CHL Update: Spuds Down Rhinos, Claim Second Straight Crown

This year’s CHL playoffs had a… familiar ring to them.  Three of the four playoff teams also made it last season.  (Only the Halifax Atlantics were newcomers.)  In the Finals, the Idaho Spuds faced off against the Virginia Rhinos for the second straight season.  Just like last season, the series lasted 6 games.  And just like last season, the Spuds emerged victorious, claiming their second consecutive Howard Trophy.

“This is the way to do it!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox, shouting to be heard over the booming music in the victorious locker room.  “Go all the way and then have a big party.  I’m ready to do this every year!”

Idaho came into the Finals as the favored team, but they knew that the series would be no cakewalk and that the Rhinos would give them a battle.  “There’s a reason why Virginia makes the Finals every year,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne before the series started.  “They know how to bring their game up a level when it counts.  I know we’re going to have our hands full.”

The Rhinos showed in Game 1 that they would be no pushovers.  They walked into Treasure Valley Arena and muzzled Idaho’s roaring offense.  They limited the Spuds to just 25 shots, and goalie Quentin Chislic turned them all aside.  Second-period scores by RW Hank Diehl and LW Errol Garner were enough to deliver Virginia a 2-0 victory.  The home team was eager to get even in Game 2, which turned out to be something of a defensive chess match.  D Jackson Creed finally got the Spuds on the board in the series midway through the first period, and RW Dylan Alizarin added a power-play marker early in the second to double the lead.  C Ron Yaeckel struck back for Virginia later in the second, but the Rhinos’ offense sputtered after that (they managed only 19 shots in the contest) and they went on to lose 2-1.

The action shifted to the Tidewater for the next three games.  In Game 3, the pace picked up and both offenses got their opportunities.  The Rhinos took the early lead on a power-play score from D Graham Bellinger.  But Idaho overturned that lead early in the second, as RW Trace Walker and D Geoff Moultrie scored just over a minute apart.   Goalie Kelvin White slammed the door from there, stopping 34 Virginia shots to secure the Spuds’ 2-1 victory.  Game 4 wound up going to overtime, as Idaho LW Terry Cresson scored on the man advantage early in the third to even the score.  In the extra session, Idaho had numerous opportunities to take control of the series, but Chislic made one ten-bell save after another to keep the Rhinos in it.  (He had 10 saves in overtime, and 34 for the game.)  Finally, just over 14 minutes into overtime, Bellinger scored his second goal of the game to give Virginia a 3-2 win and even the series.

LW Zane Skandalakis, who had been one of the Rhinos’ leading regular-season scorers, finally returned from injury for Game 5, and it seemed like the series momentum might be shifting in favor of the underdogs.  But Idaho scored three times in the first five minutes of the third period to break open a tie game.  Virginia battled back, with a goal by Yaeckel and another by D Valeri Nistrumov with under five minutes remaining, but they couldn’t come up with the equalizer, and fell 5-4 to move within one game of elimination.

Coming back home for Game 6, the Spuds were looking to close things out.  But the Rhinos once again refused to go quietly.  D Rusty Sienna‘s goal on a shot from the point gave Idaho the early lead, but Virginia surged ahead before the end of the first on goals by Skandalakis and D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta.  The score remained the same through the second, as Idaho wasted three power-play opportunities.  It looked as though the Rhinos would force Game 7.  But RW Britt Cadmium finally tied it in the third, finishing a beautiful dangle with a snipe between Chislic’s legs.  Then close to the period’s midpoint, Cresson picked up a sloppy pass in the neutral zone and fed Wilcox, who crashed the net and tucked it top-shelf for what would prove to be the game-winning goal in a 3-2 series clincher.

In a tight series that consisted almost entirely of one-goal games, it was fitting that netminder White, who finished the series with a 2.08 GAA and a .929 save percentage, was chosen as the Finals MVP.  “This was a real chess match of a series,” said McCoyne.  “If Kel hadn’t been on his toes in the net, a couple of those games could have easily gone the other way.  He snuffed out a lot of potential rallies.”

