West Romps to Easy Victory in All-Star Game

Conventional wisdom around the SHL has long held that the West is the stronger of the two divisions.  The West has regularly produced the team with the best record every year, and have generally dominated inter-division play.  The conventional wisdom has been shifting lately, though. The Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in an upset last year.  The Hamilton Pistols are tied for the best record in the league.  And the East has gotten the better end of inter-division play this year, going 40-30-2 so far.  Are we witnessing a changing of the guard?

At the All-Star Game on Sunday night at Cadillac Place in Michigan, The West made a powerful statement that they’re still the division to beat.  They chased Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen with five goals in the first period, and rolled along from there to a 9-2 rout.  It was a dominant performance that left the fans chanting “West Is Best!” for the last several minutes of the game.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about how the East is catching up, or maybe they’re even the better division,” said Anchorage Igloos C Jake Frost, who scored a goal and had three assists.  “Well, this ought to cool off that talk for a while.”

The fabulous first period was a reflection of the division’s impressive depth, as each goal was scored by a player on a different team.  The game was only 22 seconds old when Dakota Jackalopes C Lars Karlsson went top-shelf to open the scoring.  Just over a minute later, Anchorage’s Jerry Koons redirected a shot from his Igloos teammate Frost to make it 2-0.  Eight minutes into the period, it was D Fritz Kronstein of the Michigan Gray Wolves who blasted a shot from the blue line that dented the twine before Koskinen could get his glove up.  Thirty seconds after that, Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango took off on a breakaway and slipped a shot between Koskinen’s legs.  Finally, with just under five minutes remaining, Kansas City Smoke LW Pascal Royal fired a slapshot from the faceoff circle that found the back of the next, making it 5-0.

Koskinen, who was expected to play the first two periods, was yanked after the first.  After the game, Koskinen hinted that he might have partied a bit too hard before the game.  “My first All-Star Game,” said the Hamilton netminder.  “Lots of parties, lots of fun.  Maybe too much fun for me.”

The competitive portion of the game was essentially over after the opening period, and the East did what it could to salvage a few shreds of dignity.  Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart finally broke the shutout 5:43 into the second period, stuffing home a rebound past Michigan goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  Lundquist made 36 saves over the first two periods, before leaving to a standing ovation.  Igloos netminder Ty Worthington turned aside 12 shots in the third, although Quebec Tigres D Laurie Workman managed to put one shot past him.

“I got to start The Bear and send in Ty for belief,” said West coach Sam Castor.  “Talk about a dynamic duo.”

There were a number of Western players who were deserving of MVP honors, but in the end the award went to Koons, the only player to score multiple goals in the game.  In addition to the award, Koons received a brand new Kia Stinger sports sedan.

“Picking the MVP from this game is like picking the best noodle of a spaghetti dinner,” said Koons.  “But hey, I got this cool car of it, so I’ll take it!”

Also during the game, the SHL announced the winner of its “For the Love of Hockey” fan video contest.  The winner was 27-year-old Sarah Fennelly of Anchorage.  Sarah’s video featured pictures or herself, her father, and her grandfather, all of whom grew up playing pond hockey in Alaska.  She then included footage of the three of them at an Igloos game, cheering on the home team.  “Hockey is our heritage and our common language,” Sarah said.  “We’re so different in so many ways, but hockey brings us together.”  All three generations of the Fenelly family were in attendance at the All-Star Game, and they received warm applause from the crowd.

“My grandfather hasn’t been in great health lately, and we weren’t sure if he would be able to come,” Sarah said.  “But he insisted.  He never misses a hockey game.”

 

2018 SHL All-Star Game, East All-Stars @ West All-Stars, Cadillac Place

                   1   2   3   OT   F
East All-Stars     0   1   1        2
West All-Stars     5   2   2        9

 
East All-Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-   West All-Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-

Thurman         LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Koons           LW     2   0   2   0   2
Milton          D      0   0   0   0  -4   Kronstein       D      1   3   4   0   4
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -2   Frost           C      1   3   4   0   2
Sanchez         D      0   0   0   2  -4   Madison         D      0   3   3   0   4
McNeely         RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Mango           RW     1   1   2   0   2
Alexander       LW     0   1   1   0  -2   Chamberlain     LW     0   0   0   0   2
Smyth           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Barnes          D      0   4   4   0   2
Valentine       C      0   1   1   0  -2   Karlsson        C      1   0   1   0   2
Buchanan        D      0   0   0   0  -2   Keefe           D      0   0   0   0   2
Hart            RW     1   0   1   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     1   2   3   0   2
Darnholm        LW     0   1   1   0  -1   Royal           LW     1   1   2   0   1
Workman         D      1   0   1   2   1   Cherner         D      0   0   0   0  -1
Ilyushin        C      0   0   0   0  -1   Marlow          C      0   0   0   0   1
Mulligan        D      0   1   1   0   1   Frederick       D      0   0   0   0  -1
Mirac           RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Pepper          RW     1   1   2   2   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 2   4   6   4  -5   TOTALS                 9  18  27   2   5

