CHL Update: Owls Shock Rhinos in 5 To Win Championship

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.”

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CHL Update: Virginia’s Rhinos Rolling

So far in the SHL’s minor league, the competitors have been pretty well matched.  Most of the teams are within a game or two of the .500 mark.  There are a couple of exceptions, however.  In particular, there’s one team that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Virginia Rhinos.  The affiliate of the Saskatchewan Shockers is threatening to run away with the league.

The Rhinos’ record is an astounding 18-6-1.  They are 7 points ahead of the next-best team in the league; in the East, they’re 9 points up on the second-place Maine Moose.  “This must have been what it was like to race against Secretariat,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge.  “Right now, all we can see are the taillights.”

Shawn Stickel

What’s been the secret to the Rhinos’ success?  It starts with a turnaround season in net.  Last year, Shawn Stickel was a newly-drafted goalie backing up Zeke Zagurski in Saskatchewan.  Stickel’s rookie season was a disaster, going 1-12-0 with a 5.29 GAA.  His most notable exploit was getting arrested after getting liquored up on a cross-country flight and joyriding a baggage cart.  “I was on my own for the first time,” Stickel admitted, “so I was acting young and dumb.”

At risk of throwing away his career, Stickel devoted the offseason to getting himself back on track.  He went to an alcohol treatment program and swore off drinking.  He also spent countless hours refining his craft, studying tape to identify the flaws in his game and working with coaches and ex-teammates to correct them.  The results have been evident: this season, Stickel has gone 14-4-1 with a 2.20 GAA and a .927 save percentage.

“Honestly, I’m glad I wound up in the minors,” said Stickel.  “When you’re a backup in the pros, especially as a young guy, it’s hard to stay sharp and improve.  And you wind up with a lot of time on your hands, which I filled with drinking and goofing around.  Here, knowing my team’s counting on me almost every day, it’s easy to keep that mental edge.  And it’s given me an opportunity to practice the things I worked on over the summer, and continue to get better.”

Stickel’s solid goaltending seals up the defensive end for the Rhinos.  On the offensive end, they benefit from a potent and varied offense.  Their top line features two of the CHL’s top scorers, LW Yuri Laronov (11 goals, 28 points) and RW Colton Jabril (12 goals, 29 points), flanking one of the best passers, C Tanner Brooks (24 assists).  Coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh likes to activate his defensemen on the attack, and the results have been evident.  Blake Blacklett is the CHL’s premier offensive defenseman (12 goals, 26 points), and Virginia has a couple other strong two-way threats in Robby Rohrman (9 goals, 21 points) and Rennie Cox (8 goals, 19 points).

“I’m seeing a lot of guys here who are SHL-caliber already, to be honest,” said Marsh.  “I don’t know if there’s going to be room in Saskatchewan next year for all the guys who deserve to be there.”

To be sure, the season’s not yet at the halfway point, and the Rhinos could easily cool off between now and the end of the year.  But right now, it’s easy to look at the talent on the ice in Virginia every night and imagine them powering a future contender in Saskatchewan.  “All the guys we have are happy to be here,” said Marsh, “but I know none of them really wants to be here.  They want to be in the majors.  And it’s my job to help them get there.  I can’t wait to see how their careers unfold.”