East Captures First All-Star Win

Traditionally, the West has been considered the stronger of the SHL’s two divisions.  In recent seasons, however, the East has been getting stronger.  They’ve won two of the last three Vandys.  During the most recent round of interdivisional play leading into the break, the Easthad a winning percentage above the .600 mark.  One thing the East had never done, however, was win an All-Star Game.  This year, they hoped to walk into the Kansas City Smoke‘s Heartland Telecom Center and skate away with the win.

Apparently, the fourth time was the charm.  Powered by a hat trick from Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart, the East dominated the first two periods and survived a late rally from the West to claim a 5-3 victory.

“Finally, victory is ours!” shouted Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette, who handed out celebratory cigars to his teammates after the game.  “We’ve been waiting a while for this one.”

As befits Kansas City’s reputation for music, the pregame skate was accompanied by a string of songs with ties to the city.  The tunes spanned the decades, from Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker to modern-day blues guitarist Samantha Fish.  During player introductions, the Western team skated out to Wilbert Harrison’s “Goin’ to Kansas City,” while the Eastern squad emerged to the theme from “Rawhide,” a nod to the city’s connections to the livestock industry.

Eastern coach Keith Shields was determined that his team get off to a strong start.  Last year, the West scored three times in as many minutes, essentially burying the East’s hope of victory.  “I wanted to do to [the West] what they did to us last time,” said Shields.  And that is essentially what his team did.

Hart opened the scoring just under two minutes into the game, streaking to the net and redirecting a shot from Pistols C Calvin Frye over sprawling Western goalie Ty Worthington.  Approximately one hundred seconds later, Frye got a goal of his own when Worthington allowed a juicy rebound on a shot by Hershey’s Lance Sweet and Frye stuffed it home on the short side.  Then around the six-minute mark, Hart and Sweet got loose on a breakaway, just as if they were on the Love Line back in Hershey.  Sweet faked a slapshot and passed it to Hart, who went top shelf to make it 3-0.

“The boys ran the game plan to perfection,” said Shields.  “I loved it!”

The West got one back on a strike from the slot by Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes, but they closed out the first period trailing by two.  But lest the three-time champs get any ideas about rallying, the East got back on the scoring train at the start of the second.  Pistols LW Steven Alexander got on the board on a thundering slapper from the left faceoff circle to restore the East’s three-goal lead.  Then two and a half minutes later, Hart struck again, this time on a power-play wraparound shot that slipped between Worthington’s pad and the pole.

Even though the home team now trailed 5-1, the fans tossed their hats onto the ice to honor Hart’s achievement.  One of them was a cowboy hat; Sweet picked that one up and slapped it on Hart’s head.  The Hershey wing let loose with a “Yeehaw!” and fired his invisible six-shooters into the air.

West coach Sam Castor wasn’t willing to give up, in spite of the sizable deficit, and he directed his team to play a more wide-open style in the third period.  The East responded in kind, and the result was a frantic frame in which the teams combined for 47 shots.  The West’s relief goalie, the Portland Bluebacks‘ Jesse Clarkson, turned aside all 27 Eastern shots.  The Western offense, on the other hand, had more success against the East’s backup netminder, Mike Ross of the New York Night.  Less than four minutes into the final period, the West narrowed the deficit to two with goals from D Sebastian Pomfret and C Tom Hoffman, teammates on Castor’s Anchorage Igloos.  But Ross stopped the West’s remaining shots, and the East kept the action in the other end for long stretches over the last ten minutes, sealing their victory.

Hart’s three-goal performance made him the unanimous choice for All-Star MVP honors.  As a reward for the selection, the Bliss star received a Kia Seltos SUV, along with a gift package of barbecue sauces from some of Kansas City’s best-known joints.  “The last time we were in KC, I tried burnt ends for the first time,” said Hart.  “I’m looking forward to making some ‘cue of my own at home.”

In the victorious Eastern locker room, the players smoked their cigars and doused each other with beer and hard seltzer.  “Don’t mess with the Beast Division, baby!” shouted Alexander.  “The world turned upside down!”

The East will try to make it two in a row next year on home ice, as next year’s game is north of the border at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle.

Continue reading “East Captures First All-Star Win”

2020 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2020 Eastern Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Keith Shields, was as follows:

First Line:

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton.  Last year, the voting in the East was dominated by fans of the Pistols and New York Night, the latter of which hosted the game.  Without the draw of hosting and with the Night’s lackluster record this year, votes from the New York metro area dipped considerably, while backers of defending champion Hamilton came out in force to support their heroes.  Alexander was the league’s top vote-getter, earning his fourth straight trip to the game and his third appearance in the starting lineup.  Although the feisty winger’s numbers are not quite up to his career norms, he is tied for the league lead in goals with 21.

