CHL Update: Spuds Stop Rhinos in 6 to Claim Title

The Idaho Spuds were an unlikely contender in the CHL.  Last season, playing as the Muncie Squirrels, they finished fourth in their division.  Their rebuilding parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, called up several of the best prospects from that squad.  The Spuds received a warm reception in their new home, regularly selling out Treasure Valley Arena.  But the idea that they’d finish above .500, much less make the playoffs, seemed far-fetched to most observers.

However, coach Gilbert McCoyne wasn’t interested in what most observers thought.  “I wasn’t about to put any limits on what we could achieve,” McCoyne said.  “I just told my guys, ‘Why not us?’”

McCoyne’s power-of-positive-thinking approach paid dividends.  Idaho not only made the playoffs, they dismissed the heavily-favored division-winning Omaha Ashcats in a stunning sweep.  Then in the Finals, they dethroned the defending champion Virginia Rhinos in six games to win their first-ever Howard Trophy.

“This season has been one wild ride!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox.  “We never gave up and never stopped believing, and now we’re the champs!”

The series opened in Boise in front of another pair of sellout crowds, and the Spuds gave their fans plenty to cheer about.  In Game 1, fueled by the energy of their fans, a fired-up Idaho team outshot the Rhinos 32-20.  The Spuds capitalized on their power play opportunities, going 3-for-4 in man-advantage situations, and goalie Kelvin White registered a shutout in a 3-0 Idaho win.  In Game 2, the Spuds once again had a huge advantage in shots, outshooting Virginia 43-23, but White wasn’t quite as sharp.  Idaho squandered a 4-2 lead in the third period when Rhinos LW Yuri Laronov and LW Errol Garner scored 90 seconds apart, but RW Britt Cadmium came through with what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 5-4 triumph.

The Rhinos regained their footing a bit in the middle three games, which took place on their ice.  In Game 3, Virginia got a pair of second-period goals from Laronov and D Gustaf Bergstrom, and goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 30 Idaho shots for a 2-0 win.  In Game 4, Virginia got the early edge, only to see Idaho seize control of the game in the second on the way to a 6-2 blowout that included three third-period goals.  Staring at elimination, the Rhinos pushed back in Game 5, building a 3-0 lead through the first forty minutes.  The Spuds pushed back in the third, putting up another three-goal frame, but Virginia held on for a 5-3 win.  C Trent Harlow scored two goals in a winning effort for the defending champs.

With the action shifting back to Treasure Valley Arena for Game 6, the Spuds were looking for the quick kill, while the Rhinos were looking to prove that they could be competitive away from home.  Idaho controlled the play once again, outshooting Virginia 38-26, but Chislic kept the Rhinos in the game.  LW Van Dyke Browning scored in the opening minute to give Idaho a quick edge, but Rhinos D Gunther Stephens answered less than four minutes later to tie things up.  The Spuds got back in front in the second on a score by D Brett Stolte, and D Georg Ochre made it 3-1 early in the third with a blast from the top of the faceoff circle.  Idaho then endangered their lead with a string of minor penalties, and Bergstrom finally converted with just over five minutes remaining to pull Virginia within one.  The Spuds managed to stay out of the penalty box after that, though, and the Rhinos couldn’t come up with an equalizer in the time remaining.

Ochre, who led all Idaho scorers with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists), earned the Finals MVP honors.  His teammates mobbed the quiet, rugged defenseman they fondly call “The Ogre.”  As Wilcox quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the Ogre’s acceptance speech, ‘cause it’ll be the first time he’s said more than two words in a row.”

For many of the Spuds, their next challenge will come in the SHL, as they’re called up and tasked with reviving the Jackalopes’ sagging fortunes.  “Making it in the SHL is a different kind of challenge,” admitted Wilcox.  “But we’ve gotten this far by believing in ourselves, so why not keep going?”

