CHL Update: One Newcomer Joins Familiar Faces in Playoffs

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Three of the four postseason qualifiers from last season will be returning this year, joined by a team that’s new to its city.  As always, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

 

Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos have made the playoffs an annual tradition; the Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate has finished atop the East in every one of the CHL’s four seasons of existence.  This season’s trip, however, was far from guaranteed.  Six weeks ago, the Rhinos were in fifth place with a sub-.500 record.  They finished strong, however, going 17-7-0 down the stretch to surge to the front of the pack.  Virginia’s success was built largely on its stout defense; they allowed an average of 27 shots per game, fourth-lowest in the league.  Offensively. the Rhinos were middle of the pack, but they were built on balance; they had five players who scored between 17 and 20 goals, so they don’t have an obvious star for opponents to key on.  They begin the series without one of their top weapons, rookie LW Zane Skandalakis, but they hope to have him back within a couple of games.  One potential controversy lurks: Who should start in net?  Heralded prospect Quentin Chislic (25-19-1, 2.41 GAA, .908 save percentage) got the bulk of the work during the regular season, but backup Eino Malmquist (10-9-0, 2.08, .922) posted results that were as good or better.  Coach Jeffrey Marsh said that he’s sticking with Chislic, but if the Rhinos struggle in the first game or two, might he turn to Malmquist?  “Hey, I’ll take two good goalies over one any time,” the coach noted.  “If Chiz gets hurt, we know we can plug in Malmo and not miss a beat.  Just like Allstate, we’re in good hands.”

The Halifax Atlantics are the fresh face in the CHL’s postseason picture, succeeding where the parent Quebec Tigres came up just short.  They didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the season’s final day, when they beat Virginia 2-1 in overtime on a goal by D Jose Martinez to finally fend off a spirited challenge from the Baltimore Blue Crabs.  The Atlantics are in their first season in Halifax; as a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, when they were known as the Maine Moose.  Like the Rhinos, Halifax’s success is built on its defense.  They led the league in blocks with 972, and they allowed only 25.6 shots per game, the CHL’s second-fewest.  The Atlantics love nothing more than to slow down the pace of the game and grind their opponents to death.  Unlike Virginia, the Atlantics’ offense is powered by a pair of stars.  LW Jarmann Fischer finished with 33 goals, good for second in the league.  C Dwight Flynn finished third in the CHL in points with 62; he’s the only player to make the league’s top ten in goals (25) and assists (37).  If Halifax is going to bring a title to Atlantic Canada, they’ll need Fischer and Flynn to come up big.  “We’re ready to take our game to the next level,” said Fischer.  “We’ve been grinding all season, and we’re ready to keep doing that all the way to the end.”

 

Western Division

The Idaho Spuds are the defending champions, and they come into the playoffs as favorites to repeat.  Their 37-21-6 record was the league’s best, and their 80 points was eight ahead of their closest competitor.  They finished with a plus-minus of +72, the league’s best by a long shot. They’re coming into the playoffs hot, having won 15 of their last 19 games. Their parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, may have had a chaotic season and face an uncertain future, but Idaho’s season was virtually trouble-free (at least when their players stayed off social media). Looking at the Spuds’ statistics, it’s hard to find a weakness.  They led the league in scoring with 214 goals (3.3 per game), and they finished second in GAA with a stingy 2.32 figure.  Netminder Kelvin White (32-11-3, 1.99, .928) was a brick wall; he led the league in wins and GAA and missed the save percentage crown by a single point.  Their attack is led by C Dale Wilcox (26 goals) and RW Britt Cadmium (23), but Idaho loves to spread the wealth; they had a league-leading 11 players who finished with double-digit goals.  It’s a stretch to find any Achilles heels with this club, but… last season, in their first year in the Gem State, the Spuds had the league’s best home record, at 22-7-3.  This year, the crowds weren’t quite as huge, and the team actually did slightly better on the road.  This is a small nit to pick, however; Idaho figures to be a formidable opponent throughout the postseason.  “If anybody else wants the belt, they’re gonna have to come take it from us,” said LW Terry Cresson.  “We’re definitely not giving it up without a hell of a fight.”

The Omaha Ashcats face the Spuds in the Western playoff for the second season in a row.  Like the Atlantics, Omaha punched its playoff ticket on the season’s final day, knocking off Idaho 3-2 to finish ahead of the Utah Owls.  That season-ending victory completed a 6-1-1 stretch run that occurred after superfan “Krazy Karl”Loesser held a “sacrifice” outside the arena to change the team’s luck; prior to that, they’d lost 7 of their previous 9 games.  Was it the hockey gods at work, as Krazy Karl claimed, or a mere coincidence?  “At this point in the season, we need all the help we can get,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “And I have no interest in pissing off the hockey gods, so I’ll just say thanks.”  Unlike the East playoff, this series should feature plenty of shots; the Ashcats favor a fast-paced, firewagon style of hockey. They averaged 34.6 shots per game in the regular season; only Idaho had more.  They do wind up getting burned sometimes on the other end; they gave up an average of 31 shots a game (only two teams were worse).  If Omaha can spring an upset and make the Finals, it will likely be thanks to winning the penalty battle.  The Ashcats are absolutely lethal on the power play; their 25.4% conversion rate led the league by a wide margin.  Meanwhile, Idaho’s 79.9% penalty kill rate was dead last.  The Spuds will need to play smart and stay out of the penalty box if they’re going to avoid the upset and defend their title.

