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.

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West Strikes Early in All-Star Victory

Could this be the year?  The SHL’s Eastern Division squad came into Wednesday’s third annual SHL All-Star Game hungry for revenge.  In last season’s game, the West humiliated the East in a 9-2 rout.  The West has always been considered the league’s stronger division, but the East has slowly been improving.  The Quebec Tigres took the eventual champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in last year’s finals. Eastern teams have been much more competitive in this season’s interdivision games.  With a raucous and rowdy home crowd behind them at the New York Night’s Neon Sky Center, the East hoped that the third time would be the charm.

Instead, the rule of threes worked against the East, as the West scored three goals in the game’s first three minutes, and wound up winning by three, 5-2, continuing their unbeaten All-Star streak.

“I think we’re all getting pretty sick of those bastards,” said Hamilton Pistols LW Steven Alexander, who was held scoreless in the game.  “We’ve got to win one of these.”

The Big Apple crowd definitely made its presence felt, even during the introductions.  They cheered loudly for the four Night players who made the Eastern squad, while booing each of the Western players with remarkable vigor.  They also booed their loathed rival Alexander, who responded by blowing kisses to the crowd, and Washington Galaxy C Eddie Costello, who won a slot that the Night’s fans felt should have gone to their own Brock Manning.

“One thing about the New York fans: you always know where you stand,” joked Anchorage’s Sam Castor, who coached the Western team.

Once the game started, though, the West wasted no time asserting control of the contest.  Just 71 seconds into the game, Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes redirected a shot from teammate Elliott Rafferty into the top-left corner of the net to put the West on the board.  Just over a minute later, Igloos LW Jerry Koons and RW Nicklas Ericsson got loose on a 2-on-1 rush, and Koons finished with a shot through the five-hole to make it 2-0.  35 seconds after that, Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango fired a slapshot that beat Eastern goalie Jesse Clarkson on the glove side for the West’s third tally.

“They really came out firing,” said Clarkson after the game.  “My head was just spinning trying to keep up.”

East coach Martin Delorme considered lifting Clarkson after the initial onslaught, but did not want to embarrass the netminder in front of his home fans.  He did wind up relieving the starter after the first period, however.

The East’s backup netminder was Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, who started last year’s game but was removed after being rocked for five goals in the first period.  He admitted afterward that he’d celebrated a bit too hard in the run-up to the game.  He was much more solid this time around.  Michigan Gray Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison greeted him with a screened blast from the blue line that found the twine 55 seconds into the period.  After that, Koskinen stopped all but one of the 25 shots he faced the rest of the way. A deflection from Igloos C Jake Frost later in the second was the only other blemish on his record.

“I feel I made up for myself this time,” said Koskinen.  “Not as much parties, not as much stay out late.”

Unfortunately for the East, any hope of a comeback was stymied by Michigan’s Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, who smothered everyone of the 34 shots he faced over two periods.  Even the East-favoring crowd gave Lundquist a standing ovation when he came up with a sprawling stop on a breakaway attempt by the Night’s Rick “The Stick” Nelson late in the first period.

“Lundquist is just a force of nature,” said Castor.  “Nothing puts that guy off his game.”

Lundquist’s brilliance earned him the All-Star MVP honors, the first time a goalie has received the award.  “When you consider the fact that the whole game is basically defense-optional,” said Barnes, “you’re that much more impressed about what The Bear did.”

Along with the award, Lundquist received a brand-new Kia Telluride SUV.  “Wow, this is a big one,” said the Wolves goalie.  “You could fit a whole kid’s hockey team in there.  But I have no kids, so I can put all of my fishing gear in it.”

The East did manage to break the shutout in the third period, scoring twice against the Western backup, Anchorage’s Ty WorthingtonHershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart struck first, beating Worthington through the five-hole about five and a half minutes into the period.  A minute and a half later, New York’s Chase Winchester scored on a wraparound that snuck past Worthington’s pad, touching off the largest cheer of the night, as the crowd saluted one of its own.

“We managed to save a little pride,” said Winchester.  “But that’s no substitute for actually winning.  Next year, it’s ours.”

If so, the East will need to win on the road; next year’s game is at Heartland Telecom Center in Kansas City.

