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.
“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.
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.
“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.”