2019 SHL Playoff – Game 4

Eastern Division Series (Hamilton wins, 3-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, HERSHEY BLISS 1 (OVERTIME)

A month and a half ago, Eddie Costello was going nowhere.  The veteran center, who is in his contract year, was biding his time playing meaningless games with a Washington Galaxy team that was mired in the depths of the division.  Though Costello had numerous friends on the team, he longed for the excitement of a playoff race.

Then the Hamilton Pistols came along and acquired Costello at the trade deadline.  The Pistols were firmly fixed on winning the Vandy, and they felt that the center would provide the secondary scoring they needed.  He didn’t come cheaply – he cost the Pistols two top prospects and a first-round pick – but they felt his speed, scoring touch, and postseason experience would be just what the young club needed.

Today, Costello repaid the investment that Hamilton made in him, scoring an overtime goal that propelled the Pistols to their first-ever SHL Finals appearance with a 2-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“The playoff excitement, this is what you live for as a player,” Costello said in the middle of a boisterous Hamilton locker room, as teammates pounded his back and poured beer on his head.  “I didn’t think I was going to be here this year, but these guys took the plunge, and thank God they did!”

Costello’s goal brought an end to a tense, close game that bore no resemblance to the Pistols’ 5-0 blowout the night before.  In that game, the visiting Bliss seemed rattled by the din at Gunpowder Armory, and never got their heads into the game.  This time around, Hershey didn’t allow the noise to distract them.

“We’re all professionals, and we’re not going to let a little crowd noise throw us off our game,” said C Justin Valentine before Game 4.  “We just need to tune it out and focus on what happens on the ice.”

Indeed, Hershey played with an edge and a hunger that was missing in the previous game.  Even when the seemingly unstoppable Steven Alexander scored on a first-period power play to put the Pistols ahead and whip the crowd into a frenzy, the Bliss didn’t panic.  They hung tough and didn’t let the Pistols add to their lead through the remainder of the first and through all of the second.

In the opening seconds of the third, Hamilton D Hercules Mulligan took a cross-checking penalty.  Although Hershey’s power play had been missing in action since Game 2, they clicked this time, with Valentine jabbing a rebound underneath the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to tie the score.  The crowd quieted suddenly, and the normally mild-mannered Valentine capped his hand to his ear, mocking the silence.

The game remained tied through the remainder of regulation, even through a bizarre stretch that saw a Bliss penalty followed by two Pistol penalties in the span of 33 seconds.  As the game went into overtime, the fans resumed their raucous cheering, albeit with a bit of a nervous edge.

Just over six minutes into the extra session, Bliss LW Sven Danielsen was attempting to bring the puck into the offensive zone when he was leveled by a ferocious check from Pistols D Burt “Hacksaw” Hampton.  The crowd cheered the hard hit, but Pistols RW Kenny Patterson spotted the puck trickling free in the neutral zone.  He scooped it up just ahead of a couple Hershey players, then flicked a headman pass to Costello.

Costello sailed through center ice and past the blue line.  All that stood between him and the net was Bliss goalie Brandon Colt and D Nikolai Kulkarov.  The center bore down on the net, using Kulkarov as a screen, and fired a low line drive toward the right post.  The puck eluded Colt’s catching glove, banked off the post, and went in.

Costello turned around, dropped to his knees, threw his arms in the air, and slid toward his jubilant teammates, who engulfed him near the blue line.

“Bring on the Igloos!” roared Alexander during the postgame celebration.  “What are they gonna do to stop us?!”

In the visiting locker room, Bliss coach Chip Barber praised his team in defeat.  “My guys gave it a heck of a ride this season,” said Barber.  “When you consider where we came from last year and everything we overcame, there’s nothing to hang our heads over.  We just ran across a team that was a little better.  It would have been good to get a few more bites of the chocolate bar, but it’s still a sweet season.”

