Washington, Hershey Title Fight Goes Down to Last Day

Washington SmallHershey SmallGoing into the last week of the season, the East’s defending champion, the Washington Galaxy, trailed the Hershey Bliss by two points.  But with the two teams scheduled to meet on the last day of the season, Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle made a prediction.  “Just you watch,” Reagle said to reporters during Saturday’s game.  “It’s all going to come down to that game, and we’re both going to be tied.  One game for all the marbles.  Because that’s exactly the sick sense of humor the hockey gods have.”

As it turns out, Reagle’s prediction was exactly right.  When the Bliss and Galaxy faced off at Constellation Center on Friday, they had identical 33-23-3 records. Just as Reagle had foreseen, the winner of the game would win the division.

As it turned out, Washington defended its division crown with a dramatic come-from-behind 5-3 win that left the home crowd ecstatic and the visiting Bliss heartbroken.

“Couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling finish, eh?” said Reagle with a grin.

The Galaxy came into the season finale riding a six-game winning streak.  The Bliss were nearly as hot, having won six of their last seven, the only loss a 3-1 decision to eventual Western champ Michigan on Tuesday.

Both teams were confident heading into the deciding game.  “We feel like we’ve got the edge,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine, anchor of the team’s high-powered Love Line.  “Our offense is clicking, and Jesse [Clarkson] has really sealed up the net for us.  We’re ready to take this.”

Countered Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely, “This game is ours.  We’re peaking at the right time, and we’re playing at home in front of our awesome fans.  We always come up big in big moments, and this is about as big as they get.”

The first period was a raucous, high-tempo affair, with the crowd at full volume.  Both teams came out of the period with some good news.  The Galaxy were able to contain the Love Line, denying the high-scoring trio any good looks at the net.  On the other hand, Hershey got offense from an unexpected source, as third-line C Henry Constantine slipped a pair of power-play goals past Washington netminder Roger Orion, quieting the crowd and giving the visitors a 2-0 edge after the first period.

In the second period, the pace slowed a bit as the nervous energy of the first frame ebbed.  Washington got on the board as D Rusty Anderson banged in a slapper from the blue line a little more than 6 minutes in, but that was the only tally of the period, and the Galaxy found themselves trailing 2-1 with only one period left to save their season.

Before the third, Reagle tried an unorthodox approach to motivate his men.  The coach is well-known for his penchant for dressing in costume and making screwball jokes, but he played it straight.  “You know who you are and you know what you need to do,” Reagle told his players.  “Stop, take a breath, and remember: you got this.”

Unfortunately for the home team, Hershey struck again five minutes into the third period, as LW Russ Nahorniak tipped one in from the goal mouth to make it 3-1.  “That was the real gut check for us,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “We looked up and down the bench and said, ‘All right, are we gonna roll over and give up, or are we going to get back in this?'”

Washington got their second wind and came out determined to catch up.  Less than two minutes after Nahorniak’s goal, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz struck back on a three-on-two breakaway on a power play, going top shelf to make it 3-2.  But it was the latter half of the third period that really turned into a nightmare for Hershey.

With seven and a half minutes left in the game, Galaxy D Bill Corbett fired a low liner from the blue line.  The puck took a couple of strange bounces and eluded Clarkson for a curious tying goal.  Four minutes later, the Bliss surrendered another odd-man rush, with C J.C. Marais deking past a helpless Clarkson and putting the home team ahead for the first time.  The arena seemed to shake to its foundations as the crowd roared while a stunned Hershey squad tried to get itself back together.  But with a minute and a half left, the Galaxy got some much-needed insurance, with D Kevin Buchanan banking one home off the left post to make it 5-3, which was the ultimate final score.

After the game, the Bliss were left shell-shocked, having surrendered four unanswered goals to blow a seemingly solid lead.  There was a lot about this game that was tough for Hershey to swallow.  The Love Line was held without a single point in the game.  Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber suggested that the trio was exhausted by a long season.  “They’ve carried so much of the load for us for so long,” mused Barber.  “I just think there wasn’t enough left in the tank.”  And Clarkson, Hershey’s big deadline pickup, wilted in the clutch when his team needed him most.  Clarkson was not available for comment after the game.

Barber summed things up for his team by saying, “To come this far this year and then have a game like this, it’s like biting into a nice Fifth Avenue bar and finding a big rock in the middle.”

In the Washington locker room, the mood was entirely different.  Reagle blasted “Joy to the World” from his office as the players danced and sprayed each other with beer.  “Man, what a crazy ending!” shouted Costello.  “Last year was easier, but this was way more fun.”

The Galaxy also extended praise to their defeated foe.  “Big tip of the lid to Hershey,” said McNeely.  “They gave us a real run, and with a couple of bounces, this could easily have gone their way.  They’re a hell of a team, and I expect them to come back strong next year.”

As for the Finals matchup with Western champion Michigan?  “Bring it on,” said McNeely.  “We can handle anything they want to throw at us.  We’re ready.”

