This year’s CHL Finals has something in common with this year’s SHL Finals: it’s a rematch. One team finished with the league’s best record, and is looking to win back-to-back titles. The other is turning Finals trips into a habit, having made it every year of the league’s existence. Both teams got here by sweeping their division-round opponents.
In the West, the Idaho Spuds came into the playoffs as the favorite, not to mention the defending champs. They demonstrated strength on both ends of the ice this season, and they came into the playoffs with a quiet confidence. “We’re definitely looking to go back-to-back,” said C Dale Wilcox. “We’ve got the talent and the drive, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be us.”
But before they could defend their title, the Spuds had to make it past the Omaha Ashcats, who surged down the stretch to make it into the playoffs. The series opened before a noisy sellout crowd at Boise’s Treasure Valley Arena, and the Spuds ran the Ashcats off the ice in a dominant first period. The visitors struck first on a goal by RW Rene Courcel just 31 seconds in, but Idaho ruled the ice from there, scoring three times (one by Wilcox and two by C Chayce Yonge) and outshooting the Ashcats 17-6, on their way to a 4-1 victory. Game 2 was a different story; both teams were flying up and down the ice and taking shots by the bucketload; they combined for an astounding 94 shots. The teams traded the lead throughout the game; Ashcats RW Louis LaPlante scored with just 2:30 left in regulation to tie it up and force overtime, but it was Spuds RW Dylan Alizarin who was the ultimate hero, scoring just under 9 minutes into the extra session to seal a 6-5 Idaho win. As the series shifted to Omaha for Game 3, Ashcats superfan “Krazy Karl” Loesser – who burned jerseys and dolls outside the arena as a “sacrifice” to the hockey gods to get his team into the postseason – wanted to hold another pregame sarcifice ceremony, but the team vetoed his request. They may have regretted it later, as the Spuds won 4-2 to complete the sweep. D Geoff Moultrie scored the go-ahead goal for Idaho late in the second period, and LW Terry Cresson added an insurance tally in the third to seal it. Goalie Kelvin White came up big with a 40-save performance to thwart Omaha’s comeback bid.
“I really loved the energy and intensity I saw, from the players and our fans too,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne. “We’re playing great hockey, probably our best of the season, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the Finals.”
In the East, the Virginia Rhinos surged in the second half to make it back to the postseason, but they finished just three points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Halifax Atlantics. The series, which pitted Halifax’s patient defense-focused attack against Virginia’s more well-rounded game, was widely expected to be a close match. But the Rhinos quickly demonstrated otherwise, turning up their speed to expose the Atlantics’ highly-regarded D.
Game 1 quickly turned into a laugher; the Rhinos scored three times in the first period and never looked back in a 6-1 rout. Each Virginia goal was scored by a different player; RW Mark Clark even recorded a short-handed tally to put an exclamation point on the blowout. Halifax switched goalies from Jonathan Crane to Art Cowan for Game 2, but it made no difference. Virginia skated rings around the slow-footed Atlantics, outshooting them 30-13 and outscoring them 5-0. Unlike the previous game, the Rhinos had a multi-goal scorer this time: D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta struck twice. Quentin Chislic managed to stay awake in net long enough to complete the shutout. With their backs against the wall and back at home for Game 3, Halifax finally managed to slow the game down; the teams combined for just 32 shots, After RW Alois Rodney scored a power-play within the first minute of the game, Halifax turned the contest into a rock fight, bogging down the action in the neutral zone and clinging desperately to their lead. But Virginia finally broke through the trap in the third period, and Clark scored to tie the game. Halifax managed to force overtime, but C Trent Harlow put the Atlantics (and everyone watching the game) out of their misery less than four minutes in, banging one home off the left post for a 2-1 victory.
“The only problem with making the Finals every year,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey Marsh, “is that I’m running out of movies to steal inspirational speeches from. I think this year, it’s going to be either ‘Patton’ or ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.'”
Idaho is favored to prevail in the Finals; their combination of skills and their ability to adjust to any playing style makes them a dangerous foe. But Virginia’s been here before – many times – and they’re not apt to let the Spuds dictate the terms of play. One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely that another sweep is in the cards. Whoever intends to win the title is in for a long, hard fight.