2017 SHL Finals – Game 2

HERSHEY BLISS 2, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1 (OVERTIME)

After the Hershey Bliss were embarrassed 5-1 in the first game of the SHL Finals, many observers were ready to declare the series over.  The heavily favored Anchorage Igloos had bludgeoned the Bliss, goading them into taking foolish penalties and stonewalling their shots.  Although Bliss coach Chip Barber pointed out that it “only counts as one loss,” many wondered if Hershey would be able to recover.

Turns out that they could.  The Bliss shook off the sting of the previous game, and although it required overtime, they managed to top the Igloos 2-1, tying the series at 1-1.

“When it comes to the playoffs, you’ve got to have a short memory,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet, who scored the game-winning goal.  “If you led a bad game get in your head, you might as well forfeit.  We weren’t going to let that happen.”

In the first game, Hershey committed four penalties in the first period and giving up three goals, digging themselves into a big hole that they were never able to climb out of.  With that in mind, Barber cautioned his team to avoid taking cheap penalties in this game.  It appeared that the Bliss hadn’t heeded their coach’s words when, less than a minute into the game, linesman Ken McGillis made a controversial offsides call that nullified a potential odd-man rush for Hershey.  A frustrated Henry Constantine slammed his stick into the boards and was assessed a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“I was so mad at myself,” said Constantine.  “I thought we’d been ripped off on a bad call, then I went and made it worse.”

But the Bliss managed to kill off the penalty, and avoided taking any others in the period, which ended with no score.  Hershey also managed to avoid taking any penalties in the second period, after which the game still remained scoreless.  Through two periods, the game was about as evenly matched as possible: both teams had taken 18 shots, committed one minor penalty, and not managed to record a goal.

“Coming into the locker room after that second period with it still 0-0 really made us feel good,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “Our confidence level was rising like, ‘Hey, we can hang with these guys.  And we can win this.'”

In the third period, Hershey went on the power play two minutes in when Igloos D Olaf Martinsson received a double minor for spearing Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak.  The Bliss needed only five second to convert, with Valentine blistering a close-range shot off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s shoulder and into the net.  “That really silenced the crowd,” said Valentine.  “They knew that the way we were both playing, that might be the only goal of the game.”

The Igloos stepped up their pace after that in an effort to tilt the ice and overwhelm the Bliss.  Hershey held strong for much of the period, but with just under four minutes remaining, Igloos C Jake Frost and LW Jerry Koons got loose on a two-man breakaway that ended with Koons going top-shelf and finding the back of the net to tie it up.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena exploded as their heroes received new life.

The din only got louder a couple minutes later when Bliss LW Vonnie McLearen accidentally clipped Igloos LW Ben Summers in the face and got a minor for high-sticking.  The Igloos sent Worthington to the bench for a 6-on-4 advantage.  “We knew we were really going to be tested,” said Valentine.  “We knew we needed to stand strong.”

Stand strong they did, fighting off the penalty and sending the game to overtime.  The Bliss dominated the play in overtime but couldn’t quite break through until Igloos D Hans Mortensen was whistled for slashing, putting Hershey on the power play.

The Bliss didn’t press or panic with the man advantage.  They kept control of the puck, passing it around and waiting for an opportunity.  Sweet finally saw one when Bliss D Reese Milton faked a shot and slid it over to Sweet.  With Worthington out of position, the Bliss winger was able to find the open net, ending the game and giving Hershey a much-needed victory.

After the game, Barber highly praised the work of netminder Brandon Colt.  After a rough outing in Game 1, some fans were calling for Colt to be benched in favor of backup Milo Stafford.  But the coach kept faith in his starter, and Colt rewarded him with a strong game, stopping 33 shots.

“A lot of people were saying Brandon couldn’t handle it at this level, that he melts in the clutch like a bag of Kisses in a hot car,” said Barber.  “I don’t think they’ll be saying that after tonight.  This is a wide-open series.”

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, HERSHEY BLISS 1

The Anchorage Igloos entered the Vandenberg Cup Finals as heavy favorites.  The “favorite” label can come with considerable pressure in the playoffs, as anything can happen in a short series.  In Game 1, at least, the Igloos didn’t let the pressure get to them, as they scored three goals in the first period and cruised to a 5-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“If all the games are this easy, it’ll be a short series,” said Anchorage RW Nicklas Ericsson, who had a goal and two assists.  “But we know they won’t all be this easy.”

The Bliss put themselves in trouble in the first period, committing four penalties.  The Igloos took advantage, scoring a pair of power-play goals.  Four minutes into the game, Hershey D Nikolai Kulkarov was whistled for hooking when he brought down Anchorage C Derek Humplik in order to prevent a breakaway.  Igloos C Jake Frost buried a slapshot from the top of the faceoff circle to make it 1-0.  Late in the period, Bliss C Henry Constantine flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.  Before they could kill it off, D Joel Baldwin tried to draw a tripping call, but was called for embellishment.  Igloos RW Remi Montrechere cashed in during the waning seconds of the period, putting a rebound home past a sprawled Brandon Colt.  In between, LW Les Collins scored during 5-on-5 play, and the Igloos went to the locker room with a 3-0 edge, depsite being outshot 19-8.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena razzed the visiting Bliss on their way into the locker room.

