Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

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West Strikes Early in All-Star Victory

Could this be the year?  The SHL’s Eastern Division squad came into Wednesday’s third annual SHL All-Star Game hungry for revenge.  In last season’s game, the West humiliated the East in a 9-2 rout.  The West has always been considered the league’s stronger division, but the East has slowly been improving.  The Quebec Tigres took the eventual champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in last year’s finals. Eastern teams have been much more competitive in this season’s interdivision games.  With a raucous and rowdy home crowd behind them at the New York Night’s Neon Sky Center, the East hoped that the third time would be the charm.

Instead, the rule of threes worked against the East, as the West scored three goals in the game’s first three minutes, and wound up winning by three, 5-2, continuing their unbeaten All-Star streak.

“I think we’re all getting pretty sick of those bastards,” said Hamilton Pistols LW Steven Alexander, who was held scoreless in the game.  “We’ve got to win one of these.”

The Big Apple crowd definitely made its presence felt, even during the introductions.  They cheered loudly for the four Night players who made the Eastern squad, while booing each of the Western players with remarkable vigor.  They also booed their loathed rival Alexander, who responded by blowing kisses to the crowd, and Washington Galaxy C Eddie Costello, who won a slot that the Night’s fans felt should have gone to their own Brock Manning.

“One thing about the New York fans: you always know where you stand,” joked Anchorage’s Sam Castor, who coached the Western team.

Once the game started, though, the West wasted no time asserting control of the contest.  Just 71 seconds into the game, Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes redirected a shot from teammate Elliott Rafferty into the top-left corner of the net to put the West on the board.  Just over a minute later, Igloos LW Jerry Koons and RW Nicklas Ericsson got loose on a 2-on-1 rush, and Koons finished with a shot through the five-hole to make it 2-0.  35 seconds after that, Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango fired a slapshot that beat Eastern goalie Jesse Clarkson on the glove side for the West’s third tally.

“They really came out firing,” said Clarkson after the game.  “My head was just spinning trying to keep up.”

East coach Martin Delorme considered lifting Clarkson after the initial onslaught, but did not want to embarrass the netminder in front of his home fans.  He did wind up relieving the starter after the first period, however.

The East’s backup netminder was Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, who started last year’s game but was removed after being rocked for five goals in the first period.  He admitted afterward that he’d celebrated a bit too hard in the run-up to the game.  He was much more solid this time around.  Michigan Gray Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison greeted him with a screened blast from the blue line that found the twine 55 seconds into the period.  After that, Koskinen stopped all but one of the 25 shots he faced the rest of the way. A deflection from Igloos C Jake Frost later in the second was the only other blemish on his record.

“I feel I made up for myself this time,” said Koskinen.  “Not as much parties, not as much stay out late.”

Unfortunately for the East, any hope of a comeback was stymied by Michigan’s Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, who smothered everyone of the 34 shots he faced over two periods.  Even the East-favoring crowd gave Lundquist a standing ovation when he came up with a sprawling stop on a breakaway attempt by the Night’s Rick “The Stick” Nelson late in the first period.

“Lundquist is just a force of nature,” said Castor.  “Nothing puts that guy off his game.”

Lundquist’s brilliance earned him the All-Star MVP honors, the first time a goalie has received the award.  “When you consider the fact that the whole game is basically defense-optional,” said Barnes, “you’re that much more impressed about what The Bear did.”

Along with the award, Lundquist received a brand-new Kia Telluride SUV.  “Wow, this is a big one,” said the Wolves goalie.  “You could fit a whole kid’s hockey team in there.  But I have no kids, so I can put all of my fishing gear in it.”

The East did manage to break the shutout in the third period, scoring twice against the Western backup, Anchorage’s Ty WorthingtonHershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart struck first, beating Worthington through the five-hole about five and a half minutes into the period.  A minute and a half later, New York’s Chase Winchester scored on a wraparound that snuck past Worthington’s pad, touching off the largest cheer of the night, as the crowd saluted one of its own.

“We managed to save a little pride,” said Winchester.  “But that’s no substitute for actually winning.  Next year, it’s ours.”

If so, the East will need to win on the road; next year’s game is at Heartland Telecom Center in Kansas City.