 

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

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey            0   0   1    0   1
Hamilton           1   0   0    1   2

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

Milton          D      0   1   1   0   0   Alexander       LW     1   0   1   0   0
Valentine       C      1   0   1   2   0   Smyth           D      0   0   0   0   0
Baldwin         D      0   0   0   2   0   Frye            C      0   1   1   0   0
Hart            RW     0   1   1   0   0   Risch           D      0   0   0   0   0
Nahorniak       LW     0   0   0   0   0   Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0   0
Meloche         D      0   0   0   0  -1   Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   1
Kirkpatrick     C      0   0   0   2  -1   Mulligan        D      0   1   1   2   0
Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0   0   Glasco          D      0   0   0   2   0
Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   4   0   Patterson       RW     0   1   1   2   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   0   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0
Kulkarov        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   1
Daniels         RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Marais          C      0   0   0   0   0
Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0   0   Hampton         D      0   0   0   2   1
Swindonburg     LW     0   0   0   4  -1   Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0   0
Cargill         D      0   0   0   0   0   Costello        C      1   0   1   2   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3  14   0   TOTALS                 2   3   5  12   1

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

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                32    30    2  0.938

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            40    39    1  0.975


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

GOALS:
05:36  HAM  Alexander PP (Frye, Mulligan)

PENALTIES:
02:14  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (Tripping)
03:15  HAM  Hampton 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
05:28  HSY  Valentine 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
15:42  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
19:38  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Delay of Game)

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

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
09:00  HAM  Costello 2:00 (High-sticking)
12:32  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Roughing)
14:21  HSY  Baldwin 2:00 (Tripping)
18:08  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (High-sticking)

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

GOALS:
00:34  HSY  Valentine PP (Hart, Milton)

PENALTIES:
00:09  HAM  Mulligan 2:00 (Cross-checking)
07:30  HSY  Kirkpatrick 2:00 (High-sticking)
07:51  HAM  Patterson 2:00 (Diving)
08:03  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Tripping)

Overtime
--------

GOALS:
06:31  HAM  Costello (Patterson)

PENALTIES:
None


SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey           11  12  14    3  40
Hamilton          12   8  10    2  32

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

Hershey          1 for 6
Hamilton         1 for 7

INJURIES
--------

None

2019 SHL Division Playoff – Game 1

Western Division Series (Anchorage leads, 1-0)

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, SEATTLE SAILORS 0

Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango didn’t waste words when diagnosing his team’s loss to the Anchorage Igloos in Game 1 of the Western division series.

“It was the refs,” said Mango.  “We lost this game because of crappy officiating.”

What got Mango so hot and bothered?  Seattle had a couple of questionable calls against them in the opening minutes of the game, and Anchorage converted on the subsequent power plays, putting the Sailors in a hole they never dug out of in a 2-0 loss.

The first controversial call came during the opening puck drop.  Sailors D Hans Mortensen, jockeying for position with Igloos counterpart Dave Frederick, accidentally jabbed Frederick in the midsection.  Referee Scott Pritchard immediately sent Mortensen to the box with a double minor for spearing, a call that sparked outrage on the Seattle bench.

“There’s always bumping and jostling that goes on during faceoff,” said Mango.  “Sending a guy to the box on the opening faceoff, for incidental contact?  You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The early penalty allowed the Igloos to start the game on offense, and the Sailors struggled to clear the puck out of their end.  Igloos C Jake Frost ultimately fired a shot from the slot that found the upper-left corner of the net, putting Anchorage on top.

Just over a minute later, with the Sailors still fuming over the initial penalty, C Marco Venezio received a minor for elbowing LW Waldo Miranda.  Seattle players thought that the supposed infraction was weak at best, and that Miranda should have been called for embellishment instead.

“They went behind the net, and Marco barely grazed [Miranda], but [Miranda] snapped his head back and got the call,” said Mango.  “Completely ridiculous.”

Less than a minute into that power play, Igloos LW Jerry Koons fired a severe-angle shot that snuck between Seattle goalie Rocky Goldmire’s body and the post for another goal.

Seattle received two more minor penalties in the period, which they successfully killed off.  All in all, the Sailors spent much of the opening frame on the penalty kill, a key reason that they were outshot 16-7 in the period.  Although they weren’t penalized in either of the other two periods, they never managed to mount a successful pushback.  Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington easily turned aside all 28 shots he faced.

