2020 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2020 Eastern Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Keith Shields, was as follows:

First Line:

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton.  Last year, the voting in the East was dominated by fans of the Pistols and New York Night, the latter of which hosted the game.  Without the draw of hosting and with the Night’s lackluster record this year, votes from the New York metro area dipped considerably, while backers of defending champion Hamilton came out in force to support their heroes.  Alexander was the league’s top vote-getter, earning his fourth straight trip to the game and his third appearance in the starting lineup.  Although the feisty winger’s numbers are not quite up to his career norms, he is tied for the league lead in goals with 21.

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  Backed by the voting power of the Greater Toronto Area, Risch was the top vote-getter among Eastern defenseman, making his second All-Star appearance and his first start.  The 24-year-old is on track for a career season; he’s already scored more goals in the first half (8) than he ever has in an entire year.  He isn’t just an offensive force, either; he continues to deliver strong play in his own end.  His 73 blocks is the second-most among Eastern players.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey.  In something of an upset, Valentine managed to hold off Hamilton’s Calvin Frye to make his first All-Star start since 2017.  Valentine is the leading man in Hershey’s famous “Love Line,” and he’s producing in line with his top season.  He’s currently in third place in goals with 20 and tied for third in points with 42.  He’s also among the top ten in plus-minus at +14, a distinction he shares with his fellow Love Liners.

D: Matt Cherner, Boston.  In another upset, Cherner surged into second place, ahead of Hershey’s Reese Milton and New York’s Dominic Sanchez, who have been the East’s starting defensemen in each previous All-Star Game.  Cherner reportedly benefited from a strong crossover vote, as fans from his previous teams in Dakota and Quebec cast ballots for him in significant numbers.  It’s his second All-Star appearance, and his debut representing the East; he showed up on the West’s roster back in 2018.  Like his fellow top-pairing blueliner Risch, Cherner has 8 goals and 28 points so far this season.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rabid voting base lifted Lafayette to his first ever All-Star start (and only his second overall start), appearing alongside his longtime teammate and friend Alexander.  Lafayette won his spot by less than 5,000 votes over Hershey’s Christopher Hart and New York’s Rick Nelson.  Lafayette is one of the league’s elite passers, and it’s no surprise that he leads the SHL in assists with 35.  His 42 points overall ties him with Valentine for the league’s third-highest total.

 

Second Line:

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey.  Shields mentioned during the lineup announcement that he has a great deal of respect for the Bliss, Hamilton’s fiercest rival.  His admiration came through in his picks, as he tapped three Bliss players (in addition to starter Valentine) to the lineup.  It’s the second All-Star selection for Sweet, who also appeared in the SHL’s inaugural midseason contest in 2017.  Sweet is a highly deserving choice; he leads the league in points with 44, and is in the top 10 in both goals (16) and assists (28).

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton.  Shields’ respect for Hershey was topped only by his affection for his own squad; the coach selected four players from his Vandy-winning, division-leading Pistols.  The veteran Smyth, though, is no homer pick; his 30 points are tied for the highest total among SHL defensemen, and his 26 assists are tied for fifth in the league overall.  He also leads the league in plus-minus rating with +17.  It’s Smyth’s third trip to the All-Star Game, making a reappearance in the lineup after a one-year absence.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  After Frye was beaten out by Valentine for the starting center spot, there was no doubt that Shields was going to tab his star for a spot.  Frye is only of only four Eastern players to have appeared in every All-Star contest to date.  Frye is tied with his teammate Alexander for the league lead in goals with 21, and his 43 points is the second highest total in the SHL.  “I’ll bet this is the last time for a long time that Calvin isn’t the starter,” said Shields.  “If he keeps producing the way he has been, he’s going to make it impossible for the fans to ignore.  He’s just a special, special player.”

D: Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton. It’s the third straight All-Star appearance for the 22-year-old Mulligan and the third appearance for a Hamilton defenseman in this lineup.  It’s the first time since 2017 that a single team landed a trio of blueliners on the roster; Michigan was the last team to accomplish the feat. The hard-hitting Mulligan brings an extra edge of the Eastern roster; his 68 blocks is sixth in the SHL and second on the Pistols to his linemate Risch.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart joins his linemates Sweet and Valentine on the East roster.  Surprisingly, Hart is the only one of the trio who has appeared in every All-Star contest, though he has never started.  Like his fellow Love Liners, Hart is in the top ten in the league in points (39), assists (26), and plus-minus (+14).  “Last year, I had to carry the Love Line banner all by myself at the game,” said Hart.  “This time, I’ll be there with both my brothers, and that’s the way it ought to be.”