 

SHL All Star Game 
West All Stars @ East All Stars, Neon Sky Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars     3   2   0        5
East All Stars     0   0   2        2 
 
East All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-   West All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Koons           LW     1   1   2   0   2
Sanchez         D      0   0   0   0  -2   Kronstein       D      0   0   0   0   2
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -2   Frost           C      1   1   2   0   2
Milton          D      0   0   0   0  -2   Madison         D      1   1   2   0   2
Nelson          RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     0   1   1   0   2
Winchester      LW     1   0   1   0   0   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -2   Barnes          D      1   0   1   0   2
Beauchesne      C      0   0   0   0   0   Beasley         C      0   1   1   0   0
Risch           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Pomfret         D      0   0   0   0   2
Lafayette       RW     0   1   1   0   0   Mango           RW     1   0   1   0   0
Camernitz       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Airston         LW     0   2   2   0   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   1   Chouinard       D      0   0   0   0  -1
Costello        C      0   1   1   0  -1   Rafferty        C      0   2   2   0   1
Workman         D      0   2   2   0   1   Fairwood        D      0   1   1   0  -1
Hart            RW     1   0   1   0  -1   Merula          RW     0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 2   4   6   0  -3   TOTALS                 5  10  15   0   3

Scratches:
WAS:  none
EAS:  none

 
East All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Clarkson            18    15    3  0.833
Koskinen            26    24    2  0.923

West All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           34    34    0  1.000
Worthington         18    16    2  0.889
 

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

GOALS:
01:11  WAS  Barnes (Rafferty, Airston)
02:24  WAS  Koons (Ericsson, Frost)
02:59  WAS  Mango (Beasley, Madison)

PENALTIES:
None


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

GOALS:
00:55  WAS  Madison (Rafferty, Airston)
14:28  WAS  Frost (Koons, Fairwood)

PENALTIES:
None


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

GOALS:
05:35  EAS  Hart (Workman, Costello)
07:03  EAS  Winchester (Lafayette, Workman)

PENALTIES:
None



 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars    18  13  13       44
East All Stars    18  16  18       52

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

West All Stars   0 for 0
East All Stars   0 for 0

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2019 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the Eastern Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at New York’s Neon Sky Center, was announced today by coach Martin Delorme.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. This year’s Eastern Division voting was dominated by fans of the hosting Night and Alexander’s Pistols.  The teams are fierce rivals, and both fan bases reportedly engaged in ballot-stuffing efforts intended to get their heroes chosen to the starting lineup.  Hamilton’s fans won this one, voting their newly-married star to a starting slot in spite of what by Alexander’s lofty standards is a subpar first half.  He recorded only 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists), although his +10 rating speaks to the success the Pistols have had with him on the ice.  It’s Alexander’s third straight All-Star appearance and his second start.  “This is my chance to rise up,” said Alexander.

D: Dominic Sanchez, New York.  Sanchez has historically been among the SHL’s top offensive defenseman, which has earned him a starting spot each of the last two years.  Thanks to Night fans’ increase in voting, however, the 29-year-old became the top defensive vote-getter for the first time.  New York is having a strong season, and so is Sanchez: his 33 assists are fifth-best in the league, and his 41 points are good for fifth in the SHL.  He’s also sporting a +12 rating, one of the best among league blueliners.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  The Night-Pistols voting war was most intense at this position; Frye and New York’s Brock Manning were the two top vote-getters at any position.  Frye wound up winning the spot by less than 3,000 votes.  It’s his second straight start and third overall appearance.  As usual, he has the numbers to back it up: his 25 goals are second-most in the SHL, and his 43 points are the league’s third-highest total.  “The fans picked it right,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Calvin is the best center in this league, bar none.”

D: Reese Milton, Hershey. Milton is the only player not from the Pistols or Night to crack the starting lineup.  He has started every All-Star Game in SHL history, but this is the first time he has been outvoted by Sanchez.  Not only that, he only narrowly held off Hamilton’s Hercules Mulligan for second place.  Milton may have slipped a bit in the voting results, but he remains as strong as ever on the ice.  Only Sanchez has more points than Milton’s 40 among defensemen, and no blueliner in the SHL has more goals than Milton’s 15.