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CHL Update: St. Pierre Shines in Idaho

Xavier St. Pierre wasn’t supposed to be special.  The 20-year-old goaltender was completely ignored by the NHL, and was selected with the third-to-last pick in this year’s SHL draft.  After an undistinguished career in junior hockey, St. Pierre hardly seemed like a promising prospect.  The goalie-needy Dakota Jackalopes took a low-risk flyer and assigned him to the Idaho Spuds, their new CHL affiliate.  Even there, he had to win a training-camp battle for the backup spot.  The Jackalopes crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

Xavier St. Pierre

“The best” turned out to be better than anyone imagined.  Through the first half of the season, St. Pierre looks like a potential breakout star.  So far this year, he has recorded a 10-3-1 record with a 2.81 GAA and a .916 save percentage.  And thanks in no small part to his strong play, Idaho sits in playoff position in the West.

“For me, everything is a dream right now,” said St. Pierre.  “I am blessed.”

Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne says he saw something in St. Pierre, in spite of his mediocre track record.  “He had a hunger; you could tell he’d fought for every opportunity he’d ever had,” said McCoyne.  “He always stayed late in practice.  Anyone who would work with him, he jumped on it.  Some guys on the bubble, you can tell their hustle is a show for the coaches.  But with X, you could tell it’s the only way he knew.”

When McCoyne chose St. Pierre over incumbent backup Guy “Blinky” Laroche, the young netminder stopped by the coach’s office to thank him, adding: “I will be sure you are never sorry for this decision.”

“And he’s definitely made sure of that!” McCoyne added.

Once St. Pierre made the team, his hard-working habits continued.  Most backups relax on the bench during their days off; St. Pierre watched starter Kelvin White and the opposing skaters intently, absorbing whatever he could.  He studied as much film as he could get his hands on.  And he continued to be the last one off the ice at practice.

McCoyne and the coaching staff noticed.  They also noticed that whenever they gave St. Pierre a start, he played extremely well.  McCoyne started giving St. Pierre additional opportunities when he could, and the netminder always performed.

Then, about a month into the season, White went down with an injury, one that would ultimately sideline him for almost three weeks.  It was a golden opportunity for St. Pierre… but the Spuds quickly signed Laroche, their former backup, to a short-term contract.  Was it training camp all over again?

“Coach told me quickly, ‘You are the starter, Guy will be your backup,’” St. Pierre said.  “I was very glad for his faith in me.  I told him I would show he was correct again.”

Facing a starter’s workload, St. Pierre struggled a bit, but continued to play solidly.  “We’ve got a high-powered offensive team, but we’re not much for shot suppression,” said McCoyne.  “That means that none of our goalies have an easy time of it.  But X doesn’t get rattled back there.”

St. Pierre handily outplayed Laroche, but slid right back into the backup role without complaint when White returned.  “Sometimes with backup, you feel like they’re almost rooting for you to get hurt so they can get a shot,” said White.  “But Xav’s been totally supportive all the way.”

Although he has triumphed in the face of long odds, St. Pierre has remained calm and unruffled, like he was supposed to be here all along.  In part, that’s due to a remarkable coincidence.  The netminder hails from a small town in Quebec called Saint-Michel, and he comes from a long line of – believe it or not – potato farmers.

“All through my life, it is potatoes,” said St. Pierre.  “So when I come to a team named ‘Spuds,’ with a potato [logo] on the chest, I know this is my place.”

The fans in Boise have embraced him, chanting “X-S-P! X-S-P!” after each of his acrobatic saves.  “I think he’s probably the most popular guy on the team,” quipped White.

Of course, one good half-season does not a career make.  St. Pierre has a long way to go before he has a shot to make the SHL, much less to succeed there.  But McCoyne warns everyone not to bet against the young netminder: “If you can work your way into the big time, this is the kid who can do it.  I expect you’ll be hearing more about him down the line.”

CHL Update: Utah’s Francis Nets First-Ever Hat Trick

Ed Francis is the very definition of a journeyman hockey player.  The 29-year-old has spent his entire career as a steady but unremarkable depth defenseman.  After graduating from Lake Huron State in 2010, Francis spent a couple years playing in Switzerland before joining the SHL.  In four seasons split between Washington and Saskatchewan, he never made much of an impact, never scoring more than 7 goals or recording more than 11 points in a season.  He is known as a hard worker and a positive clubhouse personality (earning the nickname “Easy Ed” for his gentle demeanor), but he hasn’t been quite fast or talented enough to nail down a starting job.

