Change of the Guard Seems Imminent in SHL’s Last Week

Going into the final week of the 2017 SHL season, neither division race is terribly close, unlike the last couple of seasons.  Barring a seismic shift in the coming week, we aren’t going to see anything as dramatic as the 2016’s Hershey-Washington last-game showdown for the division.  Nonetheless, even if things unfold as expected, the results will still have their share of surprises.  As it stands, neither of last year’s Finals opponents will make a return trip this season.

In the West, the Michigan Gray Wolves head into the season’s final week trailing the Anchorage Igloos by 6 points.  The Wolves and Igloos have been the division powers since the league’s inception, so it’s no surprise that they will finish one-two yet again.  But the Wolves have been unable to make up the ground they lost when top scorers Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow went down with injuries in midseason.  “We’ve fought hard all year, and I know we’re going to keep battling to the end,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “But we’re in a difficult spot right now.”

Michigan’s best chance to narrow the gap came on Wednesday, when they faced the Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  The game was a true heavyweight clash, as the Wolves stifled Anchorage’s league-best offense, with the Igloos responding in kind.  After two scoreless periods, Michigan actually drew first blood seven minutes into the third, when Lunsford dented the twine on a hard slapshot between Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s legs.  “That got us fired up,” said Lunsford.  “We thought this was the goal that was going to set us on a run to take the division.”

But with just over a minute left in the game, the Igloos tied the game on a fluky goal by D Sebastian Pomfret, who flicked a rebound that bounced off the back of Michigan netminder Dirk Lundquist back and into the goal.  That sent the game to overtime, where Wolves C Wesley Knight committed a tough holding-the-stick penalty.  15 seconds into the power play, Igloos LW Les Collins beat Lundquist stick-side to seal a 2-1 win.

“That was a back-breaker,” admitted Lunsford.  “To go from thinking you’re on the road to the division to feeling like you’re on the brink of elimination… it’s a kick in the gut, no question.”

As surprising as the West race has been, things have been even more shocking in the East.  The Washington Galaxy have won the division in each of the last two seasons and established themselves as the class of the division.  When they caught fire out of the All-Star Break, winning 10 in a row and snatching first place away from the Hershey Bliss, it looked like they were set up to run to yet another title.  It hasn’t unfolded that way, though, as the Bliss have grabbed the lead right back over the last couple of weeks.

And while Hershey has played well, the race in the East has been a story of Washington collapse.  The Galaxy have dropped 11 of 15 over the last three weeks, and they head into the final week of the season 8 points back of the Bliss.  For a team with a reputation for stepping it up in the second half, their dismal performance has been completely unexpected.  “We can’t figure it out,” said LW Casey Thurman.  “We know we can do better than this, but it’s kind of like we’re stepping on the gas and there’s nothing there.”

Certainly, the Galaxy’s using scoring punch has been absent during their recent skid.  They’ve fallen from sixth in the league in goals scored to second-to-last, ahead of only Quebec.  Several of their stars, including Thurman (2 goals in the last 15 games), C Eddie Costello (3 goals), RW Jefferson McNeely (3 goals), and C J.C. Marais (2 goals), have been in slumps.  But the offense hasn’t been the only culprit.  The normally stout defense, which allowed fewer than two and a half goals per game over the first two-thirds of the season, has allowed over three per game during their slide.  Backup goalie Ron Mason has lost his last five starts.  Their special units have flatlined over the last three weeks, with their power play dropping from a league-leading 24.1% success rate to a middle-of-the-pack 19.6%, and their penalty kill going from 82.9% efficiency to 78.8%.  “It’s like it’s all falling apart at once,” said Costello.

For the Bliss, who have heard over and over that they’re too soft, too sloppy, or too star-dependent to beat the Galaxy, the turnabout has been pretty sweet.  “We’ve taken a lot of crap over the years about how we can never win the big one, or how Washington’s got our number,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’ve never bought into that story, but we knew we were were going to keep hearing it until we proved it.”  On Saturday, Hershey came into Constellation Center and walloped Washington 5-1.  “That one definitely felt good,” said Valentine.  “To be able to go into their building and shut them down like that… it gave us confidence that this isn’t going to be like the other years.  It’s a new era for us.”

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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.