RW: Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York. Hard as it may be to believe, this is Nelson’s first All-Star appearance.  Granted, his cocky personality has never made him a favorite among fans outside the Big Apple, and his reputation as a selfish one-way player has never endeared him to opposing coaches.  However, Night fans have always loved their star; to them, his arrogance reads as confidence, and his defensive disinterest reads as a laser focus on scoring.  And he’s the best pure scorer in the league so far this season; his 30 goals are tops in the SHL by a healthy margin, and his +10 rating shows that those goals aren’t just empty calories.  “At last, the fans have learned to appreciate my greatness,” said Nelson.

 

Second Line

LW: Chase Winchester, New York.  Winchester may have lost to Alexander in fan voting, but there was no way that the SHL’s leading point man wasn’t going to get a spot on the East roster.  It’s the first time Winchester has gotten an All-Star nod.  He has a reputation as one of the league’s slickest passers, and the stats back it up.  His 46 assists this season are ten ahead of his nearest competitor, and his 54 points are ten ahead of Night teammate Nelson atop the league leaderboard.

D: Jack “Hercules” Mulligan, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rugged young defensive star has earned notice around the league both for his vicious checks and his surprising facility with the puck.  Among those who’ve noticed is Delorme, who chose Mulligan for his second All-Star trip.  “He is one I wish I had on my team,” the Quebec coach said.  “He is a wrecking ball on skates.”  The Pistols are great at controlling the puck when Mulligan is on the ice, as his +9 rating attests.  His 21 assists attest to the fact that he’s not at all lost on the offensive end.  And his 41 penalty minutes attest to the fact that he’s not a player to mess with.

C: Alain Beauchesne, BostonBeauchesne was the top pick in this year’s draft, and he’s been every bit as good as the Badgers had hoped.  Delorme recognized his sterling performance by making him Boston’s lone All-Star.  Beauchesne follows in the footsteps of teammate Lix Darnholm, who made the Eastern squad as a rookie last season.  Boston may be struggling to perform on offense, but Beauchesne ranks among the league’s best.  The 21-year-old Montreal native is in the top 10 in the SHL with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists).

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  The 23-year-old Risch makes his All-Star debut sharing a defensive pairing with his Pistols teammate.  Like Mulligan, Risch is known around the league for his hard hits; also like Mulligan, he is better offensively than his reputation would suggest, notching 14 assists and a +6 rating so far on the season.  Risch and Mulligsn anchor a stout Hamilton defense that is allowing the second-fewest shots per game.  “He has the body of a lumberjack,” said Delorme.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  It’s somewhat surprising that Lafayette, Alexander’s close friend and linemate, hasn’t made the All-Star team before this year.  Hamilton’s enthusiastic fanbase couldn’t lift him to a starting spot ahead of Nelson, but Delorme deemed him worthy of a spot.  Like Winchester, he is an elite passer and facilitator; his 29 assists are good for fourth in the SHL.  The normally-reserved Lafayette was thrilled to receive the honor, and vowed a win for the East.  “I’m never gonna stop until I make ‘em drop and burn ‘em up and scatter the remains,”said Lafayette.

 

Third Line

LW: Walt Camernitz, QuebecDelorme picked only two of his own players to the Eastern roster; Camernitz was one of them.  The rugged 31-year-old winger is a favorite of Delorme’s, but it was his strong play that earned him his first All-Star trip.  Camernitz is in the top ten in the league in both points (38) and assists (24).  “Walt is the ideal player in my eyes,” said the Tigres coach.  “He is hard to knock down, and he always gets up again.”

D: Jean-Luc Aubin, Hershey.  Aubin is another first-time All-Star.  The veteran blueliner was something of a surprise selection, as his offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping (4 goals, 11 assists) and he is not known as a particularly rugged defender.  However, he does lead the Bliss in plus-minus rating, with a +13 so far on the season.

C: Eddie Costello, WashingtonCostello, who is the Galaxy’s lone representative in the game, makes his first-ever appearance as an All-Star.  In a disappointing year in the nation’s capital, Costello is certainly a worthy representative, leading the team in points (34) and assists (24).  However, the selection provoked controversy in New York, as Night fans were incensed that Manning didn’t make the team in spite of strong numbers (19 goals, 17 assists, +10 rating).  Delorme responded to the outrage in Gotham with exasperation.  “The rules are that every team must be represented,” said the coach.  “I did not make the rule; I only follow it.”

