CHL Update: Spuds Down Rhinos, Claim Second Straight Crown

This year’s CHL playoffs had a… familiar ring to them.  Three of the four playoff teams also made it last season.  (Only the Halifax Atlantics were newcomers.)  In the Finals, the Idaho Spuds faced off against the Virginia Rhinos for the second straight season.  Just like last season, the series lasted 6 games.  And just like last season, the Spuds emerged victorious, claiming their second consecutive Howard Trophy.

“This is the way to do it!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox, shouting to be heard over the booming music in the victorious locker room.  “Go all the way and then have a big party.  I’m ready to do this every year!”

Idaho came into the Finals as the favored team, but they knew that the series would be no cakewalk and that the Rhinos would give them a battle.  “There’s a reason why Virginia makes the Finals every year,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne before the series started.  “They know how to bring their game up a level when it counts.  I know we’re going to have our hands full.”

The Rhinos showed in Game 1 that they would be no pushovers.  They walked into Treasure Valley Arena and muzzled Idaho’s roaring offense.  They limited the Spuds to just 25 shots, and goalie Quentin Chislic turned them all aside.  Second-period scores by RW Hank Diehl and LW Errol Garner were enough to deliver Virginia a 2-0 victory.  The home team was eager to get even in Game 2, which turned out to be something of a defensive chess match.  D Jackson Creed finally got the Spuds on the board in the series midway through the first period, and RW Dylan Alizarin added a power-play marker early in the second to double the lead.  C Ron Yaeckel struck back for Virginia later in the second, but the Rhinos’ offense sputtered after that (they managed only 19 shots in the contest) and they went on to lose 2-1.

The action shifted to the Tidewater for the next three games.  In Game 3, the pace picked up and both offenses got their opportunities.  The Rhinos took the early lead on a power-play score from D Graham Bellinger.  But Idaho overturned that lead early in the second, as RW Trace Walker and D Geoff Moultrie scored just over a minute apart.   Goalie Kelvin White slammed the door from there, stopping 34 Virginia shots to secure the Spuds’ 2-1 victory.  Game 4 wound up going to overtime, as Idaho LW Terry Cresson scored on the man advantage early in the third to even the score.  In the extra session, Idaho had numerous opportunities to take control of the series, but Chislic made one ten-bell save after another to keep the Rhinos in it.  (He had 10 saves in overtime, and 34 for the game.)  Finally, just over 14 minutes into overtime, Bellinger scored his second goal of the game to give Virginia a 3-2 win and even the series.

LW Zane Skandalakis, who had been one of the Rhinos’ leading regular-season scorers, finally returned from injury for Game 5, and it seemed like the series momentum might be shifting in favor of the underdogs.  But Idaho scored three times in the first five minutes of the third period to break open a tie game.  Virginia battled back, with a goal by Yaeckel and another by D Valeri Nistrumov with under five minutes remaining, but they couldn’t come up with the equalizer, and fell 5-4 to move within one game of elimination.

Coming back home for Game 6, the Spuds were looking to close things out.  But the Rhinos once again refused to go quietly.  D Rusty Sienna‘s goal on a shot from the point gave Idaho the early lead, but Virginia surged ahead before the end of the first on goals by Skandalakis and D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta.  The score remained the same through the second, as Idaho wasted three power-play opportunities.  It looked as though the Rhinos would force Game 7.  But RW Britt Cadmium finally tied it in the third, finishing a beautiful dangle with a snipe between Chislic’s legs.  Then close to the period’s midpoint, Cresson picked up a sloppy pass in the neutral zone and fed Wilcox, who crashed the net and tucked it top-shelf for what would prove to be the game-winning goal in a 3-2 series clincher.

In a tight series that consisted almost entirely of one-goal games, it was fitting that netminder White, who finished the series with a 2.08 GAA and a .929 save percentage, was chosen as the Finals MVP.  “This was a real chess match of a series,” said McCoyne.  “If Kel hadn’t been on his toes in the net, a couple of those games could have easily gone the other way.  He snuffed out a lot of potential rallies.”

For the Rhinos, who have been to the Finals four straight years but have only won once.  they could only ponder what might have been.  “Ever see that movie ‘Sliding Doors’?” said coach Jeffrey Marsh.  “When you lose a series, it’s a lot like that.  The puck goes in instead of hitting the post, that failed clear actually makes it out of the zone instead of winding up in the back of the net, and suddenly you’re dyeing your hair blond and marrying some other guy.  I don’t actually remember how that movie ended because I fell asleep halfway through, but it was probably like that.”

CHL Update: Spuds Aim for Repeat Against Rhinos

This year’s CHL Finals has something in common with this year’s SHL Finals: it’s a rematch.  One team finished with the league’s best record, and is looking to win back-to-back titles.  The other is turning Finals trips into a habit, having made it every year of the league’s existence.  Both teams got here by sweeping their division-round opponents.

