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”

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2019 SHL Division Playoff -Game 2

Eastern Division Series (Series tied, 1-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 8, HERSHEY BLISS 4

The Hamilton Pistols live by the credo best expressed by D Hercules Mulligan: “If you knock me down, I get the [heck] back up again.”  After the Hershey Bliss knocked the Pistols down by winning Game 1 of their playoff series and taking a two-goal lead in Game 2, the boys in red and black got back up and started swinging back hard.  They rallied to take the lead, then applied the knockout blow with a five-goal third period to seal an 8-4 win, evening up the series at a game apiece.

“When we say we’re young, scrappy, and hungry, this is what we’re talking about,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander, who scored a hat trick in this game.  “We’ve got a great chance to win the Vandy, and we are not throwing away our shot.”

Just over six minutes into today’s game, it looked like the Bliss were well on their way to taking a 2-0 series lead, thanks to goals by LWs Russ Nahorniak and Gabriel Swindonburg.  But Alexander struck back just 12 seconds after Swindonburg’s goal, blasting a slapshot through Hershey netminder Brandon Colt.

Hamilton swung the momentum in their direction in the second period.  Five minutes into the stanza, LW Magnus Gunnarson finished a breakaway by going five-hole on Colt to tie the game.  Four minutes later, D Raymond Smyth picked off a lazy pass by Hershey D Cedric Meloche and fed it to RW Claude Lafayette, who beat Colt on the glove side to give the Pistols a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

It was the third, though, that turned the game into a rout.  Alexander scored his second goal 20 seconds into the period.  Five minutes later, C Calvin Frye deflected one into the back of the net to make it 5-2.  A frustrated Bliss D Joel Baldwin took a holding-the-stick penalty shortly after that, and LW Jamie Campbell scored on the power play that followed.  The teams traded goals a couple times after that, but the win was assured.

Alexander angered the Bliss by completing his hat trick on a power play with 13 seconds left to go and Hamilton up by three.  The closing seconds of the game turned into a scrum, and Hershey’s players said they would remember the disrespect.  “Him spiking the football like that, it didn’t sit well with us,” said D Reese Milton.  “I’d expect there will be more coming.”

After being rocked for all eight goals, some observers called for Colt to be benched for Game 3 in favor of backup Oliver Richardson.  Bliss coach Chip Barber said that he planned to stick with his starter.  “Brandon’s the one who got us here,” said Barber.  “And I’m not going to panic over one game.  We’re looking past it, and we’re focused on the next one.”

But with the series shifting north of the border, have the Pistols seized the momentum for good?  Coach Keith Shields thinks it’s possible.  “My guys were all the way awake in this one,” said Shields.  “If we keep playing like this, I don’t see who’s going to stop us.”

 

E Final - Game 2, Hamilton @ Hershey, Chocolate Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton           1   2   5        8
Hershey            2   0   2        4

 
Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hershey                G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     3   1   4   0   4   Milton          D      0   3   3   0   1
Smyth           D      0   4   4   0   5   Valentine       C      1   1   2   0  -4
Frye            C      2   3   5   0   4   Baldwin         D      0   0   0   2   0
Risch           D      0   0   0   4  -1   Hart            RW     1   2   3   0  -4
Lafayette       RW     1   2   3   0   4   Nahorniak       LW     1   0   1   0  -4
Gunnarson       LW     1   0   1   0   1   Meloche         D      0   0   0   4  -5
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Kirkpatrick     C      0   1   1   0   1
Glasco          D      0   1   1   2   5   Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0  -1
Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   2  -1
Campbell        LW     1   0   1   0  -1   Aubin           D      0   0   0   0  -5
Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   0   Kulkarov        D      0   0   0   0   0
Marais          C      0   1   1   2   1   Daniels         RW     0   0   0   2   1
Hampton         D      0   0   0   2   0   Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0  -1
Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0   1   Swindonburg     LW     1   0   1   2   1
Costello        C      0   1   1   0  -1   Cargill         D      0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 8  13  21  10   4   TOTALS                 4   7  11  12  -4

Scratches:
HAM:  Constantine, Baker (DL), Klemmer
HSY:  Minnik, Chappelle, Lapointe, Sweet (DL)

 
Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            39    35    4  0.897

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                44    36    8  0.818

