Shockers Get Used to New Role: Contender

The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory.  For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice.  The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West.  Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy.  Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.

“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.

Morris Thompson

What has driven Saskatchewan’s success?  Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson.  When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined.  That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.

So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations.  “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM.  “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions.  That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”

The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck.  Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances.  This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth).  “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal.  It’s really paying off for us.”

The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season.  They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60.  Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.

“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes.  “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”

The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system.  “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.

With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade?  The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them.  Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division?  Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?

“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews.  “The next few days are going to be interesting.”

In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty.  The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.

“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson.  “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder.  If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested.  But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come.  I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that.  I’m not just thinking about this year.”

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Interview of the Week: Chris Oflyng

This week’s interview is with Saskatchewan Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with one of the Shockers’ original players, Chris Oflyng.  Chris, thank you for speaking with us.

Chris “Lightning” Oflyng

Chris Oflyng: Sure!  I’m glad you asked me.

SHLD: You’re one of the very few players who’s been with the Shockers since the very beginning.

CO: Yeah, I think there’s only three of us left.  Me, Zeke [Zagurski], and Clarkie [Mark Clark].

SHLD: Back in 2015, you guys were the butt of jokes around the league.  Now, you’re a serious contender, and it looks like you’ll be a strong team for a while.  How has the atmosphere around the team changed since 2015?

CO: Oh, it’s night and day.  You have no idea.  It was kind of a zoo in here back then.  We were losing all the time, no one was taking anything seriously.  Guys were more interested in where they were going to drink after the game than in playing well.  Now, we’re much more disciplined, and the team is focused on working hard and doing what it takes to win.

SHLD: You have a new coach this year, Morris Thompson, who we interviewed a few weeks ago.  How has it been playing for him so far?

CO: It’s been great, and eye-opening.  Coach [Myron] Beasley was generally pretty lax about practice, but Coach Thompson is totally different.  His practices are intense, man.

SHLD: Pretty brutal, huh?

CO: When we showed up at training camp, the first thing he said was, “I’m going to work you harder than most of you have ever worked in your lives.  You’re all going to hate me now.  But come the spring, when you’re in the playoffs, you’ll all be glad for this.”  The way he explains it is that hockey is a battle of legs and lungs.  The harder you work, the more capacity you build up.  And that keeps you from fading later in the season.

SHLD: I’ll bet those early practices weren’t a lot of fun.

CO: You bet they weren’t!  Guys were cursing, their tongues were hanging out.  I felt like I was going to pass out after the first couple practice sessions.  But I feel like I have more energy now, and we’re definitely sharper about the little things, especially on defense.

SHLD: The last couple of seasons, the Shockers were considered a sleeper contending team, but couldn’t quite live up to the hype.  Is this the year that you get over the hump?

CO: It could be!  We’re definitely playing up to our potential much better this year.  But it’s a tough division.  Michigan and Seattle are really strong, and you can never count Anchorage out.  But I think we can play with those teams.

SHLD: You’re currently the leading goal-scorer on your team.  That’s pretty unusual for a defenseman!  Even though you’ve always been a strong offensive defenseman, you’ve never led your team before.  How have you become so strong on offense?

CO: I’ve always taken that part of my game seriously.  I’m not a big-body guy, I don’t throw massive checks, but I’ve always considered myself a two-way player.  As for that whole leading-scorer thing: I’m not thinking about that, and neither are the other guys.

SHLD: Really?

CO: I mean, it’s pretty cool, and I think I’m having a good year.  But that’s not where we’re focused.  We’re not a team that’s built around one or two big stars, like Anchorage or Hamilton.  We spread the scoring around, and we’re proud of that.

SHLD: Do you think that helps you in the long run?

CO: I think so, yeah.  If you’re playing the Igloos and you stop Jake Frost, you’ll probably beat them.  But with us, we’ve got so many ways to beat you, you can’t just stop one guy.

SHLD: Tell us a little about your life off the ice.  What do you do for fun when you’re not at the rink?

CO: My biggest hobby is my bike.  I’ve got a Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic, and during the offseason I like to cruise around and see as much of the country as I can.  When I retire, I’d like to take a trip across Canada on my bike.

SHLD: Pretty cool!  How does the front office feel about your hobby?

CO: (laughs) They’re not too wild about it.  I know they wish I’d find a safer hobby like, I don’t know, gardening or something.  But I wear all the right equipment and I know what I’m doing.  And I don’t do it during the season.  It’s too cold for it anyway.

SHLD: Fair enough.  Well, thanks for your time, Chris, and good luck the rest of the season!

CO: Thanks!

Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire

Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski is not widely known around the league as a colorful character.  Within the Shockers’ locker room, however, the netminder has a reputation for being a little… well, quirky.  “Zeke marches to the beat of his own drum, that’s for sure,” said D Chris Oflyng.  “I mean, he’s not as crazy as our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], but he’s his own kind of cat, definitely.”

