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?”

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CHL Update: Rhinos to Defend Title Against Spuds

This year’s CHL finals present an interesting contrast.  One team has been in the finals every year of the league’s existence, and is bidding for back-to-back titles after surviving a back-and-forth first-round series that went the distance.  The other club is in its first year in a new city, and is trying to go all the way in its first-ever postseason appearance, coming off of a surprising sweep of the league’s best regular-season team.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos are getting to be old hands at the postseason; this is their third straight trip.  Despite losing a number of key contributors from last season’s title-winning squad, the Rhinos managed to eke out the top seed in a closely-packed division.  But Virginia wasn’t the least bit embarrassed or deterred by their narrow playoff qualification; they remain fixated on the ultimate goal.  “We’re all focused on the repeat,” said RW Chris Quake.  “No one in here doubts that we can pull it off.”

In the division playoff, they faced the Cleveland Centurions, who sported the league’s best regular-season defense.  The Rhinos hunkered down for what they knew would be a tense, hard-fought battle.  Game 1 was a chippy affair with a slew of penalties, a couple of fights, and not a lot of offense (28 shots between both teams).  Virginia got goals from Quake and LW Jayden Gunn, while goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 16 Cleveland shots for a 2-0 shutout.  In Game 2, the Rhinos rallied from behind with a pair of third-period tallies just 29 seconds apart from C Marvin Cascio and LW Yuri Laronov, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.  The action shifted to the shores of Lake Erie for Games 3 and 4, and the Centurions battled back.  In Game 3, Rhinos C Trent Harlow notched a third-period goal to erase another deficit and force overtime, but Cleveland C Phoenix Cage scored 36 seconds into the extra session to stave off elimination with a 2-1 win.  In Game 4, Centurions netminder Eugene Looney came up big, stopping all 27 shots in a 3-0 triumph to force a fifth game back in Virginia Beach.  But in the deciding game, it was Chislic’s turn for another shutout (24 saves) as D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta netted two to lead the 3-0 series-clinching victory.

“That was a tough series, for sure,” said Corbetta.  “But it got us tuned up, and we’re firing on all cylinders now and playing our best hockey.”

Virginia’s Finals opponent will be the Idaho Spuds, who played to sellout crowds after moving from Muncie in the offseason.  The Spuds came into the postseason with the CHL’s top-ranked offense (3.6 goals per game), but they had a lackluster performance in the last few weeks of the regular season, and they were largely written off in their first-round series against the heavily favored Omaha Ashcats.

But the boys in russet brown not only beat the Ashcats, they did so in a stunning three-game sweep.  In Game 1, they buried Omaha in an avalanche of shots (45 vs. the Ashcats’ 22) and scored three goals (from LW Rick Crisak, D Victor Addison, and LW Terry Cresson) before the game was 3 minutes old, on the way to a 4-2 win.  For Game 2, Ashcats coach Butch Slazenger switched goalies from Bill Bates to Jim Fleetwood.  Fleetwood did a better job, stopping 28 of 30 shots, but Spuds LW Van Dyke Browning scored three minutes into overtime for a 2-1 win.  In order for Omaha to rally in the series, they’d have to win twice on enemy ice.  Slazenger raised a number of eyebrows by going back to Bates for Game 3, a decision that looked foolish when Idaho went up 2-0 by the first minute of the second period.  The Ashcats rallied back to tie thanks to tallies from blueliners Trevor Lockwood and Lowell Sharkey.  With just over three minutes left in regulation, however, Spuds C Jacob Cunniff scored a power-play goal that would prove to be the difference in a 3-2 contest.  Treasure Valley Arena – sold out as usual – exploded in cheers as the players formed a celebratory circle in front of their net.

“We’re probably going to be the underdogs again in the final, since [the Rhinos are] the defending champs,” said Idaho coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “But we like that underdog role.  If anyone’s thinking of sleeping on us, they’d better think again, because we’re ready to shock the world.”

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.”

CHL Update: St. Pierre Shines in Idaho

Xavier St. Pierre wasn’t supposed to be special.  The 20-year-old goaltender was completely ignored by the NHL, and was selected with the third-to-last pick in this year’s SHL draft.  After an undistinguished career in junior hockey, St. Pierre hardly seemed like a promising prospect.  The goalie-needy Dakota Jackalopes took a low-risk flyer and assigned him to the Idaho Spuds, their new CHL affiliate.  Even there, he had to win a training-camp battle for the backup spot.  The Jackalopes crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

Xavier St. Pierre

“The best” turned out to be better than anyone imagined.  Through the first half of the season, St. Pierre looks like a potential breakout star.  So far this year, he has recorded a 10-3-1 record with a 2.81 GAA and a .916 save percentage.  And thanks in no small part to his strong play, Idaho sits in playoff position in the West.