 

Third Line:

LW: Magnus Gunnarson, Hamilton.  At a loaded position, Shields tapping his own player again generated some controversy around the league.  Many felt that New York’s Chase Winchester or Boston’s Casey Thurman would be a more fitting choice.  But Gunnarson is having a strong season in his own right.  He has produced 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) at the halfway point.  And when Alexander missed several games with an injury in the first half, Gunnarson stepped in and kept the Pistols from missing a beat.  It all adds up to an All-Star debut for the 24-year-old winger.

D: Reese Milton, Hershey.  It’s the first time that Milton won’t be starting in an All-Star Game, but the Bliss blueliner keeps his string of appearances alive.  Milton’s offensive numbers (8 goals, 17 assists) are a tick below his career norms, but he remains as defensively strong as ever; his 77 blocks are the most in the East, and he maintains a solid +8 rating.

C: Alain Beauchesne, Boston.  The 22-year-old Beauchesne receives his second straight All-Star nod; his selection marks the first time that the Badgers have had more than one honoree.  This was another somewhat controversial choice: Night fans argued that Brock Manning should have gotten the call, while DC fans clamored for Harvey Bellmore.   But Shields went with the youngster, who leads Boston with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists).

D: Richard McKinley, Quebec.  The 21-year-old blueliner is the Tigres’ lone representative this year, and he makes his debut in the All-Star game.  Quebec is suffering through considerable offensive struggles this season, but McKinley is a relatively bright spot, having recorded 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).  He also is tied for the team lead in blocks with 65.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  Like the Tigres, the Galaxy have only one All-Star representative.  This season, the honors go to McNeely, who will make his third appearance in the game.  He is second on the Washington roster in goals (with 11) and points (with 27).  “Honestly, I would have given it to Harvey,” said McNeely.  “But it they want me to go again, sure, I’ll go.”

 

Goalies:

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a season when many of the East’s traditional top goalies are having down seasons, Koskinen’s solid performance and Hamilton’s strong voting base combined to earn the Pistols netminder his third straight All-Star trip and his second start.  Koskinen struggled in the opening weeks of the season, but he has improved as the season has gone along.  His 15 wins are second-most in the SHL; that achievement appears to have overshadowed his somewhat-subpar 3.14 GAA and .915 save percentage.

“Jersey Mike” Ross, New York.  With Shields in charge of choosing the East’s roster, is it a surprise that Ross is the lone Night player to make the All-Star squad?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the veteran goaltender, who is another first-time All-Star, has had a surprisingly strong season.  Believe it or not, Ross has the highest save percentage (.923) among starting goalies in the East.  After planned starter Sherman Carter imploded, Ross stepped in as the primary starter and has helped keep the Night afloat in the playoff race.

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

2019 SHL Finals – Game 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 4

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

(Hamilton leads, 3-1)

The first three games of the 2019 SHL Finals have been tense, back-and-forth affairs, with neither team leading by more than one goal at any point.  Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, both the hometown Hamilton Pistols and the defending champion Anchorage Igloos were looking for a decisive victory, one that might swing the momentum of the series firmly in their favor.

As it turned out, it was the Pistols who made the strong statement, running out to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the contest.  They then withstood a late Anchorage rally to hold on for a 3-2 win, moving themselves within a game of their first-ever Vandy.

“We’re rising up, boys!” hollered Pistols LW Steven Alexander in a jubilant postgame locker room.  “One more win, and the world turns upside down!”

Up to this point, the first periods in this series have followed a pattern: a lot of sound and fury, but no goals.  Before today’s game, Hamilton coach Keith Shields suggested to his team to slow down the pace a bit and focus on shot quality over quantity.  He also tinkered with the team’s offensive setup.  Noting that the Igloos were focusing their defense on Alexander, Shields decided to roll his lines and run less of the offense through his star winger.  The changes paid great dividends.

Just over two minutes in the game, with the third line on the ice, LW Magnus Gunnarson received a perfect pass from C Henry Constantine in the slot, and went top-shelf for a goal.  It’s the first time in the series that Hamilton has scored first, and it got the crowd at Gunpowder Armory fired up early.

“We’ve been getting traffic in the home plate area, and it’s been paying off for us,” said Gunnarson.