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
02:16  HSY  Nahorniak PP (Hart, Milton)
06:14  HSY  Swindonburg (Kirkpatrick)
06:26  HAM  Alexander (Frye)

PENALTIES:
00:27  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Elbowing)
07:58  HSY  Daniels 2:00 (Cross-checking)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
05:03  HAM  Gunnarson (Glasco, Marais)
09:20  HAM  Lafayette (Smyth)

PENALTIES:
01:10  HSY  Meloche 2:00 (High-sticking)
09:52  HAM  Risch 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
00:20  HAM  Alexander (Frye, Smyth)
05:19  HAM  Frye (Lafayette)
07:00  HAM  Campbell PP (Costello, Smyth)
07:16  HSY  Valentine (Milton, Hart)
10:59  HAM  Frye (Alexander, Smyth)
15:50  HSY  Hart PP (Milton, Valentine)
19:47  HAM  Alexander PP (Lafayette, Frye)

PENALTIES:
05:39  HSY  Baldwin 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
13:02  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (Cross-checking)
13:17  HAM  Marais 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
14:11  HAM  Hampton 2:00 (Tripping)
17:07  HSY  Meloche 2:00 (Slashing)
18:06  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Cross-checking)
19:55  HAM  Risch 2:00 (High-sticking)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton          14  11  19       44
Hershey           18  10  11       39

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Hamilton         2 for 6
Hershey          2 for 5

 
INJURIES
--------

None

 

Western Division Series (Anchorage leads, 2-0)

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, SEATTLE SAILORS 1

The Seattle Sailors’ first-ever trip to the playoffs is threatening to be a short one.  The Sailors had no answer for the Anchorage Igloos – C Jake Frost and G Ty Worthington in particular – and they never recovered from another early deficit on the way to a 5-1 Game 2 defeat that left them one loss away from elimination.

“We’ve got to dig deep and find another level,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent, “or we’re going to die quick and quiet.”

The game unfolded at the fast pace that both the Sailors and Igloos prefer.  But Worthington was up to the challenge – making 37 saves – while Seattle’s Rocky Goldmire was not.

Anchorage coach Sam Castor lavished praise on his netminder.  “Ty always answers the bell, doesn’t he?” Castor marveled.  “When the spotlight is on and we need a big game, no one in this league does it better.  Nothing rattles him.  He makes our whole team better.”

As in Game 1, the first period set the tone for the game.  LW Waldo Miranda put the Igloos on the board when the game was less than two minutes old, potting a juicy rebound that Goldmire couldn’t control.  Sailors D Doron Lidjya evened it just before the midway point of the period, but then Frost took over.

When Seattle D Benny Lambert went to the box for cross-checking a minute and a half after Lidjya’s tally, Frost made the Sailors pay with a shot that ticked off of Goldmire’s glove and went in.  Then with less than two minutes left in the period, Frost got behind the Sailors defense and beat a helpless Goldmire to make it 3-1.

Frost made it a hat trick less than five minutes into the second, firing up the crowd and deflating the Sailors.  “After Frosty scored, I looked up and down [the Sailors’] bench, and their shoulders just sagged,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “They were beat already.”

Koons finished the scoring early in the third with a redirect of a Nicklas Ericsson slapper that found the roof of the net.  For much of the rest of the game, the crowd amused itself by serenading the dispirited Sailors with repeated choruses of “Na-Na Hey-Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

Seattle coach Harold Engellund predicted that his team would be rejuvenated for Game 3 as the series shifted to Century 21 Arena.  “Playing in front of our home fans, it should put a little pep in our step,” said Engellund.  “It’ll have to, or we’re going to be done.”

 

W Final - Game 2, Seattle @ Anchorage, Arctic Circle Arena

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Seattle            1   0   0        1
Anchorage          3   1   1        5

 
Seattle                G   A PTS PIM +/-   Anchorage              G   A PTS PIM +/-

