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.”

Continue reading “Pistols, Bliss Get Goal-Happy in Roller Coaster Third Period”

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.

Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night

The hottest rivalry in the SHL right now is clearly the feud between the Hamilton Pistols and the New York Night.  Night coach Nick Foster has spent multiple seasons adding fuel to the fire by slinging insults at the Pistols’ arena, their fans, and star Steven Alexander.  Foster’s barbs have turned every game between the teams into a grudge match.

Last week, the Night and Pistols tangled for the first time this season at Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory.  It proved to be a wild match full of insults, physical play, and shots galore.  In the end, the Night walked away with a 7-6 overtime win, with Foster making sure to twist the knife on his way out of town.

On Sunday, the teams held the rematch at New York’s Neon Sky Arena.  It promised to be another feud-filled game.  Most observers expected that the Night would have to answer for rookie C Norris Fletcher’s high stick to Alexander’s eye in last week’s game.  The Pistols, however, chose not to seek revenge with their fists, but with their sticks, scoring six goals in a frenetic first period on the way to a 10-5 drubbing.

Keith Shields

“The Lord reminds us that vengeance is His,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields, “but I have to admit this was pretty sweet.”

When the Pistols took the ice, they were greeted by the sounds of Craig Morgan’s “Redneck Yacht Club,” as well as the jeers of the New York faithful.  The cheers and jeers only got louder when Night RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored just 17 seconds into the game.  But Hamilton quickly flipped the script.  Just 23 seconds after Trujwirnek’s tally, Pistols RW Claude Lafayette found the upper-leftt corner of the net to tie things up.  Just over a minute late, LW Magnus Gunnarson drilled a slapper home past night netminder Sherman Carter to give Hamilton the lead.

The frantic firewagon pace of the game continued over the next several minutes, but the scoring hit a temporary lull, as Carter and the Pistols’ Lasse Koskinen both made acrobatic saves.  Just over six minutes into the period, C Rod Remington jammed home a rebound to pull back even.  That deadlock lasted a mere 11 seconds, though, before Pistols RW Ben Summers stuffed in a wraparound shot to put his team back in the lead.

Just before the midway point of the period, Pistols D Raymond Smyth forced a neutral-zone turnover and started an odd-man rush, which Alexander finished with a shot between Carter’s legs.  In the last game, the Pistols star drew a fine for a goal celebration that included a mock round of gunshots at the New York bench.  This time, Alexander dropped his stick and skated past the Night bench while taking a deep bow.

Less than a minute after Alexander’s goal, C Marco Venezio made it 5-2 by going top shelf from the slot.  D Clayton Risch closed out the scoring for the period with a deflection that a helpless Carter failed to corral.

When the clock struck zero on the opening frame, the Pistols had fired 27 shots at the New York net and scored a half-dozen times.  They’d driven Carter out of the game.  They’d also rendered the arena utterly quiet.

“We headed down the tunnel and we heard total silence,” said Lafayette.  “They were too shocked to even boo us.  It was beautiful.”

When the game resumed, a healthy chunk of the crowd did not return.  They correctly sensed that the Night were not going to rally.  And the Pistols declined to take their foot off the gas, scoring four more times against relief goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross.

The Pistols’ scoring was impressively democratic: their 10 goals were scored by nine different players, with only C Calvin Frye recording more than one.  (Frye had a chance at a hat trick during a third-period power play, but he instead passed to Smyth, who beat Ross on the short side.)  Every Hamilton player recorded at least one point.

“I think it’s a testament to what a balanced team we are,” said Shields.  “We don’t just rely on our stars.”  This could be interpreted as a shot at the Night, whose offense revolves around their star-laden top line.

After a pause, Shields added an unambiguous shot: “It’s also a testament to how fired up our whole team was after the last game.  Coach Foster is a great motivator, at least for our guys.”

For his part, Foster reacted to the shellacking with humor.  “Man, somebody really stuck a bee in their jockstraps, huh?  I guess it was mine.  I’m honored that I mean so much to them, that they went to all that trouble to whip my [expletive].  Well, congrats, you bastards!  We can’t wait to return the favor next time we’re in Tank Town, assuming their barn doesn’t collapse before then.”

Continue reading “Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night”

Several New Faces Among SHL Annual Awards

At the SHL’s fourth annual awards banquet, Commissioner Perry Mitchell handed out trophies honoring the league’s best players and coaches.  As usual, the awards were chosen based on votes from SHL players, coaches, and media.

The commissioner also took a moment to reflect on how the league has grown and changed over the five seasons under his leadership.  “The SHL has proven itself over the last five years,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “We’ve had our challenges and bumps in the road, but we’re established now and we’re here to stay. And we’ve got a lot of exciting young players coming along the way.” As if to underline Mitchell’s words, this year’s crop included a number of first-time winners.

The 2019 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols

There was little question who would receive the MVP honor for 2019.  Alexander and the Pistols went on a remarkable journey this season.  Early in the season, the star winger spent a night in jail with several teammates after his 26th birthday celebration ended in a barfight.  Alexander wound up stumbling through an underwhelming first half.