 

SHL All Star Game 
West All Stars @ East All Stars, Neon Sky Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars     3   2   0        5
East All Stars     0   0   2        2 
 
East All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-   West All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Koons           LW     1   1   2   0   2
Sanchez         D      0   0   0   0  -2   Kronstein       D      0   0   0   0   2
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -2   Frost           C      1   1   2   0   2
Milton          D      0   0   0   0  -2   Madison         D      1   1   2   0   2
Nelson          RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     0   1   1   0   2
Winchester      LW     1   0   1   0   0   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -2   Barnes          D      1   0   1   0   2
Beauchesne      C      0   0   0   0   0   Beasley         C      0   1   1   0   0
Risch           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Pomfret         D      0   0   0   0   2
Lafayette       RW     0   1   1   0   0   Mango           RW     1   0   1   0   0
Camernitz       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Airston         LW     0   2   2   0   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   1   Chouinard       D      0   0   0   0  -1
Costello        C      0   1   1   0  -1   Rafferty        C      0   2   2   0   1
Workman         D      0   2   2   0   1   Fairwood        D      0   1   1   0  -1
Hart            RW     1   0   1   0  -1   Merula          RW     0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 2   4   6   0  -3   TOTALS                 5  10  15   0   3

Scratches:
WAS:  none
EAS:  none

 
East All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Clarkson            18    15    3  0.833
Koskinen            26    24    2  0.923

West All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           34    34    0  1.000
Worthington         18    16    2  0.889
 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
01:11  WAS  Barnes (Rafferty, Airston)
02:24  WAS  Koons (Ericsson, Frost)
02:59  WAS  Mango (Beasley, Madison)

PENALTIES:
None


Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
00:55  WAS  Madison (Rafferty, Airston)
14:28  WAS  Frost (Koons, Fairwood)

PENALTIES:
None


Third Period
------------

GOALS:
05:35  EAS  Hart (Workman, Costello)
07:03  EAS  Winchester (Lafayette, Workman)

PENALTIES:
None



 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars    18  13  13       44
East All Stars    18  16  18       52

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

West All Stars   0 for 0
East All Stars   0 for 0

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2019 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2019 SHL All-Star Game, as announced by coach Sam Castor, was as follows:

First Line

LW: Jerry Koons, AnchorageKoons receives his third All-Star selection, and was voted into the starting lineup for the second time, winning by about 10,000 votes over Seattle’s Rod Argent.  Last season, Koons won All-Star MVP honors after scoring a pair of goals in the West’s 9-2 rout.  The Igloos have been red-hot lately, and Koons has been a key driver of their surge.  He’s in the league’s top 10 in points (38) and assists (24).

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  There are apparently three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the election of the Wolves’ top defensive pairing to the All-Star Game.  Kronstein and teammate Max Madison will the West’s starting defensive pair for the third straight season.  For the second straight year, Kronstein received the most votes of any defenseman in the West.  The 26-year-old continues to be among the SHL’s best two-way blueliners; he’s among the league’s top 10 in assists with 26, and has a solid +11 rating to boot.  In addition, he retains his reputation as a heavy hitter and ferocious fighter when challenged.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  Like Kronstein and Madison, Frost has been a fixture in the starting lineup at every All-Star Game.  He cruised to victory once again this year, getting over 25,000 more votes than his nearest competitor.  As the Igloos have gotten stronger over the last month or so, Frost has as well.  The tall, cool center has always been among the league’s top scorers, and his 21 goals this season place him fourth in the league.  “I thought Frosty might be getting a little tired of never getting the All-Star break off,” quipped Castor, “but he seems to like it just fine.”

D: “Mad Max” Madison, Michigan.  Last season, Madison nearly missed the All-Star Game with a lower-back injury, but recovered just in time to play in the game in front of his home crowd.  This season, Madison is in excellent health (although he missed a week early in the season with a nagging lower-body issue) and is ready to make his third straight All-Star start.  The son of an amateur boxer, Madison is renowned as one of the league’s meanest and most dangerous fighters.  But he’s not just a goon; he also handles the puck responsibly.  He’s recorded 16 points (4 goals, 12 assists) so far in the 2019 season.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  For the first time, all three members of the Igloos’ top line will be skating together in the All-Star Game.  The sweet-skating Swede makes his third All-Star appearance, and makes it to the starting lineup for the second time, beating Seattle’s Vince Mango by less than 800 votes.  Ericsson’s claim to fame is his ability to pass and set up scores by his linemates, and this season is no exception; his 36 assists make him #2 in the SHL in that category.  “I’m looking forward to these guys working their All-Star magic together,” said Castor.