Argent          LW     0   1   1   2  -2   Koons           LW     1   1   2   0   2
Lambert         D      0   0   0   2   1   Keefe           D      0   0   0   0  -1
Beasley         C      0   1   1   0  -2   Frost           C      3   0   3   0   2
Lidjya          D      1   0   1   0   1   Martinsson      D      0   0   0   4  -1
Mango           RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     0   4   4   2   2
Lane            LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mortensen       D      0   0   0   0  -3   Bernard         C      0   0   0   0   0
Derringer       C      0   0   0   0   0   Frederick       D      0   1   1   2   3
Gatecliff       D      0   0   0   0  -1   Summers         RW     0   0   0   2   0
Pepper          RW     0   0   0   0   0   Miranda         LW     1   0   1   0   1
Gaspard         LW     0   0   0   0   0   Citrone         D      0   1   1   4   1
Venezio         C      0   0   0   0  -1   Theroux         C      0   1   1   0   1
Snelling        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Calligan        D      0   0   0   0   1
Durien          RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Fleury          RW     0   0   0   0   1
Gallagher       D      0   0   0   0  -3   Kerasov         D      0   1   1   0   3
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3   4  -3   TOTALS                 5   9  14  14   3

Scratches:
SEA:  Fairwood, Bacon, McElvern
ANC:  Pomfret (DL), Kennedy, Zhlotkin

 
Seattle             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Goldmire            38    33    5  0.868

Anchorage           SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Worthington         37    36    1  0.973

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
01:41  ANC  Miranda (Theroux)
09:20  SEA  Lidjya (Argent, Beasley)
12:11  ANC  Frost PP (Ericsson, Koons)
18:04  ANC  Frost (Ericsson, Kerasov)

PENALTIES:
05:39  ANC  Citrone 2:00 (High-sticking)
09:27  ANC  Ericsson 2:00 (Slashing)
10:49  SEA  Lambert 2:00 (Cross-checking)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
04:49  ANC  Frost (Frederick, Ericsson)

PENALTIES:
05:59  ANC Citrone 2:00 (Tripping)
09:01  ANC  Frederick 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
13:24  ANC  Summers 2:00 (Roughing)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
01:26  ANC  Koons (Ericsson, Citrone)

PENALTIES:
11:28  ANC  Martinsson 4:00 (Spearing)
19:08  SEA  Argent 2:00 (High-sticking)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Seattle           13  11  13       37
Anchorage         16   9  13       38

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Seattle          0 for 6
Anchorage        1 for 2

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2018 SHL Division Playoff – Game 4

Eastern Division Series

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, QUEBEC TIGRES 0

After the Hamilton Pistols dropped the first two games of the best-of-five Eastern playoff to the Quebec Tigres despite outshooting their opponent in both games, many observers predicted that the Tigres would make quick work of the series.  Hamilton had finished the regular season on a cold streak, and it looked like Tigres goalie Riki Tiktuunen would extend their slump right out of the playoffs.

Pistols coach Keith Shields dismissed the naysayers.  For one thing, he felt that Tiktuunen’s success wasn’t sustainable.  “Tiktuunen’s a great goalie, but he’s not unbeatable,” Shields told reporters.  “I feel like the puck luck is due to break our way.  If we keep firing pucks at him, he’s going to crack eventually.”

Even more, though, he felt that the enthusiasm of the home crowds would shift the momentum in Hamilton’s favor.  “You feed off the energy of your fans in your building,” said Shields.  “Our fans are great, and I know they’re gonna be loud for us.  That will give us extra energy and tilt the ice our way.”

The Pistols and their fans validated the coach’s faith in the last two games.  After surviving a long grind and pulling out a double-overtime win in Game 3, Hamilton came out strong and used the energy in the building to fuel a 2-0 win, sending the series to a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Quebec.  Tiktuunen looks mortal, and the Pistols’ top-notch top line is getting hot at the right time.

“Now, all those smart guys who were reading our obituary after the first two games, don’t you feel silly?” said Shields.  “I told you this team was too talented to be held down, especially with our fans behind us.”

The game started slowly, as both clubs seemed a bit drained from their Game 3 marathon.  But an early penalty on Tigres D Doug Wesson got the crowd fired up, and the Pistols quickly warmed to the task.  They pinned Quebec in their own zone through the power play, and LW Steven Alexander broke through with a shot from the bottom of the left faceoff circle that snuck in above Tiktuunen’s blocker.  If was only the second shot of the entire game, but it put Hamilton in front.

“Getting that first goal was huge,” Alexander said.  “It fired up the crowd and fired up our bench, too.  It was the shot of adrenaline we needed.”

