Tigres, Bliss Dueling for Playoff Position in East

The SHL’s playoff picture is slowly but surely coming into focus.  The Portland Bluebacks officially clinched the Western title this week, and the Anchorage Igloos have established a clear upper hand for the second and final spot.  In the East, the defending champion Hamilton Pistols are almost certainly going to make the postseason for the third straight season.  But the Pistols’ opponent remains very much up in the air.  The Eastern playoff will feature a rematch from one of the last two years, but which one?  Will Hamilton face their opponent from last season, the Hershey Bliss, or their 2018 foe, the Quebec Tigres?

For most of the season, the Bliss have been the odds-on favorite for the spot.  They’ve been in one of the top two spots in the division for almost the entire year.  As usual, their offense has been paced by the “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet (25 goals, 50 assists), C Justin Valentine (34 goals, 32 assists), and RW Christopher Hart (17 goals, 45 assists).  Goaltending has long been a problem for Hershey, but this year they seem to have located a reliable tandem.  Christien Adamsson, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, has been a solid starter (20-18-4, 2.89 GAA, .911 save percentage).  Meanwhile, rookie Nash Gould (8-5-1, 2.91, .909) has excelled in a backup role.  Add in a defense that’s been solid if unspectacular, and it’s no surprise that Hershey has been a contender.

Chip Barber

“We’re just playing good steady hockey,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Not too high, not too low, as smooth as a perfect ganache.”

The Tigres have little use for the kind of graceful, balanced game played by the Bliss.  Martin Delorme‘s crew relies on a rugged, hard-hitting defense to win.  It might not be pretty, but it is effective.  Quebec allows a paltry 28,9 shots per game, the stingiest mark in the league.  Relatedly, they lead the league in blocked shots (16.6 per game) and goals-against average (2.32)

“Everyone on our team is working together on defense,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “We work together to make the other team’s life miserable.”

Until recently, Quebec’s grinding defense was good. but not quite enough to get them into contention.  Then at the trading deadline, the Tigres acquired C Warren Marlow from Michigan, strengthening the team’s weakest position.  Marlow has been reasonably effective with Quebec ( 8 points in 14 games), but more importantly, he seems to have been the missing piece that unlocked Quebec’s most effective lineup.  After a brief losing streak following Marlow’s arrival, Quebec is now on a nine-game unbeaten streak.  Fittingly, it’s been a rather homely streak; four of the games were ties, and two others were overtime wins.  But the Tigres have been slowly accruing points and climbing in the standings.

On Saturday, the Bliss and Tigres faced off at Chocolate Center.  Despite coming off a streak of five straight overtime games, Quebec came out full of energy.  The Tigres outshot the Bliss 14-9 in the first period, and RW Weldon “Candy” Kane got Quebec on the board in the first period with a rebound from the slot.  In the second, Hershey has a 14-9 shot advantage, and C Spencer Kirkpatrick got a power-play tally to even things up.  Early in the third, D Steve Cargill had another man-advantage tally to put Hershey in the lead.  But the Tigres, showing their trademark grit, fought back.  LW Rupert MacDiarmid evened the scored with a laser-beam shot from the left faceoff circle midway through the third, and RW Stephane Mirac put Quebec ahead a couple minutes later.  After that, the visitors managed to grind the clock and hold on for a 3-2 victory.

The win lifted the Tigres into second place with eight games to go.  “We’ve fought really hard to get this far,” said Mirac, “and now that we’re here, we’re not going to let go.”

If the Bliss do come up short, they may look back with regret at the trading deadline.  Like the Tigres, they inquired about Marlow.  As the deadline approached, however, they pulled out of talks and instead struck a deal with Dakota to acquire RW Arkady Golynin – a deal that was vetoed by the league as too one-sided.

“We can’t let ourselves think about that,” said Barber when asked about the vetoed trade.  “We have to focus on what we can control.”

So it call comes down to this: eight games for all the marbles, including one more head-to-head match on Tuesday in Quebec.  Will the Tigres’ unyielding defense outlast the Bliss’ balanced attack?  Fans across the SHL look forward to finding out.

