Washington Surges in East

Washington SmallLast season, the Washington Galaxy led the East virtually wire-to-wire, maintaining a steady single-digit lead for almost the entire season.  This season was different, as the Hamilton Pistols and Quebec Tigres got off to surprisingly strong starts and the division remains tightly bunched in the early weeks.  Over the last couple of weeks, though, the Galaxy have quietly kicked things into gear, going on a tear and opening up a double-digit advantage over their stumbling competitors.  As the league hits midseason, Washington appears well-positioned for a return trip to the playoffs.

“That whole team should wear ninja outfits,” said New York Night C Brock Manning, whose team trails the Galaxy by 11 points.  “They rarely look dominating, they don’t have a bunch of big-name stars… but damned if you don’t look up and see them pulling away every time.  I don’t know how they do it.”

How do they do it?  With a surprisingly potent and balanced offense, combined with a sturdy defense and solid goaltending.  To the surprise of many observers, Washington is second in the league in goals with 104.  The Galaxy’s top scorer is RW Jefferson McNeely, who has rebounded in a big way from a down year in 2015 to establish himself as a star.  McNeely’s 18 goals and 36 points puts him in the top 10 in the league in both categories.  McNeely’s emergence has taken considerable pressure off of linemate Casey Thurman, who was the team’s leading scorer in ’15 but got off to a slow start this year.

“I’m really glad to see Jefferson having a strong season,” said teammate Eddie Costello.  “He’s an electric personality, and the fans are really getting to see that now that he’s breaking out.  The people in DC are going to love this guy.”

But McNeely is far from the only quality scorer in the Galaxy’s lineup.  Thurman (10 goals, 25 points) has been gaining steam during Washington’s recent run.  Costello has done a great job setting up McNeely and Thurman, but is also a scoring threat in his own right (12 goals, 36 points).  Washington has strong scorers on its second and third lines as well, including LW Walt Camernitz (15 goals, 29 points), RW Sindri Pentti (11 goals, 17 points), and C J.C. Marais (25 points)

“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” said Camernitz.  “We pack a punch on all three lines, and we can score at any time.  Some other teams, you contain their one or two big guys and you can shut them down.  We’re not like that.”

Washington is no slouch in its own end, either.  The Galaxy’s defensive prowess was a key reason they were able to push the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos to 7 games in last season’s SHL Finals, and if anything, they’re stronger this year.  Defenseman Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom is the team’s chief enforcer, and his willingness to scrap is legendary around the league.  But Washington is well stocked with solid two-way threat on the blue line.  Top pairing Leonard Wright and Kevin Buchanan are strong playmakers at both ends, and second pairing Rusty Anderson and Grant Warriner provide a bit of a heavier, more defense-oriented look.  The team also has several rugged wingers, most notably the hard-checking Pentti.

“A lot of teams in this league are imbalanced toward offense or defense,” said Buchanan.  “We pride ourselves on being balanced.  We can bang with the big boys, but we also have the speed and scoring ability to keep up with the faster clubs.”

Backstopping the defense is netminder Roger Orion, who has provided steady and drama-free prowess in the crease since the beginning.  “Other goalies have flashier reps and bigger names,” said Costello.  “But we’re happy to go to war with Roger any time.  We know he’s going to take care of business back there.”

Overseeing the whole circus is the league’s most colorful coach, Rodney Reagle.  A former goalie who was nicknamed “Reagle the Eagle” in his playing days, he’s done nothing to disprove the adage that goaltenders are a strange breed.  Players, though, say that his offbeat style keeps the cluhbhouse loose even in tense moments.

“Coach, well… what can you say?” said Costello.  “He’s one of a kind.  And by that I mean he’s hard-core nuts.  But we love that.”

Reagle keeps up a seemingly never-ending stream of pranks and jokes.  Recently, in reaction to the “creepy clowns” stories circulating on the Internet, he had the visiting locker room at Constellation Center decorated with pictures of clowns.

“I’ve been in there,” said Reagle, “and afterward I had to curl up in the fetal position for a half hour.  It’s totally going to unnerve our opponents.  Think of it as psychological warfare.”