Just before the All-Star break, though, he got married in a ceremony at the Pistols’ arena.  Married life seemed to spark a change in Alexander; he scored 38 of his 52 goals and recorded 70 of his 100 points in a record-setting second half.  With their star leading the way, Hamilton surged to their second playoff berth.  They ultimately capped off their run by winning their first championship.

“Alex is a heart-and-soul player,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He plays every game like it could be his last, and he always wants to be the first one over the wall when we need a hero.  We never would have won this championship without him leading the way.”

Other MVP finalists included Alexander’s teammate Calvin Frye, Seattle’s Vince Mango, and Hershey’s Justin Valentine.

Rookie of the Year: D Bastien Chouinard, Kansas City Smoke

In a surprising upset, Chouinard received the Rookie of the Year nod over C Alain Beauchesne of the Boston Badgers.  Ironically, the two of them have been competing for a long time: the 20-year-old Chouinard and the 21-year-old Beauchesne both grew up near Montreal, and they often played against each other in youth leagues around Quebec.

“I think this is the first team I ever beat him at anything,” quipped Chouinard.

The young blueliner was chosen third overall by the Smoke in this year’s draft, and he proved to be one of the few bright spots in a tough year in KC.  Chouinard had a better-than-expected year offensively, notching 38 points (5 goals, 33 assists).  But it was his ferocious, hard-hitting defensive work that earned the most notice.  Chouinard, nicknamed “Bastard” for his relentless and unforgiving style, led all SHL players with 119 penalty minutes on the season.

“We didn’t have a lot to feel good about this season,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner, “but watching Bastien thrive has been a real treat.  If he can build on what he showed us this season, and some of the other guys can do the same, I might not need to chug Pepto-Bismol every night next season.”

Chouinard got the nod over Beauchesne, Anchorage’s Rudolf Kerasov, Saskatchewan’s Blake Blacklett, and Dakota’s Calle Markstrom.

Coach of the Year: Harold Engellund, Seattle Sailors

2019 marked the Sailors’ final season in Seattle, but they went out on a high note: they were the most improved team since 2018 (going from 58 points to 80) despite featuring a roster little different from the previous year, and securing their first-ever trip to the postseason.  The voters honored the Sailors’ improvement by selecting Engellund as Coach of the Year.  For the veteran bench boss, who endured a rocky tenure in Dakota before coming to the Pacific Northwest, the award represents sweet redemption.

“Coach Engellund deserves this award more than anyone,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “He’s taken a ragtag group of individual talents and molded us into a team.  He even got me to start passing, which is an accomplishment all its own.”

Engellund was chosen over Hamilton’s Keith Shields, Hershey’s Chip Barber, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to receive the award.

Sharp Shooter Award: RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York Night

The Sharp Shooter Award is one of two awards that is not given out base on the outcome of a vote.  Instead, the honor is awarded to the player who finishes the season with the highest goal total.  This year, the award went to Nelson, who finished the 2019 season with 54 goals, placing him two ahead of Hamilton’s Alexander and Frye.

It’s the first time that the high-scoring winger has captured the award, and the second time that a Night player has won (C Brock Manning earned the honor in 2016).  This award received a tepid reaction, as Nelson is not widely popular in league circles.

“I know nobody wanted me to win, because they can’t acknowledge my greatness,” said Nelson.  “But the numbers don’t lie.  And they can boo me all they want, but they can’t deny that I’m an award winner, yo. Call me whatever you want, but you got to bend the knee.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols and LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Similar to the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy is not awarded based on the result of a vote.  Instead, the award goes to the player who finishes with the highest point total.  For the first time ever, this award was split between two players.

Alexander, whose eventful season was detailed above, finished with a career high in assists (48), which allowed him to reach the century mark in points for the first time his career.  The Commissioner’s Trophy joins the MVP and the Vandy on Alexander’s suddenly crowded award shelf.

“I love the fact that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves,” said Pistols RW Claude Lafayette of his teammate and longtime friend.  “He never stops working, and he earned this.”

Winchester, meanwhile, remains one of the league’s top passers.  Thanks to a strong offensive year from linemates Nelson and Brock Manning, Winchester managed to record a league-leading 86 assists, which made up the bulk of his 100 points on the season.  This is his second Commissioner’s Trophy; he also won it three years ago.

“Chase doesn’t get a lot of play when we’re talking about the top players in the league, and that’s not fair,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “Maybe when we win the Vandy next year, he’ll finally get the respect he deserves.  Probably not, though.”

Goalie of the Year: Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season, this award went to Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen in a stunning upset.  This time, however, the award went to the only other person ever to win it: Lundquist.  The Wolves had a very disappointing season, finishing fourth in the West, but Lundquist put up his usual excellent numbers.  The goalie known as “The Bear” went 29-19-6 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.  Despite Michigan’s subpar performance, Lundquist tied for the league lead in wins, and as usual he led in GAA and save percentage.

“We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do after the season we had,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “But that’s not true for The Bear.  He’s been Mr. Reliable time and again, and he saved our bacon in plenty of games we didn’t deserve to win.”

Other finalists for the award included Tiktuunen, Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, and Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.

