SHL Player of the Week – Week 13

In an unprecedented move, the SHL named the entire Michigan Gray Wolves‘ defense as its Players of the Week.  “Up until now, we’ve always limited the Player of the Week honor to a single player,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “But we felt that Michigan’s defensive work needed to be recognized, and we couldn’t single out any one player for it, so we’re recognizing them all.”

The Wolves’ blueline corps – which includes “Mad Max” Madison, Fritz Kronstein (who won solo Player of the Week honors three weeks ago), Frank Mudrick, Brooks Zabielski, Sam Bergdorf, Bjorn Tollefson, Lyndon Bullock, and Cedric Berlinger – were in top form with the playoffs approaching.  Michigan allowed only two goals in their four games this week, thanks in large part to the shot-suppressing ability of their defenders.  The Wolves’ opponents averaged less than 16 shots this week.  In Sunday’s showdown against Hamilton, a potential Finals opponent, Michigan held the high-flying Pistols to only 19 shots in a 3-0 win.  Then in consecutive games against Dakota and Kansas City, the Wolves limited their opponents to 12 shots each, allowing them to edge the Jackalopes 1-0 and stop the Smoke 4-1.

“Our core identity is defense,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “And it says a lot about the group we have here that even though I’ve been rotating guys in and out this week, giving the starters a little rest, we haven’t missed a beat.”

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Western All-Star Rosters

The rosters for the Western Division in the SHL’s first All-Star Game, as announced by Michigan coach Ron Wright, are as follows:

First Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, DakotaAirston prevailed in the closest competition in All-Star voting, edging out Anchorage’s Jerry Koons by less than 1,500 votes.  The noted bunny enthusiast is one of the league’s top scorers, turning in 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) so far on the season.

D: “Mad Max” Madison, MichiganThe Gray Wolves are the SHL’s #1 defensive squad by a healthy margin, so it’s no surprise that Michigan’s defenders dominated the voting.  Madison is the best-known and most colorful of the bunch; as a result, he was the West’s top vote-getter at the position.  He’s contributed on both ends, with 15 points and a +16 rating.  He is also tied for the SHL lead in penalty minutes, with 60.

C: Jake Frost, AnchorageUnlike the East, voting for center in the West wasn’t close in the least; Frost garnered nearly twice as many votes as his nearest competitor.  His commanding margin is a testament to his excellent play; Frost’s 23 goals is tied for the SHL lead.  He is also among the league leaders in plus-minus rating, at +18.

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan. Kronstein is the less colorful half of the Wolves’ top defensive pairing, but he’s an even more impressive two-way player. The German-born blueliner has put up 24 points so far this season to go with his +17 rating. Unlike Madison, he plays a heavy defense without racking up heavy penalty minutes (only 19 on the season).

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage. There are a number of high-scoring right wingers in the West, but Ericsson earned the nod for his exceptional passing skills.  He has put up 40 assists on the season, eight more than anyone else in the league to date.  “There’s only going to be one puck on the ice,” said Wright, “so I’m glad my top line isn’t stacked with shooters.

 

Second Line

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage. Koons narrowly lost the popular vote to Airston, but his statistics suggest that he is the superior choice.  He’s tied for the league lead in goals (23) and is the sole leader in points (44).  He is also in the top five league-wide in plus-minus rating (+18).

D: Wyatt Barnes, SaskatchewanIn a tough season for the Shockers, Barnes has been a standout.  Advanced metrics suggest point to him as one of the West’s best defenders, and he’s been one of Saskatchewan’s offensive leaders as well, amassing 30 points through the first half of the season.

C: Lars Karlsson, Dakota. Karlsson does not have a strong defensive reputation, which would ordinarily make him anathema to Wright.  But at a weak position in the division, his offensive stats are too compelling too ignore.  His 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) is good for fourth in the SHL.

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage. Wright has described Keefe as “the opposing player I’d most like to have,” so it’s hardly shocking that he wound up on the Western squad.  Keefe is a two-fisted defenseman who’s not afraid to throw a hard check or win puck battles along the boards, and he pulls his own weight on offense (32 points) as well.