Ed Francis

Francis was a free agent in the offseason, in a crowded market for blueliners.  When it became clear that he wouldn’t receive a major-league contract, he gave serious thought to retiring.  Francis had an open offer to become a high-school gym teacher in his hometown of Charlevoix, Michigan.  He and his wife Judy have two young children, and the thought of spending less time on the road and more time raising his kids held considerable appeal.

In the end, though, Francis decided “I hadn’t gotten the game out of my blood quite yet.”  He signed a minor-league deal with the New York Night and reported to their CHL affiliate, the Utah Owls.  Finally having a chance to play every day, the defenseman has found joy with the Owls.  And this week, he recorded an achievement he never imagined possible: he scored a hat trick in Utah’s wild 6-5 overtime win over the Idaho Spuds on Sunday.

It was unusual enough that Francis was the first one on the board, receiving a pass at the blue line from RW Mickey Simpson and firing a slapshot past Idaho goalie Kelvin White less than 2 minutes into the game.  His tally was quickly forgotten, though, as the Spuds beat Utah netminder Corey Franklin-Lee three times in a five-minute span to take a two-goal lead at the first intermission.

The Owls quickly erased the deficit with a pair of scores early in the second period, only for D Brady Prussian’s slapper to put Idaho on top again.  But just past the halfway point of the second, Utah generated some pressure in the slot in front of White.  Francis crashed the net, picked up a deflection from C Gilles Valmont, and stuffed it over White’s catching glove for his second goal of the game, tying it at 4.

“At that point, I was just focused on the fact that we’d tied it up,” said Francis.  “I wasn’t even thinking about [a hat trick].”

At 1:25 in the third period, Francis fired another blue-line shot that RW Harris Wondolowski redirected into the net, giving the Owls a 5-4 lead, their first edge since Francis’ opening tally.

“A three-point game?  That was huge for me, probably my first one since high school,” Francis noted afterward.  “And it gave us the lead, which was great.”  Little did he know that the best was yet to come.

The Spuds didn’t go away quietly, as Prussian went five-hole on the power play to equalize the score again.  Somewhat surprisingly, neither team scored again in regulation, sending things to overtime.

About a minute into the extra session, Francis joined a three-on-two rush for the Owls.  “Usually on an odd-man rush like that, I don’t have the speed to be part of it,” he explained.  “But I happened to be in a good spot when Gilles picked it off and started going the other way.”

Valmont found RW Jake Grifka below the hash marks.  Grifka faked a shot, then slid a pass to Francis, who went top-shelf over a sprawling White to win the game as the crowd at Wasatch Arena exploded with delight.

It wasn’t until their hats began hitting the ice that Francis realized what he’d done.  His mouth flew open as his teammates lifted him up and carried him off the ice.

Francis still seemed in shock as he talked to reporters after the game.  “In my whole life, I never imagined I’d get a hatty,” he said.  “It never even crossed my mind, not in my craziest dreams.  It’s a good thing I didn’t know it was happening at the time, or I’d have shot it fifty feet over the goalie’s head.”

Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie was delighted by the unexpected achievement.  “Ed’s the kind of guy who really deserves a moment like this,” Kiyotie told reporters.  “He’s paid his dues, and he works his butt off and never complains.  A guy like that ought to get to be the hero once in his life, at least.”

Once his postgame interviews were over, Francis pulled out his phone and called home to Judy, the wife who’d agreed to stay back in Michigan with the kids while her husband chased his dream for one more season.  When she answered, Francis exclaimed: “Honey, you’ll never believe what just happened to me!”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Utah’s Francis Nets First-Ever Hat Trick”

2018 CHL All-Star Rosters

This year, the SHL’s minor league will also be holding an All-Star Game.  The game will take place at Waterfront Center, home of the Virginia Rhinos. The rosters for the game, along with each player’s current stats, are below.