“For me, everything is a dream right now,” said St. Pierre.  “I am blessed.”

Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne says he saw something in St. Pierre, in spite of his mediocre track record.  “He had a hunger; you could tell he’d fought for every opportunity he’d ever had,” said McCoyne.  “He always stayed late in practice.  Anyone who would work with him, he jumped on it.  Some guys on the bubble, you can tell their hustle is a show for the coaches.  But with X, you could tell it’s the only way he knew.”

When McCoyne chose St. Pierre over incumbent backup Guy “Blinky” Laroche, the young netminder stopped by the coach’s office to thank him, adding: “I will be sure you are never sorry for this decision.”

“And he’s definitely made sure of that!” McCoyne added.

Once St. Pierre made the team, his hard-working habits continued.  Most backups relax on the bench during their days off; St. Pierre watched starter Kelvin White and the opposing skaters intently, absorbing whatever he could.  He studied as much film as he could get his hands on.  And he continued to be the last one off the ice at practice.

McCoyne and the coaching staff noticed.  They also noticed that whenever they gave St. Pierre a start, he played extremely well.  McCoyne started giving St. Pierre additional opportunities when he could, and the netminder always performed.

Then, about a month into the season, White went down with an injury, one that would ultimately sideline him for almost three weeks.  It was a golden opportunity for St. Pierre… but the Spuds quickly signed Laroche, their former backup, to a short-term contract.  Was it training camp all over again?

“Coach told me quickly, ‘You are the starter, Guy will be your backup,’” St. Pierre said.  “I was very glad for his faith in me.  I told him I would show he was correct again.”

Facing a starter’s workload, St. Pierre struggled a bit, but continued to play solidly.  “We’ve got a high-powered offensive team, but we’re not much for shot suppression,” said McCoyne.  “That means that none of our goalies have an easy time of it.  But X doesn’t get rattled back there.”

St. Pierre handily outplayed Laroche, but slid right back into the backup role without complaint when White returned.  “Sometimes with backup, you feel like they’re almost rooting for you to get hurt so they can get a shot,” said White.  “But Xav’s been totally supportive all the way.”

Although he has triumphed in the face of long odds, St. Pierre has remained calm and unruffled, like he was supposed to be here all along.  In part, that’s due to a remarkable coincidence.  The netminder hails from a small town in Quebec called Saint-Michel, and he comes from a long line of – believe it or not – potato farmers.

“All through my life, it is potatoes,” said St. Pierre.  “So when I come to a team named ‘Spuds,’ with a potato [logo] on the chest, I know this is my place.”

The fans in Boise have embraced him, chanting “X-S-P! X-S-P!” after each of his acrobatic saves.  “I think he’s probably the most popular guy on the team,” quipped White.

Of course, one good half-season does not a career make.  St. Pierre has a long way to go before he has a shot to make the SHL, much less to succeed there.  But McCoyne warns everyone not to bet against the young netminder: “If you can work your way into the big time, this is the kid who can do it.  I expect you’ll be hearing more about him down the line.”

CHL Update: Wild Third Period Leads to OT Thriller in Oshawa

Fans who showed up at Oshawa’s General Motors Arena on Sunday for a CHL interdivision clash between the Oshawa Drive and the Idaho Spuds probably weren’t expecting anything noteworthy.  The Drive and Spuds have no rivalry to speak of, and on paper, the matchup between Western-division-leading Idaho (14-7-3 coming into the game) and third-place Oshawa (9-12-3 coming in) seemed like mismatch.

Surprisingly, the fans were treated to a thrilling contest, highlighted by a crazy third period in which the home town built a three-goal lead, lost it, and had to head to overtime before finally claiming a 4-3 win.

“That game was just plain bat-[guano] insane,” said Oshawa coach Harvey Williams.  “No other way to put it.’”

Going into the third, it looked like things were going to end well for the home team, despite being outplayed.  Although Idaho outshot Oshawa 23-14 through two, Drive goalie Hector Orinoco was in top form, turning aside every shot and staking his team to a 2-0 lead.

When LW Troy Blackwood went top-shelf on Spuds goalie Guy Laroche to put Oshawa up 3-0 a mere 96 seconds into the third, the crowd was ready to start celebrating its victory.  They began chanting “Start the bus!  Start the bus!” at the dejected Idaho bench.

Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne saw the crowd’s taunting chant as an opportunity.  “You hear that?  Hear it?” McCoyne barked at his players.  “The folks up in the stands seem to think the game’s over already.  Are you gonna let ‘em get away with that?”

“Hell no!” responded Spuds F Trace Walker.  “Time for us to turn the bus around!”  His teammates thumped their sticks on the ground in approval.