RW: Gordon Lunsford, Michigan. Wright tapped a familiar face to finish out his second line.  Lunsford is a balanced contributor on offense, putting up 12 goals and 12 assists in the first half.  His +16 rating speaks to his comfort on both ends of the ice.

 

Third Line

LW: Troy Chamberlain, Saskatchewan. Chamberlain joins Barnes as the only representatives of the Shockers on the All-Star team.  The sharp-shooting winger is Saskatchewan’s top point producer on the season, with 32 (13 goals, 19 assists).  He also has a reputation for heads-up play on defense, making him an attractive choice for Wright.

D: Frank Mudrick, Michigan. “I would have taken all of our D-men if I could have,” said Wright.  But in the end, Mudrick got the call over rookie Brooks Zabielski as part of the third pairing.  Mudrick may be the most physical of the Wolves’ blue-line corps, but he also provides some firepower on offense as well, with 13 points on the season.

C: Warren Marlow, Michigan. Wright’s initial nod went to Hunter Bailes, but with the Wolves’ captain out with an injury, Wright turned to the man who has replaced him on the top line.  Marlow’s selection was somewhat controversial, as his offensive numbers (9 goals, 9 assists) are less impressive than others such as Anchorage’s Nile Bernard and Derek Humplik, Dakota’s Mike Rivera, and Saskatchewan’s Napoleon Beasley. But Marlow has a stronger defensive reputation than any of the others, and that factored into Wright’s considerations.

D: Benny Lambert, SeattleThe sophomore blueliner is the Sailors’ lone representative in the All-Star Game.  Lambert is well-known around the league as a tenacious and hard-hitting defender, and he’s also strong in setting up goals, with 17 assists so far this season. “He’s a guy I would have taken regardless of whether or not I had to pick a Seattle player,” said Wright.

RW: Benoit Poulin, Michigan. Wright tapped another of his own players in another controversial choice, leaving such quality scorers as Seattle’s Vince Mango and Dakota’s Arkady Golynin off the squad.  Poulin is a decent scorer, having tallied 11 goals on the season, but again it was the defensive skills that Wright was after.  “Big goal totals are sexy,” the coach said, “but that’s not how we got to be SHL champions.  I want to recognize those underrated skills as well.”

 

Goaltenders

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Michigan. Lundquist was the clear choice to start in net for the West, and the vote reflected that; he received over 65% of the votes at the position.  He was the top overall vote-getter at any position.  The lusciously-bearded goalie dominates every statistical category: wins (16), goals against average (1.19), save percentage (.961).

Ty Worthington, Anchorage. Wright said that the backup netminder position was a tough call between Worthington and Saskatchewan’s Zeke Zagurski.  In the end, the Wolves coach tabbed his Igloos rival.  Worthington has struggled with injuries this season, but when he has played, he’s been excellent: 10-4-4, 2.23 GAA, .927 save percentage.

2016 SHL Finals – Game 6

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2

A lot of things had to happen for Ron Wright to become the coach of the Michigan Gray Wolves.  The Wolves had to come up short to Anchorage in the Western race.  The SHL had to decide to expand to Quebec, and incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme had to decide to leave and coach his hometown team.   Wright had to have a falling-out with Hamilton, the team he coached last season, and decide to leave.

Both Wright and the Wolves couldn’t be happier that everything worked out the way it did.  The fit between the gritty, hard-working, serious-minded team and the driven, fanatically prepared, and hard-nosed coach was perfect.  The Wolves thrived under Wright’s leadership, and they completed their mission today, defeating the Washington Galaxy 3-2 to win the SHL Finals and claim their first Vandy.

“No way do we get this far without Coach Wright,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “When we got off to a strong start, he was on us to make sure we didn’t slack off or take our foot off the gas.  And when Warren [Marlow] went down, he made sure we kept our heads up and didn’t let it get to us.  He was our guiding light all the way.”