 

Second Line

LW: Les Collins, Anchorage.  In a move that raised a few eyebrows around the league, Castor chose his own second-line player, Collins, instead of other top left wingers like Argent or Saskatchewan’s Troy Chamberlain.  It’s the first All-Star bid for Collins, and Castor pointed out that he is having a terrific contract year, putting up 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) and a +14 rating (among the SHL’s top ten).  He even spent some time on Anchorage’s top line, skating beside Frost and Ericsson.  “I think Les would a top-line guy for a lot of teams,” said Castor.  “He’s done it for us.  I’d put him against the best wingers out there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, SaskatchewanBarnes has become an All-Star regular; this is his third appearance.  The Shockers are in the thick of the playoff chase this season, and Barnes and teammate Chris Oflyng have combined to form perhaps the SHL’s most dynamic defensive pairing.  Barnes is tied for the team lead in assists with 20, and has added six goals into the bargain.  While Oflyng is an even more potent offensive force, Barnes is a lockdown defender, frustrating opponents’ zone entries and blocking shooting lanes again and again.  It’s no surprise that Barnes and Oflyng are tied for the team lead in plus-minus at +8.

C: Napoleon Beasley, SeattleEarlier in his career, Beasley was trapped on a weak Saskatchewan club, and constantly faced whispers that he only played because of his father Myron, who coached the team.  After signing with the Sailors in the offseason, Beasley is demonstrating that he is a thoroughly deserving star in his own right.  It’s a breakout season for Seattle, which would qualify for its first-ever playoff berth if the season ended today, and also for Beasley, who has put up 13 goals and 19 assists on the season so far.  It all adds up to Beasley’s first trip to the All-Star Game.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  Castor certainly wasn’t shy about selecting his own players to the team; he selected three Igloos to go along with the three already in the starting lineup.  “Hey, we are the defending division champs,” he noted.  The 24-year-old Pomfret signed a 4-year, $3.6 million extension in the offseason, and he’s living up to it so far.  He’s second among Anchorage blueliners with 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists), and his +13 rating is tied for the best among Igloos defensemen.

RW: Vince Mango, Seattle.  The high-scoring winger and reality television star makes his second All-Star appearance after winning a starting spot in 2018.  Mango has long been knocked for his poor defense and his love of flashy on-ice celebrations, but with the Sailors having their best year ever, their star is finally earning the grudging respect of old-time fans.  He still contributes primarily with his offense, as he’s in the SHL’s top ten for points (37) and goals (19).  But his assist total is up, and he’s more dialed in on defense than in years past.  He remains as colorful as ever, though; he promised that he’s working on a “special one-of-a-kind goal celebration” for the All-Star contest.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, DakotaAirston gets an All-Star nod for the second time; he was in the West’s starting lineup in 2017.  This year, he is the sole Jackalopes player to receive the honor, which is fitting given the dismal season they’ve had so far.  In spite of missing nearly three weeks with an upper-body injury, Airston has still managed to out up 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists), which places him one off the team lead.  As Dakota looks to cut payroll amid rumors of serious financial trouble, Airston is practically the only team star who’s not being shopped.

D: Bastien Chouinard, Kansas CityThe 20-year-old rookie blueliner made the cut as one of the Smoke’s two All-Star representatives.  Although Boston’s Alain Beauchesne is the consensus Rookie of the Year favorite, Chouinard may give him a run for his money.  The young Quebecois D-man is putting up surprising offensive numbers (5 goals, 19 assists) to back up a give-no-quarter defensive style that has him tied for second in the NHL in penalty minutes, with 60.  “Defensemen are a pretty rough bunch, but that guy’s legitimately scary,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner of Chouinard.  “If I had to go down a dark alley at midnight, I’d want him next to me.”

C: Elliott Rafferty, Saskatchewan.  Many league insiders thought Rafferty’s teammate Lars Karlsson would get this spot, but Castor instead tapped Rafferty to make his All-Star debut.  Karlsson has the big contract and the superior pedigree, but Rafferty’s got the better numbers this season.  He leads the Shockers with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists), and he’s one of only three forwards on Saskatchewan with a positive plus-minus (+3).  Rafferty’s breakout performance earned him Player of the Week honors a couple weeks before the break; that might have influenced Castor’s thinking.

D: Woody Fairwood, Seattle.  Amid a crowded field of strong two-way defensemen, Castor made a somewhat unexpected pick in tapping the 23-year-old Fairwood as another first-time All-Star.  Prior to this season, Fairwood was perhaps best known around the league for the time he sat on the opposing goalie and flung the puck into the net by hand.  But this year, he’s earning notice for his high caliber of play.  In the first half, he produced 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists).  Even more impressive, his +19 rating is second-best in the league.  “Good things happen when Woody’s on the ice,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.  “That’s all there is to it.”