Washington Surges in East

Washington SmallLast season, the Washington Galaxy led the East virtually wire-to-wire, maintaining a steady single-digit lead for almost the entire season.  This season was different, as the Hamilton Pistols and Quebec Tigres got off to surprisingly strong starts and the division remains tightly bunched in the early weeks.  Over the last couple of weeks, though, the Galaxy have quietly kicked things into gear, going on a tear and opening up a double-digit advantage over their stumbling competitors.  As the league hits midseason, Washington appears well-positioned for a return trip to the playoffs.

“That whole team should wear ninja outfits,” said New York Night C Brock Manning, whose team trails the Galaxy by 11 points.  “They rarely look dominating, they don’t have a bunch of big-name stars… but damned if you don’t look up and see them pulling away every time.  I don’t know how they do it.”

How do they do it?  With a surprisingly potent and balanced offense, combined with a sturdy defense and solid goaltending.  To the surprise of many observers, Washington is second in the league in goals with 104.  The Galaxy’s top scorer is RW Jefferson McNeely, who has rebounded in a big way from a down year in 2015 to establish himself as a star.  McNeely’s 18 goals and 36 points puts him in the top 10 in the league in both categories.  McNeely’s emergence has taken considerable pressure off of linemate Casey Thurman, who was the team’s leading scorer in ’15 but got off to a slow start this year.

“I’m really glad to see Jefferson having a strong season,” said teammate Eddie Costello.  “He’s an electric personality, and the fans are really getting to see that now that he’s breaking out.  The people in DC are going to love this guy.”

But McNeely is far from the only quality scorer in the Galaxy’s lineup.  Thurman (10 goals, 25 points) has been gaining steam during Washington’s recent run.  Costello has done a great job setting up McNeely and Thurman, but is also a scoring threat in his own right (12 goals, 36 points).  Washington has strong scorers on its second and third lines as well, including LW Walt Camernitz (15 goals, 29 points), RW Sindri Pentti (11 goals, 17 points), and C J.C. Marais (25 points)

“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” said Camernitz.  “We pack a punch on all three lines, and we can score at any time.  Some other teams, you contain their one or two big guys and you can shut them down.  We’re not like that.”

Washington is no slouch in its own end, either.  The Galaxy’s defensive prowess was a key reason they were able to push the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos to 7 games in last season’s SHL Finals, and if anything, they’re stronger this year.  Defenseman Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom is the team’s chief enforcer, and his willingness to scrap is legendary around the league.  But Washington is well stocked with solid two-way threat on the blue line.  Top pairing Leonard Wright and Kevin Buchanan are strong playmakers at both ends, and second pairing Rusty Anderson and Grant Warriner provide a bit of a heavier, more defense-oriented look.  The team also has several rugged wingers, most notably the hard-checking Pentti.

“A lot of teams in this league are imbalanced toward offense or defense,” said Buchanan.  “We pride ourselves on being balanced.  We can bang with the big boys, but we also have the speed and scoring ability to keep up with the faster clubs.”

Backstopping the defense is netminder Roger Orion, who has provided steady and drama-free prowess in the crease since the beginning.  “Other goalies have flashier reps and bigger names,” said Costello.  “But we’re happy to go to war with Roger any time.  We know he’s going to take care of business back there.”

Overseeing the whole circus is the league’s most colorful coach, Rodney Reagle.  A former goalie who was nicknamed “Reagle the Eagle” in his playing days, he’s done nothing to disprove the adage that goaltenders are a strange breed.  Players, though, say that his offbeat style keeps the cluhbhouse loose even in tense moments.

“Coach, well… what can you say?” said Costello.  “He’s one of a kind.  And by that I mean he’s hard-core nuts.  But we love that.”

Reagle keeps up a seemingly never-ending stream of pranks and jokes.  Recently, in reaction to the “creepy clowns” stories circulating on the Internet, he had the visiting locker room at Constellation Center decorated with pictures of clowns.

“I’ve been in there,” said Reagle, “and afterward I had to curl up in the fetal position for a half hour.  It’s totally going to unnerve our opponents.  Think of it as psychological warfare.”

While creepy clowns may or may not be essential to Washington’s recent success, critics argue that the Galaxy are simply cleaning up against a weak division.  As of this writing, none of the other teams in the East have an above-.500 record.  The West, meanwhile, has a pair of powerhouses in the Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Even if Washington cruises back to the Finals, won’t they simply be crushed by whoever emerges from the West?

Reagle pointed out that people said the same thing last year, and the Galaxy nearly won the title.  “If everyone wants to overlook us and say that we’re weak because our division is struggling, go ahead,” said the coach.  “We’ll be happy to prove them wrong again.”

2015 SHL Finals – Game 1

Washington SmallAnchorage SmallWASHINGTON GALAXY 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

The Anchorage Igloos came into the SHL Finals as heavy favorites.  If they expected this series to be a cakewalk, though, they’ll need to adjust their expectations.  The Washington Galaxy skated into Arctic Circle Arena and stole Game 1 by a 3-2 margin.