Wright, meanwhile, gave credit to the players.  “It’s a privilege to coach these guys,” said the Michigan boss.  “As a coach, you can give them a map and show them the way, but they’re the ones who have to take the journey.  These guys have never hesitated; they’ve been willing to pay the price to be great.  They’ve worked hard, practiced hard, kept their noses to the grindstone.  This is the payoff.  The champagne tastes pretty sweet.”

The Wolves looked set to run away with the Finals after they captured the first two games by a combined score of 6-0.  But after the series shifted to Washington, the competition became much tighter.  The Galaxy took two of the three games at Constellation Center, and each game was decided by a single goal.  The Wolves suffered a major blow when Marlow, their second-line center, went down with an apparent concussion in Game 4.

As the series came back to Cadillac Place for Game 6, the Wolves were eager to close out the series.  “We weren’t panicking, for sure,” said D Frank Mudrick.  But we definitely didn’t want it to go seven.”

The first period was an action-packed one, as the teams combined for 23 shots.  Michigan struck fairly quickly, as Bailes beat Galaxy goalie Roger Orion with a backhand to the glove side less than five minutes into the game.

“That helped settle us,” said Bailes.  “Definitely better to play from ahead.”

But Washington didn’t fold.  They held the Wolves to that 1-0 lead for the rest of the period.  And a couple minutes into the second period, Washington got the equalizer on a slapshot by LW Casey Thurman.

Midway through the second, a much slower period offensively, Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely was hit with a double minor for spearing the Wolves’ Jorma Seppa.  On the ensuing power play, RW Oskar Denison buried a shot from the top of the faceoff circle to give Michigan the lead again, and they carried that 2-1 edge into the dressing room at the end of the period.

During the break, Wright urged his team to turn it up a notch.  “A one-goal lead isn’t safe,” Wright told his men.  “Get the next one, and we can break their back.”

Unfortunately for Michigan, the team didn’t heed Wright’s admonition.  Less than two minutes into the third period, McNeely tied it up again by firing a low slapper past a screened Dirk Lundquist.  As the third period wore on, the Wolves’ repeated attempts to reclaim the lead went frustratingly awry: they pushed several shots just wide, and Denison fired a head-hunter that got past Orion but banged off the crossbar.

In the final minute, with both teams seeming content to play for overtime, Wright called timeout and admonished his team.  “You look dead on your feet out there!” the coach barked.  “There’s no ties in the playoffs.  Let’s go out there and win this right now!  They can’t hold out much longer.  Go out there and knock ’em out!”

Wright’s pep talk paid off.  The Wolves came out of the timeout with more energy, winning the faceoff and storming down into the Washington end.  Wolves D Fritz Kronstein fed a beautiful pass to a streaking Seppa, who fired a hard, low shot.  Orion made a tremendous sprawling save, but couldn’t corral the rebound.  The puck bounced out to Bailes, who elevated it just out of Orion’s reach and dented the twine with 27 seconds left.

“We knew it was over then,” said McNeely.  “We knew we weren’t coming back from that.”

After the final horn sounded, the victorious Wolves celebrated with boisterous elan.  A jubilant Lundquist hopped on top of his net and waved his stick to lead the crowd in cheers and chants, then clambered down and did a pair of cartwheels on the ice.  Bailes, Seppa, and RW Gordon Lunsford fired their helmets and gloves into the crowd, giving several fans priceless souvenirs of an unforgettable night.  Backup goalie Art Cowan raced onto the ice with as many bottles of bubbly as he could hold in his jersey, and the players sprayed each other and the fans.

A little later, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell emerged with the Vandy and handed it to Wolves owner Luke Faltura, saying, “If ever there was a team that balanced style and grace with blood and guts, it’s got to be the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Enjoy a trophy well-earned!”  There was a brief awkward pause, as the team sorted out who would have the honor of taking the trophy on its first ceremonial lap around the ice.

Finally, Bailes and Lundquist grabbed Wright, hoisted him on their shoulders, and handed him the Vandy.  As Wright circled the ice, supported by his players, he waved to the crowd and blinked back tears.