RW: Zachary Merula, Kansas City.  Yet another All-Star newcomer, the 23-year-old Merula joins teammate Chouinard on the bottom line.  Merula had an impressive rookie season, and he looks to be on track to eclipse that performance in his sophomore year.  He is KC’s second highest point-scorer with 28 (13 goals, 15 assists).  And he doesn’t shy away from rough play, either, as his 45 penalty minutes will attest.

 

Goalies

Dirk “The Bear” Lindquist, Michigan.  Who else?  The lusciously-bearded Lundquist regularly tops the list of SHL goaltenders, both in terms of statistics and fan support.  Even though Michigan has slipped a bit after a dominant start, Lundquist remains the king of the Western crease, having almost twice as many votes as his nearest competitor.  As usual, he leads the league in wins (with 16) and in save percentage (.942).  His 1.64 goals-against average is second only to his rarely-used backup, Art Cowan.

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  In each of the past two years, Worthington has been Lundquist’s backup on the Western squad.  Castor decided to keep the tradition going for 2019, despite considerable support for Seattle’s Rocky Goldmire, who is having a career season.  Unlike many of his Igloos teammates, who started slow and then get hot, Worthington has been strong throughout the first half.  He is tied with Hershey’s Brandon Colt for second-most goaltender wins, with 14.  His 2.38 GAA placed his among the league’s top five.

Wolves Fall Out of First, Wright Warns Against Complacency

Four weeks ago, the Michigan Gray Wolves looked unbeatable.  Literally.  Twelve games into the season, they had yet to lose (or tie) once.  It looked as though the Western title was all but assured, and the rest of the season would be a race for second place.

What a difference a month makes.  Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record.  This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half.  The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.

The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke.  The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie.  After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance.  “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison.  Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.

On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors.  The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals.  Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest.  Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times.  In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.

The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday.  The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple.  New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.

On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres.  The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair.  The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist.  Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0.  It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.

Ron Wright

After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference.  “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters.  “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty.  We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target.  But I think we’ve gotten complacent.  We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched.  The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”

The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted.  “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said.  “But this year is different.  Seattle’s playing out of their minds.  Anchorage is coming on strong.  Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix.  We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”

Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track.  And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season.  We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”

The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment.  “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow.  “I think we’re all pretty disappointed.  But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”

Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers.  Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season.  The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup.  “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow.  “He’s the guy we need.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 3

Dirk Lundquist

The SHL selected Michigan Gray Wolves G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist as its Player of the Week.  Lundquist had another exceptional week for the Wolves, going 3-0-0 with a 1.32 GAA and a .967 save percentage.  For the season, the Michigan goalie’s numbers seem almost too good to be real: 10-0-0, 0.99 GAA, .966 save percentage.

There were no easy wins for Lundquist this week, either: he faced two games against longtime rival Anchorage and one against Seattle, Michigan’s closest competitor so far.  On Tuesday, he stopped all 41 Igloos shots in a 2-0 victory.  On Thursday, he had 36 saves to sink the Sailors 3-2.  Then on Saturday, he turned aside another 41 Anchorage blasts and held on to prevail 3-2 in overtime.

“I think when he lost the Goalie of the Year Award [to Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen] last season, he took that personally,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “The Bear’s not a real emotional guy, not publicly anyway, but I know that bothered him.  This year, he’s on a mission to show everybody who the best netminder in the league really is.  As far as I’m concerned, he can go right on showing everybody all season.”

Hungry Wolves Dominant in Early Going

When the Michigan Gray Wolves were swept out of last year’s Western Division playoff, some observers felt it was a watershed moment for a team that has regularly been among the SHL’s best.  Were the Wolves getting complacent after multiple seasons of success?  Was their aging roster starting to catch up to them?  Were they about to be passed by the rising young teams in Seattle or Saskatchewan?

As it turns out, rumors of Michigan’s demise were greatly exaggerated.  The Wolves are playing their most dominant hockey to date, smothering the life out of their opponents and threatening to turn the Western race into a battle for second place.

“The way they’re playing right now, no one can even lay a glove on them,” said Seattle Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “They’re not even on the same dimension as the rest of us.”

The Wolves are relying on their tried-and-true formula, built around airtight defense and goaltending.  They’ve been able to dictate the pace of games, often forcing high-flying opponents to play at Michigan’s preferred deliberate tempo.  They’ve held opponents to 27.3 shots and under a goal per game.  Even by the Wolves’ usual rugged standards, that’s domination.

