would be a really awesome way to begin,” said C Alain Beauchesne.

Little did the Badgers or Bliss realize that 65 minutes would pass without either team lighting the lamp.  No one collected on Hershey’s first-goal pool, as the game ended with the same 0-0 score as it started.

“You know how they say that a tie is like kissing your sister?” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “This game was like marrying your sister.”

Both teams had their chances to score.  In the first five minutes of the game, Valentine and RW Christopher Hart got loose on an odd-man rush.  Hart fed the pass to Valentine in the slot, and the center fired a shot toward the upper-right corner of the net.  Badgers goalie Roger Orion, though, stuck out his glove and snagged the blast.

“I was already counting my winnings in my head,” said Valentine ruefully.

Later in the period, Hershey D Wayne Snelling was penalized for interference, putting Boston on the power play.  Badgers LW Lix Darnholm fired a laser beam of a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle.  Bliss netminder Christien Adamsson got a piece of the shot, but it trickled behind him toward the goal line.  Fortunately for the Bliss, Adamsson fell back on the puck before the Badgers could jam it home.

After a fairly sleepy first forty minutes – Hershey had 14 shots across the first two periods, and Boston only nine – the action picked up in the third.  Unfortunately for both teams, the frustrations piled up as well.  On three separate occasions, the Bliss fired shots that hit the post, two of them by Sweet.  On the Boston side, C Derek Humplik fired a shot that beat Adamsson, but pinged off the crossbar.

“It just seemed like there was some invisible force keeping it out of the net,” said Badgers coach Kyle Barrow.  “It was pretty annoying.”

In the overtime session, Boston dominated the play, outshooting Hershey 6-1.  But they still couldn’t dent the scoreboard.  The closest attempt was a Beauchesne slapshot that sailed just above the net.

After the game, Barber praised the play of Adamsson, who turned aside all 25 Boston shots in his Hershey debut.  “This is exactly what we brought Christien here to do,” said Barber.  “It’s not his fault that we couldn’t provide him any support.”

“Definitely a weird way to start the season,” said Valentine.  “But you just have to put it behind you and move on.  It’s not like we’re going to go scoreless for the whole season.”

Continue reading “SHL Season Begins with Scoreless Tie”

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 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.”

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].”

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!”

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