Champion Pistols Look Poised to Repeat

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols delighted the Greater Toronto Area by claiming their first-ever championship.  In the wake of their title — and considerable roster turnover — some wondered whether the Pistols would be up to the challenge of prevailing in the improving East and defending their title.  So far this season, Hamilton looks like they’re very much up to the challenge, and are well-positioned to defend their title.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re feeling good about where we are, and we’re confident that we can match up with anyone who wants to take the Vandy away from us.”

Over the first month or so of the season, Hamilton found themselves in close competition with the Hershey Bliss.  After that, though, they ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak to establish a comfortable division lead.  They’re currently riding a 15-3-3 run.  They’ve survived their share of injuries, including to stars like C Calvin Frye and LW Steven Alexander.  It’s seemed that nothing can slow them down.

Steven Alexander

“Everyone in this room is focused on repeating,” said Alexander.  “There’s no slowdown and no slacking off.  We’re driven to keep the Vandy here.’

Last season’s success was built on the strength of their powerful offense, and the same is true this season.  Hamilton is tied for the SHL lead in goals per game, averaging an eye-popping 3.8 goals per game.  GM Marcel LaClaire has a knack for finding affordable veterans who produce outsized contributions, and this season is no exception.  The Pistols added RW Ben Summers and C Marco Venezio for a combined $1.5 million, and both players are providing bang for their back.  Venezio (9 goals, 13 assists, +8 rating) has stepped into the second-line center role that Eddie Costello filled so well last season, while Summers (16 goals, 16 assists, +15) has provided the secondary scoring threat that the team was lacking.  They have clicked brilliantly with linemate Magnus Gunnarson, who is on track for a career year (14 goals, 28 assists, +13).

“We have the best second line in the league, no question about it,” said Frye.  “And that makes us a really dangerous team, because nobody has an answer for our top six.”

At the other end of the ice, netminder Lasse Koskinen (17-7-4, 3.13 GAA, .914 save percentage) has rebounded from an early-season slump back to his typical elite level of play.  And when backup Ron Mason (8-3-1, 2.90, .912) is in the crease, the Pistols don’t miss a beat.

“Having Koski and Mase in net is great,” said Shields.  “We know that whoever’s got the start on a given night is going to give us a top-notch performance.  And knowing that, our guys are free to be more aggressive and maximize their scoring chances.”

Are there any warning signs for the Pistols?  They may not have lost much recently, but some of their losses have come against potential playoff opponents.  They’re 2-3-0 this season against Hershey; their last meeting was a 6-0 Bliss blowout at Chocolate Center.  And when the Pistols hosted the Western-leading Portland Bluebacks just before the All-Star break, the Bluebacks cruised to an easy 4-0 victory.

But Alexander says the Pistols aren’t concerned about those results.  “When it gets to be playoff time, it’s a different game and a different atmosphere,” the winger noted.  “We’ve been tested in the battle, and we’ve come out strong.  And we’re going to do that again this year.  Just you wait.”

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.

Pistols, Bliss Get Goal-Happy in Roller Coaster Third Period

The Hamilton Pistols and Hershey Bliss are battling for supremacy in the East, and they both possess an offensive explosiveness that makes them dangerous.  Hamilton is one of the highest-scoring teams in the league; Hershey doesn’t typically generate quite the same volume of scoring, but their “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart is as potent as any line in the league.

When the Pistols and Bliss squared off on Tuesday at Chocolate Center, they showed just how explosive they can be, combining for seven goals in a dynamite third period that turned a seemingly sleepy game into a roller coaster of an evening.

“I don’t know just what happened there in the third,” said Valentine.  “But it seemed like somebody flipped the fun switch.”

After the first forty minutes, there were no signs of the frenzy to come.  Hamilton led 1-0, with an early second-period tally by RW Ben Summers the lone goal to that point.  Pistols netminder Lasse Koskinen had looked fairly sharp, turning aside all 27 Bliss shots, but he was unaware of what awaited him in the third.