As the second period began, the Pistols had found a rhythm.  They nearly cashed in on another early-period power play, as RW Kenny Patterson fired a shot that dribbled between Tiktuunen’s pads.  The Quebec netminder managed to sweep the puck away before it crossed the goal line, however.  A couple minutes later, Hamilton killed off an elbowing penalty to LW Jamie Campbell, and the crowd roared and stomped so hard that the benches shook.

“It felt like it was an earthquake,” said Tigres C Mikhail Ilyushin.

Shortly after the Campbell penalty ended, Pistols C Calvin Frye grabbed a loose puck near his own blue line and fired a perfect pass to Alexander, who had leaked out of the zone.  Alexander streaked up the ice, deked past Quebec D Hal Pugliese, and thundered a slapshot that beat Tiktuunen and went bar-down for a second goal.

That two-goal lead felt more like ten given Quebec’s challenges in jump-starting its sluggish offense.  The Tigres had one more power play opportunity in the second and two in the third, but they couldn’t convert on them, and they found it virtually impossible to generate shots during 5-on-5 play.

“We need more quality and more quantity on offense,” said Quebec coach Martin Delorme.  “What we saw tonight will not get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen looked sharp, turning aside all 24 shots he faced.  “Lasse really stayed on it tonight,” said Hamilton D Hercules Mulligan.  “There were stretches were the action in our end was so dead he probably wanted to pull out a rocking chair and take it easy.  But whenever they made it through to our end, he was on his toes and making the stops.”

All in all, it was a decisive win for the Pistols, and momentum is definitely on their side going into the deciding game.  But will they be able to keep it going as the action shifts back to Quebec?  Shields pointed out repeatedly that his team got a boost from the red-clad throngs at Gunpowder Armory; how will they do amid the orange-clad throngs at Centre Citadelle, rooting for their defeat?  How badly will the Pistols miss third-line center Edz Zalmanis, who left the game late in the second period with an upper-body injury and is reportedly done for the year?

And what about Tiktuunen, who looked superhuman in the first two games but distinctly mortal in the last two?  Will he rediscover his mojo on home ice, or have the Pistols figured him out?

A shot at the Vandy rides on the answers to those questions.  Both teams can’t wait to find out what happens next.

E Final - Game 4, Quebec @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Quebec             0   0   0        0
Hamilton           1   1   0        2

 
Quebec                 G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Camernitz       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Alexander       LW     2   0   2   0   1
Workman         D      0   0   0   0   0   Smyth           D      0   1   1   0   0
Zarkovich       C      0   0   0   2   0   Frye            C      0   2   2   0   1
McKinley        D      0   0   0   0   0   Risch           D      0   0   0   2   0
Mirac           RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0   1
Fisker          LW     0   0   0   0   0   Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Ilyushin        C      0   0   0   0  -1   Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0   0
Jones           D      0   0   0   0   0   Constantine     C      0   0   0   4   0
Robinson        RW     0   0   0   0   0   Werner          D      0   0   0   2   0
MacDiarmid      LW     0   0   0   0   0   Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0   0
Pugliese        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0
Kalashnikov     D      0   0   0   2  -1   Glasco          D      0   0   0   0   1
Pentti          RW     0   0   0   0   0   Zalmanis        C      0   0   0   0   0
Miller          C      0   0   0   0   0   Soforenko       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Wesson          D      0   0   0   2   0   Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 0   0   0   6  -1   TOTALS                 2   3   5  10   1

Scratches:
QUE:  Shovshenkov, Zhzhynov, Kane
HAM:  Kratz, Jennings, Rodney

 
Quebec              SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Tiktuunen           31    29    2  0.935

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            24    24    0  1.000

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
03:31  HAM  Alexander PP (Smyth, Frye)

PENALTIES:
02:34  QUE  Wesson 2:00 (Diving)
04:06  HAM  Constantine 2:00 (Cross-checking)
14:06  QUE  Kalashnikov 2:00 (Diving)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
09:07  HAM  Alexander (Frye)

PENALTIES:
01:37  QUE  Zarkovich 2:00 (Tripping)
05:03  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Elbowing)
17:18  HAM  Werner 2:00 (Interference)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
01:29  HAM  Risch 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
14:35  HAM  Constantine 2:00 (Holding the Stick)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Quebec             7   8   9       24
Hamilton           8  11  12       31

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Quebec           0 for 5
Hamilton         1 for 3

 
INJURIES
--------

Edgars Zalmanis (HAM) -- Upper-body  20 games

 

East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”