Wolves Lose Bailes to Serious Upper-Body Injury

The Michigan Gray Wolves seemed to be in a great position as the season approached its halfway point.  The defending champions were, if anything, better than ever.  The team’s defense remained at its smothering, hard-hitting best.  Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist remained the league’s best netminder.  And the offense, if anything, had jumped to the next level.  It had gone from being good enough to being a genuine asset.  The Anchorage Igloos seemed likely to challenge, but the Wolves remained clear favorites to reach the SHL Finals for the second straight season.

Hunter Bailes

Those projections took a big hit this week, as first-line C Hunter Bailes went down with a severe upper-body injury, one that could sideline him for up to a month.  Michigan’s players and fans alike were left anxious and concerned about where the season might go without their captain and top scorer.

“Losing Hunts, man, that’s tough,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “When we found out that it was a serious injury, it kind of took the breath out of us for a bit.”

Bailes was hurt in Wednesday’s game against New York.  In the third period, the center was bringing the puck up out of his own end and was leveled by a devastating check from D Dominic Sanchez.  Bailes fell awkwardly and landed with his shoulder canted against the boards.  He was down for over a minute as the team’s medical staff came to his aid.  He came off the ice and directly down the tunnel.

“We should have known it was bad then,” said Lunsford.  “A guy as tough as that doesn’t go down unless something’s really wrong.”

Bailes showed back up on the bench before the end of the game, although he did not return to the ice.  Follow-up examination after the game revealed that the injury was more significant than Bailes first believed, one that will keep him out for weeks rather than days.

“I’ve always been a play-through-the-pain guy,” said Bailes.  “Most hockey players are.  So once the initial shock wore off, I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad and I could go back out there.  But then the docs looked me over afterward and they said, ‘Uh-uh, you can’t play with that.’”

In losing Bailes, Michigan loses arguably their best two-way player.  He had put up 9 goals and 24 points before the injury.  The only reserve forward on Michigan’s current roster is Travis Gauss, who is not a natural center and had been demoted to bench status after a poor 2016.

Wolves coach Ron Wright tried to downplay the significance of the injury.  “You never like to lose a player like Hunter Bailes,” Wright told reporters.  “He’s a tremendous asset to us, and having him off the ice stings.  But I’m a big believer in the next-man-up philosophy.  No one player makes or breaks us.  The team is what matters.  And I know everybody on this team is going to step up and help us fill the gap.”

Wright said that the team has no plans to make a trade to replace Bailes, although they might consider calling up a center from the minors.

The Wolves are still a strong team, even without Bailes, and they remain on top in the West.  But whether their offense continues to click or starts to sputter without their top-line anchor will go a long way toward determining whether Michigan can repeat as SHL champion.

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 2

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 2, WASHINGTON GALAXY 0

Every player dreams of playing his best when the stage is biggest.  Michigan Gray Wolves goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist is living the dream in the SHL Finals.  Already universally recognized as the league’s best netminder, Lundquist has somehow managed to elevate his game to the next level in the postseason.  With the help of a stifling Michigan defense, he posted his second straight shutout of the Washington Galaxy, as the Wolves got some late-game lightning from their third line to claim a 2-0 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Finals.  It’s the first time in SHL history that anyone has posted back-to-back shutouts, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for his time.

“How ’bout The Bear, everybody!” said Michigan coach Ron Wright after the game.  “He’s just playing on a different plane than everyone else.  He sees angles in his head that no one else sees.”

Lundquist was quick to credit his defenders for their role in his performance.  “I could not have done this without my teammates in front of me,” said the Wolves netminder.  “I didn’t have to make many ten bell saves, because the defense was denying them good looks.  They made me look very good.”

The Wolves’ blue-line corps definitely turned in a strong outing.  Through the first two periods, they limited Washington to a mere 10 shots.  The Wolves dominated the play in the neutral zone, and on the rare occasions when the Galaxy did cross the blue line, Michigan’s defensemen did a good job angling them away from the net.  “They just shut us down completely,” said Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely.  “It definitely felt like the ice was tilted against us.”