Zeke Zagurski

Zagurski’s quirky side made a rare appearance on the ice, when the goalie was caught using one of his water bottles in a non-traditional way.

In the middle of the first period of Sunday’s season-opening game against the Michigan Gray Wolves, during a TV timeout, Zagurski reached for one of the two bottles sitting on top of his net.  Rather than squirting it into his mouth, however, the Shockers goalie unscrewed the top and shook the bottle until a foil-wrapped package fell out.  Zagurski then peeled back the foil, revealing a hot dog that he’d apparently smuggled onto the ice in the bottle.

“When we saw Zeke unscrewing the top of the bottle, we thought he was going to dump the water on his head,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We were a little worried, like ‘Is he getting overheated? Is he sick?’  Then out comes this hot dog, and he starts eating it.  Then we were like, ‘Ah, that makes sense. Only Zeke would bring himself a hot dog to eat during the game.’”

Zagurski’s mid-game nosh drew the attention of Michigan’s radio broadcasting team.  “Something strange happening over in net for Saskatchewan,” said color commentator Blackie Sprowl.  “What’s Zagurski got in his hand over there?”

“Looks like it’s a… hot dog,” replied play-by-play man Philip Shelton.  “He’s eating a hot dog.  Folks, this is really happening: Zeke Zagurski is eating a hot dog while he’s on the ice.  I don’t know where it came from, but… wow.”

“I thought we were the only ones allowed to eat during a game!”  quipped Sprowl.

“So did I, but it’s snack time for Zagurski, apparently,” said Shelton.  “We can’t make this stuff up, folks.”

“He’s my hero!” said Sprowl.

Ron Wright

Wolves coach Ron Wright, on the other hand, was less amused.  He barked at referee Darren St. James to make Zagurski throw the frankfurter away.  When St. James declined to intervene, Wright lobbied St. James’ officiating partner Bernie Craig to assess the Saskatchewan netminder an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Like St. James, Craig refused to get involved.

Wright remained steamed about the incident after the game.  “I thought it was a disgrace,” Wright said of Zagurski’s midgame dog-scarfing.  “We’re supposed to be professionals, and this is supposed to be a serious game.  Instead, we’ve got a guy out here acting like a clown, and nobody does anything.  [Zagurski] has been in this league long enough to better.”

The coach called on the league to discipline Zagurski.  “Otherwise, why stop there?” the coach snapped.  “Why not wheel out a buffet table to center ice so we can all have a nice meal in mid-game?  Why not have Uber Eats deliver food to the benches?  If we’re going to be okay with eating food on the ice, why not let everyone in on it?  Seriously, is this a hockey game on an all-you-can-eat special?”

For his part, Zagurski (who made 35 saves, but lost 1-0) claimed to be mystified by the fuss.  “Goaltending is hard work, and I get hungry sometimes,” he told reporters.  He added that he’d been exploring his options for on-ice snacking for a while.  His original plan was to sew a pouch inside his jersey to hold some beef jerky, but “our clubhouse manager told me that would be an equipment violation,” so he opted for the hot-dog-in-water-bottle solution instead.

“Guys drink water on the ice all the time, and no one blinks an eye,” Zagurski concluded.  “I have one little hot dog, and suddenly it’s World War 3.”

Zagurski’s teammates confirmed that his appetite is indeed legendary.  “Everyone knows to hit the postgame buffet before Zeke gets to it,” said Oflyng, “or you’ll go hungry.  That guy’s an eating machine.”

The league did not discipline Zagurski, but SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell sent a communique to the referees clarifying that goalies’ water bottles must contain nothing but H2O, and indicating that future incidents would be penalized.  “Zagurski’s actions weren’t technically in violation of the rules, but this isn’t a road we want to go down,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “If players want to eat, they can wait until the intermission breaks or after the game.”

Zagurski agreed to abide by the commissioner’s ruling, but he asked plaintively: “Why is it a crime to be hungry?”

Continue reading “Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire”

Lundquist Opens Season with Back-to-Back Shutouts

The Michigan Gray Wolves have historically succeeded on the strength of their defense and the sure-handed goaltending of Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  As the Wolves begin their quest to dethrone the Anchorage Igloos atop the Western division, they came out firing on all cylinders, as Lundquist became the first netminder in SHL history to open the season with back-to-back shutouts.

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist

“All hail The Bear!” crowed Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison.  “We like to talk about how nothing gets past him, but literally, nothing is getting past him right now.”

The Wolves opened the season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, a team widely perceived as a rising power.  Lundquist, however, barely broke a sweat in turning aside 21 Saskatchewan shots, and LW Scot Davenport’s short-handed goal stood up as the lone tally in a 1-0 Michigan win.