“That was a metaphor for our whole season,” said Wright.  “From the first day of practice to our ultimate moment of glory, we did it together.  That’s what makes this team so special.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 3

Washington SmallMichigan SmallWASHINGTON GALAXY 2, MICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 1

This is a game that the Washington Galaxy needed to win.  In the first two games of the SHL Finals, the Galaxy’s offense had been completely shut down by the defense of the Michigan Gray Wolves and their red-hot goalie, Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  For Game 3, the action shifted back to Constellation Center, and Washington hoped that the energy of the home crowd would ignite their offense.  They got what they needed, barely, squeaking out a 2-1 win that cut Michigan’s lead in the series to one game.

“That’s our kind of game!” said Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely, who scored both of the home team’s goals.  “Those last two games, it just feels like we’ve been skating into a wall at the blue line.  Today we broke through, and we proved to ourselves that we can do it.  I think the momentum of this series is shifting.”

The first half of this game resembled Game 2, with both Lundquist and Washington netminder Roger Orion in top form and keeping it scoreless. Even then, though, there was an obvious difference.  Whereas Michigan dominated play in the first two periods of the last game, Washington had the better of things in this contest, outshooting Michigan 21-12 over the first two frames.  “We’d been letting them push us around, especially between the blue lines,” said Galaxy D Rusty Anderson.  “In this game, we decided to see if we could use our speed to our advantage, outrace their checks a bit.  And it worked.”

The Galaxy beat Lundquist for the first time all series with less than four minutes left in the second, as McNeely and LW Casey Thurman sprung loose on a breakaway, with McNeely beating the Wolves goalie stick-side.  “He was definitely in our heads a bit,” admitted the Galaxy star.  “Getting one by him was huge for us psychologically.  It’s like, ‘Hey, we can win this thing.'”

In another parallel to Game 2, both teams picked up their offense in the final period, combining for 28 shots.  With the Galaxy clinging to their 1-0 lead, the arena was buzzing with excitement, but the fans’ cheers had a nervous edge.  “We knew Michigan was saving their best for the end, and we had to be ready to match it,” said McNeely.

Sure enough, a little more than halfway through the period, Wolves LW Jorma Seppa fired a shot through traffic that tipped off of C Hunter Bailes‘ stick and bounced between Orion’s legs, tying the score.  “Lucky bastards,” said Anderson.  “They fling a lousy slapper that bounces off like five different guys and dribbles into the net.”  But although Michigan’s strike silenced the crowd, it didn’t dampen the Galaxy’s enthusiasm.

Washington got its break less than a minute later when Wolves D Frank Mudrick got tangled up with Galaxy RW Nori Takoyaki and was whistled for a tripping minor.  Michigan coach Ron Wright protested the call vigorously, but to no avail.  Michigan managed to kill off the penalty, but Washington kept the puck in the offensive end after Mudrick exited the penalty box, and McNeely blasted home the go-ahead tally from the right faceoff circle.

“They’d been crashing down on me during the whole PP, and I wasn’t getting any good looks,” said McNeely.  “But then the puck took a lucky bounce over to me and I was wide open, and I didn’t miss.”

The Galaxy weren’t quite out of the woods, as Anderson took a cross-checking call with a minute and a half left in the game.  But Washington managed to fight off the Wolves’ last gasp and held on for the win.

“That was fun!” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “That was like Hoosiers, only the hockey version.  I ought to look into optioning the movie rights for that game.  I hope I can get Tom Hanks to play me.”

The Galaxy have a chance to tie the series tomorrow in Game 4, while the Wolves will look to grab a commanding 3-1 lead.

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 3”

Can Michigan Be Stopped?

Michigan SmallThree weeks into the SHL’s second season, the Michigan Gray Wolves are off to a strong start and are threatening to leave the rest of the league in the dust.  In a year that has largely been defined by parity so far, Michigan is the shining exception to the rule.  The Wolves have posted a 12-3-0 record to date, a mark that’s left them seven points clear of the rest of the league.