But Galaxy G Roger Orion was doing a fine job in his end, turning aside 20 Michigan shots over the first two frames.  When Washington drew a pair of penalties in close succession at the start of the second, Orion stood on his head and stopped several quality chances.  “We were getting a little frustrated,” said RW Gordon Lunsford.  “We were dominating the play, but we weren’t getting any results.  But Coach Wright kept us up.  He told us that if we kept up the same level of intensity, we’d get through eventually.”

Both teams stepped up their offense in a frantic third period, combining for 29 shots after producing only 30 in the first two periods combined.  “Both sides were really sniffing out a goal there,” said Wright.  But even as more shots came their way, Lundquist and Orion remained perfect.  As the minutes ticked away, both teams grew more desperate.  “There was a real first-goal-wins sense there in the third,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.

With less than four minutes left in the game, the Wolves finally broke through, with C Wesley Knight deflecting a shot past Orion’s left blocker.  A little more than 30 seconds later, Wolves D Patrick Banks stuffed home a juicy rebound to double Michigan’s lead.  As Banks celebrated with their third-line mates, the Galaxy hung their heads.

“We fought them dead even all the way,” said Thurman, “and then we fell apart at the end.  Tough way to lose, for sure.”

The good news for Washington is that the action now shifts back to Constellation Center for the next three games.  Unless the Galaxy can solve Lundquist, though, they won’t have a shot at getting back in this series.

Washington coach Rodney Reagle remains confident in his team’s chances.  “Whenever I’m in a tough spot, I seek inspiration from the words of my favorite philosopher, Mr. T,” said Reagle.  “As the great man once said, ‘To be a bodyguard is to be a kamikaze pilot.  Dedicated.’  The same is true with hockey.  We’re dedicated, and we’re ready to get back in this.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 2”

Green’s Violence Comments Spark Controversy

Dakota RapidsDakota Rapids RW Trevor Green stirred up some controversy this week by arguing that hockey should become a less violent sport.  “The Europeans are way ahead of us on this,” said Green in an interview after Dakota’s game against the Michigan Gray Wolves.  “To me, the real beauty of hockey is in great puck-handling, beautiful passes, speed and momentum.  It’s like ballet on ice, really.  Instead, here we have smaller ice and we glorify big hits and fights.  It’s less athletic, frankly.”

Trevor Green
Trevor Green

Green’s comments were criticized on two fronts.  First, many perceived the comments as a shot at the Gray Wolves, who are famous for their physical style.  Predictably, Michigan’s players took offense.

“To me, that sounds like loser whining,” said Gray Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “I’m sure [the Rapids] get frustrated because they can’t beat us.  But the game is the game, and the rules are the rules.  If you don’t want to bang bodies, fine.  But don’t go crying about it when you lose.”

Michigan D Bjorn Tollefson added, “I’m European, and I love big hits.  If [Green] doesn’t, he should go to the European league.”

Other players suggested that Green wanted the game to focus less on hitting because of his short stature (he stands only 5’8”).  Meanwhile, others focused on the ballet reference in his remarks, and made the sadly expected jokes about Green’s masculinity.  When the Rapids faced Michigan against later in the week, the fans at Cadillac Place serenaded Green with chants of “Tinkerbell,” and several fans held up signs depicting Green in a pink tutu or making bad jokes about his sexuality.

These taunts and posters drew the ire of Rapids coach Harold Engellund.  The coach was nicknamed “Harry the Hit Man” during his playing days for his hard-hitting style, but he stood up for his player.

Harold Engellund
Harold Engellund

“Hey, look, I love a good fight as much as the next guy,” Engellund said.  “I believe in good heavy hockey, and I’d like to see more of it out of our guys, to tell you the truth.  But Trevor feels differently, and he’s entitled to his opinion.  Great passing and puck-handling are fun to watch, too, in a different way.  We’ve got more of that now than when I came up, and that’s a good thing.  It’s better than when you had enforcers who could barely skate just looking to start fights.  The game is more skilled now.”

Engellund particularly decried the sexist taunts directed at Green.  “All those fans calling Trevor a fairy and a sissy, that’s gotta stop.  That kind of talk has no place in today’s game.  There are a lot of women hockey fans, and gay fans too.  How do think they feel when you’ve got idiots in the stands screaming at a guy and calling him Tinkerbell?  The next time I hear any of that stuff, whoever says it is getting a punch in the mouth from me.”