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.
“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.