CHL Update: Rhinos to Defend Title Against Spuds

This year’s CHL finals present an interesting contrast.  One team has been in the finals every year of the league’s existence, and is bidding for back-to-back titles after surviving a back-and-forth first-round series that went the distance.  The other club is in its first year in a new city, and is trying to go all the way in its first-ever postseason appearance, coming off of a surprising sweep of the league’s best regular-season team.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos are getting to be old hands at the postseason; this is their third straight trip.  Despite losing a number of key contributors from last season’s title-winning squad, the Rhinos managed to eke out the top seed in a closely-packed division.  But Virginia wasn’t the least bit embarrassed or deterred by their narrow playoff qualification; they remain fixated on the ultimate goal.  “We’re all focused on the repeat,” said RW Chris Quake.  “No one in here doubts that we can pull it off.”

In the division playoff, they faced the Cleveland Centurions, who sported the league’s best regular-season defense.  The Rhinos hunkered down for what they knew would be a tense, hard-fought battle.  Game 1 was a chippy affair with a slew of penalties, a couple of fights, and not a lot of offense (28 shots between both teams).  Virginia got goals from Quake and LW Jayden Gunn, while goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 16 Cleveland shots for a 2-0 shutout.  In Game 2, the Rhinos rallied from behind with a pair of third-period tallies just 29 seconds apart from C Marvin Cascio and LW Yuri Laronov, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.  The action shifted to the shores of Lake Erie for Games 3 and 4, and the Centurions battled back.  In Game 3, Rhinos C Trent Harlow notched a third-period goal to erase another deficit and force overtime, but Cleveland C Phoenix Cage scored 36 seconds into the extra session to stave off elimination with a 2-1 win.  In Game 4, Centurions netminder Eugene Looney came up big, stopping all 27 shots in a 3-0 triumph to force a fifth game back in Virginia Beach.  But in the deciding game, it was Chislic’s turn for another shutout (24 saves) as D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta netted two to lead the 3-0 series-clinching victory.

“That was a tough series, for sure,” said Corbetta.  “But it got us tuned up, and we’re firing on all cylinders now and playing our best hockey.”

Virginia’s Finals opponent will be the Idaho Spuds, who played to sellout crowds after moving from Muncie in the offseason.  The Spuds came into the postseason with the CHL’s top-ranked offense (3.6 goals per game), but they had a lackluster performance in the last few weeks of the regular season, and they were largely written off in their first-round series against the heavily favored Omaha Ashcats.

But the boys in russet brown not only beat the Ashcats, they did so in a stunning three-game sweep.  In Game 1, they buried Omaha in an avalanche of shots (45 vs. the Ashcats’ 22) and scored three goals (from LW Rick Crisak, D Victor Addison, and LW Terry Cresson) before the game was 3 minutes old, on the way to a 4-2 win.  For Game 2, Ashcats coach Butch Slazenger switched goalies from Bill Bates to Jim Fleetwood.  Fleetwood did a better job, stopping 28 of 30 shots, but Spuds LW Van Dyke Browning scored three minutes into overtime for a 2-1 win.  In order for Omaha to rally in the series, they’d have to win twice on enemy ice.  Slazenger raised a number of eyebrows by going back to Bates for Game 3, a decision that looked foolish when Idaho went up 2-0 by the first minute of the second period.  The Ashcats rallied back to tie thanks to tallies from blueliners Trevor Lockwood and Lowell Sharkey.  With just over three minutes left in regulation, however, Spuds C Jacob Cunniff scored a power-play goal that would prove to be the difference in a 3-2 contest.  Treasure Valley Arena – sold out as usual – exploded in cheers as the players formed a celebratory circle in front of their net.

“We’re probably going to be the underdogs again in the final, since [the Rhinos are] the defending champs,” said Idaho coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “But we like that underdog role.  If anyone’s thinking of sleeping on us, they’d better think again, because we’re ready to shock the world.”

