Coming into the first-ever CHL playoffs, no one gave the Utah Owls much of a chance to win. Although they had been hot during the last month of the season, they only finished a few games above the .500 mark. They had few players among the league leaders in any category, and they were better known for their wacky hotel escapades than for anything they did on the ice. The smart money suggested that the Owls would be easily knocked out by the Omaha Ashcats in the Western Division playoff; failing that, they’d be taken down by the high-scoring Virginia Rhinos in the finals.
By the time the playoffs were over, however, the smart money wasn’t looking so smart. Utah stunned Omaha by winning the division finals in four games and making it look easy. Then in the Finals, with barely more drama, the Owls defeated the Rhinos 4 games to 1 to claim the inaugural Howard Trophy as CHL champions.
“Nobody believed in us,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax. “Everyone was just standing around, waiting for us to fail. But we showed them! We showed everybody that we’re the best there is!”
In Game 1, Utah walked into Waterfront Center and pushed the pace, with the teams combining for 85 shots. The Owls hammered the Rhinos 6-2, with six different players scoring goals for the Owls. “I absolutely did not see that coming,” said Virginia goalie Shawn Stickel. “We’d heard those guys liked to play fast, but we weren’t expecting that kind of crazy speed. It’s like they had rockets in their skates.” Not only did the Rhinos lose the game, they lost winger Nick Krombopoulos for the series with an upper-body injury.
In Game 2, Virginia seemed to restore order, downing Utah 3-1. But both sides wound up losing a defenseman to injury; the Rhinos lost Ivan Ackler, while the Owls saw Boris Badenov go down. The series shifted to Wasatch Arena for Game 3, where the Owls turned the tables with a 3-1 win of their own. In Game 4, Virginia took an early 2-0 lead, only to see Utah tie it up with a pair in the second period. RW Colton Jabril put the Rhinos back up with a tally two minutes into the third period, and it looked like his team was about to tie the series up again. But Owls LW Mickey Simpson banked one in off the crossbar with 12 seconds left to send it to overtime, and then C Remi “Roadrunner” Gallert nabbed the game-winner 2:05 into OT to give Utah a 3-1 series lead.
“After that, we knew we had it,” said Banjax.
The Owls took care of business in Game 5, with F Diego Garcia scoring two goals to lead his team to a 4-1 win. The infamously boisterous team managed not to lay waste to the arena; instead, they formed a dogpile on the ice and soaked in the joy of an unexpected victory.
Utah’s secret? Goalie Sherman Carter. The top prospect started the season with the Owls before earning a quick call-up to the New York Night, before being sent down for the final games of the CHL season. He was the key to the Owls’ postseason success, putting up a 1.99 GAA and a .949 save percentage against the league’s highest-scoring team. Unsurprisingly, Carter was chosen as the Finals MVP.
“Sherm has been nothing short of awesome for us,” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie. “The only sad thing is that he’s probably not going to be back here next year. He’s headed to the pros to stick next year, and I know he’s going to be special.”
In the midst of the postgame celebration, Banjax was asked whether he thought his team could repeat next year. “Probably not,” said the Utah center. “But then, no one thought we’d win it this year. So who knows? I can’t wait to find out.”