EAST ALL-STARS

Coach: Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh (Virginia)

 

First Line

LW: Norris “Beaver” Young, Oshawa (15 G, 27 A, 42 Pts, 10 PIM, +19)

D: Gary Hermine,  Oshawa (11 G, 28 A, 39 Pts, 16 PIM, +20)

C: Pat “Stoner” Collistone, Oshawa (17 G, 26 A, 43 Pts, 8 PIM, +19)

D: Rennie Cox, Virginia (15 G, 20 A, 35 Pts, 4 PIM, +7)

RW: Anders Pedersen, Oshawa (12 G, 25 A, 37 Pts, 23 PIM, +19)

 

Second Line

LW: Yuri Laronov, Virginia (17 G, 19 A, 36 Pts, 16 PIM, -2)

D: Blake Blacklett, Virginia (14 G, 19 A, 33 Pts, 26 PIM, +7)

C: Cyril Perignon, Virginia (17 G, 24 A, 41 Pts, 0 PIM, +2)

D: Ambroz Melicar, Baltimore (12 G, 21 A, 33 Pts, 8 PIM, +3)

RW: Chris Quake, Virginia (6 G, 24 A, 30 Pts, 20 PIM, -2)

 

Third Line

LW: Rex Batten, Baltimore (11 G, 21 A, 32 Pts, 31 PIM, Even)

D: Kirby Hanlon, Maine (6 G, 12 A, 18 Pts, 20 PIM, +1)

C: Phoenix Cage, Cleveland (7 G, 17 A, 24 Pts, 6 PIM, -9)

D: Hampus Olsson, Maine (6 G, 8 A, 14 Pts, 6 PIM, +1)

RW: Felix Delorme, Hartford (11 G, 12 A, 23 Pts, 6 PIM, -12)

 

Goalies

Jonathan Crane, Maine (10-8-3, 2.06 GAA, .917 save %)

Hector Orinoco, Oshawa (15-6-0, 2.75 GAA, .896 save %)

 

WEST ALL-STARS

Coach: Wiley Kiyotie (Utah)

 

First Line

LW: Diego Garcia, Utah (8 G, 23 A, 31 Pts, 10 PIM, -1)

D: Steve Cargill, Milwaukee (7 G, 23 A, 30 Pts, 48 PIM, +8)

C: Dale Wilcox, Colorado Springs (12 G, 19 A, 31 Pts, 29 PIM, +13)

D: Georg Ochre, Muncie (5 G, 21 A, 26 Pts, 49 PIM, +12)

RW: Philippe Durien, Colorado Springs (24 G, 22 A, 46 Pts, 22 PIM, +13)

 

Second Line

LW: Veikko Sikanen, Omaha (15 G, 15 A, 30 Pts, 23 PIM, +5)

D: Brian Coldivar, Minnesota (12 G, 14 A, 26 Pts, 18 PIM, +6)

C: Tanner Everest, Minnesota (7 G, 24 A, 31 Pts, 18 PIM, +7)

D: Rudolf Kerasov, Minnesota (8 G, 17 A, 25 Pts, 22 PIM, +6)

RW: James Clay, Milwaukee (8 G, 22 A, 30 Pts, 16 PIM, +3)

 

Third Line

LW: Jean Pierre Fleury, Minnesota (14 G, 11 A, 25 Pts, 14 PIM, +8)

D: Trevor Lockwood, Omaha (7G, 17 A, 24 Pts, 53 PIM, -1)

C: Vance KettermanMilwaukee (11 G, 15 A, 26 Pts, 12 PIM, +3)

D: Duncan DeShantz, Colorado Springs (4 G, 18 A, 22 Pts, 45 PIM, +17)

RW: Mark Winters, Minnesota (7 G, 20 A, 27 Pts, 24 PIM, +7)

 

Goalies

Sonny Kashiuk, Colorado Springs (20-3-1, 1.57 GAA, .943 save %)

Kelvin White, Muncie (12-10-0, 1.85 GAA, .937 save %)