While creepy clowns may or may not be essential to Washington’s recent success, critics argue that the Galaxy are simply cleaning up against a weak division.  As of this writing, none of the other teams in the East have an above-.500 record.  The West, meanwhile, has a pair of powerhouses in the Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Even if Washington cruises back to the Finals, won’t they simply be crushed by whoever emerges from the West?

Reagle pointed out that people said the same thing last year, and the Galaxy nearly won the title.  “If everyone wants to overlook us and say that we’re weak because our division is struggling, go ahead,” said the coach.  “We’ll be happy to prove them wrong again.”

2015 SHL Finals – Game 6

Anchorage SmallWashington SmallANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, WASHINGTON GALAXY 3

The SHL Finals are going the distance.  With their backs against the wall in a must-win Game 6, the Anchorage Igloos ran up the score early against the Washington Galaxy and went on to a 5-3 win, setting the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 for tomorrow at Arctic Circle Arena.

“Today, we showed that we had the backbone of a champion,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We were aggressive and hard-nosed, and we let our superior talent shine through.  Washington’s played a great series, and they’ve pushed us to the limit.  But today’s game shows that we’re ready to respond.”

The first period of this game was highly reminiscent of Game 3.  Just as in that game, Anchorage dominated the action early on and built a 3-0 lead.  LW Jerry Koons was a man possessed for the Igloos, scoring the first two goals and driving the pace of play.

“We haven’t come this far and worked this hard all season to come up short now,” said Koons.  “I wasn’t about to let us roll over and die.”

About halfway through the first stanza, Anchorage D Olaf Martinsson forced a turnover in his own end and flipped the puck to Koons, who started a two-man breakaway with RW Nicklas Ericsson.  Koons finished with a beautiful deke before poking it between the legs of Galaxy goalie Roger Orion.

Three minutes later, the Igloos were on the power play when Koons banged home a rebound at the goal mouth off a shot from C Jake Frost to make it 2-0.  “Orion made a great save on that play,” said Castor, “but Jerry didn’t give up on the play and made sure we found the back of the net.  That’s the kind of greasy goal you need in the playoffs.”

When LW Misha Petronov tipped in another rebound to make it 3-0, the arena was rocking and the crowd was taunting Orion, who had faced only 8 shots to that point.  Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle called timeout and spoke to his netminder, but did not pull Orion from the game.

“Roger’s the guy who got us here,” said Reagle.  “If you pull a guy in that situation, you’re telegraphing that you’ve got no confidence, and I’m not about to do that at this point of the season.”

Unlike in Game 3, though, the Galaxy didn’t wait until the second period to get back in the game.  Immediately following Petronov’s goal, Washington C Drustan Zarkovich won the ensuing faceoff and started a march up the ice that led to a goal by RW Sindri Pentti, getting the Galaxy on the board.  And in the waning seconds of the first, C J.C. Marais buried a shot from the right faceoff circle to make it 3-2.

“We were right back in it!” said Washington LW Casey Thurman.  “We went into the locker room feeling great.”

The Igloos clearly learned their lesson from Game 3, however, and never let the Galaxy tie the game.  Early in the second period, Anchorage C Nile Bernard flipped a puck over a sprawling Orion and into the upper right corner of the net to put the Igloos ahead 4-2.

“I hadn’t been planning to shoot,” said Bernard, “but [Orion] overcommitted to the left side and left me with a wide open net.  I felt like I had to put it in.”

Washington did not go quietly, though.  After Igloos D Ted Keefe was sent off for slashing with 6 minutes left in the second frame, Marais flicked a wrister in off the top crossbar to get the Galaxy back within one.

That 4-3 score held up through the rest of the second period and much of the third.  Finally, with less than 5 minutes left in the game, the Igloos got an insurance goal in a most bizarre manner.  Orion turned aside a shot from RW Sven Danielsen but failed to corral the rebound.  The puck slid out to the blue line, and Keefe fired it back toward the goal.  The puck ticked off fellow D Dave Frederick’s stick and popped high in the air.  When it came down, the puck bounced off Orion’s back and into the net.

“That was just a strange play all the way around,” said Reagle.  “I think everybody sort of lost it up in the air, and then the way it came down and got in before Roger could react… it’s almost like the puck had a mind of its own, you know?”