Continue reading “Tigres, Bliss Dueling for Playoff Position in East”

East Captures First All-Star Win

Traditionally, the West has been considered the stronger of the SHL’s two divisions.  In recent seasons, however, the East has been getting stronger.  They’ve won two of the last three Vandys.  During the most recent round of interdivisional play leading into the break, the Easthad a winning percentage above the .600 mark.  One thing the East had never done, however, was win an All-Star Game.  This year, they hoped to walk into the Kansas City Smoke‘s Heartland Telecom Center and skate away with the win.

Apparently, the fourth time was the charm.  Powered by a hat trick from Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart, the East dominated the first two periods and survived a late rally from the West to claim a 5-3 victory.

“Finally, victory is ours!” shouted Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette, who handed out celebratory cigars to his teammates after the game.  “We’ve been waiting a while for this one.”

As befits Kansas City’s reputation for music, the pregame skate was accompanied by a string of songs with ties to the city.  The tunes spanned the decades, from Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker to modern-day blues guitarist Samantha Fish.  During player introductions, the Western team skated out to Wilbert Harrison’s “Goin’ to Kansas City,” while the Eastern squad emerged to the theme from “Rawhide,” a nod to the city’s connections to the livestock industry.

Eastern coach Keith Shields was determined that his team get off to a strong start.  Last year, the West scored three times in as many minutes, essentially burying the East’s hope of victory.  “I wanted to do to [the West] what they did to us last time,” said Shields.  And that is essentially what his team did.

Hart opened the scoring just under two minutes into the game, streaking to the net and redirecting a shot from Pistols C Calvin Frye over sprawling Western goalie Ty Worthington.  Approximately one hundred seconds later, Frye got a goal of his own when Worthington allowed a juicy rebound on a shot by Hershey’s Lance Sweet and Frye stuffed it home on the short side.  Then around the six-minute mark, Hart and Sweet got loose on a breakaway, just as if they were on the Love Line back in Hershey.  Sweet faked a slapshot and passed it to Hart, who went top shelf to make it 3-0.

“The boys ran the game plan to perfection,” said Shields.  “I loved it!”

The West got one back on a strike from the slot by Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes, but they closed out the first period trailing by two.  But lest the three-time champs get any ideas about rallying, the East got back on the scoring train at the start of the second.  Pistols LW Steven Alexander got on the board on a thundering slapper from the left faceoff circle to restore the East’s three-goal lead.  Then two and a half minutes later, Hart struck again, this time on a power-play wraparound shot that slipped between Worthington’s pad and the pole.

Even though the home team now trailed 5-1, the fans tossed their hats onto the ice to honor Hart’s achievement.  One of them was a cowboy hat; Sweet picked that one up and slapped it on Hart’s head.  The Hershey wing let loose with a “Yeehaw!” and fired his invisible six-shooters into the air.

West coach Sam Castor wasn’t willing to give up, in spite of the sizable deficit, and he directed his team to play a more wide-open style in the third period.  The East responded in kind, and the result was a frantic frame in which the teams combined for 47 shots.  The West’s relief goalie, the Portland Bluebacks‘ Jesse Clarkson, turned aside all 27 Eastern shots.  The Western offense, on the other hand, had more success against the East’s backup netminder, Mike Ross of the New York Night.  Less than four minutes into the final period, the West narrowed the deficit to two with goals from D Sebastian Pomfret and C Tom Hoffman, teammates on Castor’s Anchorage Igloos.  But Ross stopped the West’s remaining shots, and the East kept the action in the other end for long stretches over the last ten minutes, sealing their victory.

Hart’s three-goal performance made him the unanimous choice for All-Star MVP honors.  As a reward for the selection, the Bliss star received a Kia Seltos SUV, along with a gift package of barbecue sauces from some of Kansas City’s best-known joints.  “The last time we were in KC, I tried burnt ends for the first time,” said Hart.  “I’m looking forward to making some ‘cue of my own at home.”