Shortly after the midway point of the first, the Pistols’ top line set up for an extended shift in Anchorage’s end.  C Calvin Frye found Alexander in his preferred shooting spot.  Alexander wound up for a slapshot, and Igloos goalie Ty Worthington committed to block it.  But Alexander instead fired a pass to teammate Claude Lafayette, who was skating hard toward the net.  Lafayette easily tucked the puck home over a sprawling Worthington to give Hamilton a 2-0 lead.

The Igloos had opportunities to cut into the lead late in the period thanks to a flurry of Pistols penalties, but they couldn’t convert, and went into the locker room down by a pair.  Coach Sam Castor laid into the champs, demanding to see more urgency.

“We let [the Pistols] get the jump on us, and we weren’t responding,” said Castor.  “That’s not like us.”

The Igloos came out with more energy in the second half, but they frequently ran into a brick wall at the blue line, courtesy of the Pistols’ rugged defensive corps.  “They did a really good job keeping us from getting established on offense,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “We just couldn’t get any momentum.”

A little more than 5 minutes into the period, the Pistols’ top line broke out on an odd-man rush.  Frye fed it to Alexander, who again wound up for a shot.  Worthington prepared to block it, only to see Alexander toss it back to D Raymond Smyth, who beat Worthington glove-side to make it a 3-0 game.  As Smyth circled back for hugs and backslaps from his teammates, the crowd threatened to tear the roof off with their jubilation.

The Igloos refused to give in, however, and slowly fought back with the help of some ill-timed Pistol penalties.  About four minutes after Smyth’s goal, RW Kenny Patterson was assessed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for smacking the puck into the stands to protest an offside call.  With about 20 seconds left on the power play, Igloos RW Ben Summers got free in front of the net and jammed the puck just inside the post to get his team on the board.

In the third period, Frye took another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Anchorage kept the puck in the offensive zone, and cashed in during the waning seconds of the power play with a goal from D Ted Keefe.  The Igloos celebrated as an uneasy buzz ran through the stands.

With just over three minutes left in regulation, Anchorage had a golden chance to tie the game when Pistols D Clayton Risch was whistled for spearing. “We knew we really had to buckle down and stop them at all costs,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “We could not let a stray shot give us away.”

So Anchorage took their shots, and Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen and the penalty kill turned them away.  And then, 1:17 into the power play, Igloos D Olaf Martinsson committed a cross-checking penalty, wiping away the man advantage and the visitors’ hopes for victory.

In the losing locker room, the Igloos were grim but determined.  “Well, we used up all of our rope,” C Jake Frost said.  “Now the only thing we can do is go win three in a row.  So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 3

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2 (OVERTIME)

(Hamilton leads, 2-1)

Through the first three games, the 2019 SHL Finals have a distinctive rhythm.  There’s a fast-paced first period, in which the Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols fire shots by the bucketload but don’t score.  The action settles down somewhat in the second and third, as the teams trade goals (with Anchorage drawing first blood) as well as near-misses.  In the end, one team wins by a single goal; often, regulation isn’t enough to settle matters.

The venue shifted for Game 3 from Anchorage’s Arctic Circle Arena to Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory.  But the teams followed the familiar script, all the way to Eddie Costello’s overtime goal that gave the Pistols a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.

“We’re going toe-to-toe with the defending champs and we’re pulling out wins,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “That tells you a lot about the strength and fearlessness of the guys in this locker room.”

The fans at Gunpowder Armory are well-known for making a lot of noise, especially in the postseason.  During the division series, the Hershey Bliss let the crowd noise get in their heads, and they went on to lose the series.  The Igloos said that the racket wouldn’t bother them, and that proved to be true.  They came out of the gate just as fast and trigger-happy as they had at home, outshooting the Pistols 17-13 in the first period.  But Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen turned aside all of the Igloos attempts, just as Anchorage’s Ty Worthington did for the baker’s dozen of Hamilton shots.

Then came the second period, and the scoring began.  Anchorage went a man to the good just 22 seconds into the period when Pistols D Hercules Mulligan sent the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.  LW Les Collins proceeded to make the Pistols pay, firing a low hard shot that Koskinen couldn’t quite pick up.

Hamilton didn’t strike back quite as quickly as they had in earlier games.  But just over four minutes after Collins’ tally, LW Jamie Campbell tied things up by netting a wraparound shot before Worthington could seal off the post.  The Igloos had several opportunities to retake the lead courtesy of three Pistols penalties later in the period, but they couldn’t convert and the period ended in a 1-1 tie.

In each of the first two games, the Pistols scored quickly in the third period.  This game followed that pattern, as C Calvin Frye put one in before the period was two minutes old, giving Hamilton its first lead of the game.  The old building rattled as the fans roared, clapped, and stomped in salute of their heroes.