Reagle rebuffed calls for replacing Orion in net for Game 7.  “That’s just silly,” said the Galaxy coach.  “Roger’s gotten us this far, and he’s my guy all the way.  He had a bit of a rough game today, but I’m confident he’ll be strong for us tomorrow.”

With the series tied and the deciding game at home, the Igloos are confident.  “The Vandy is within our grasp now,” said Castor.  “There’s been a lot of talk about momentum in this series, but you can forget about that now.  It’s one game for all the marbles, let the best team win.  I like our chances.”

Continue reading “2015 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2015 SHL Finals – Game 4

Washington SmallAnchorage SmallWASHINGTON GALAXY 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

Do you believe in momentum?  The Washington Galaxy certainly do.  After rallying back from a 3-0 deficit against the Anchorage Igloos in Game 3 to tie it up before falling 4-3, the Galaxy looked strong today and roared to a 4-2 win that knotted the series at 2 games apiece.

“Are you believing in us yet?” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.  “Believe it.  Everything’s moving in our direction.  If Anchorage isn’t scared yet, they should be.”

Both teams came out somewhat sluggish in this game, as the Igloos seemed a bit back on their heels after the Galaxy’s stirring comeback in Game 3, while Washington seemed weary from a physical game.  “I think the jet lag from the trip from Alaska really hit us,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “I felt like I could have fallen asleep on my skates.”

Both teams struggled to fight through the fog for most of the first period, before Galaxy C J.C. Marais went 5-hole on Igloos netminder Ty Worthington in the waning minutes of the period to give Washington a 1-0 edge.

Just over a minute into the second period, RW Nori Takoyaki took advantage of a crisp pass from Marais and doubled the Galaxy’s advantage with a sharp-angle shot that fooled Worthington. “I don’t even know if he saw me over there,” said Takoyaki.  “To be honest, he seemed to be reacting a little slowly out there.”

After Takoyaki’s goal, Anchorage coach Sam Castor called timeout and reamed out his team for their uninspired play.  “They were sleepwalking out there, and I told them it had to stop,” said the Igloos boss.  “We can’t give games away in the championship.”

The team responded to Castor’s castigation, and stepped up their intensity.  Before the second period was over, the Igloos had tied the game on a slapshot from LW Les Collins and a power-play tip-in by LW Jerry Koons six minutes later.

Collins has emerged as something of a secret weapon for the Igloos in the Finals.  Although he scored only 9 goals in the regular season, this was his third playoff tally.  “Les is built for the playoffs,” said Frost.  “He’s not afraid to get dirty, dig in the corners or block shots, and he doesn’t shy from the postseason spotlight.”

Just as the Galaxy had done in the previous game, the Igloos were hoping to seize the momentum back with their stirring comeback.  Washington didn’t let the Igloos rally shake them, though.  Three and a half minutes into the third, Galaxy D Teddy Morrison poked a shot underneath Worthington’s right pad to take the lead.  Halfway through the period, C Drustan Zarkovich collected a pass from D Bill Corbett and added some insurance with a blast from the blue line that bounced off Worthington’s glove and into the net.

Galaxy G Roger Orion stoned a flurry of late Anchorage chances – recording 35 saves in all – and the Galaxy secured the win and evened the series.

“So, everybody still think we’re dead meat against these guys?” said Washington C Eddie Costello.  “I’ve had a chance to see [the Igloos] up close for four games now, and they’re not as scary as I thought.  We’re hanging with them, and I think it’s even money right now who wins it.  The next game is key.”

Continue reading “2015 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2015 SHL Finals – Game 3

Anchorage SmallWashington SmallANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, WASHINGTON GALAXY 3

As the SHL Finals shifted to DC knotted at a game apiece, the Anchorage Igloos were looking to make a statement quickly, and they did it.  But the Washington Galaxy staged a stirring rally late, and despite coming up on the short end of a 4-3 score that put the Igloos up 2-1 in the series, the Galaxy came out feeling optimistic about their chances in the rest of the series.

The Igloos did their best to bury the Galaxy beneath an avalanche of rushes and goals early, and they very nearly did so. Within a span of 5 minutes in the first period, Anchorage claimed a 3-0 lead and stunned the sellout crowd at Constellation Center.  “It was kind of like we sucked all the air out of the place,” said Igloos C Jake Frost, who contributed a goal and an assist to the Igloos’ early flurry.  “You could hear the guys on Washington’s bench cursing.”