In the West, the Idaho Spuds came into the playoffs as the favorite, not to mention the defending champs.  They demonstrated strength on both ends of the ice this season, and they came into the playoffs with a quiet confidence.  “We’re definitely looking to go back-to-back,” said C Dale Wilcox.  “We’ve got the talent and the drive, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be us.”

But before they could defend their title, the Spuds had to make it past the Omaha Ashcats, who surged down the stretch to make it into the playoffs.  The series opened before a noisy sellout crowd at Boise’s Treasure Valley Arena, and the Spuds ran the Ashcats off the ice in a dominant first period. The visitors struck first on a goal by RW Rene Courcel just 31 seconds in, but Idaho ruled the ice from there, scoring three times (one by Wilcox and two by C Chayce Yonge) and outshooting the Ashcats 17-6, on their way to a 4-1 victory.  Game 2 was a different story; both teams were flying up and down the ice and taking shots by the bucketload; they combined for an astounding 94 shots.  The teams traded the lead throughout the game; Ashcats RW Louis LaPlante scored with just 2:30 left in regulation to tie it up and force overtime, but it was Spuds RW Dylan Alizarin who was the ultimate hero, scoring just under 9 minutes into the extra session to seal a 6-5 Idaho win.  As the series shifted to Omaha for Game 3, Ashcats superfan “Krazy Karl” Loesser – who burned jerseys and dolls outside the arena as a “sacrifice” to the hockey gods to get his team into the postseason – wanted to hold another pregame sarcifice ceremony, but the team vetoed his request.  They may have regretted it later, as the Spuds won 4-2 to complete the sweep.  D Geoff Moultrie scored the go-ahead goal for Idaho late in the second period, and LW Terry Cresson added an insurance tally in the third to seal it.  Goalie Kelvin White came up big with a 40-save performance to thwart Omaha’s comeback bid.

“I really loved the energy and intensity I saw, from the players and our fans too,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We’re playing great hockey, probably our best of the season, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the Finals.”

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos surged in the second half to make it back to the postseason, but they finished just three points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Halifax Atlantics.  The series, which pitted Halifax’s patient defense-focused attack against Virginia’s more well-rounded game, was widely expected to be a close match.  But the Rhinos quickly demonstrated otherwise, turning up their speed to expose the Atlantics’ highly-regarded D.

Game 1 quickly turned into a laugher; the Rhinos scored three times in the first period and never looked back in a 6-1 rout.  Each Virginia goal was scored by a different player; RW Mark Clark even recorded a short-handed tally to put an exclamation point on the blowout.  Halifax switched goalies from Jonathan Crane to Art Cowan for Game 2, but it made no difference.  Virginia skated rings around the slow-footed Atlantics, outshooting them 30-13 and outscoring them 5-0.  Unlike the previous game, the Rhinos had a multi-goal scorer this time: D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta struck twice.  Quentin Chislic managed to stay awake in net long enough to complete the shutout.  With their backs against the wall and back at home for Game 3, Halifax finally managed to slow the game down; the teams combined for just 32 shots, After RW Alois Rodney scored a power-play within the first minute of the game, Halifax turned the contest into a rock fight, bogging down the action in the neutral zone and clinging desperately to their lead.  But Virginia finally broke through the trap in the third period, and Clark scored to tie the game.  Halifax managed to force overtime, but C Trent Harlow put the Atlantics (and everyone watching the game) out of their misery less than four minutes in, banging one home off the left post for a 2-1 victory.

“The only problem with making the Finals every year,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey Marsh, “is that I’m running out of movies to steal inspirational speeches from.  I think this year, it’s going to be either ‘Patton’ or ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.'”

Idaho is favored to prevail in the Finals; their combination of skills and their ability to adjust to any playing style makes them a dangerous foe.  But Virginia’s been here before – many times – and they’re not apt to let the Spuds dictate the terms of play.  One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely that another sweep is in the cards.  Whoever intends to win the title is in for a long, hard fight.

CHL Update: West Rolls to Rout in All-Star Game

In the first two CHL All-Star Games, the home team had come away with the win.  With this year’s contest taking place at Hartford’s Aetna Center, the East was hoping that history would repeat itself.  Unfortunately, the Western squad had other ideas.  They broke the game open with a four-goal eruption in the second period, and wound up cruising to a 7-2 win.

“I’ve coached every one of these, and each time is a different experience,” said East coach Jeffrey Marsh.  “This time, we got the experience of what it feels like to get run over by a Mack truck.”

The most critical stretch of the game was in the middle of the second period, when the West scored three times in a three-minute span.  The game was competitive through the first period, when the score stood 2-1 in the West’s favor.  The teams traded goals early in the second, with Idaho Spuds LW Terry Cresson striking first and Hartford Harpoons RW Felix Delorme answering a few minutes later.  Then came the West’s big run.

