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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Bliss Acquire McLearen, Make Push for East

The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch.  By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss.  Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.

Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster.  In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.

Vonnie McLearen

In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost.  The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season.  Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor.  He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.

“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence.  “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by.  He’s a tremendous pickup for us.  We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”

Gustaf Bergstrom

The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom.  The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman.  He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year.  He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.

“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence.  “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work.  He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”

While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota.  McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter.  The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.

“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard.  “Everyone around here loves Vonnie.  Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up.  But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”

According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated.  The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender.  Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan.  McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise.  The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.

Kelvin Starkey

In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects.  The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise.  He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade.  In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).

“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard.  “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”

Alex Angelos

The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque.  With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.

“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard.  “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment.  He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch.  He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”

While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top.  Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title.  “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence.  “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”