The Igloos’ blitz was aided and abetted by a pair of ill-advised Galaxy penalties.  C J.C. Marais was whistled for tripping on a botched attempt to break up an odd-man rush.  Two minutes later, D Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom took extreme exception to a hard check by Igloos LW Jerry Koons and was called for slashing when he retaliated.

“We’ve got to cut back on the knucklehead stuff,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “When you’re playing a team as good as Anchorage, the last thing you want to do is hand them advantages.”

The Igloos maintained their imposing lead through most of the second period, but Washington refused to yield.  With a minute and a half left in the period, Galaxy LW Casey Thurman deflected a puck past Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington and broke the shutout.

Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, Igloos D Dave Frederick hauled down Marais and was sent off for tripping.  Less than 20 seconds into the power play that followed, Galaxy C Drustan Zarkovich banged one home from the point, and suddenly Washington’s deficit closed to 3-2, bringing the crowd to life.

“That was key for us,” said Reagle.  “All the way through the game, the crowd was dead, we were dead, and we were in a hurry to get the game over.  Even after Casey got one in, we still felt like we were out of it.  But then the power play, and another goal – suddenly we’re alive and the crowd’s going nuts.  It’s a game again!”

Washington kept the momentum going their way in the third period, skating and checking and shooting with new energy, with the vigorous support of the revived crowd.  7:41 into the period, Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely ripped home the tying goal from the faceoff circle, sending the arena into euphoria. “Here were these guys who were supposed to be unbeatable, and they’d put us down by three and really put us behind the eight-ball,” said McNeely.  “But we didn’t let it shake us.  The fact that we came back and tied it up… just incredible.”

Even though Anchorage C Nile Bernard potted the winning goal six minutes later, the Galaxy emerged from the game feeling buoyant.

“Can you believe that comeback?” said Thurman.  “[The Igloos] thought they’d buried us and left us for dead, but we pulled ourselves up and roared all the way back.  I don’t think they’re feeling as confident as they did before the series.  This thing is tilting our way.”

Continue reading “2015 SHL Finals – Game 3”

Galaxy Clinch East

Washington GalaxyHalf of the SHL’s inaugural championship matchup is now set, as the Washington Galaxy have clinched the Eastern Division.  The Galaxy entered the final week closer to wrapping up the division title, holding a 9-point lead over the New York Night.  Their plans for a quick clinch hit a speed bump, though, when starting goalie Roger Orion went down with a lower-body injury, reportedly sustained during practice.

“We all kind of got a bit nervous when Roger went down,” admitted Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz.  “He’s been a stone wall for us back there, and we didn’t want to go to war without him.”

Washington’s concern only deepened when backup netminder Gus Parrish was shelled in back-to-back outings.  Fortunately, though, Parrish rebounded with a win in his next start, beating Hershey 4-3, and the Galaxy officially clinched the division when the Night lost 7-5 to Hamilton.

The team celebrated in the locker room by spraying each other with beer, champagne, ketchup, mustard, and anything else they could find.  They also sang several rounds of the singing cows’ jingle from the Hershey’s Chocolate World exhibit that the team visited at the beginning of the season.  “I used to hate that damn song,” said Galaxy C J.C Marais, “but I’m enjoying it pretty well now.”

Coach Rodney Reagle praised his team for their consistent effort throughout the season.  “We did it!” shouted Reagle, his voice a bit hoarse from singing and his eyes moist.  “We showed, from wire to wire, that we were the class of this division.  Everyone in here made that happen.  You hit it hard in practice, you didn’t let losses get you down, and you kept up through the grind of a long season.  I know everybody’s gonna call us the underdogs in the championship, but I wouldn’t bet against us!  You’re the guys I want in the trenches with me.”

LW Casey Thurman, who led the Galaxy in goals with 40, likes his team’s chances going forward.  “We’ve got a well-balanced squad, tough on both ends of the ice,” said Thurman.  “We can match up well with anybody, and we do a good job at playing the game that’s presented to us.  I know it’s not going to be an easy fight for the trophy, but we’re ready.”