- On Wednesday, the Saskatchewan Shockers activated D Chris Oflyng from the injured list. Oflyng, the Shockers’ top-scoring blueliner, had been out for more than a month with a lower-body injury suffered just before the All-Star break. In order to make room for Oflyng on the roster, the Shockers reassigned D Valeri Nistrumov to their CHL affiliate in Halifax. Nistrumov as appeared in 20 games for Saskatchewan this season, recording 5 assists and a -7 rating.
- On Friday, the Shockers activated C Cyril Perignon from the injured list. Perignon was injured during the last game of the first half, and after a setback in rehab, is now returning to action. To allow Perignon’s return, the Shockers returned C Trent Harlow to Virginia, and released D Kjell Hanson.
- On Saturday, the Michigan Gray Wolves‘ affiliate in Cleveland activated D Gil Calvert from the injured list. Calvert missed two and a half weeks with a lower-body injury. To make room for Calvert on the roster, the Gray Wolves released D Davis McNeely. McNeely appeared in four games with Cleveland, and did not record a point.
- Also on Saturday, the Hershey Bliss recalled F Anton Lapointe from their affiliate in Milwaukee, and demoted RW James Clay to Milwaukee. Clay appeared in 4 games with Hershey, recording an assist and a +1 rating.
- On Monday, the Kansas City Smoke‘s CHL affiliate in Omaha activated D Lowell Sharkey from the injured list. Sharkey, who is a highly-regarded prospect in the Kansas City organization, missed five weeks with a lower-body injury. In order to make room for Sharkey on the roster, the team released D Kjell Hanson. The 24-year-old Hanson appeared in 15 games for Omaha, recording 2 assists and a -4 rating.
- On Friday, the Dakota Jackalopes placed C Tanner Brooks on the injured list. The 23-year-old Brooks suffered an upper-body injury during Thursday’s 4-1 win over Quebec, and is expected to miss at least three weeks. To fill in during Brooks’ absence, the Jackalopes promoted C Jacob Cunniff from their CHL affiliate in Idaho. Cunniff is Idaho’s leading scorer, with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) so far on the season.
- Also on Friday, the Hershey Bliss activated LW Russell Nahorniak from the injured list. Nahorniak missed five weeks with a lower-body injury. In order to accommodate Nahorniak’s return, the Bliss sent LW Sergei Tarisov back to their affiliate in Milwaukee. Tarisov appeared in 13 games during Nahorniak’s absence, recording 3 goals and a +3 rating. To make room for Tarisov on Milwaukee’s roster, the team released F Jerry Casenovia.
- In one more Friday move, the Saskatchewan Shockers placed D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng on the injured list. Oflyng had to be helped off the ice after being slammed head-first into the boards on Thursday, and is expected to miss up to six weeks. The loss is devastating to the surging Shockers, as Oflyng led the team in points with 30 (8 goals, 22 assists). To fill Oflyng’s roster spot, Saskatchewan called up D Pierre Chappelle from their CHL affiliate in Virginia. The 31-year-old Chappelle was tied for the Virginia team lead in goals (with 15) and points (with 29).
- On Saturday, the Hamilton Pistols placed C Marco Venezio on the injured list. Venezio suffered a lower-body injury during Saturday’s game against Saskatchewan, and is expected to miss three to four weeks. Venezio has been a stalwart on Hamilton’s second line, putting up 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) on the season. To fill Venezio’s spot on the roster, Hamilton called up C Hilliard Macy from their affiliate in Oshawa. It’s the second SHL stint for the 20-year-old Macy, who appeared in 5 games for Hamilton earlier in the season. The Pistols also signed F Bobby Warner to a minor-league contract.
- Also on Saturday, the Shockers placed C Cyril Perignon on the injured list. Perignon suffered a lower-body injury against Hamilton on Saturday; he is expected to miss at least a month. Perignon has recorded 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) and a +1 rating on the season for Saskatchewan. To replace Perignon, the Shockers called up C Trent Harlow from Virginia. At the time of his callup, Harlow led the Rhinos with 30 points.
The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years. Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec. But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale. This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.
Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors. The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale. The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game. “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”
The Sailors got off to a fast start. Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead. Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0. The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.
In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear. In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board. Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score. A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen. But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads. Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.
Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win? For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango. In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home. Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.
“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.
With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division. The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy. “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost. “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”
Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols. The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead. But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs. Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.
Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory. Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner. Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead. Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game. “You’d hate to see that. It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”
Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols. Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York Night. Nick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.
“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said. “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”
The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them. But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in. Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.
LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants. Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter. Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.
In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again. The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside. When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.
In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie. Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title. (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)
True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division. As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice. In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music. “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes. “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart. It really does. If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”
The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude. “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields. “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate. Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage. And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”
Alexander was more blunt than his coach. “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything. They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic. Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”
The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business. The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship. But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.
“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox. “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away. We were all hungry for revenge.”
Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied. They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep. Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.
“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”
Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium. The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation. The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history. Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win. “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.
The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2. They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win, Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort. “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh. “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”
With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28. Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph. Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period. In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury. But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.
The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series. “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh. “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors. Onward and upward!”
Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship. “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon. “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there. We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”