Coach Harold Engellund agreed with Mango that the calls played a role, but added that the Sailors deserved the blame for their defeat.

“Mentally, we just took ourselves out of the game,” said Engellund.  “We had a couple bad penalties against us early in the game and got in a hole, and we spent the rest of the night being mad at the refs instead of playing hockey.  When you’re in the playoffs, there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself.”

Igloos coach Sam Castor regarded the Sailors’ fury with amusement.  “As soon as I saw that [the Sailors] were spending their time arguing with the officials instead of trying to score, I put the W in my mental scorebook,” Castor said.  “Honestly, I hope they never get over it.”

“For what it’s worth, I thought the officiating was very fair,” the Igloos coach said with a sly grin.

 

W Final - Game 1, Seattle @ Anchorage, Arctic Circle Arena

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

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

Argent          LW     0   0   0   0   0   Koons           LW     1   0   1   0   0
Lambert         D      0   0   0   0   0   Keefe           D      0   1   1   2   0
Beasley         C      0   0   0   0   0   Frost           C      1   0   1   0   0
Lidjya          D      0   0   0   0   0   Martinsson      D      0   0   0   0   0
Mango           RW     0   0   0   0   0   Ericsson        RW     0   2   2   0   0
Lane            LW     0   0   0   0   0   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mortensen       D      0   0   0   4   0   Bernard         C      0   0   0   0   0
Derringer       C      0   0   0   0   0   Frederick       D      0   0   0   0   0
Gatecliff       D      0   0   0   2   0   Summers         RW     0   0   0   0   0
Pepper          RW     0   0   0   4   0   Miranda         LW     0   0   0   2   0
Gaspard         LW     0   0   0   0   0   Citrone         D      0   0   0   0   0
Venezio         C      0   0   0   2   0   Theroux         C      0   0   0   0   0
Snelling        D      0   0   0   0   0   Calligan        D      0   0   0   0   0
Durien          RW     0   0   0   0   0   Fleury          RW     0   0   0   0   0
Gallagher       D      0   0   0   0   0   Kerasov         D      0   1   1   0   0
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 0   0   0  12   0   TOTALS                 2   4   6   4   0

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

 
Seattle             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Goldmire            36    34    2  0.944

Anchorage           SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Worthington         28    28    0  1.000

 

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

GOALS:
01:45  ANC  Frost PP (Ericsson, Kerasov)
04:15  ANC  Koons PP (Keefe, Ericsson)

PENALTIES:
00:00  SEA  Mortensen 4:00 (Spearing)
03:18  SEA  Venezio 2:00 (Elbowing)
13:08  SEA  Gatecliff 2:00 (Elbowing)
18:28  SEA  Pepper 4:00 (Spearing)

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

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
11:40  ANC  Keefe 2:00 (Interference)
14:24  ANC  Miranda 2:00 (Diving)

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

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
None



 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Seattle            7   9  12       28
Anchorage         16   9  11       36

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

Seattle          0 for 2
Anchorage        2 for 4

 
INJURIES
--------

None

 

Eastern Division Playoff (Hershey leads, 1-0)

HERSHEY BLISS 3, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

Coming into the Eastern playoff against the Hamilton Pistols, Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine predicted that the series would go the distance, noting that the teams were very evenly matched.  “The key to winning this series is going to be taking one game at a time,” Valentine said.

The Bliss took their first step forward in today’s Game 1, making the most of their opportunities and withstanding a late Hamilton charge to secure a 3-1 win in front of a sellout crowd at Chocolate Center.

“I thought we did a great job today,” said Valentine.  “We didn’t get too fancy, we just played good, straight-ahead hockey and didn’t screw anything up.  Seems simple, but in the playoffs, nothing is.”

The Bliss came out strong in the first period, outshooting the Pistols 15-8.  Hamilton goalie Lasse Koskinen was sharp, turning aside most of Hershey’s blasts.  He was pierced once in the first, though, when LW Gabriel Swindonburg crashed the net and made a slap-pass to D Reese Milton, who jammed it home just inside the left post.