D: Laurie Workman, Quebec.  Workman joins Camernitz as the Tigres’ only representatives, both chosen by their coach.  It’s the second straight All-Star honor for the sophomore standout.  He’s tracking almost exactly with his performance from his rookie season, recording 18 points (5 goals, 12 assists) and a +7 rating in the first half of the 2019 season.  Delorme said that he might have chosen fellow top-pairing defender Richard McKinley as well, had the rising young star not missed 15 games with an injury.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart makes his third appearance in the midseason contest.  Unlike the last two years, Hart is the sole member of the Bliss’ “Love Line” to receive All-Star honors.  Hart’s 27 assists place him fifth in the league, and his 36 points are second-best on the Bliss, behind only fellow All-Star Milton.  “Being at the game without my brothers in arms is going to feel weird,” admitted Hart.  “But hey, it means I’ve got bragging rights over them.  Cool!”

 

Goalies

Jesse Clarkson, New York.  The fired-up voters in the host city managed to get one more of their own into the starting lineup, voting Clarkson into the starting slot ahead of Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen and Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen.  It’s the first time that Clarkson has been an All-Star, and he doesn’t only owe his spot to the fervor of New York fans.  He’s also having a career year, going 12-9-2 with a 2.62 GAA.  His .930 save percentage is tied for the SHL’s second-highest mark.  Thanks to Clarkson’s heroics in net, the Night are currently in line for a playoff position despite allowing a league-worst 38.75 shots per game.

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a mild upset, Delorme passed over his own goalie, Tiktuunen, and instead gave Koskinen his second All-Star nod.  The two Finnish-born netminders have very similar statistics thus far in 2019.  By coincidence, Koskinen has the same 12-9-2 record that Clarkson does; however, he has a superior 2.21 GAA, third-lowest in the league.  His .925 save percentage ranks fourth in the SHL.  According to Delorme, Tiktuunen was not offended by the snub.  “He told me that he preferred the vacation,” the coach noted.

Wolves Fall Out of First, Wright Warns Against Complacency

Four weeks ago, the Michigan Gray Wolves looked unbeatable.  Literally.  Twelve games into the season, they had yet to lose (or tie) once.  It looked as though the Western title was all but assured, and the rest of the season would be a race for second place.

What a difference a month makes.  Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record.  This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half.  The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.

The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke.  The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie.  After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance.  “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison.  Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.

On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors.  The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals.  Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest.  Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times.  In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.

The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday.  The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple.  New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.

On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres.  The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair.  The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist.  Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0.  It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.

Ron Wright

After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference.  “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters.  “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty.  We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target.  But I think we’ve gotten complacent.  We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched.  The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”

The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted.  “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said.  “But this year is different.  Seattle’s playing out of their minds.  Anchorage is coming on strong.  Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix.  We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”

Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track.  And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season.  We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”

The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment.  “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow.  “I think we’re all pretty disappointed.  But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”

Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers.  Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season.  The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup.  “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow.  “He’s the guy we need.”

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 2

Jesse Clarkson

The SHL selected New York Night G Jesse Clarkson as its Player of the Week.  Clarkson was outstanding in net for the Night this week, posting a 3-0-0 record with a 1.00 GAA and a .974 save percentage.  For the season to date, he sports a 5-1-0 record with a 1.50 GAA and a .960 save percentage, among the league’s best.  Clarkson’s heroics in the crease helped lead New York to an undefeated week, which lifted them into first place in the East.

On Sunday, Clarkson stopped 36 shots as the Night melted Hershey 5-1.  On Tuesday, facing Hamilton at Neon Sky Center, the netminder came up with 38 saves – including several highlight-reel stops – in a 6-1 rout that knocked the Pistols out of the division lead.  On Saturday against Washington, Clarkson came up with 37 stops and stymied six Galaxy power plays on the way to a 4-1 victory.

“I know everyone thinks we’re all about scoring goals and slinging insults, but Jesse’s the guy making it happen in the crease,” said New York coach Nick Foster.  “He’s never had the reputation of a guy like [Dirk] Lundquist or [Riki] Tiktuunen, but he’s been consistently strong.  Anyone who wants to write us off or say we’re a flash in the pan, Jesse’s gonna have something to say about that.”

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.”