In the victorious Eastern locker room, the players smoked their cigars and doused each other with beer and hard seltzer.  “Don’t mess with the Beast Division, baby!” shouted Alexander.  “The world turned upside down!”

The East will try to make it two in a row next year on home ice, as next year’s game is north of the border at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle.

Continue reading “East Captures First All-Star Win”

2020 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2020 Eastern Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Keith Shields, was as follows:

First Line:

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton.  Last year, the voting in the East was dominated by fans of the Pistols and New York Night, the latter of which hosted the game.  Without the draw of hosting and with the Night’s lackluster record this year, votes from the New York metro area dipped considerably, while backers of defending champion Hamilton came out in force to support their heroes.  Alexander was the league’s top vote-getter, earning his fourth straight trip to the game and his third appearance in the starting lineup.  Although the feisty winger’s numbers are not quite up to his career norms, he is tied for the league lead in goals with 21.

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  Backed by the voting power of the Greater Toronto Area, Risch was the top vote-getter among Eastern defenseman, making his second All-Star appearance and his first start.  The 24-year-old is on track for a career season; he’s already scored more goals in the first half (8) than he ever has in an entire year.  He isn’t just an offensive force, either; he continues to deliver strong play in his own end.  His 73 blocks is the second-most among Eastern players.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey.  In something of an upset, Valentine managed to hold off Hamilton’s Calvin Frye to make his first All-Star start since 2017.  Valentine is the leading man in Hershey’s famous “Love Line,” and he’s producing in line with his top season.  He’s currently in third place in goals with 20 and tied for third in points with 42.  He’s also among the top ten in plus-minus at +14, a distinction he shares with his fellow Love Liners.

D: Matt Cherner, Boston.  In another upset, Cherner surged into second place, ahead of Hershey’s Reese Milton and New York’s Dominic Sanchez, who have been the East’s starting defensemen in each previous All-Star Game.  Cherner reportedly benefited from a strong crossover vote, as fans from his previous teams in Dakota and Quebec cast ballots for him in significant numbers.  It’s his second All-Star appearance, and his debut representing the East; he showed up on the West’s roster back in 2018.  Like his fellow top-pairing blueliner Risch, Cherner has 8 goals and 28 points so far this season.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rabid voting base lifted Lafayette to his first ever All-Star start (and only his second overall start), appearing alongside his longtime teammate and friend Alexander.  Lafayette won his spot by less than 5,000 votes over Hershey’s Christopher Hart and New York’s Rick Nelson.  Lafayette is one of the league’s elite passers, and it’s no surprise that he leads the SHL in assists with 35.  His 42 points overall ties him with Valentine for the league’s third-highest total.

 

Second Line:

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey.  Shields mentioned during the lineup announcement that he has a great deal of respect for the Bliss, Hamilton’s fiercest rival.  His admiration came through in his picks, as he tapped three Bliss players (in addition to starter Valentine) to the lineup.  It’s the second All-Star selection for Sweet, who also appeared in the SHL’s inaugural midseason contest in 2017.  Sweet is a highly deserving choice; he leads the league in points with 44, and is in the top 10 in both goals (16) and assists (28).

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton.  Shields’ respect for Hershey was topped only by his affection for his own squad; the coach selected four players from his Vandy-winning, division-leading Pistols.  The veteran Smyth, though, is no homer pick; his 30 points are tied for the highest total among SHL defensemen, and his 26 assists are tied for fifth in the league overall.  He also leads the league in plus-minus rating with +17.  It’s Smyth’s third trip to the All-Star Game, making a reappearance in the lineup after a one-year absence.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  After Frye was beaten out by Valentine for the starting center spot, there was no doubt that Shields was going to tab his star for a spot.  Frye is only of only four Eastern players to have appeared in every All-Star contest to date.  Frye is tied with his teammate Alexander for the league lead in goals with 21, and his 43 points is the second highest total in the SHL.  “I’ll bet this is the last time for a long time that Calvin isn’t the starter,” said Shields.  “If he keeps producing the way he has been, he’s going to make it impossible for the fans to ignore.  He’s just a special, special player.”