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  Backed by the voting power of the Greater Toronto Area, Risch was the top vote-getter among Eastern defenseman, making his second All-Star appearance and his first start.  The 24-year-old is on track for a career season; he’s already scored more goals in the first half (8) than he ever has in an entire year.  He isn’t just an offensive force, either; he continues to deliver strong play in his own end.  His 73 blocks is the second-most among Eastern players.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey.  In something of an upset, Valentine managed to hold off Hamilton’s Calvin Frye to make his first All-Star start since 2017.  Valentine is the leading man in Hershey’s famous “Love Line,” and he’s producing in line with his top season.  He’s currently in third place in goals with 20 and tied for third in points with 42.  He’s also among the top ten in plus-minus at +14, a distinction he shares with his fellow Love Liners.

D: Matt Cherner, Boston.  In another upset, Cherner surged into second place, ahead of Hershey’s Reese Milton and New York’s Dominic Sanchez, who have been the East’s starting defensemen in each previous All-Star Game.  Cherner reportedly benefited from a strong crossover vote, as fans from his previous teams in Dakota and Quebec cast ballots for him in significant numbers.  It’s his second All-Star appearance, and his debut representing the East; he showed up on the West’s roster back in 2018.  Like his fellow top-pairing blueliner Risch, Cherner has 8 goals and 28 points so far this season.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rabid voting base lifted Lafayette to his first ever All-Star start (and only his second overall start), appearing alongside his longtime teammate and friend Alexander.  Lafayette won his spot by less than 5,000 votes over Hershey’s Christopher Hart and New York’s Rick Nelson.  Lafayette is one of the league’s elite passers, and it’s no surprise that he leads the SHL in assists with 35.  His 42 points overall ties him with Valentine for the league’s third-highest total.

 

Second Line:

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey.  Shields mentioned during the lineup announcement that he has a great deal of respect for the Bliss, Hamilton’s fiercest rival.  His admiration came through in his picks, as he tapped three Bliss players (in addition to starter Valentine) to the lineup.  It’s the second All-Star selection for Sweet, who also appeared in the SHL’s inaugural midseason contest in 2017.  Sweet is a highly deserving choice; he leads the league in points with 44, and is in the top 10 in both goals (16) and assists (28).

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton.  Shields’ respect for Hershey was topped only by his affection for his own squad; the coach selected four players from his Vandy-winning, division-leading Pistols.  The veteran Smyth, though, is no homer pick; his 30 points are tied for the highest total among SHL defensemen, and his 26 assists are tied for fifth in the league overall.  He also leads the league in plus-minus rating with +17.  It’s Smyth’s third trip to the All-Star Game, making a reappearance in the lineup after a one-year absence.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  After Frye was beaten out by Valentine for the starting center spot, there was no doubt that Shields was going to tab his star for a spot.  Frye is only of only four Eastern players to have appeared in every All-Star contest to date.  Frye is tied with his teammate Alexander for the league lead in goals with 21, and his 43 points is the second highest total in the SHL.  “I’ll bet this is the last time for a long time that Calvin isn’t the starter,” said Shields.  “If he keeps producing the way he has been, he’s going to make it impossible for the fans to ignore.  He’s just a special, special player.”

D: Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton. It’s the third straight All-Star appearance for the 22-year-old Mulligan and the third appearance for a Hamilton defenseman in this lineup.  It’s the first time since 2017 that a single team landed a trio of blueliners on the roster; Michigan was the last team to accomplish the feat. The hard-hitting Mulligan brings an extra edge of the Eastern roster; his 68 blocks is sixth in the SHL and second on the Pistols to his linemate Risch.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart joins his linemates Sweet and Valentine on the East roster.  Surprisingly, Hart is the only one of the trio who has appeared in every All-Star contest, though he has never started.  Like his fellow Love Liners, Hart is in the top ten in the league in points (39), assists (26), and plus-minus (+14).  “Last year, I had to carry the Love Line banner all by myself at the game,” said Hart.  “This time, I’ll be there with both my brothers, and that’s the way it ought to be.”

 

Third Line:

LW: Magnus Gunnarson, Hamilton.  At a loaded position, Shields tapping his own player again generated some controversy around the league.  Many felt that New York’s Chase Winchester or Boston’s Casey Thurman would be a more fitting choice.  But Gunnarson is having a strong season in his own right.  He has produced 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) at the halfway point.  And when Alexander missed several games with an injury in the first half, Gunnarson stepped in and kept the Pistols from missing a beat.  It all adds up to an All-Star debut for the 24-year-old winger.