“We came into this season on a mission,” said C Hunter Bailes.  “Sitting at home for the playoffs really stung after the year we had.  We knew that as strong as we were [last year], we needed to step it up a notch.  And so far, we’ve really done that.”

Ron Wright
Ron Wright

Many of the Wolves give credit for the team’s early success to new coach Ron Wright.  Wright, who coached the Hamilton Pistols last season, took over in Michigan after Martin Delorme left to become the inaugural coach of the Quebec Tigres.  So far, the Wolves have been deeply impressed by Wright’s deep knowledge of the game, his fanatical work ethic (he frequently sleeps in his office, and is always the first one in the clubhouse even when he doesn’t), and his apparently bottomless drive and intensity.

“We thought Martin worked us pretty hard in practice last year,” said D Frank Mudrick.  “But Coach Wright came in and showed us we didn’t know from hard.”

Wright smiled when he heard Mudrick’s comment.  “The first day of training camp, I told them: ‘I promise you, you’re going to hate me right now.  I’m going to push you to the limit, and you’re going to curse my name.  But come the spring, when we’re the ones holding the Vandy, you’re going to love me.  I’m pushing you now to pay off later.  If you can buy into that, we can do business.’  And they’ve all bought in, from the stars on down.”

Wright’s hard-driving style proved a poor fit with the more easygoing Pistols, but with the Wolves, he found a team hungry for a championship and willing to work hard for it.  “I was prepared for some pushback,” said Wright.  “I figured some of the guys would think I was a slave driver, or tell me to stick my drills where the sun don’t shine.  But [the players] bought in from the start.  This is the most committed, professional bunch of players I’ve ever worked with.  As a coach, it’s a joy.”

By all accounts, Michigan is a force to be reckoned with.  Last season, some around the league criticized the Wolves’ style of play as one-dimensional.  To those critics, the team was winning by turning games into bloodbaths, slowing the pace of play with their aggressive defense and trying to eke out wins in low-scoring games.

This season, Michigan’s defense remains first-class (they’ve allowed only 26 goals, an eye-popping 14 fewer than any other team in the league), but their offense has stepped things up.  Last season, the Wolves scored fewer goals than anyone except lowly Saskatchewan.  This year, their output (46 goals) is solidly in the middle of the pack, led by Bailes, whose 9 goals place him in the league’s top 10.

“Last year, everyone said we were a goon squad and didn’t know how to play honest hockey,” said Bailes.  “Well, they can’t say that now.  We’re strong at both ends.”

Although Wright and his players are winning plaudits now, skeptics wonder whether the Wolves are setting themselves up for a case of déjà vu.  Last season, Michigan rocketed to a 13-3-2 start and looked like a strong bet to go to the championship.  However, they were soon passed by the Anchorage Igloos, who never looked back on their way to the Western flag and the league’s first championship.  Will history repeat itself?

Bailes is adamant that it won’t.  “Everyone acts like we choked, or that we went flat down the stretch,” the center said.  “Well, that’s crap.  We fought Anchorage hard all season, and we barely lost out at the end.  We had a great year, but they were even better.  We don’t expect this to be a cakewalk, but we know we’re better than we were last year.”

While the Wolves surge, the Igloos stumble along, hurt by the loss of C Nile Bernard to injury.  Wright cautions that the Igloos’ 8-6-1 mark isn’t a reflection of their ability.  “I know that we’re not seeing the real Anchorage right now,” said the Wolves coach.  “This is our chance to play strong and build up as much of a cushion as we can.  Because I know they’re going to get right, especially once Bernard returns.  I’m expecting a dogfight all the way.”

It remains to be seen whether the Wolves can keep up this blistering pace all season, or whether they can dethrone the Igloos as Western champs.  But if Wright and his men fall short, it won’t be for lack of trying.

“We won’t be outworked, outclassed, or outhustled,” said Wright.  “I don’t believe in luck.  I believe in effort.”