- On Monday, the Dakota Jackalopes activated C Tanner Brooks from the injured list. Shortly before the All-Star break, Brooks suffered an upper-body injury. Although the injury initially did not seem that serious, Brooks wound up missing over three weeks. As the Jackalopes had an available roster spot, they did not need to make a compensating move to activate Brooks.
- Also on Monday, the Hershey Bliss‘ CHL affiliate in Milwaukee placed LW Karl Gjovik on the injured list. Gjovik exited in the first period of Sunday’s 3-1 win over Cleveland after being upended on a devastating check, and did not return. He is expected to miss at least two weeks. To replace Gjovik, Milwaukee signed F Jerry Cazenovia to a short-term contract.
- On Wednesday, the Hamilton Pistols activated C Marco Venezio from the injured list. The veteran center missed 10 games with a lower=body injury suffered just before the All-Star break. In order to make room for Venezio, the Pistols reassigned C Hilliard Macy to their CHL affiliate in Oshawa, and released F Bobby Warner from Oshawa.
- Wednesday was the trading deadline. The following trades were consummated at the deadline:
- The Michigan Gray Wolves traded RW Gordon Lunsford to the Boston Badgers for RW Rory Socarra. (More details here.) After the trade, Boston demoted RW Felix Delorme to their CHL affiliate in Hartford, and recalled F Jacques Bacon from Hartford.
- The Gray Wolves traded LW Misha Petronov, F Cary Estabrook, and D Brandon Arrowood to the New York Night for LW Flynn Danner, F Henry Constantine, and D Anson Brank. (More details here.) After the trade, Michigan demoted LW Fendrick Scanlan to their CHL affiliate in Cleveland, and New York promoted RW Harris Wondolowski from their affiliate in Utah.
- The Dakota Jackalopes traded D Victor Addison to Boston in exchange for D Jackson Creed. After the trade, the Badgers demoted D Bjorn Tollefson to their minor-league affiliate in Hartford.
- Michigan traded C Warren Marlow to the Quebec Tigres in exchange for C Phil Miller, LW Carl Bleyer, and a 1st-round draft pick. (More details here.) After the trade, the Gray Wolves released F Caleb Moulton. The Tigres demoted C Dwight Flynn to their CHL affiliate in Halifax, and signed F Tim Daisey to a minor-league deal.
- On Saturday, the Anchorage Igloos recalled RW Jean Pierre Fleury from their CHL affiliate in Minnesota. The Igloos demoted Fleury to Minnesota during the All-Star break, and he played brilliantly there, recording 19 points in 12 games, including the CHL’s first-ever five-goal game. To make room for Fleury, the Igloos reassigned RW Lionel LaNeige to Minnesota.
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.”
The rosters for the Western Division in the SHL’s first All-Star Game, as announced by Michigan coach Ron Wright, are as follows:
LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, Dakota. Airston 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, Michigan. The 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, Anchorage. Unlike 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.
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, Saskatchewan. In 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.
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, Seattle. The 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.”
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.
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.
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.