“Honestly, it felt like the whole place was going to shake itself apart,” said Igloos C Nile Bernard.  “We could feel the movement on the bench, and I was kind of eyeing the rafters like, ‘Uh, guys, is it safe…?’”

Anchorage, though, didn’t let the deficit or the screaming fans or the rumbling arena bother them.  They focused on keeping the Pistols from adding to their lead, while trying to win more zone time on offense.  This effort paid off just before the midpoint of the period, as C Jake Frost received a perfect one-touch pass from RW Nicklas Ericsson and ripped home a shot before Koskinen could react, tying it up at 2 apiece.

“That top line of [Anchorage’s] is just sick,” said Mulligan.  “You know they’re going to feed it to Frost if they can, but then they do and you can’t stop it.  It’s a lot like Alex [Steven Alexander] and our top line that way.”

Anchorage took a couple of minor penalties in the back half of the third period, which gave Hamilton golden opportunities for a go-ahead goal.  They nearly had one in the final minute of the game, when Alexander fired a shot that Worthington got a piece of but couldn’t stop completely.  The puck trickled toward the goal line and nearly over it, but D Olaf Martinsson swooped in and whacked it away.  The Pistols asked for a replay review, and it was determine that the puck had gone partway over the line but not completely.  No goal, and on to overtime.

The extra session started out a bit slowly, as both teams looked a bit tired and sluggish.  The action frequently bogged down in the neutral zone.  But a little past the two-minute mark, RW Ben Summers slipped on a soft patch of ice while crossing over the red line and went down, losing control of the puck.  Pistols D Raymond Smyth won a race to the puck, started down the ice, then found Costello.

The ex-Galaxy center was the overtime hero of the series-clinching Game 4 against Hershey, and he was ready to do it again.  He skated hard toward the net, getting behind the defense.  He deked a bit with the puck, trying to get Worthington out of position.  Then he went shortside over Worthington’s outstretched stick for the game-winning goal.

“Easy Eddie does it again!” said Shields with a grin.  “I love that guy.  He’s knows how to get it done with style.”

Igloos coach Sam Castor was generally pleased with his team’s effort, even in a losing cause.  “Every game in this series so far has basically been dead even,” Castor said.

The coach added, however, that he wanted to see his team win Game 4.  “Getting back to even and getting the home-ice advantage back, that’s crucial,” Castor said.  “I’m not calling it a must-win, but you don’t want to go down 3-1.  We don’t want to be in that hole.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 3”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, HAMILTON PISTOLS 2 (OVERTIME)

(Anchorage leads, 1-0)

If Game 1 sets the tone for the 2019 SHL Finals, fans are in for a treat.  The Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols combined to give fans a fast-paced, highly-skilled, closely-contested thrill ride.  The game was so closely contested, in fact, that it couldn’t be resolved in regulation.  But in the end, C Jake Frost and the Igloos sent the fans at Arctic Circle Arena home happy with a 3-2 overtime win.

“This was a hockey master class,” said Frost.  “Both teams were really on their toes and playing at a really, really high level.  This series is gonna be lit.”

The energy on both sides was palpable even before the game started.  As the national anthems played, players on both teams bounced up and down on their skates, like bulls waiting for the gate to open.  It was little surprise that the Pistols, making their first Finals appearance, would be so fired up.  But the champion Igloos were just as hyped.

That energy expressed itself in a frenetic first period.  No one scored in the first, but not for a lack of trying: the teams combined to unleash 33 shots in the period, with Anchorage taking 20 of them.  Igloos coach Sam Castor felt that the action was a little too frenzied, and cautioned his team between periods to moderate their pace a bit.

“I know our guys were trying to take the early lead and make a statement,” Castor said, “but the game was turning into a track meet, and we were flinging shots at the net as soon as we got the puck into their zone.  I told them to be a little more deliberate and make our shots count.”

The first-period sugar high wore off in the second, and the game settled into a still-swift but reasonable tempo.  It didn’t take the Igloos long to get their much-desired lead, as LW Les Collins scored on a slapshot from the slot just over a minute into the frame.

“I saw just enough daylight for the shot, so I took it,” said Collins.

A couple minutes afterward, though, Collins headed to the sin bin on a high-sticking call.  Hamilton LW Steven Alexander wasted no time banging home a slapper of his own to tie the score.

“We know that if we can get the puck on Alex’s stick on the PP, good things will happen,” said C Calvin Frye.