“We were a little shell-shocked,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine of the first 20 minutes.  “We’d dominated long stretches of play, but look at the scoreboard and they were wiping the floor with us.”

In the second period, Baldwin tried to fire up his struggling team by starting a pair of fights.  In mid-period, he responded to a rough check by RW Tony Citrone by throwing hands with him.  Late in the period, he scrapped with Collins after the two traded jabs during a faceoff.

“I felt like we needed to shake things up,” said Baldwin.  “And I thought a good fight or two might change the momentum.”

Baldwin’s fisticuffs failed to spark Hershey, however, as Anchorage LW Jerry Koons scored the only goal of the period, yet another power-play tally.

Bliss LW Noah Daniels salvaged some dignity for his team, scoring four and a half minutes into the third period to foil Anchorage netminder Ty Worthington‘s shutout bid.  But Ericsson put one more home for the Igloos to restore their four-goal advantage, and that’s how the game ended.

Hershey coach Chip Barber was crestfallen after the game.  “Not the way that we wanted to start this series,” Barber told reporters.  “This loss was as bitter as biting into a chunk of backer’s chocolate.  But it only counts as one loss, thank goodness.”

Barber highlighted a couple of areas for his team to improve on in Game 2.  “Obviously, we’ve got to cut down on the penalties,” the Bliss coach said.  “Against a team this good, you can’t give them extra chances.  And we’ve got to find ways to get some more pucks past Worthington.”  The Igloos goalie made 38 saves in the game.

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Bliss Enjoying Sweet Life Atop East

The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness.  Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title.  The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all.  Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.

“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart.  Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players.  “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said.  “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind.  Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title.  You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”

Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart.  The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half.  They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.

Justin Valentine

“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship.  What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’  Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal.  Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”

What’s the secret to Hershey’s success?  They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.

Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team.  They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league.  Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season.  But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet.  This year, the top line is getting considerably more help.  LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points).  C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season.  And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).

Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger.  The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease.  They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier.  “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.

Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch.  Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him.  Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA.  And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.

“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber.  “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season.  Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season.  But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”

Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half.  The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well.  Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in.  Our fate is in our hands.”

Hershey’s Kennedy Skates With the Kids

Gene Kennedy

Hershey Bliss F Gene Kennedy is one of the few SHL players who has yet to see any ice time this season.  Tired of waiting for a chance to skate, Kennedy decided to make his own opportunity in an unorthodox manner that raised some eyebrows in the Bliss clubhouse and around the league.

Between the first and second periods of Tuesday’s game against the Washington Galaxy at the Chocolate Center, the Bliss held their usual “Pee Wee Playtime” game.  The game is a scrimmage between two team of local youth hockey players, who relish the opportunity to spend a few minutes on the same ice and shooting at the same nets as their heroes.

Observers quickly noticed that one of the players seemed a little different than the rest.  It was Kennedy, who had decided to join the youngsters for their scrimmage.  At 6-foot-2, the 25-year-old Kennedy didn’t exactly blend in with the 7-to-8-year-olds who made up the rest of the players.

“He just came out of nowhere,” said Bliss PA announcer Steve Leadbetter, who posted pictures and narratives of the scene on his Twitter account.  “At first, the kids were just doing their regular thing.  Then all of a sudden, Kennedy just came out from the Zamboni tunnel and just started skating with them.  Nobody was really sure what to make of it.”

“I was just trying to get my work in,” Kennedy explained after the game.  “I mean, you’ve got to stay sharp.  Skating in practice is okay, but I really need to get some work in at game speed.  Practice isn’t the same.  And from what I could tell, this was my best opportunity to get some ice time in-game.”

With a significant speed and size advantage over his fellow players, Kennedy dominated the scrimmage.  He had no trouble skating by the pee wee players, muscling them off the puck on occasion.  Shooting at both nets, the reserve forward scored 3 goals.

Nibs

At first, the fans assumed it was a deliberate joke, and reacted to Kennedy’s antics with laughter and cheers.  But as play continued and Kennedy hip-checked 7-year-old Jaylen Crossley and sent the young man sprawling to the boards, the cheers turned to boos.  At that point the Bliss mascot, Nibs, corraled Kennedy and ushered him off the ice.

“I felt bad about that,” Kennedy said of the check on Crossley.  “Totally unintentional.  I didn’t see him, but I felt him bump up against me.”  The winger signed his jersey and gave it to Crossley to make up for it.

Asked about Kennedy’s stunt, Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber quipped, “Well, I didn’t see it.  How did he look out there?”  The coach then added, “Look, I understand Gene’s frustrated about not getting to play. But all out forwards have been playing great.  Who do you sit?”

Kennedy’s teammates were more critical of his actions.  “It’s pretty unprofessional, if you ask me,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.  “You’re not happy ’cause you’re not playing, fine.  Take it up with the coach.  Don’t show up your team and run the kids’ fun.  I know Gene’s kind of flaky, but there’s a limit.”