For the Rhinos, who have been to the Finals four straight years but have only won once.  they could only ponder what might have been.  “Ever see that movie ‘Sliding Doors’?” said coach Jeffrey Marsh.  “When you lose a series, it’s a lot like that.  The puck goes in instead of hitting the post, that failed clear actually makes it out of the zone instead of winding up in the back of the net, and suddenly you’re dyeing your hair blond and marrying some other guy.  I don’t actually remember how that movie ended because I fell asleep halfway through, but it was probably like that.”

CHL Update: Spuds Aim for Repeat Against Rhinos

This year’s CHL Finals has something in common with this year’s SHL Finals: it’s a rematch.  One team finished with the league’s best record, and is looking to win back-to-back titles.  The other is turning Finals trips into a habit, having made it every year of the league’s existence.  Both teams got here by sweeping their division-round opponents.

In the West, the Idaho Spuds came into the playoffs as the favorite, not to mention the defending champs.  They demonstrated strength on both ends of the ice this season, and they came into the playoffs with a quiet confidence.  “We’re definitely looking to go back-to-back,” said C Dale Wilcox.  “We’ve got the talent and the drive, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be us.”

But before they could defend their title, the Spuds had to make it past the Omaha Ashcats, who surged down the stretch to make it into the playoffs.  The series opened before a noisy sellout crowd at Boise’s Treasure Valley Arena, and the Spuds ran the Ashcats off the ice in a dominant first period. The visitors struck first on a goal by RW Rene Courcel just 31 seconds in, but Idaho ruled the ice from there, scoring three times (one by Wilcox and two by C Chayce Yonge) and outshooting the Ashcats 17-6, on their way to a 4-1 victory.  Game 2 was a different story; both teams were flying up and down the ice and taking shots by the bucketload; they combined for an astounding 94 shots.  The teams traded the lead throughout the game; Ashcats RW Louis LaPlante scored with just 2:30 left in regulation to tie it up and force overtime, but it was Spuds RW Dylan Alizarin who was the ultimate hero, scoring just under 9 minutes into the extra session to seal a 6-5 Idaho win.  As the series shifted to Omaha for Game 3, Ashcats superfan “Krazy Karl” Loesser – who burned jerseys and dolls outside the arena as a “sacrifice” to the hockey gods to get his team into the postseason – wanted to hold another pregame sarcifice ceremony, but the team vetoed his request.  They may have regretted it later, as the Spuds won 4-2 to complete the sweep.  D Geoff Moultrie scored the go-ahead goal for Idaho late in the second period, and LW Terry Cresson added an insurance tally in the third to seal it.  Goalie Kelvin White came up big with a 40-save performance to thwart Omaha’s comeback bid.

“I really loved the energy and intensity I saw, from the players and our fans too,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We’re playing great hockey, probably our best of the season, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the Finals.”

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos surged in the second half to make it back to the postseason, but they finished just three points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Halifax Atlantics.  The series, which pitted Halifax’s patient defense-focused attack against Virginia’s more well-rounded game, was widely expected to be a close match.  But the Rhinos quickly demonstrated otherwise, turning up their speed to expose the Atlantics’ highly-regarded D.

Game 1 quickly turned into a laugher; the Rhinos scored three times in the first period and never looked back in a 6-1 rout.  Each Virginia goal was scored by a different player; RW Mark Clark even recorded a short-handed tally to put an exclamation point on the blowout.  Halifax switched goalies from Jonathan Crane to Art Cowan for Game 2, but it made no difference.  Virginia skated rings around the slow-footed Atlantics, outshooting them 30-13 and outscoring them 5-0.  Unlike the previous game, the Rhinos had a multi-goal scorer this time: D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta struck twice.  Quentin Chislic managed to stay awake in net long enough to complete the shutout.  With their backs against the wall and back at home for Game 3, Halifax finally managed to slow the game down; the teams combined for just 32 shots, After RW Alois Rodney scored a power-play within the first minute of the game, Halifax turned the contest into a rock fight, bogging down the action in the neutral zone and clinging desperately to their lead.  But Virginia finally broke through the trap in the third period, and Clark scored to tie the game.  Halifax managed to force overtime, but C Trent Harlow put the Atlantics (and everyone watching the game) out of their misery less than four minutes in, banging one home off the left post for a 2-1 victory.