They’ve already recorded six shutouts, more than most teams manage over an entire season.  You might be tempted to credit elite goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist for that achievement, but two of those shutouts were recorded by backup Art Cowan.

Michigan’s sternest test yet came on Tuesday, when they faced off against the Anchorage Igloos, the longtime rivals who knocked them out of the playoffs last year.  The Igloos are off to an underwhelming start, and they were eager to deal the Wolves their first loss.  Anchorage managed to break Michigan’s defensive pressure and outshot them 41-20.  But thanks to a sterling performance from Lundquist, the Wolves walked away with another shutout victory, this time by a 2-0 margin.

Ron Wright

Ask Michigan players for the secret to their success, and they’ll point to coach Ron Wright.  The Wolves’ bench boss is a master motivator, and he reinforced the team’s commitment to hard work coming into the season.

“Coach Wright knows how to get the most out of this team,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “He knows just how hard to push us without going too far.  He demands a lot from us, but he’s taught us to demand even more from ourselves.”

Throughout the offseason, every time Wright came across an article or broadcast segment suggesting Michigan might be on the decline, he texted it to the team group chat.  “We saw every bad thing anyone said about us,” said D Fritz Kronstein.  “We were too old, too slow, over the hill.  We were overconfident and rested on our laurels.  The game is favoring youth and speed, and we were dinosaurs.  It just fueled our fire.  When we got to the first day of camp, Coach just smiled and said, ‘So, ready to prove them all wrong?’”

As great as the Wolves have looked, they know full well that this won’t guarantee them anything.  They’ve had a history of getting off to hot starts, although never quite this hot.  Both last year and in 2015, they started strong but ended up without a title.  Michigan’s players, however, show no sign of letting up, which can only be bad news for the rest of the league.

“We know that we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win the Vandy,” said Bailes.  “But we’re in it for the long haul.  We’re all in to get the title, and we’re not going to let up until we get there.”

Lundquist Opens Season with Back-to-Back Shutouts

The Michigan Gray Wolves have historically succeeded on the strength of their defense and the sure-handed goaltending of Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  As the Wolves begin their quest to dethrone the Anchorage Igloos atop the Western division, they came out firing on all cylinders, as Lundquist became the first netminder in SHL history to open the season with back-to-back shutouts.

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist

“All hail The Bear!” crowed Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison.  “We like to talk about how nothing gets past him, but literally, nothing is getting past him right now.”

The Wolves opened the season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, a team widely perceived as a rising power.  Lundquist, however, barely broke a sweat in turning aside 21 Saskatchewan shots, and LW Scot Davenport’s short-handed goal stood up as the lone tally in a 1-0 Michigan win.

On Tuesday, the Wolves traveled up north to face the rival Anchorage Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  Coming off of a disappointing tie against Dakota to open the season, the Igloos were determined to make a statement.  But they ran into a brick wall in the crease, as Lundquist stopped 25 Igloos blasts and C Warren Marlow banged home a slapshot from the slot in the second period to give the Wolves another 1-0 victory.

Lundquist’s streak came to an end during Thursday’s home opener against Saskatchewan, when Shockers D Chris Oflyng scored on a power play 1 minute and 41 seconds into the opening period.  Fortunately, the Wolves’ offense showed up this time in the form of four third-period goals, and Michigan rolled to a 6-2 rout.

“Talk about taking your game to the next level,” said Michigan C Hunter Bailes.  “Some of the saves he makes, I don’t understand how he does it.  He’s like Inspector Gadget, stretching out his arms and legs further than humanly possible.”

Lundquist, meanwhile, said that the Wolves’ defense deserved the real credit.  “As a goalie, the fewer high-danger shots you face, the better you look,” Lundquist told reporters.  “Our D is just incredible.  They’re really strong at protecting the home-plate area and clearing out in front of the crease, and they’re all over the ice blocking shots and denying good angles.  They make things easy for me.”

Michigan coach Ron Wright praised Lundquist’s torrid start, but was quick to point out that his netminder’s brilliance obscured the team’s early struggles on offense.  The Wolves averaged a mere 1.3 goals per game while stumbling through an uninspired preseason, and Wright called on his team to improve.

“The Bear is the best goalie in the league, no doubt, but he’s not superhuman,” Wright told reporters.  “If we’re counting on winning every game 1-0, this season isn’t going to go well for us.  As great as Lundquist is, I think we tend to use him as a security blanket sometimes.  We need more games like [Thursday’s].  We need to focus on sharpening our offensive game, so that we’re not relying on The Bear to be perfect.”