Early in the second period, Hershey took advantage of a rare Hamilton miscue to double their lead.  D Albie Glasco collected the puck in the defensive end, and fired a headman pass to center ice to start a breakout.  Swindonburg anticipated the pass and picked it off, starting an odd-man rush that RW Noah Daniels finished by beating a sprawling Koskinen up high.

But Hamilton hung tough, and when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was sent off for high-sticking in the closing minutes of the second, Pistols LW Steven Alexander scored on the ensuing power play to cut the deficit in half.

The Pistols turned up the intensity in the third, and Hershey found themselves in a tough spot midway through the period when they took a pair of penalties just 29 seconds apart.  During the 5-on-3, C Calvin Frye nearly scored the game-tying goal, but his shot pinged off the crossbar.  The Bliss fought off the penalty kill, and a couple minutes later, Ketterman added a little insurance with a wrap-around shot that got past Koskinen.

Despite the loss, Pistols coach Keith Shields remained upbeat.  “We had nothing to be ashamed of in the way we played today,” Shields said.  “We basically played dead-even, but a couple of the breaks went their way.  If they’d gone our way, we probably get the win.  I know my guys will be playing hungry tomorrow, but if we keep playing as well as we did today, we should be good.”

 

E Final - Game 1, Hamilton @ Hershey, Chocolate Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton           0   1   0        1
Hershey            1   1   1        3

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

Alexander       LW     1   0   1   0   0   Milton          D      1   0   1   0   1
Smyth           D      0   0   0   0  -1   Valentine       C      0   0   0   0   0
Frye            C      0   1   1   0   0   Baldwin         D      0   0   0   0   1
Risch           D      0   0   0   0  -1   Hart            RW     0   0   0   0   0
Lafayette       RW     0   1   1   0   0   Nahorniak       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   2  -1   Meloche         D      0   0   0   0   1
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Kirkpatrick     C      0   1   1   2   2
Glasco          D      0   0   0   0  -1   Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0   1
Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Danielsen       LW     0   1   1   2   1
Campbell        LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   1
Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0  -1   Kulkarov        D      0   1   1   0   1
Marais          C      0   0   0   0  -1   Daniels         RW     1   0   1   2   2
Hampton         D      0   0   0   0  -1   Ketterman       C      1   0   1   4   1
Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0  -1   Swindonburg     LW     0   2   2   0   2
Costello        C      0   0   0   0  -2   Cargill         D      0   1   1   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3   2  -3   TOTALS                 3   6   9  10   3

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

 
Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            32    29    3  0.906

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                30    29    1  0.967

 

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

GOALS:
10:24  HSY  Milton (Swindonburg, Cargill)

PENALTIES:
16:50  HAM  Gunnarson 2:00 (Holding the Stick)

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

GOALS:
01:18  HSY  Daniels (Kirkpatrick, Swindonburg)
17:40  HAM  Alexander PP (Frye, Lafayette)

PENALTIES:
05:46  HSY  Kirkpatrick 2:00 (Interference)
17:14  HSY  Ketterman 4:00 (High-sticking)

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

GOALS:
14:50  HSY  Ketterman (Kulkarov, Danielsen)

PENALTIES:
10:21  HSY  Daniels 2:00 (Slashing)
10:50  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Tripping)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton           8  10  12       30
Hershey           15   8   9       32

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

Hamilton         1 for 4
Hershey          0 for 1

 
INJURIES
--------

None

Bliss Clinch Postseason, Complete Rebound from ’18 Fiasco

It’s been a long, strange trip for the Hershey Bliss over the last couple of seasons.  In 2017, the Bliss won the East for the first time, then stunned the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos in the Finals to win the Vandy.  Then last season, they got off to a mystifyingly awful start and never recovered, ultimately finishing fifth in a “nightmare” campaign that ended with the team starting a near-riot at a Sheetz.