Barber said that he does not plan to discipline Kennedy for the incident, and he will look to get Kennedy some playing time.  “I’m doing it for the kids,” the coach joked.  “I’m trying to protect them from Gene.”

Washington, Hershey Title Fight Goes Down to Last Day

Washington SmallHershey SmallGoing into the last week of the season, the East’s defending champion, the Washington Galaxy, trailed the Hershey Bliss by two points.  But with the two teams scheduled to meet on the last day of the season, Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle made a prediction.  “Just you watch,” Reagle said to reporters during Saturday’s game.  “It’s all going to come down to that game, and we’re both going to be tied.  One game for all the marbles.  Because that’s exactly the sick sense of humor the hockey gods have.”

As it turns out, Reagle’s prediction was exactly right.  When the Bliss and Galaxy faced off at Constellation Center on Friday, they had identical 33-23-3 records. Just as Reagle had foreseen, the winner of the game would win the division.

As it turned out, Washington defended its division crown with a dramatic come-from-behind 5-3 win that left the home crowd ecstatic and the visiting Bliss heartbroken.

“Couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling finish, eh?” said Reagle with a grin.

The Galaxy came into the season finale riding a six-game winning streak.  The Bliss were nearly as hot, having won six of their last seven, the only loss a 3-1 decision to eventual Western champ Michigan on Tuesday.

Both teams were confident heading into the deciding game.  “We feel like we’ve got the edge,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine, anchor of the team’s high-powered Love Line.  “Our offense is clicking, and Jesse [Clarkson] has really sealed up the net for us.  We’re ready to take this.”

Countered Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely, “This game is ours.  We’re peaking at the right time, and we’re playing at home in front of our awesome fans.  We always come up big in big moments, and this is about as big as they get.”

The first period was a raucous, high-tempo affair, with the crowd at full volume.  Both teams came out of the period with some good news.  The Galaxy were able to contain the Love Line, denying the high-scoring trio any good looks at the net.  On the other hand, Hershey got offense from an unexpected source, as third-line C Henry Constantine slipped a pair of power-play goals past Washington netminder Roger Orion, quieting the crowd and giving the visitors a 2-0 edge after the first period.

In the second period, the pace slowed a bit as the nervous energy of the first frame ebbed.  Washington got on the board as D Rusty Anderson banged in a slapper from the blue line a little more than 6 minutes in, but that was the only tally of the period, and the Galaxy found themselves trailing 2-1 with only one period left to save their season.

Before the third, Reagle tried an unorthodox approach to motivate his men.  The coach is well-known for his penchant for dressing in costume and making screwball jokes, but he played it straight.  “You know who you are and you know what you need to do,” Reagle told his players.  “Stop, take a breath, and remember: you got this.”

Unfortunately for the home team, Hershey struck again five minutes into the third period, as LW Russ Nahorniak tipped one in from the goal mouth to make it 3-1.  “That was the real gut check for us,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “We looked up and down the bench and said, ‘All right, are we gonna roll over and give up, or are we going to get back in this?'”

Washington got their second wind and came out determined to catch up.  Less than two minutes after Nahorniak’s goal, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz struck back on a three-on-two breakaway on a power play, going top shelf to make it 3-2.  But it was the latter half of the third period that really turned into a nightmare for Hershey.

With seven and a half minutes left in the game, Galaxy D Bill Corbett fired a low liner from the blue line.  The puck took a couple of strange bounces and eluded Clarkson for a curious tying goal.  Four minutes later, the Bliss surrendered another odd-man rush, with C J.C. Marais deking past a helpless Clarkson and putting the home team ahead for the first time.  The arena seemed to shake to its foundations as the crowd roared while a stunned Hershey squad tried to get itself back together.  But with a minute and a half left, the Galaxy got some much-needed insurance, with D Kevin Buchanan banking one home off the left post to make it 5-3, which was the ultimate final score.

After the game, the Bliss were left shell-shocked, having surrendered four unanswered goals to blow a seemingly solid lead.  There was a lot about this game that was tough for Hershey to swallow.  The Love Line was held without a single point in the game.  Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber suggested that the trio was exhausted by a long season.  “They’ve carried so much of the load for us for so long,” mused Barber.  “I just think there wasn’t enough left in the tank.”  And Clarkson, Hershey’s big deadline pickup, wilted in the clutch when his team needed him most.  Clarkson was not available for comment after the game.

Barber summed things up for his team by saying, “To come this far this year and then have a game like this, it’s like biting into a nice Fifth Avenue bar and finding a big rock in the middle.”

In the Washington locker room, the mood was entirely different.  Reagle blasted “Joy to the World” from his office as the players danced and sprayed each other with beer.  “Man, what a crazy ending!” shouted Costello.  “Last year was easier, but this was way more fun.”

The Galaxy also extended praise to their defeated foe.  “Big tip of the lid to Hershey,” said McNeely.  “They gave us a real run, and with a couple of bounces, this could easily have gone their way.  They’re a hell of a team, and I expect them to come back strong next year.”

As for the Finals matchup with Western champion Michigan?  “Bring it on,” said McNeely.  “We can handle anything they want to throw at us.  We’re ready.”