The Bliss went a man to the good in the opening seconds of the third, as Summers went to the sin bin for interference.  Hershey’s power play made the Pistols pay, as Sweet converted on a shot from the slot that sailed over Koskinen’s right shoulder and under the crossbar.  The tally brought the home crowd back to life as Sweet hip-checked the glass before bounding into the arms of his teammates.

“Up to that point, it had felt impossible to get one past Lasse,” said Valentine.  “So Lance’s goal definitely opened the dam for what came later.”

First, though, the home team had to endure a stiff pushback from the visiting Pistols.  Hamilton grabbed control of the game over the next several minutes, and they made that control count.  Their little-heralded bottom line got things going in a big way over the next few minutes.

LW Jamie Campbell, C J.C. Marais, and RW Kenny Patterson worked an extended shift in the Hershey zone, pinching off the boards and thwarting the Bliss attempted to flip the puck back to center ice.  They’d been in the zone for over a minute when Patterson crashed the net, then fired it back to D Clayton Risch at the blue line.  Risch threaded a perfect pass to Marais, who was streaking toward the net and beat Hershey goalie Christien Adamsson on the short side to retake the lead.

Less than a minute later, Marais returned the favor, putting the puck right on the blade of Risch in the high slot.  Risch fired the puck over the glove of a screened Adamsson and into the upper-right corner of the net to take a two-goal advantage.

“One of the things I love about our team is that we can roll all three lines and feel totally comfortable,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “We don’t burn out our top-line guys, and everybody stays sharp and engaged.”

The Pistols’ pressure eased a bit after that, but the Bliss couldn’t mount a sustained counterattack.  And when LW Steven Alexander buried a slapshot from the faceoff circle to make it 4-1, the arena fell into a despondent silence.

Hershey, though, wasn’t about to concede anything.  After they killed off an interference penalty to Hart at mid-period, they tilted the ice in a big way and bombarded Koskinen with shots.  They launched 16 shots over the final eight minutes of regulation, and even Koskinen couldn’t stop them all.

The Bliss began their comeback with seven minutes left in the game, as D Jean-Luc Aubin picked off a lazy Pistols pass and fed fellow blueliner Reese Milton, who fired a blast that deflected of a Hamilton stick and between Koskinen’s pads.  The fluky goal got the crowd back to life, and Milton amped up the energy by swinging his stick over his head like a helicopter.

“I just thought it would be a cool thing to try,” said Milton.

A couple minutes later, Valentine picked up a rebound and found Hart, who stuffed it just inside the right post to make it a 4-3 game.

The final five minutes of regulation were a thrill ride; the fans stood and screamed while Hershey maintained intense pressure and kept up the barrage on the Hamilton net.  Koskinen kept stopping the shots, though, and it looked as though the visitors would escape with a narrow win.

Finally, with 16 seconds remaining, Valentine skated behind the net and lifted a backhand shot over a sprawling Koskinen to tie the game.  Valentine’s teammates mobbed him in front of the crease as the fans somehow shouted even louder.

It seemed inevitable that the Bliss would complete the rally and win in overtime.  But the Pistols used the break between periods to take a breath and gather themselves, and then came out an won it in the extra session on another Summers goal.  The win moved Hamilton six points ahead of Hershey in the East.

“There were some wild swings in this one, but it was a nice statement win for us,” said Shields.  “I think we’re showing that we’re the team to beat, but there’s still plenty of season left.  We have to stay on our toes if we’re going to get back to the postseason.  Fortunately, no one in here is taking anything for granted.”

Continue reading “Pistols, Bliss Get Goal-Happy in Roller Coaster Third Period”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 6

Lasse Koskinen

The SHL selected Hamilton Pistols G Lasse Koskinen as its Player of the Week.  The Pistols posted an unbeaten week to retake the lead in the East, and unusually for this offensive powerhouse, they relied on quality goaltending to come away with some tough victories this week.