This year, Hershey shook off the heartbreak and embarrassment of last season.  They ran the gantlet of a much more competitive East and survived the loss of LW Lance Sweet to a major lower-body injury.  And on Thursday, they officially completed their winding journey back to the postseason, beating the Hamilton Pistols 3-2 at Chocolate Center.

“It feels good to be back!” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “I’m so proud of our players for persevering and climbing all the way back.  We’ve been looking for Mister Goodbar for the last two seasons, and we finally found him!”

Lance Sweet

Sweet, who has been away from the Bliss while rehabilitating from his injury, joined his teammates in the locker room for the postgame celebration.  “I told everybody that we were going to win it all for Sweets, and this is step one on that journey,” said C Justin Valentine.  “Now, let’s not stop until we’ve got another Vandy!”

This season has been a particularly emotional one for goaltender Brandon Colt, on whose slender shoulders Hershey’s fortunes seem to hang.  In 2017, he was recognized as the Finals MVP after a brilliant performance to thwart the mighty Igloos.  Last year, he stumbled through a poor performance that left many around the league wondering if he was washed up.

The Bliss tried hard to find another starting goalie this offseason; when they wound up re-signing Colt to a one-year deal, it was viewed as a last resort.  But the veteran netminder rebounded with a solid performance that showed he’s far from finished, and he managed this in the face of personal tragedy; his parents both died in a house fire in the spring.

“I’ve been doing all right with things so far, but now all I can think about is that I wish I could call Mom and Dad and tell them about this,” said Colt, who choked up as he spoke to reporters.  “But I know they’re up in heaven and they’re watching, and I know they’re proud.”

In order to earn a trip to the Finals, they’ll need to make it through the division round first, and they’ll likely face a tough opponent in the Pistols, who will be eager to erase the memories of last year’s first-round loss to Quebec.  Hamilton will clinch their second straight trip to the playoffs with one more win or a New York loss.

“We have a ton of respect for those guys,” said Barber of the Pistols, “and we know they’re a real talented bunch.  It should be a doozy of a series, but we like our chances.  We’re looking forward to another crack at the big prize.  If we win the Vandy again, maybe we’ll see if we can turn it into a chocolate fountain!”

Continue reading “Bliss Clinch Postseason, Complete Rebound from ’18 Fiasco”

Bliss Hang Tough Without Sweet

Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton remembers the thought that flashed through his mind.

He remembers feeling good during last Saturday’s game against the Saskatchewan Shockers, with the Bliss comfortably ahead in a key game against a tough opponent.  He remembers Bliss LW Lance Sweet skating toward the corner to pick up a loose puck.  He remembers Shockers D Wyatt Barnes going after the same puck.  He remembers Sweet skidding on a bad patch of ice and getting tangled up with the burly Barnes.  He remembers both players slamming into the boards.  He remembers Barnes getting up, claiming the puck, and skating away.  And he remembers Sweet staying down, writhing in pain.  He remembers the stretcher coming out onto the ice to carry the winger away.

And he remembers the awful, sinking thought: “Oh no, there goes our season.”

Lance Sweet

You can’t blame Milton for his feeling of doom.  Sweet is one of Hershey’s leading scorers, and a member of their famous “Love Line.”  And perhaps no SHL team is more familiar with heartbreak than the Bliss.  In 2015, Sweet suffered a serious lower-body injury that caused him to miss a third of the season and tanked the team’s shot at a division title.  In 2016, the Bliss blew a division title on the last day of the season by allowing four unanswered goals to Washington in the third period, turning a 3-1 victory into a 5-3 defeat.  Last season, on the heels of a stunning Finals win over Anchorage, Hershey got off to an abysmal 3-16-1 start that left them in too deep a hole to climb back to contention.

This season, the Bliss have been at or near the top of the East for much of the season.  But they’re in a tight battle for the playoffs, with the Hamilton Pistols and New York Night neck-and-neck with them and the Quebec Tigres lurking just behind.  So losing a key contributor – and just after the trading deadline, too late to acquire a replacement – had the potential to derail a promising campaign.

Post-game examination confirmed Hershey’s worst fears: Sweet would require surgery and will almost certainly miss the rest of the season.