“You guys might want to hold up on the coronation,” Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely jibed to reporters after the game.  “Looks like we’ve got a real series on our hands, huh?”

The Igloos are famous for their team speed, and early in the first game, they threatened to leave the visiting Galaxy in the dust.  A little more than 6 minutes into the game, Anchorage had already secured a 2-0 lead on goals by LW Les Collins and C Jake Frost.  “That was a real gut check for us,” said Washington D Kevin Buchanan.  “They were turning [the game] into a track meet, and we just weren’t able to keep up.”

But Washington coach Rodney Reagle made some adjustments and encouraged his team to keep their heads up.  “I told ‘em all to take a deep breath and figure out a way to get in Anchorage’s heads,” said Reagle.  “The pressure’s on them; they’re the favorite.  If we can disrupt their flow, we can change the whole series.  That was the message.”

Reagle’s players listened.  Late in the first period, Galaxy D Bill Corbett goaded Collins into a slashing penalty, and Galaxy RW Nori Takoyaki took advantage, banging home a goal from the left faceoff circle to make it 2-1.

In the second period, Washington managed to slow the pace of the game and prevent the Igloos from making their trademark breakaways.  Late in the period, the Galaxy first line struck twice to claim the lead.  First, C Eddie Costello banged home a blue-line shot through traffic to tie the game.  Then, less than a minute later, Igloos RW Sven Danielsen was whistled for tripping.  On the ensuing power play, Costello faked another blue-line slap shot, instead passing to LW Casey Thurman, who was sitting in front of the crease.  Thurman tipped it past Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington for a 3-2 lead.

In the third period, the Igloos peppered the Washington net with shots (a total of 14 in the period), but Galaxy goalie Roger Orion made several brilliant saves, and Washington’s defenders also sacrificed their bodies to block a number of Anchorage attempts, as the Galaxy held on for the victory.  The crowd filed out in stunned silence, perhaps realizing that they were in for more than they’d bargained for.

Buchanan proudly lifted his shirt in the locker room to display the bruises he’d received from blocking shots.  “That’s playoff hockey, baby!” Buchanan shouted.  “Those are badges of honor right there.  We’re not about to let up!”

Castor remained confident despite his team dropping the opener at home.  “We never thought the Galaxy were going to make this easy on us,” said Castor.  “We knew we’d have to earn this.  But we’re going to have to turn the intensity up a notch in the next game.”

Continue reading “2015 SHL Finals – Game 1”

Galaxy Players Go Cow Crazy

Washington GalaxyOn the surface, it seems like things are going well for the Washington Galaxy.  The team has been at or close to the top of the standings throughout the season to date.  But beneath the surface, according to sources close to the team, a tension is building.  The source of that tension: a chocolate-theme jingle performed by a trio of singing cows.

This week, the Galaxy came to Hershey to play the Bliss.  Coach Rodney Reagle, figuring it was a good opportunity for the new team to bond, brought the Galaxy in a day early and took them to the Chocolate World exhibit at Hersheypark.  In addition to creating their own candy bars and tasting a variety of different chocolates, the team went on a ride that explains how Hershey’s chocolate is made.

The (real) singing cows

One of the most notable aspects of the ride is a trio of female cows (Gabby, Harmony, and Olympia) that sing about the glories of milk chocolate.  The players all agreed that this was a highlight of the experience.  Little did they know that it would be the bone of contention in the days to come.

Casey Thurman
Casey Thurman

According to team sources, Galaxy LW Casey Thurman, D Kevin Buchanan, and F Gene Kennedy were especially fond of the song.  And ever since, the three have taken to serenading their teammates with the jingle, in falsetto, everywhere the team goes.  In the locker room before games, on the team plane, in restaurants, everywhere.  The three players even bought pink boas to match those worn by the cows.

Kevin Buchanan
Kevin Buchanan

Needless to say, the constant singing has not been equally appreciated by all teammates.  In particular, C Drustan Zarkovich reportedly threatened to kill the singers with his stick if they didn’t stop singing during a particularly long plane flight.  The threats and complaints have reportedly only encouraged Thurman, Buchanan, and Kennedy to keep it up.

Gene Kennedy
Gene Kennedy

“I mean, it was funny at first,” said star LW Jefferson McNeely.  “But there’s a point where it’s too much.  I mean, you see three grown men walking down the street, singing in high voices and wearing pink boas… it’s weird.  They’ve even started calling each other by the names of the stupid cows.”

Apprised of McNeely’s criticism, Thurman (“Gabby”) responded, “I’ve never had more fun in my life.  I think in my soul, there’s always been a singing cow waiting to get out.”

For his part, Reagle doesn’t regret the bonding trip.  “It’s the kind of thing the guys will be talking about all season,” said the coach.  “Maybe eventually one of the guys will snap and start choking someone, and then I’ll have to intervene.  But for now, I’m cool with it.  Besides, I’ve heard them sing, and they’re not half bad.  Of course, they’re not half good either.”