Milwaukee Hogs C Yegor Nestorov got things going by going five-hole on Oshawa Drive G Hector Orinoco a few seconds shy of the the nine-minute mark.  A minute and a half later, Delorme coughed up the puck to Cresson on a bad pass in the neutral zone.  Cresson found Utah Owls D George “Brain” Brinson, who got Orinoco to commit down low, then went high to find the twine for a three-goal lead.  Just over a minute after that, Spuds D Brady Prussian fired a shot from near the blue line that beat a screened Orinoco.  Suddenly, a 3-2 game was 6-2, and the West had control of the game from there.

“That was the game right there, absolutely,” said West coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We felt the ice tilting in our direction, and we decided to keep the hammer down and take advantage of that.  And we did.”

McCoyne also praised his team for spreading the offensive load around.  “I loved the way that all three lines and all of our D pairings were engaged and involved on offense,” the coach said.  Each of the West’s seven goals was scored by a different player.

Hogs D Conrad van Rijn received All-Star MVP honors for recording a most unusual achievement: a Gordie Howe hat trick (that is, a goal, an assist, and a fight.)  van Rijn got the fight out of the way first, dropping the mitts with Halifax Atlantics D Axel Borgstrom early in the second period.  Less than two minutes after he got out of the box, van Rijn got the primary assist for setting up Nestorov’s goal.  Then, in the third period, van Rijn redirected a shot past the East’s backup netminder, Eugene Looney of the Cleveland Centurions, to complete the feat.

“I don’t know what kind of maniac gets into a fight in the All-Star game,” said McCoyne, “but at least Connie went on to get the Gordie.  Good for him!”

van Rijn, who was reportedly unaware of his accomplishment until the game ended, received a sailboat from Morris Yachts, a Maine-based company.  “It is a beautiful boat,” said the Milwaukee defenseman.  “I want to sail it after the season, when the weather is more warm.”

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CHL Update: Drunken Birthday Celebration Ends Poorly for Rhinos

The Virginia Rhinos like to have a good time.  But this week, the good times went a bit too far, as a celebration for G Quentin Chislic’s birthday at a local restaurant turned into a drunken escapade that led to multiple players being scratched for a key game.

On Friday, the Rhinos hosted the Halifax Atlantics.  As it happened, Friday was also Chislic’s 23rd birthday.  To celebrate in style, seven Virginia players took Chislic out for lunch at Jose Tequilas, a local Mexican chain restaurant.

Unsurprisingly, lunch included a couple rounds of beer.  Those couple rounds were followed by a couple more, which were in turn followed by multiple tequila shots.

“I mean, the place is called Jose Tequilas for a reason,” said RW Jeffrey Cassidy.  “We couldn’t go there and not sample some of what the restaurant is known for.  Not on our man Chisler’s birthday.”

Unsurprisingly, the birthday celebration quickly turned rowdy.  The restaurant features a roaming mariachi band; the players jumped up and began singing with the band, eventually borrowing the hats and instruments of some band members.

“What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm,” said Cassidy.  “And volume.”

The staff at Jose Tequilas patiently endured the player sing-along, and the mariachis reportedly enjoyed it, at least for a while.  But when the players began climbing on top of the bar to dance and trying to steal the luchador masks off of the wall, they were asked to leave.

Once outside the restaurant, the intoxicated players quickly realized they’d lost track of time, and that they were due at the arena in less than half an hour for that night’s game.  They wisely chose not to drive, taking an Uber to the arena instead.

The players hoped that the ride would give them a chance to sober up a bit.  This hope proved misplaced, as coach Jeffrey Marsh informed them as they weaved their way into the locker room.  D Zikmund Bruzek proceeded to make matters worse by vomiting all over the locker room floor.

“Look, I’m not going to say I never had a couple of pre-game belts in my time,” said Marsh.  “I’m not casting stones, believe me.  But these idiots could barely stand up.  If you’re gonna get bombed like that, save it for an off day.”

Unfortunately for Marsh, he couldn’t bench them all; he didn’t have enough players for that.  Marsh did sit the birthday boy, as he judged that backup netminder Eino Malmquist seemed slightly more sober than Chislic.  He also scratched Bruzek, claiming that the blueliner was suffering from a stomach bug, and Cassidy, who fell down several times during the pre-game skate.

Given the number of players either sidelined or feeling worse for wear, it was a moral victory when the Rhinos lost by a mere 2-1 score.

Marsh fined the revelers $1000 each for “failure to hold [their] liquor.”  The players promised not to repeat the scene anytime soon.

“I feel responsible, because the guys were trying to show me a good time for my birthday,” said Chislic.  “I feel bad about the whole thing.  Not as bad as I’m going to feel tomorrow, though, when the hangover hits.”