D: Reese Milton, Hershey.  It’s the first time that Milton won’t be starting in an All-Star Game, but the Bliss blueliner keeps his string of appearances alive.  Milton’s offensive numbers (8 goals, 17 assists) are a tick below his career norms, but he remains as defensively strong as ever; his 77 blocks are the most in the East, and he maintains a solid +8 rating.

C: Alain Beauchesne, Boston.  The 22-year-old Beauchesne receives his second straight All-Star nod; his selection marks the first time that the Badgers have had more than one honoree.  This was another somewhat controversial choice: Night fans argued that Brock Manning should have gotten the call, while DC fans clamored for Harvey Bellmore.   But Shields went with the youngster, who leads Boston with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists).

D: Richard McKinley, Quebec.  The 21-year-old blueliner is the Tigres’ lone representative this year, and he makes his debut in the All-Star game.  Quebec is suffering through considerable offensive struggles this season, but McKinley is a relatively bright spot, having recorded 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).  He also is tied for the team lead in blocks with 65.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  Like the Tigres, the Galaxy have only one All-Star representative.  This season, the honors go to McNeely, who will make his third appearance in the game.  He is second on the Washington roster in goals (with 11) and points (with 27).  “Honestly, I would have given it to Harvey,” said McNeely.  “But it they want me to go again, sure, I’ll go.”

 

Goalies:

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a season when many of the East’s traditional top goalies are having down seasons, Koskinen’s solid performance and Hamilton’s strong voting base combined to earn the Pistols netminder his third straight All-Star trip and his second start.  Koskinen struggled in the opening weeks of the season, but he has improved as the season has gone along.  His 15 wins are second-most in the SHL; that achievement appears to have overshadowed his somewhat-subpar 3.14 GAA and .915 save percentage.

“Jersey Mike” Ross, New York.  With Shields in charge of choosing the East’s roster, is it a surprise that Ross is the lone Night player to make the All-Star squad?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the veteran goaltender, who is another first-time All-Star, has had a surprisingly strong season.  Believe it or not, Ross has the highest save percentage (.923) among starting goalies in the East.  After planned starter Sherman Carter imploded, Ross stepped in as the primary starter and has helped keep the Night afloat in the playoff race.

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

SHL Season Begins with Scoreless Tie

The 2020 SHL season officially started just after noon Eastern time on Sunday, when the Hershey Bliss and Boston Badgers faced off at the Chocolate Center.  Prior to the game, the Bliss started a pool on which player would score the season’s first goal, recording their predictions and dollar amounts on a white board in the locker room.  C Justin Valentine and LW Lance Sweet were the most popular picks.  In the visiting clubhouse, the Badgers didn’t have a similar pool going, but their players were equally aware of the possibility.

“Scoring the first goal of the season… that would be a really awesome way to begin,” said C Alain Beauchesne.

Little did the Badgers or Bliss realize that 65 minutes would pass without either team lighting the lamp.  No one collected on Hershey’s first-goal pool, as the game ended with the same 0-0 score as it started.

“You know how they say that a tie is like kissing your sister?” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “This game was like marrying your sister.”

Both teams had their chances to score.  In the first five minutes of the game, Valentine and RW Christopher Hart got loose on an odd-man rush.  Hart fed the pass to Valentine in the slot, and the center fired a shot toward the upper-right corner of the net.  Badgers goalie Roger Orion, though, stuck out his glove and snagged the blast.

“I was already counting my winnings in my head,” said Valentine ruefully.

Later in the period, Hershey D Wayne Snelling was penalized for interference, putting Boston on the power play.  Badgers LW Lix Darnholm fired a laser beam of a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle.  Bliss netminder Christien Adamsson got a piece of the shot, but it trickled behind him toward the goal line.  Fortunately for the Bliss, Adamsson fell back on the puck before the Badgers could jam it home.

After a fairly sleepy first forty minutes – Hershey had 14 shots across the first two periods, and Boston only nine – the action picked up in the third.  Unfortunately for both teams, the frustrations piled up as well.  On three separate occasions, the Bliss fired shots that hit the post, two of them by Sweet.  On the Boston side, C Derek Humplik fired a shot that beat Adamsson, but pinged off the crossbar.

“It just seemed like there was some invisible force keeping it out of the net,” said Badgers coach Kyle Barrow.  “It was pretty annoying.”