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CHL Update: Spuds Set Goal Record in Rout of Harpoons

The Idaho Spuds have had a tremendous debut season in their new home.  The Dakota Jackalopes affiliate rocketed off to a strong start this season and hasn’t looked back since.  Barring a collapse, they will make the playoffs.  And their merchandise – which features an angry hockey-playing potato – has become the most popular in the league.

On Thursday at Treasure Valley Arena, the Spuds gave their fans another moment to cherish in a memorable season.  Facing off against the Hartford Harpoons, Idaho set a new CHL record for goals scored in a game during a 12-0 whitewashing.

“We were firing on all cylinders, but it went beyond that,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We were firing on cylinders I didn’t even know we had.”

Idaho got the scoring started virtually right out of the gate.  It took only 45 seconds for C Dale Wilcox to record the first goal of the game.  Just 42 seconds after that, Wilcox scored again on a shot that deflected off the right leg of Hartford goalie Jonas Schemko and into the net.  Six and a half minutes later, D Victor Addison cashed in on a power play to make it 3-0.  Later in the period, D Brady Prussian banged home a pair of goals.  By the end of the first period, the Spuds led by five and Schemko was out of the game.

Idaho seemed to throttle back a bit in the second period against backup netminder Jeff Bingley.  LW Terry Cresson scored within the first 90 seconds of the period, and Addison tipped in a rebound for his second goal of the evening in the latter half, but those were the only tallies.  After the frenzied barrage of goals in the first, the middle stanza gave the fans a chance to catch their breath.

The Spuds got things cranked back up again quickly in the third, however.  Forty-seven second in, Wilcox fired a shot over Bingley’s left blocker to complete his hat trick.  The fans sailed their lids onto the ice in tribute.  Just over a minute later, Prussian stuffed one home for a hat trick of his own.  The fans who had held onto their hats during Wilcox’s tally relinquished them now to salute Prussian.  Several of the Spuds tossed their helmets on the ice to augment the total a bit.

“I told Victor he’d better not score again, because there weren’t any hats left in the building,” quipped Prussian.

Addison didn’t score again, but D Rusty Sienna put the Spuds in double digits just over seven and a half minutes into the period with a blast from the blueline that beat a screened Bingley.  The fans barely had time to process that milestone, because RW Dylan Alizarin scored again a mere seven seconds later.  Less than two minutes later, Cresson got has second goal of the game on a wraparound, making it an even dozen.  Amazingly, the Spuds made it through the last half of the final frame without scoring again, which would have tied the Michigan Gray Wolves’ all-time SHL record for highest-scoring shutout.

“Somebody better check on [PA announcer] Brody Watkins,” joked McCoyne after the game.  “He probably got laryngitis from calling out all those goals.  I’d consider him day-to-day at this point.  Hopefully, he can stay off the DL.”

The final stats were staggering.  Four Idaho players had five-point games: Wilcox, Prussian, Addison, and C Jacob Cunniff, who had five assists.  Only three Spuds failed to record a point: LW Rick Crisak, C Sammy Fryer, and D Gray Torian.

Harpoons coach Herman Chambers took the result in stride.  “This only counted as one loss, thank God,” Chambers told reporters.  “It’s not one we’re proud of, but it’s over now.  Let’s bury this game film at the bottom of the ocean and move on.”

Jackalopes Slice Payroll Again, Deal Cherner, Anderson

One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability.  The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive.  Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal.  They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.

With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further.  They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.

Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble.  GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press.  “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard.  “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”

Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player.  “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated.  “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”

The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans.  The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen.  Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes.  When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.

“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said.  “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy.  This has become my home.  I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”

In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota.  The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists).  Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.

“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard.  “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first.  I’ll stand behind that.”

Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race.  “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret.  “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline.  I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”

To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks.  The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season.  He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.

“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard.  “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area.  We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”

This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul.  “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters.  “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that.  But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”

It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league.  Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team.  “

“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM.  “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”