D: Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton. It’s the third straight All-Star appearance for the 22-year-old Mulligan and the third appearance for a Hamilton defenseman in this lineup.  It’s the first time since 2017 that a single team landed a trio of blueliners on the roster; Michigan was the last team to accomplish the feat. The hard-hitting Mulligan brings an extra edge of the Eastern roster; his 68 blocks is sixth in the SHL and second on the Pistols to his linemate Risch.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart joins his linemates Sweet and Valentine on the East roster.  Surprisingly, Hart is the only one of the trio who has appeared in every All-Star contest, though he has never started.  Like his fellow Love Liners, Hart is in the top ten in the league in points (39), assists (26), and plus-minus (+14).  “Last year, I had to carry the Love Line banner all by myself at the game,” said Hart.  “This time, I’ll be there with both my brothers, and that’s the way it ought to be.”

 

Third Line:

LW: Magnus Gunnarson, Hamilton.  At a loaded position, Shields tapping his own player again generated some controversy around the league.  Many felt that New York’s Chase Winchester or Boston’s Casey Thurman would be a more fitting choice.  But Gunnarson is having a strong season in his own right.  He has produced 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) at the halfway point.  And when Alexander missed several games with an injury in the first half, Gunnarson stepped in and kept the Pistols from missing a beat.  It all adds up to an All-Star debut for the 24-year-old winger.

D: Reese Milton, Hershey.  It’s the first time that Milton won’t be starting in an All-Star Game, but the Bliss blueliner keeps his string of appearances alive.  Milton’s offensive numbers (8 goals, 17 assists) are a tick below his career norms, but he remains as defensively strong as ever; his 77 blocks are the most in the East, and he maintains a solid +8 rating.

C: Alain Beauchesne, Boston.  The 22-year-old Beauchesne receives his second straight All-Star nod; his selection marks the first time that the Badgers have had more than one honoree.  This was another somewhat controversial choice: Night fans argued that Brock Manning should have gotten the call, while DC fans clamored for Harvey Bellmore.   But Shields went with the youngster, who leads Boston with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists).

D: Richard McKinley, Quebec.  The 21-year-old blueliner is the Tigres’ lone representative this year, and he makes his debut in the All-Star game.  Quebec is suffering through considerable offensive struggles this season, but McKinley is a relatively bright spot, having recorded 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).  He also is tied for the team lead in blocks with 65.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  Like the Tigres, the Galaxy have only one All-Star representative.  This season, the honors go to McNeely, who will make his third appearance in the game.  He is second on the Washington roster in goals (with 11) and points (with 27).  “Honestly, I would have given it to Harvey,” said McNeely.  “But it they want me to go again, sure, I’ll go.”

 

Goalies:

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a season when many of the East’s traditional top goalies are having down seasons, Koskinen’s solid performance and Hamilton’s strong voting base combined to earn the Pistols netminder his third straight All-Star trip and his second start.  Koskinen struggled in the opening weeks of the season, but he has improved as the season has gone along.  His 15 wins are second-most in the SHL; that achievement appears to have overshadowed his somewhat-subpar 3.14 GAA and .915 save percentage.

“Jersey Mike” Ross, New York.  With Shields in charge of choosing the East’s roster, is it a surprise that Ross is the lone Night player to make the All-Star squad?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the veteran goaltender, who is another first-time All-Star, has had a surprisingly strong season.  Believe it or not, Ross has the highest save percentage (.923) among starting goalies in the East.  After planned starter Sherman Carter imploded, Ross stepped in as the primary starter and has helped keep the Night afloat in the playoff race.

Pistols, Bliss Get Goal-Happy in Roller Coaster Third Period

The Hamilton Pistols and Hershey Bliss are battling for supremacy in the East, and they both possess an offensive explosiveness that makes them dangerous.  Hamilton is one of the highest-scoring teams in the league; Hershey doesn’t typically generate quite the same volume of scoring, but their “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart is as potent as any line in the league.