Just over three minutes later, Walker found D Gray Torian with a laser-beam pass in the slot.  Torian tipped the puck past Orinoco’s catching glove to break the shutout.

Unfortunately for the Spuds, they struggled to generate another goal as the minutes ticked off the clock.  With just under six minutes to go and the Drive still up 3-1, the fans began the “Start the bus!” chant again.

“They’re really trying that again?” hollered Walker.  “Time to really make ‘em pay.”

A few seconds later, Walker ripped a shot over Orinoco’s left shoulder to make it 3-2.  Walker skated around with his hand cupped over his ear, but the crowd had fallen quiet.

Just over a minute later, Drive C Albert North tried to draw a penalty, snapping his head back as though Torian had hit him with a high stick.  But eagle-eyed referee Alan Cole wasn’t fooled, and he sent North to the box for embellishment.  Oshawa managed to kill off the penalty, barely, but were unable to get the puck out of their own end.  Idaho kept up the pressure after the penalty expired, as the exhausted Drive desperately tried to hold off the vistors.

Finally, with 15 seconds left, the puck got lost in a scrum in front of the Oshawa net.  It seemed to bounce off a forest of sticks and bodies before winding up on the blade of Spuds D Rodney Black, who jammed it home to tie the game and stun the crowd.

Orinoco slumped on the ice and several Oshawa players slammed down their sticks and looked at the ceiling in frustration.  Williams argued vigorously for a goaltender interference call, to no avail.

The Spuds turned the heckling back on the fans, chanting “Stop the bus!  Stop the bus!” before launching into a round of the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus” as the fans sat in disconsolate silence.

“I was really proud of the way the boys didn’t give up when it looked bad,” said McCoyne.  “Especially on a long road trip like this, it can be hard to find the energy.  But they found it – thanks to the fans.  Appreciate it!”

At the end of regulation, the Drive filed quietly into their locker room, unsure what had happened.  “It’s like [the Spuds] drove the bus right over us,” said C Pat Collistone.

But with a pep talk from Williams and a crucial opportunity to catch their breath, Oshawa pulled themselves together, and D Elvis Bodett banged home the winning goal 24 seconds into overtime.

“I don’t know if they were trying to give me another heart attack or what,” quipped Williams, who only recently returned to the bench after collapsing on the bench due to cardiac trouble.  “I told ‘em after the game, ‘Don’t do that to an old fart with a bad ticker like me!’”

CHL Update: Squirrels Move to Gem State

Heading into 2019, the SHL’s minor circuit, the Continental Hockey League, will field largely the same lineup as last year.  With no expansion and no teams swapping affiliates, there is only one change, as the CHL disposed of a franchise that wound up in its hands last season.

In the closing weeks of last season, Muncie Squirrels owner Kenny Cheswell rocked the league by announcing that he was forfeiting his franchise, claiming that he was “tapped out” and losing a great deal of money on his team.  The CHL operated the Squirrels for the remainder of the season, but was determined to find a buyer.  Finding no one who was willing to keep the team in Muncie, they sold the franchise to William Franklin, the owner of a paper company based in Boise.

During his introductory press conference, Franklin announced that the team will be based in Boise and will be known as the Idaho Spuds.

“The Mountain West is really warming up to hockey,” said Franklin.  “You’ve seen what a big hit it is in Vegas, which proves that hockey can work in non-traditional markets.  And Boise is a growing city, one that’s a lot bigger and more vibrant that most people realize.  This team is our chance to show the rest of the country what we’re becoming.”

CHL Commissioner Denny McNerny noted that the Spuds were a good geographic fit with the other teams in the CHL’s Mountain region, the Utah Owls and the Colorado Springs Zoomies.  “From a travel perspective, having three teams close to each other makes things easier, especially for our East Coast teams.  And this is a great opportunity for some regional rivalries to form.”

The newly relocated Spuds will retain their affiliation with the Dakota Jackalopes.  Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard indicated his pleasure with the team’s new location.  “We’re at the edge of the High Plains, and we’ve always thought of ourselves as more of a Western than a Midwestern team,” Mindegaard said.  “Even though Boise isn’t that much closer to us, it’s a city that feels a lot like ours in spirit.  I think this will be a great fit for us.”

As part of the press conference, the Spuds introduced their new uniforms – which feature shades of brown highly reminiscent of Dakota’s popular fauxback look – as well as new coach Gilbert McCoyne.  McCoyne is an Alberta native, and he declared that “Boise feels just like home to me.”

McNerny noted that he was proud of the league’s stability.  “In a lot of minor leagues, you see teams moving like gypsies every year,” the commissioner said.  “The CHL isn’t like that, and I think it’s a testament to the strong roots we’re building in our cities.”