“This one’s tough on us, real tough,” said C Justin Valentine.  “As a friend and a teammate, you just feel awful for him.”

But a funny thing seems to have happened: the Bliss haven’t fallen apart.  Facing a week on the road against some tough opponents, Hershey has kept winning and kept up in the playoff chase.

“We’re determined that we’re going to win this [title] for Sweets,” said Valentine.  “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

On Sunday, in the first game after Sweet’s injury, the Bliss faced the Seattle Sailors at Century 21 Arena.  The Sailors have been having a terrific season, and they’ve been nearly unbeatable on home ice.  But Hershey blitzed the Sailors with a four-goal first period and held on for a 6-4 win.

Things didn’t get any easier on Tuesday, as the Bliss headed north of Alaska to face the Anchorage Igloos.  The trip to Anchorage is always tough on visiting teams, and the Igloos are in the middle of their annual second-half surge.  But that didn’t stop Hershey from coming from behind with a four-goal third to hand the Igloos a stunning 4-3 defeat.

After the jet-lagged Bliss dropped a 4-3 decision in Dakota on Thursday, they went to Kansas City and thumped the Smoke 5-2.  Valentine scored, completing a seven-goal week as he picked up the slack for his fallen teammate.

“I think we’ve faced enough adversity over the years that we’re ready to handle this,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “We’re like a well-tempered chocolate: we’ve been forged by the heat and we’re nice and firm and smooth.  We’re not going to crumble the minute something happens to us.

“Would we rather have Sweets out there?  Of course we would.  But are we going to hang our heads and give up just because he’s out?  No way.  We believe we can win this, and we will.”

Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race

At the midway point of the season, both the East and West divisions are more competitive than usual.  Four clubs in each division have a real shot at the playoffs; on the flip side, no team is so dominant that their postseason trip is essentially certain.  It’s anybody’s game, and that’s exciting for the fans, as almost every game has potential playoff ramifications.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating for the teams, especially when stretches of strong play don’t create any separation in the standings.  And when a team suffers a particularly tough loss, it stings even more knowing that the line between making the playoffs and watching them on TV appears so thin.

Just ask the Saskatchewan Shockers.  Under the guidance of new coach Morris Thompson, they’re playing smart, strong, disciplined hockey.  They’ve posted their best first-half record ever.  And yet, they’re mired in fourth place, remaining close but agonizingly far for a playoff spot.  Sasktchewan’s precarious position made Thursday’s mystifying loss, in which they played well against the Hershey Bliss only to lose in a 5-0 blowout, a truly bitter pill to swallow.

“I know it’s weird to say this about a game we lost by 5, but I thought we were the better team in a lot of the game,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain.  “This game was just really weird.”

It’s hard to say whether Chamberlain’s claim that Saskatchewan was “the better team” holds water, but they definitely dominated the first period.  The Shockers came out firing, dictating the pace of play.  Aided by a pair of power plays, they outshot the Bliss 19-11.  “I thought we should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 after that,” said Chamberlain.

Instead, the game remained scoreless, thanks to Hershey goalie Brandon Colt.  He isn’t usually considered among the league’s top goalies, but he played like one on Thursday.  He made a dramatic kick-out save on a power-play blast by Chamberlain, bringing the crowd at Chocolate Center to its feet.  He also made a brilliant stop in the closing minutes of the period, robbing C Elliott Rafferty on a breakaway.  The Shockers also suffered some poor luck; on their two power plays in the period, they rang three shots off the posts.

Saskatchewan again got the better of the play to start the second, only to see Colt stymie them again and again.  Just after the nine-minute mark of the period, the Shockers got their third power play of the night when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was whistled for cross-checking.  Saskatchewan failed to convert yet again, managing only one shot, and the momentum seemed to shift toward the home team.

The game remained scoreless until late in the second.  With 2:31 remaining, Hershey RW Noah Daniels deflected a blast from D Steve Cargill and bounced it past Shockers goalie Zeke Zagurski into the net.  It was a fluke goal, but after seeing so many of their shots stopped, spirits sagged on the Saskatchewan bench.