In the overtime session, Boston dominated the play, outshooting Hershey 6-1.  But they still couldn’t dent the scoreboard.  The closest attempt was a Beauchesne slapshot that sailed just above the net.

After the game, Barber praised the play of Adamsson, who turned aside all 25 Boston shots in his Hershey debut.  “This is exactly what we brought Christien here to do,” said Barber.  “It’s not his fault that we couldn’t provide him any support.”

“Definitely a weird way to start the season,” said Valentine.  “But you just have to put it behind you and move on.  It’s not like we’re going to go scoreless for the whole season.”

Continue reading “SHL Season Begins with Scoreless Tie”

East Playoff Features Teams That Learned From Adversity

If it’s true that champions are forged in adversity, this year’s Eastern playoff features a pair of opponents who are hard as iron.  One team won the Vandy in a massive upset two years ago, then stumbled through a disaster of a season in which everything seemed to go wrong at once; this season, they’ve weathered the loss of a star player and clawed their way back to the top.  The other team sailed through a breakout 2018 before stumbling down the stretch and losing an agonizing five-game playoff; this year, they shook off a disappointing first half to charge into a playoff spot.

The Hershey Bliss and the Hamilton Pistols are both well-balanced and battle-scarred, they both finished with 78 points, and they’re poised to face off in what should be an epic best-of-five series.

“This one should be a treat for the fans,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Two talented and well-matched teams trading haymakers until someone falls.  I can’t wait to get started!”

Both teams have learned from their past struggles and made adjustments.  For Hershey, they had to shake off the damage of a season when it seemed that every break went against them, and they were dismissed as an accidental champions, a team that lacked the heart and physicality to be a real contender.

Chip Barber

Coach Chip Barber taught his team to tune out the naysayers and just play loose.  “I mean, all the bad breaks we got last season, we couldn’t possibly have that many again,” said Barber.  “We’d been through the worst, and we survived.  So this season, instead of waiting for the next thing to go wrong, let’s just relax and laugh it off.”  The result was a cohesive, resilient locker room that responded to the loss of top-line LW Lance Sweet without missing a beat.  The Bliss dedicated the rest of the season to their fallen comrade and went 13-7-0 without him.

Many around the league thought goalie Brandon Colt might be finished after his poor performance last season at age 33.  But Hershey hired a new goaltending coach, Jayson Frink, who helped Colt with the mental side of his game, visualizing performances beforehand and learning to refocus quickly after goals.  The veteran responded with a strong bounce-back season (29-16-1, 2.68 GAA, .909 save percentage).  “Frinker really turned everything around for me,” said Colt.  “He gave me a whole new toolkit, a different way to see the game.  I’d probably be done if he hadn’t come along to help me out.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s major weakness was an overreliance on their star, LW Steven Alexander.  Historically, stopping the Pistols meant stopping Alexander.  Even as the team got deeper and developed additional weapons, Alexander tended to fall back on his old do-everything ways.

This season, assistant coach Jack Thornberry worked with Alexander to help him learn to trust his teammates and moderate his famous intensity somewhat.

Steven Alexander

“I’ve always felt like I had to be the hero,” said Alexander.  “I’ve always felt like everything relied on me.  Coach Thornberry helped me understand that it’s okay to spread the load around, and that it actually hurts the team if I try to carry it all myself all the time.”

It took a while for the lessons to take root, and Alexander’s struggle to adjust was one reason for his subpar first-half numbers.  But the young winger was also distracted by his impending marriage, which took place at Gunpowder Armory in the last game before the All-Star break.  And in the second half, everything changed for Alexander.  He scored an incredible 70 points post-All-Star Game.  And it wasn’t all goals, either; Alexander set a career high in assists with 48.  With their newly-married star leading the way, the Pistols become red-hot in the second half, going 20-10-2.

Hamilton is a strong two-way team, with the third-most goals scored (223) and the fourth-lowest GAA (2.50).  They dominated in 5-on-5 play; their +64 plus-minus was by far the best in the SHL.

This matchup figures to be a very close one; a good or bad bounce here and there might prove the difference.  Hamilton looks slightly better statistically, but Hershey is stronger on special teams.  The Bliss have an edge that may prove critical: home-ice advantage.  Although both teams finished with the same number of points, Hershey had more total wins, earning them an extra game at Chocolate Center.  Home ice proved crucial in last year’s Eastern final; will history repeat itself?

“We’re not worried about any of that stuff,” said Alexander, when asked about Hershey’s home-ice advantage.  “We just need to go in and play our game, and that will be enough to win.  Simple as that.”

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.”