“The only problem with making the Finals every year,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey Marsh, “is that I’m running out of movies to steal inspirational speeches from.  I think this year, it’s going to be either ‘Patton’ or ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.'”

Idaho is favored to prevail in the Finals; their combination of skills and their ability to adjust to any playing style makes them a dangerous foe.  But Virginia’s been here before – many times – and they’re not apt to let the Spuds dictate the terms of play.  One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely that another sweep is in the cards.  Whoever intends to win the title is in for a long, hard fight.

CHL Update: Spuds Stop Rhinos in 6 to Claim Title

The Idaho Spuds were an unlikely contender in the CHL.  Last season, playing as the Muncie Squirrels, they finished fourth in their division.  Their rebuilding parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, called up several of the best prospects from that squad.  The Spuds received a warm reception in their new home, regularly selling out Treasure Valley Arena.  But the idea that they’d finish above .500, much less make the playoffs, seemed far-fetched to most observers.

However, coach Gilbert McCoyne wasn’t interested in what most observers thought.  “I wasn’t about to put any limits on what we could achieve,” McCoyne said.  “I just told my guys, ‘Why not us?’”

McCoyne’s power-of-positive-thinking approach paid dividends.  Idaho not only made the playoffs, they dismissed the heavily-favored division-winning Omaha Ashcats in a stunning sweep.  Then in the Finals, they dethroned the defending champion Virginia Rhinos in six games to win their first-ever Howard Trophy.

“This season has been one wild ride!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox.  “We never gave up and never stopped believing, and now we’re the champs!”

The series opened in Boise in front of another pair of sellout crowds, and the Spuds gave their fans plenty to cheer about.  In Game 1, fueled by the energy of their fans, a fired-up Idaho team outshot the Rhinos 32-20.  The Spuds capitalized on their power play opportunities, going 3-for-4 in man-advantage situations, and goalie Kelvin White registered a shutout in a 3-0 Idaho win.  In Game 2, the Spuds once again had a huge advantage in shots, outshooting Virginia 43-23, but White wasn’t quite as sharp.  Idaho squandered a 4-2 lead in the third period when Rhinos LW Yuri Laronov and LW Errol Garner scored 90 seconds apart, but RW Britt Cadmium came through with what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 5-4 triumph.

The Rhinos regained their footing a bit in the middle three games, which took place on their ice.  In Game 3, Virginia got a pair of second-period goals from Laronov and D Gustaf Bergstrom, and goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 30 Idaho shots for a 2-0 win.  In Game 4, Virginia got the early edge, only to see Idaho seize control of the game in the second on the way to a 6-2 blowout that included three third-period goals.  Staring at elimination, the Rhinos pushed back in Game 5, building a 3-0 lead through the first forty minutes.  The Spuds pushed back in the third, putting up another three-goal frame, but Virginia held on for a 5-3 win.  C Trent Harlow scored two goals in a winning effort for the defending champs.

With the action shifting back to Treasure Valley Arena for Game 6, the Spuds were looking for the quick kill, while the Rhinos were looking to prove that they could be competitive away from home.  Idaho controlled the play once again, outshooting Virginia 38-26, but Chislic kept the Rhinos in the game.  LW Van Dyke Browning scored in the opening minute to give Idaho a quick edge, but Rhinos D Gunther Stephens answered less than four minutes later to tie things up.  The Spuds got back in front in the second on a score by D Brett Stolte, and D Georg Ochre made it 3-1 early in the third with a blast from the top of the faceoff circle.  Idaho then endangered their lead with a string of minor penalties, and Bergstrom finally converted with just over five minutes remaining to pull Virginia within one.  The Spuds managed to stay out of the penalty box after that, though, and the Rhinos couldn’t come up with an equalizer in the time remaining.