Defenseman of the Year: Clayton Risch, Hamilton Pistols

Voting for this award was surprisingly scattered.  Michigan’s top defensemen, Fritz Kronstein and Max Madison, have won the last two times, but the Wolves’ disappointing season knocked them out of contention.  Some thought that Hershey’s Reese Milton – a regular runner-up for this award – might finally break through.

Instead, the award went to Hamilton’s Risch, who beat Milton in a close contest.  The voting took place before the playoffs, so the Pistols’ title was not taken into consideration.  It’s believed that Risch struck voters as a balanced two-way player, providing offense (7 goals, 34 assists) and defense (72 penalty minutes, +20 rating, and a highlight reel full of devastating checks) in equal measure.

“It’s nice to see Crusher get some love,” said Shields, using Risch’s nickname.  “He’s a real quality two-way player, and he’s been an underrated factor in our success.”

In addition to Milton, other finalists included Seattle’s Benny Lambert, Saskatchewan’s Wyatt Barnes, and Chouinard.

2019 SHL Finals – Game 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 4

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

(Hamilton leads, 3-1)

The first three games of the 2019 SHL Finals have been tense, back-and-forth affairs, with neither team leading by more than one goal at any point.  Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, both the hometown Hamilton Pistols and the defending champion Anchorage Igloos were looking for a decisive victory, one that might swing the momentum of the series firmly in their favor.

As it turned out, it was the Pistols who made the strong statement, running out to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the contest.  They then withstood a late Anchorage rally to hold on for a 3-2 win, moving themselves within a game of their first-ever Vandy.

“We’re rising up, boys!” hollered Pistols LW Steven Alexander in a jubilant postgame locker room.  “One more win, and the world turns upside down!”

Up to this point, the first periods in this series have followed a pattern: a lot of sound and fury, but no goals.  Before today’s game, Hamilton coach Keith Shields suggested to his team to slow down the pace a bit and focus on shot quality over quantity.  He also tinkered with the team’s offensive setup.  Noting that the Igloos were focusing their defense on Alexander, Shields decided to roll his lines and run less of the offense through his star winger.  The changes paid great dividends.

Just over two minutes in the game, with the third line on the ice, LW Magnus Gunnarson received a perfect pass from C Henry Constantine in the slot, and went top-shelf for a goal.  It’s the first time in the series that Hamilton has scored first, and it got the crowd at Gunpowder Armory fired up early.

“We’ve been getting traffic in the home plate area, and it’s been paying off for us,” said Gunnarson.

Shortly after the midway point of the first, the Pistols’ top line set up for an extended shift in Anchorage’s end.  C Calvin Frye found Alexander in his preferred shooting spot.  Alexander wound up for a slapshot, and Igloos goalie Ty Worthington committed to block it.  But Alexander instead fired a pass to teammate Claude Lafayette, who was skating hard toward the net.  Lafayette easily tucked the puck home over a sprawling Worthington to give Hamilton a 2-0 lead.

The Igloos had opportunities to cut into the lead late in the period thanks to a flurry of Pistols penalties, but they couldn’t convert, and went into the locker room down by a pair.  Coach Sam Castor laid into the champs, demanding to see more urgency.

“We let [the Pistols] get the jump on us, and we weren’t responding,” said Castor.  “That’s not like us.”

The Igloos came out with more energy in the second half, but they frequently ran into a brick wall at the blue line, courtesy of the Pistols’ rugged defensive corps.  “They did a really good job keeping us from getting established on offense,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “We just couldn’t get any momentum.”

A little more than 5 minutes into the period, the Pistols’ top line broke out on an odd-man rush.  Frye fed it to Alexander, who again wound up for a shot.  Worthington prepared to block it, only to see Alexander toss it back to D Raymond Smyth, who beat Worthington glove-side to make it a 3-0 game.  As Smyth circled back for hugs and backslaps from his teammates, the crowd threatened to tear the roof off with their jubilation.

The Igloos refused to give in, however, and slowly fought back with the help of some ill-timed Pistol penalties.  About four minutes after Smyth’s goal, RW Kenny Patterson was assessed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for smacking the puck into the stands to protest an offside call.  With about 20 seconds left on the power play, Igloos RW Ben Summers got free in front of the net and jammed the puck just inside the post to get his team on the board.

In the third period, Frye took another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Anchorage kept the puck in the offensive zone, and cashed in during the waning seconds of the power play with a goal from D Ted Keefe.  The Igloos celebrated as an uneasy buzz ran through the stands.

With just over three minutes left in regulation, Anchorage had a golden chance to tie the game when Pistols D Clayton Risch was whistled for spearing. “We knew we really had to buckle down and stop them at all costs,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “We could not let a stray shot give us away.”

So Anchorage took their shots, and Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen and the penalty kill turned them away.  And then, 1:17 into the power play, Igloos D Olaf Martinsson committed a cross-checking penalty, wiping away the man advantage and the visitors’ hopes for victory.

In the losing locker room, the Igloos were grim but determined.  “Well, we used up all of our rope,” C Jake Frost said.  “Now the only thing we can do is go win three in a row.  So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 4”