“We couldn’t understand how we were losing when we’d played so much better,” said Rafferty.

In the third, the Shockers pushed hard in the early going, only to come up empty yet again.  Bliss C Justin Valentine banged home a rebound just until 7 minutes in to make it 2-0.  D Bruce Minnik went to the sin bin a couple minutes later, giving Saskatchewan its fourth power play of the game.  By this time, the Shockers were stressing out, shanking shots left and right and missing out on quality chances.

Twenty second after the power play ended, Bliss LW Lance Sweet and RW Christopher Hart broke out on an odd-man rush, and Hart beat Zagurski to give Hershey a three-goal edge.

The dam seemed to burst after that; the Shockers all but gave up, and Hershey scored twice more before the game mercifully ended.

The frustration in the Shockers locker room was palpable after the game.  Rafferty, who was denied at least three times by brilliant Colt saves, smashed his stick to pieces against his stool.  Zagurski opted for a different approach; he went into the shower with his equipment still on, sitting in soaked silence.

To make matters worse, the three teams ahead of Saskatchewan in the West standings (Michigan, Seattle, and Anchorage) all lost, costing the Shockers a rare chance to gain ground.

“In any season, there’s always going to be a few games you wish you could have back,” said Thompson.  “But this one was a knife to the gut.  When you get a 6-0 edge in power plays, you really need to win it.  This one really stings.”

Continue reading “Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race”

Bliss Celebrate V-Day in “Sweetest” Style

Thursday was Valentine’s Day, and the SHL celebrated with a full slate of games.  Most teams didn’t make much of the holiday, but the Hershey Bliss pulled out all the stops for their game against Kansas City and treated their fans to what the team called “The Sweetest Game on Earth” (a play on the city’s slogan, “The Sweetest Place on Earth”).

For starters, all fans attending the game received a heart-shaped box with the Bliss logo on it, filled with (what else?) Hershey’s Kisses.  The team replaced its usual in-game musical selections with romantic tunes, from “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to “As Long as You Love Me” to “Let’s Get It On.”  The theme continued on the ice, as the team’s usual chocolate-bar shoulder patches were replaced with heart-shaped patches, as were the captain’s “C” and alternate’s “A”.

nibs

The Bliss turned their mascot Nibs into Cupid, complete with toga and angel wings.  Throughout the game, Nibs went through the stands looking for loving couples.  When he found them, he gave them gifts ranging from flowers to giant Special Dark bars to Hersheypark tickets to gift certificates to local restaurants.

“We wanted to show our appreciation to the couples who chose to spend their Valentine’s Day with us,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Because what could be more romantic than a hockey game for two?  That’s what I’ve tried to convince my wife, at least.”

The Bliss didn’t forget their single fans, either.  The team held a “Blind Date” promotion, in which fans who bought special tickets in Section 214 were randomly seated beside other single Bliss rooters.  Those who hit it off were offered two tickets for a future Bliss game.  Lawrence said that several fans in the section took the team up on its offer.  “Who knows?  Maybe someday there will be a marriage out of it!” said Lawrence.

Unsurprisingly, the “Love Line” (Hershey’s top line of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart) featured heavily in the promotion.  The team held a silent auction to raffle off each of the trio’s game-worn jerseys, as well as a date with Hart (the only “Love Line” member who is still single).  Proceeds from the silent went to the local Boys and Girls Club.

“To me, this is a really cool opportunity to give back to the community,” said Hart.  “I mean, I go on dates all the time, but I don’t usually do it for charity!”

Perhaps inspired by all the love in the air, Hershey rolled to a 4-0 shutout win.  The Love Line played their part in the rout: Valentine scored a goal and Hart had an assist.

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber felt that the “Sweetest Game” was a fun promotion, and he hopes the team will do it again in the future.  He did have one suggestion, though.

“You’re handing out all this chocolate to the fans, which is great,” said Barber.  “But what about me?  I was expecting to come in and find a bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries on my desk, or one of those big Special Dark bars or something.  But I got nothing.  Where’s the love for the coach?”