Ochre, who led all Idaho scorers with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists), earned the Finals MVP honors.  His teammates mobbed the quiet, rugged defenseman they fondly call “The Ogre.”  As Wilcox quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the Ogre’s acceptance speech, ‘cause it’ll be the first time he’s said more than two words in a row.”

For many of the Spuds, their next challenge will come in the SHL, as they’re called up and tasked with reviving the Jackalopes’ sagging fortunes.  “Making it in the SHL is a different kind of challenge,” admitted Wilcox.  “But we’ve gotten this far by believing in ourselves, so why not keep going?”

CHL Update: Spuds Set Goal Record in Rout of Harpoons

The Idaho Spuds have had a tremendous debut season in their new home.  The Dakota Jackalopes affiliate rocketed off to a strong start this season and hasn’t looked back since.  Barring a collapse, they will make the playoffs.  And their merchandise – which features an angry hockey-playing potato – has become the most popular in the league.

On Thursday at Treasure Valley Arena, the Spuds gave their fans another moment to cherish in a memorable season.  Facing off against the Hartford Harpoons, Idaho set a new CHL record for goals scored in a game during a 12-0 whitewashing.

“We were firing on all cylinders, but it went beyond that,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We were firing on cylinders I didn’t even know we had.”

Idaho got the scoring started virtually right out of the gate.  It took only 45 seconds for C Dale Wilcox to record the first goal of the game.  Just 42 seconds after that, Wilcox scored again on a shot that deflected off the right leg of Hartford goalie Jonas Schemko and into the net.  Six and a half minutes later, D Victor Addison cashed in on a power play to make it 3-0.  Later in the period, D Brady Prussian banged home a pair of goals.  By the end of the first period, the Spuds led by five and Schemko was out of the game.

Idaho seemed to throttle back a bit in the second period against backup netminder Jeff Bingley.  LW Terry Cresson scored within the first 90 seconds of the period, and Addison tipped in a rebound for his second goal of the evening in the latter half, but those were the only tallies.  After the frenzied barrage of goals in the first, the middle stanza gave the fans a chance to catch their breath.

The Spuds got things cranked back up again quickly in the third, however.  Forty-seven second in, Wilcox fired a shot over Bingley’s left blocker to complete his hat trick.  The fans sailed their lids onto the ice in tribute.  Just over a minute later, Prussian stuffed one home for a hat trick of his own.  The fans who had held onto their hats during Wilcox’s tally relinquished them now to salute Prussian.  Several of the Spuds tossed their helmets on the ice to augment the total a bit.

“I told Victor he’d better not score again, because there weren’t any hats left in the building,” quipped Prussian.

Addison didn’t score again, but D Rusty Sienna put the Spuds in double digits just over seven and a half minutes into the period with a blast from the blueline that beat a screened Bingley.  The fans barely had time to process that milestone, because RW Dylan Alizarin scored again a mere seven seconds later.  Less than two minutes later, Cresson got has second goal of the game on a wraparound, making it an even dozen.  Amazingly, the Spuds made it through the last half of the final frame without scoring again, which would have tied the Michigan Gray Wolves’ all-time SHL record for highest-scoring shutout.

“Somebody better check on [PA announcer] Brody Watkins,” joked McCoyne after the game.  “He probably got laryngitis from calling out all those goals.  I’d consider him day-to-day at this point.  Hopefully, he can stay off the DL.”

The final stats were staggering.  Four Idaho players had five-point games: Wilcox, Prussian, Addison, and C Jacob Cunniff, who had five assists.  Only three Spuds failed to record a point: LW Rick Crisak, C Sammy Fryer, and D Gray Torian.

Harpoons coach Herman Chambers took the result in stride.  “This only counted as one loss, thank God,” Chambers told reporters.  “It’s not one we’re proud of, but it’s over now.  Let’s bury this game film at the bottom of the ocean and move on.”