The first round of the CHL playoffs mirrored the first round of the SHL playoffs in a number of ways. One series ended in a sweep, with the victor headed to the finals for the second straight season, trying to avenge last year’s shocking loss. The other series went the distance, with both teams holding serve on home ice; the winner is making their first-ever trip to the championship round.
In the East, the Virginia Rhinos felt as though they should have won the title last season, even though they were upended by Utah in 5 games in last season’s final. “I think we all had the belief that the better team lost last time,” said C Cyril Perignon. “We are on a mission of revenge.”
The Rhinos played with purpose and passion in the division playoff, dispatching the Oshawa Drive in three straight. Despite the fact that Virginia thrived on scoring this season, they relied on stout defense to succeed in this playoff; they shut out the Drive in each of the first two games. They won Game 1 by a 4-0 margin, with C Tanner Brooks getting a short-handed goal to open the scoring and LW Yuri Laronov recording a power-play tally to end it. The Rhinos eked out a 1-0 victory in Game 2, with RW “Real” Hank Diehl scoring the lone goal on a deflection early in the second period. Goalie Gus Parrish was at the top of his game, turning aside 22 shots in the first game and 19 shots in the second. In Game 3, with the series moving north of the border, Virginia opened up a 3-0 lead before D Ingolf Gudmundsen finally recorded the Drive’s first goal of the series late in the second period. Oshawa LW Norris “Beaver” Young struck on the power play two minutes into the third period to close the gap to one, but they couldn’t muster the tying tally as the Rhinos completed the clean sweep.
“Everyone in this locker room is focused on one thing: winning the Howard Trophy,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “If we have to go over, under, around, or through our opponents to make it happen, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re like Andy Dufresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ climbing through that sewer pipe on our way to freedom.”
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Freeze had a bumpier road than the Rhinos did, as the Colorado Springs Zoomies pushed the series to the limit. But like their parent club, the Anchorage Igloos, the Freeze survived and will advance to the Finals.
Game 1 was a back-and-forth affair, with the Freeze and Zoomies trading goals, and it ultimately went into overtime. D Julian Staples ultimately nailed the game-winner six minutes into the extra session to give Minnesota a 4-3 win. Game 2 was another close contest; Zoomies RW Joel Hagendosh got a short-handed goal midway through the third, and the game wound up in overtime once again. One extra period wasn’t enough this time, but C Mason Alpine ended it a minute into the second OT with a slapper from the point that lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 victory. Back home for Game 3, Colorado Springs kicked their offense into high-gear, rallying from a two-goal deficit to snatch a 6-4 win that staved off elimination. In Game 4, the Zoomies made the most of the man advantage, scoring all three of their goals on the power play. Even though the Freeze outshot them 39-23, Colorado Springs goalie Sonny Kashiuk stood on his head, making 38 saves in a 3-1 win. In the winner-take-all Game 5, Minnesota again dominated on offense, outshooting the Zoomies 35-17. But even though the Freeze scored four goals in a wide-open second period, the Zoomies hung tough, ultimately coming up short by a 5-4 score.
The Igloos sent their minor-league club a congratulatory video, with Anchorage players calling on their minor-league counterparts to help the organization capture both championship. “We’re going to prove that we’re the best team right now,” said Igloos C Jake Frost. “We’re hoping you guys can go out and prove that we’re going to win the future too.”
Although Minnesota finished the regular season 11 points ahead of Virginia, most observers expect a closely-fought battle in the Finals. The Rhinos will be looking to win the title they felt they were robbed of last year, while the Freeze will be looking to make their parent club proud. The series begins Sunday at Northwoods Auditorium in Duluth.