Koskinen only started twice this week, but both starts were brilliant, allowing Hamilton to steal narrow victories on the road.  On Sunday, Koskinen made 35 stops and outdueled the great Dirk Lundquist in a 2-1 victory over Michigan.  On Tuesday in Boston, Koskinen turned aside all 28 shots in a tense defensive match that remained scoreless until the final five minutes, when C Calvin Frye went five-hole for the winning goal in a 1-0 Pistols triumph.

“We’ve got a ton of scorers and that’s great, but if we’re going to win the Vandy again, Koski’s the guy who will get us there,” said Hamilton coach Keith Shields.  “He got off to a slow start and I know that was weighing on him, but he’s really starting to play as well as I know he can.  If he gets on a roll, nothing can stop us.”

Interview of the Week: Lasse Koskinen

This week’s interview is with Hamilton Pistols G Lasse Koskinen.

SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking to the starting netminder of the defending SHL champs, Lasse Koskinen.  Lasse, thanks for speaking with us.

Lasse Koskinen

Lasse Koskinen: Sure, I am happy to.

SHLD: As we mentioned in the intro, your Hamilton Pistols won the Vandy last year.  This season, you’re in the middle of a tight Eastern race, trying to go back-to-back.  Which do you think is harder: winning a championship, or defending one?

LK: Hard to say.  Both are challenging, but in a different way.  When you are trying to win the first time, you are very driven; you give everything to win.  But maybe you doubt sometimes when you struggle: are you really good enough?

SHLD: Especially if you’re playing a team like Anchorage, which has been to so many Finals.  They’ve done it all before.

LK: Exactly.  Now when you win, you have confidence, because you know you can do it.  But maybe the drive is not there as much.  Also, when you go far in the playoffs, it is very hard, and the offseason is shorter.  So you are a bit exhausted.  I think maybe it is harder to repeat.

SHLD: Yeah, there’s probably a reason why there hasn’t been a back-to-back SHL champion yet.

LK: Yes.  It’s so hard to win it even one time.  Two in a row… it must be very special.

SHLD: You’re struggling a bit to start the season.  Do you think that championship fatigue is the reason?

LK: No.  That is an excuse.  I believe I am not seeing the puck as well as I can be.  I am working with the coaches and in practice to improve this and to improve the mental game.

SHLD: Makes sense.  One opponent has given you particular trouble: the New York Night.

LK: Yes, they have a lot of offense.

SHLD: And they’ve been giving offense to your team and your fans.  You’ve had a couple wild games against them already this season.  Some are calling it the SHL’s greatest rivalry.  Does it feel that way to you?

LK: Oh yes, very much.  We don’t like them at all.

SHLD: That’s certainly how it looks when you play!  There’s definitely a grudge there.

LK: Yes. We are very happy when we win and shut them up.  Although truthfully, they never shut up.

SHLD: Fair point.  Let’s switch gears a bit.  You’re now in your fourth season with the Pistols, and your fourth year in North America.  How are you liking it here?

LK: I like it very much.  I like Hamilton and Toronto very much; it is very beautiful, very clean.  And the fans are wonderful.  The only think I did not like was that when I came, people kept telling me I was a dog.

SHLD: Because of your name?

LK: Yes.  Lasse is a very common name in Finland, which is my country, and all of Scandinavia.  But in America and Canada, apparently the only Lassie is the TV show dog.

SHLD: That must have been annoying.

LK: Oh yes, very much.  On the road, fans would be yelling “Lasse, go home!”  Or they would tell me that Timmy had fallen down the well.  In my head I said, “Who is Timmy?  I don’t even know him.”

SHLD: Have you ever actually seen the “Lassie” TV show?

LK: My teammates found it for me on YouTube, and I watched it.  I thought it was pretty stupid.

SHLD: Now that you’ve been in the league a while, do you still hear those jokes?

LK: Sometimes, if fans of other teams are making fun.  But not very much.  Now that I am in the league for a long time, people know me, and my name is not so weird.

SHLD: That’s good!  That about wraps it up for us. Thanks for a very interesting interview, and good luck the rest of the season!

LK: Thank you. I very much hope to improve.

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.

Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night

The hottest rivalry in the SHL right now is clearly the feud between the Hamilton Pistols and the New York Night.  Night coach Nick Foster has spent multiple seasons adding fuel to the fire by slinging insults at the Pistols’ arena, their fans, and star Steven Alexander.  Foster’s barbs have turned every game between the teams into a grudge match.

Last week, the Night and Pistols tangled for the first time this season at Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory.  It proved to be a wild match full of insults, physical play, and shots galore.  In the end, the Night walked away with a 7-6 overtime win, with Foster making sure to twist the knife on his way out of town.

On Sunday, the teams held the rematch at New York’s Neon Sky Arena.  It promised to be another feud-filled game.  Most observers expected that the Night would have to answer for rookie C Norris Fletcher’s high stick to Alexander’s eye in last week’s game.  The Pistols, however, chose not to seek revenge with their fists, but with their sticks, scoring six goals in a frenetic first period on the way to a 10-5 drubbing.

Keith Shields

“The Lord reminds us that vengeance is His,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields, “but I have to admit this was pretty sweet.”

When the Pistols took the ice, they were greeted by the sounds of Craig Morgan’s “Redneck Yacht Club,” as well as the jeers of the New York faithful.  The cheers and jeers only got louder when Night RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored just 17 seconds into the game.  But Hamilton quickly flipped the script.  Just 23 seconds after Trujwirnek’s tally, Pistols RW Claude Lafayette found the upper-leftt corner of the net to tie things up.  Just over a minute late, LW Magnus Gunnarson drilled a slapper home past night netminder Sherman Carter to give Hamilton the lead.

The frantic firewagon pace of the game continued over the next several minutes, but the scoring hit a temporary lull, as Carter and the Pistols’ Lasse Koskinen both made acrobatic saves.  Just over six minutes into the period, C Rod Remington jammed home a rebound to pull back even.  That deadlock lasted a mere 11 seconds, though, before Pistols RW Ben Summers stuffed in a wraparound shot to put his team back in the lead.

Just before the midway point of the period, Pistols D Raymond Smyth forced a neutral-zone turnover and started an odd-man rush, which Alexander finished with a shot between Carter’s legs.  In the last game, the Pistols star drew a fine for a goal celebration that included a mock round of gunshots at the New York bench.  This time, Alexander dropped his stick and skated past the Night bench while taking a deep bow.

Less than a minute after Alexander’s goal, C Marco Venezio made it 5-2 by going top shelf from the slot.  D Clayton Risch closed out the scoring for the period with a deflection that a helpless Carter failed to corral.

When the clock struck zero on the opening frame, the Pistols had fired 27 shots at the New York net and scored a half-dozen times.  They’d driven Carter out of the game.  They’d also rendered the arena utterly quiet.

“We headed down the tunnel and we heard total silence,” said Lafayette.  “They were too shocked to even boo us.  It was beautiful.”

When the game resumed, a healthy chunk of the crowd did not return.  They correctly sensed that the Night were not going to rally.  And the Pistols declined to take their foot off the gas, scoring four more times against relief goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross.

The Pistols’ scoring was impressively democratic: their 10 goals were scored by nine different players, with only C Calvin Frye recording more than one.  (Frye had a chance at a hat trick during a third-period power play, but he instead passed to Smyth, who beat Ross on the short side.)  Every Hamilton player recorded at least one point.

“I think it’s a testament to what a balanced team we are,” said Shields.  “We don’t just rely on our stars.”  This could be interpreted as a shot at the Night, whose offense revolves around their star-laden top line.

After a pause, Shields added an unambiguous shot: “It’s also a testament to how fired up our whole team was after the last game.  Coach Foster is a great motivator, at least for our guys.”

For his part, Foster reacted to the shellacking with humor.  “Man, somebody really stuck a bee in their jockstraps, huh?  I guess it was mine.  I’m honored that I mean so much to them, that they went to all that trouble to whip my [expletive].  Well, congrats, you bastards!  We can’t wait to return the favor next time we’re in Tank Town, assuming their barn doesn’t collapse before then.”

Continue reading “Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night”