When the Pistols and Bliss squared off on Tuesday at Chocolate Center, they showed just how explosive they can be, combining for seven goals in a dynamite third period that turned a seemingly sleepy game into a roller coaster of an evening.

“I don’t know just what happened there in the third,” said Valentine.  “But it seemed like somebody flipped the fun switch.”

After the first forty minutes, there were no signs of the frenzy to come.  Hamilton led 1-0, with an early second-period tally by RW Ben Summers the lone goal to that point.  Pistols netminder Lasse Koskinen had looked fairly sharp, turning aside all 27 Bliss shots, but he was unaware of what awaited him in the third.

The Bliss went a man to the good in the opening seconds of the third, as Summers went to the sin bin for interference.  Hershey’s power play made the Pistols pay, as Sweet converted on a shot from the slot that sailed over Koskinen’s right shoulder and under the crossbar.  The tally brought the home crowd back to life as Sweet hip-checked the glass before bounding into the arms of his teammates.

“Up to that point, it had felt impossible to get one past Lasse,” said Valentine.  “So Lance’s goal definitely opened the dam for what came later.”

First, though, the home team had to endure a stiff pushback from the visiting Pistols.  Hamilton grabbed control of the game over the next several minutes, and they made that control count.  Their little-heralded bottom line got things going in a big way over the next few minutes.

LW Jamie Campbell, C J.C. Marais, and RW Kenny Patterson worked an extended shift in the Hershey zone, pinching off the boards and thwarting the Bliss attempted to flip the puck back to center ice.  They’d been in the zone for over a minute when Patterson crashed the net, then fired it back to D Clayton Risch at the blue line.  Risch threaded a perfect pass to Marais, who was streaking toward the net and beat Hershey goalie Christien Adamsson on the short side to retake the lead.

Less than a minute later, Marais returned the favor, putting the puck right on the blade of Risch in the high slot.  Risch fired the puck over the glove of a screened Adamsson and into the upper-right corner of the net to take a two-goal advantage.

“One of the things I love about our team is that we can roll all three lines and feel totally comfortable,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “We don’t burn out our top-line guys, and everybody stays sharp and engaged.”

The Pistols’ pressure eased a bit after that, but the Bliss couldn’t mount a sustained counterattack.  And when LW Steven Alexander buried a slapshot from the faceoff circle to make it 4-1, the arena fell into a despondent silence.

Hershey, though, wasn’t about to concede anything.  After they killed off an interference penalty to Hart at mid-period, they tilted the ice in a big way and bombarded Koskinen with shots.  They launched 16 shots over the final eight minutes of regulation, and even Koskinen couldn’t stop them all.

The Bliss began their comeback with seven minutes left in the game, as D Jean-Luc Aubin picked off a lazy Pistols pass and fed fellow blueliner Reese Milton, who fired a blast that deflected of a Hamilton stick and between Koskinen’s pads.  The fluky goal got the crowd back to life, and Milton amped up the energy by swinging his stick over his head like a helicopter.

“I just thought it would be a cool thing to try,” said Milton.

A couple minutes later, Valentine picked up a rebound and found Hart, who stuffed it just inside the right post to make it a 4-3 game.

The final five minutes of regulation were a thrill ride; the fans stood and screamed while Hershey maintained intense pressure and kept up the barrage on the Hamilton net.  Koskinen kept stopping the shots, though, and it looked as though the visitors would escape with a narrow win.

Finally, with 16 seconds remaining, Valentine skated behind the net and lifted a backhand shot over a sprawling Koskinen to tie the game.  Valentine’s teammates mobbed him in front of the crease as the fans somehow shouted even louder.

It seemed inevitable that the Bliss would complete the rally and win in overtime.  But the Pistols used the break between periods to take a breath and gather themselves, and then came out an won it in the extra session on another Summers goal.  The win moved Hamilton six points ahead of Hershey in the East.

“There were some wild swings in this one, but it was a nice statement win for us,” said Shields.  “I think we’re showing that we’re the team to beat, but there’s still plenty of season left.  We have to stay on our toes if we’re going to get back to the postseason.  Fortunately, no one in here is taking anything for granted.”

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