On Tuesday, the Wolves traveled up north to face the rival Anchorage Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  Coming off of a disappointing tie against Dakota to open the season, the Igloos were determined to make a statement.  But they ran into a brick wall in the crease, as Lundquist stopped 25 Igloos blasts and C Warren Marlow banged home a slapshot from the slot in the second period to give the Wolves another 1-0 victory.

Lundquist’s streak came to an end during Thursday’s home opener against Saskatchewan, when Shockers D Chris Oflyng scored on a power play 1 minute and 41 seconds into the opening period.  Fortunately, the Wolves’ offense showed up this time in the form of four third-period goals, and Michigan rolled to a 6-2 rout.

“Talk about taking your game to the next level,” said Michigan C Hunter Bailes.  “Some of the saves he makes, I don’t understand how he does it.  He’s like Inspector Gadget, stretching out his arms and legs further than humanly possible.”

Lundquist, meanwhile, said that the Wolves’ defense deserved the real credit.  “As a goalie, the fewer high-danger shots you face, the better you look,” Lundquist told reporters.  “Our D is just incredible.  They’re really strong at protecting the home-plate area and clearing out in front of the crease, and they’re all over the ice blocking shots and denying good angles.  They make things easy for me.”

Michigan coach Ron Wright praised Lundquist’s torrid start, but was quick to point out that his netminder’s brilliance obscured the team’s early struggles on offense.  The Wolves averaged a mere 1.3 goals per game while stumbling through an uninspired preseason, and Wright called on his team to improve.

“The Bear is the best goalie in the league, no doubt, but he’s not superhuman,” Wright told reporters.  “If we’re counting on winning every game 1-0, this season isn’t going to go well for us.  As great as Lundquist is, I think we tend to use him as a security blanket sometimes.  We need more games like [Thursday’s].  We need to focus on sharpening our offensive game, so that we’re not relying on The Bear to be perfect.”

Galaxy Trade for Sailors D Gallagher

The Washington Galaxy are in a great position as they look to capture their third straight division title.  They’ve gone undefeated since the All-Star break, and they just passed Hershey to take the lead in the East.  It would have been easy to imagine them making no moves at the deadline, not wanting to mess with a good thing.  Instead, though, the Galaxy made a small but smart move, bolstering their defensive corps by grabbing D Stan “Animal” Gallagher from the Seattle Sailors in exchange for minor-league D Woody Fairwood.

Stan Gallagher

The pickup of Gallagher should stabilize Washington’s third defensive pairing, which has been a season-long conundrum.  The position opposite Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom has a revolving door, as the Galaxy have rotated between veteran Bill Corbett, young banger Jurgen Braun, and rookie Graham Bellinger.  All three have done credibly, but none of them has played well enough to seize the job full-time.

The 27-year-old Gallagher should provide Hogaboom with a strong running partner.  He scored 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists) with Seattle, playing largely on their top pairing.  He earned his “Animal” nickname for the fierce enthusiasm he puts into his skating and checking, which will make him a good fit beside the pugnacious Hogaboom.

“Did we need to make this deal?  Probably not,” admitted Galaxy GM Garnet “Ace” Adams.  “But does this deal make us a stronger team than we were yesterday?  Oh yeah.  The Animal’s got a well-earned reputation around this league, and putting him and Boomer on the ice together should unleash some havoc.  Graham will have the opportunity to go down to the minors and play every day, which should help him develop.  And Corbs and Brauny will get opportunities to contribute off the bench, where we know we can count on them.”

In the run-up to the deadline, it was rumored that Washington was pursuing a bigger deal.  The Saskatchewan Shockers were reportedly dangling D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, and Hershey was said to be in hot pursuit of them.  It was speculated that the Galaxy were also after Oflyng, if only to block the Bliss from getting him.  But Adams said that Washington wasn’t making a serious attempt to land the Shockers blueliner.

“You never say never in this job,” said Adams.  “But we figured Oflyng was going to be too rich for our blood, and frankly, we didn’t need an upgrade like that.  We just wanted a solid vet for the third pairing, and we got him.”  As it turned out, Hershey wasn’t able to meet Saskatchewan’s demands for Oflyng either; they might have turned to Gallagher as a fallback option, but Washington beat them to it.

Woody Fairwood

For Seattle, the 21-year-old Fairwood may not match Gallagher in the character department, but he should provide similar production.  Fairwood had been playing with Washington’s minor-league club in Baltimore, where he notched 50 points (9 goals, 41 assists) and a +7 rating.  He was tied for the team lead in both categories

“I knew I was probably going to have a hard time making my way up to DC,” said Fairwood.  “It was a good organization and I’ll miss my friends there, but to get a shot at some real minutes at the major-league level, that’s exciting for me.”