CHL Update: Unsung Heroes Keeping Halifax in Contention

If you look at the standings in the CHL’s Eastern Division, you might be surprised to find the Halifax Atlantics near the top.  The Quebec Tigres affiliate isn’t stocked with big-name prospects.  They’ve barely scored more goals than they’ve allowed.  On paper, they don’t look like they should be a contender.  But they’ve quietly hung in the race all season, thanks to a trio of unlikely heroes: one player considered a failed prospect, another who’s considered a marginal journeyman, and a third who’s viewed as washed up.

“We might win the championship,” said Atlantics coach Mel Lonigan, “and everyone will still be scratching their heads, trying to figure out how we did it.”

Back in 2017, LW Jarmann Fischer was a highly-touted 20-year-old prospect in Seattle’s system.  He finished that season with 22 goals (just missing the league’s top 10) and 30 assists, leading an Omaha Ashcats team that finished with the league’s best record.  That offseason, he was dealt to the Dakota Jackalopes, the centerpiece of a trade that brought RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya to Seattle.  The Jackalopes organization and fans hoped that Fischer would ultimately blossom into a dynamic scorer who could replace Pepper on the top line.

The following two seasons were, in Fischer’s words, “a total disaster.”  He scored 22 points in those two campaigns… combined.  He quickly became a prime target for the ire of Dakota’s dwindling fan base, who held up signs with cruel slogans like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fisch”.  “I was too young and immature, and not ready to take on the kind of role they needed from me,” Fischer explains now.  “And the organization was dysfunctional; there wasn’t a lot of teaching going on.  Add in the fact that I was getting booed every night… it was just a bad scene all around.”

Dakota didn’t renew his contract, and Fischer headed into free agency as a 23-year-old prospect-turned-suspect.  The Tigres signed him and sent him to Halifax, where he began rebuilding his game and his reputation.  Now he has 27 goals, tied for the team lead.  “I see Fisch out there, and he just looks so much looser,” said Lonigan.  “The pressure’s off now, and he doesn’t have to justify the trade or win the fans over.  He can just sit back and play, and he’s loving it.”

Skating beside Fischer on Halifax’s top line is C Dwight Flynn.  As a young draft pick in 2016, Flynn won raves for his speed and passing touch, but was considered undersized and defensively deficient.  He never did manage to put on weight, and his defensive shortcomings cost him ice time.  With inconsistent ice time (he never appeared in more than 32 games in a season), Flynn struggled to produce and develop, and he didn’t blossom into the solid bottom-six center that he was expected to be.  His career high was 15 points.

When he didn’t receive a single major-league offer this offseason, Flynn considered retirement.  Instead, he signed a minor-league deal with the Tigres, and headed off to Halifax.  Partnered with Fischer, Flynn has flourished.  His 53 points (in just 43 games) places him fourth in the CHL; his 21 goals places him in the top ten, and his 32 assists lead the team.

“I feel like a rookie all over again here,” said Flynn.  “All my old failures and frustrations, those are gone now.  I have a fresh start, and it feels great.”

Meanwhile, the dean of the Atlantics’ blueline corps is Moose Baker.  The 33-year-old defenseman has bounced between four different teams in his SHL career.  He’s a big, lumbering player who won’t help you much on offense, but will provide you with a physical presence in his own end.  He’s regarded as a locker-room glue guy with a quick wit and a good mentor to younger players.  He also has a pair of rings: one with the 2015 Anchorage Igloos and one with last year’s Hamilton Pistols.

“I’ve never been a star,” said Baker, “but I’ve been with some great teams, and I know what makes for strong team chemistry.”

Like Flynn, Baker thought of retiring in the offseason; he had several coaching offers on the table.  But he decided he wasn’t ready to hang up his skates just yet, and came to Halifax to keep his career going and work with the team’s young blueline prospects.  “I love hockey, playing hockey, more than anything,” Baker noted.  “As long as my body holds out and I’m having fun, why not keep the party going?”

And keep it going he has.  Mind you, Baker isn’t taking life easy in the minors: he’s appeared in 51 games and he leads the CHL in blocks with 125.  “Moose has been an inspiration to all of us,” said Lonigan.  “A lot of veteran players, they hate being in the minors.  They’re just going through the motions out there; if they don’t have a shot at getting back to the majors, they just want to skate around a little and then go drink beer.  Not Moose; he’s out there blocking shots and banging bodies like the Vandy is on the line.”

There’s no guarantee the Atlantics will win the title, or even make the playoffs.  But if they do, they’ll owe a lot of their success to a trio of players that the SHL was ready to give up on.

“I don’t know what the future is for us,” said Fischer, “but I don’t care.  We’re enjoying the moment, and it’s a sweet ride.”