The tie lasted barely more than 90 seconds before rookie Igloos LW Jean Pierre Fleury redirected a shot over the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to give the home team a 2-1 lead.  The champs’ confidence only grew as they killed off three additional penalties in the period.  The Igloos adjusted their penalty-kill approach to overload toward Alexander, and the Pistols were unable to make them pay.

After two periods, the momentum seemed firmly in Anchorage’s corner, as they held onto their one-goal lead.  But less than a minute into the frame, Collins was whistled for another penalty, this time for cross-checking.  On the ensuing faceoff, Hamilton fed the puck to Alexander, as expected.  But the star winger faked a shot, then slung a pass to D Clayton Risch, who fired it to fellow blueliner Hercules Mulligan.  Mulligan then fired the shot past Igloos netminder Ty Worthington, who never seemed to see it.  Tie game.

Collins, frustrated at taking the penalties that allowed Hamilton to score both their goals, was now fiercely determined to make up for it with another goal of his own.  He got a chance midway through the period, when Koskinen bit on a fake slapper from C Nile Bernard, and Collins found himself with the puck and a yawning net.  Unfortunately, he was so wound up that he fired the shot high over the crossbar.  Collins then skated back to the bench and smashed his stick to bits, a rare display of emotion for the reserved forward.

The third period featured chances for both teams, but both Koskinen and Worthington made sensational stops to keep things deadlocked through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, the Igloos were determined to take the win.  “We weren’t about to let [the Pistols] get the jump on us on our ice,” said Frost.

In the extra session, Anchorage was able to control the play far better than they had in regulation.  They repeatedly denied Hamilton opportunities to set up on offense, and kept most of the action in the other end.  Finally, a bit over two minutes in, Frost and LW Jerry Koons broke out on a 2-on-1, which Koons finished by going top-shelf over Koskinen’s right shoulder.

“Winning the first one, that’s big for us,” said Koons.  “But this is going to be a long series, and we’re going to have to stay sharp.  That’s a talented bunch on the other side, that’s for sure.”

Pistols coach Keith Shields was encouraged by his team’s performance, loss notwithstanding.  “We showed that we can go toe to toe with those guys,” Shields said.  “The game could have gone either way.  I believe we sent them a message that we need to be taken seriously.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 1”

Igloos, Pistols Ready to Duel in Finals

In the 2019 Vandenberg Cup Finals, the student faces off against the master.  The master, of course, is the defending champion Anchorage Igloos.  The Igloos are making their fourth trip to the Finals in the last five years, and trying to win their third title.  However, unlike last year, when they faced the Quebec Tigres – a team that plays the exact opposite of Anchorage’s fast-skating, high-scoring style – the champions are facing the Hamilton Pistols, a team unashamedly built in their image.

When Keith Shields became coach of the Pistols in 2016, he looked around for a successful team to emulate, and settled on the Igloos.  “I felt like we had the personnel to play their style a lot better than, say, Michigan’s,” Shields said.  “And honestly, Igloos games were a lot of fun to watch, and I figured that would fire up our fans.”  The coach showed his players films of Igloos games and encouraged them to learn everything they could.

“In the early days, I think we watched more of [the Igloos’] game film than our own,” said C Calvin Frye.  “I was seeing Jake Frost in my sleep.”

Now, Frye and his teammates will be seeing Frost in the flesh, and battling his team for the title.  “For so long, we’ve been trying to be as good as they are,” said LW Steven Alexander.  “Now it’s time for us to take the next step and become better.”

The young, scrappy, and hungry Pistols are excited for the challenge.  “Our energy level in the locker room is through the roof,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “We can’t wait to get out on the ice and show the world what we’ve been building.”

The Igloos come into the series as the favorite, but only a narrow one.  Most observers agree that while the West was once the dominant division, the gap between West and East has narrowed considerably in recent seasons.  The Igloos had to go the distance to dispatch Quebec last year, and they lost to the Hershey Bliss the year before.  And Anchorage finished with a record only slightly better than Hamilton’s (81 points to 78).

“Nobody on our side is going into this thinking it will be easy,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Hamilton’s a very good team, and they can play our game better than anyone except us.  They’ve studied everything we do, and they know how to counter us.  We we able to run over Seattle, but this is going to be a different series.  We’re going to have to bring our game up to the next level if we’re going to win this.  We can’t afford to rest on our laurels.”

LW Jerry Koons struck a more confident tone than his coach.  “We’ve been here before, and we know what we need to do,” Koons said.  “We know that we’re up against a quality opponent, but we’ve faced quality opponents before.  We just need to go out and play our game.”