Scratches:
EAS: None 
WAS: None 

 
East All-Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            20    15    5  0.750
Tiktuunen           27    23    4  0.852

West All-Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           37    36    1  0.973
Worthington         13    12    1  0.923

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
00:22  WAS  Karlsson (Ericsson, Kronstein)
01:34  WAS  Koons (Frost, Madison)
07:58  WAS  Kronstein (Madison, Ericsson)
08:33  WAS  Mango (Barnes, Frost)
15:03  WAS  Royal (Pepper, Barnes)

PENALTIES:
03:07  WAS  Pepper 2:00 (Elbowing)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
01:44  WAS  Frost PP (Mango, Kronstein)
05:43  EAS  Hart (Alexander, Valentine)
17:29  WAS  Pepper (Barnes, Royal)

PENALTIES:
00:33  EAS  Workman 2:00 (Interference)


Third Period
------------

GOALS:
02:53  WAS  Koons PP (Frost, Barnes)
04:30  EAS  Workman (Mulligan, Darnholm)
05:01  WAS  Ericsson (Kronstein, Madison)

PENALTIES:
01:09  EAS  Sanchez 2:00 (Delay of Game)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
East All-Stars    25  12  13       50
West All-Stars    20  12  15       47

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

East All-Stars   0 for 1
West All-Stars   2 for 2

 
INJURIES
--------

None
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2018 Eastern All-Star Roster

The rosters for the Eastern Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, as announced by coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber, were as follows:

First Line

LW: Casey Thurman, WashingtonLast season, Thurman had to be talked into accepting his All-Star nod, due to the fact that he was having an off season by his standards.  2018 is a different story; he’s off to a tremendous start, and when he was voted in as the East’s starting left winger (by about 800 votes over Hamilton’s Steven Alexander), nobody had to persuade him to accept the honor.  Thurman is third in the league in points with 50, and he’s in the top five in goals (21) and assists (29).

D: Reese Milton, HersheyAlthough the Bliss’ attempt to defend their surprise 2017 title have been fairly disastrous, it didn’t stop the fans from voting Milton into the starting lineup.  The blueliner, a well-known squirrel lover, is a bit off of his usual offensive pace, but he’s still putting up decent numbers (5 goals, 15 assists).  In addition, he continues to produce the kind of steady, lock-down defense that has made him one of the league’s top blue-liners.

C: Calvin Frye, HamiltonWith the Pistols tied for the league’s best record at the halfway point of the season, the fans in Hamilton are responding.  Attendance at Gunpowder Armory is up 22% this season, and the league has received 27% more All-Star votes from the Hamilton area than they did in 2017.  Given the fired-up fan base, it’s no surprise that Frye was voted in as the East’s starting center.  The rising star is establishing himself as one of the SHL’s top forwards.  He’s second in the league with 51 points, and his 24 goals is good for third place in the SHL.  In addition, his +27 rating is tied with his linemates for the tops in the league.

D: Dominic Sanchez, New York.  The 28-year-old is arguably the league’s best offensive defenseman, and bolstered by a strong backing from the New York area, he was voted to his second straight starting berth, again narrowly beating out Raymond Smyth of Hamilton.  Sanchez has 29 assists on the season, which places him in the SHL’s top five, to go with a team-best +10 rating.  His excellent performance earned him Player of the Week honors this season for the first time.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  The strong voting contingent from Hamilton nearly elevated Claude Lafayette into this spot, but in the end, McNeely’s exceptional season could not be denied, and he won the position for the second straight year by approximately 3,500 votes.  The Galaxy winger leads the league with 56 points, and is tied for the league lead in goals with 29.  “My home sweet home, DC, I wanna give you a kiss,” said McNeely as he celebrated the honor.

 

Second Line

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. Alexander was offended when he missed out on the starting spot, so much so that he nearly decided to boycott the game entirely.  Alexander certainly had a strong case for starting: he’s tied for the league lead in goals with 29, and he’s also tied for the lead in plus-minus at +27.  The winger was also upset that his best friend and Pistols teammate, Claude Lafayette, was not selected to the game.  But Lafayette convinced Alexander to participate, and the fiery scorer vowed to lift the East to victory.  “When our children tell our story,” Alexander vowed, “they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton. In a repeat of last season, Smuth narrowly missed out on a starting slot. but was immediately named to the squad as the top coach’s choice.  “Everybody in the East has had a chance to see Raymond work,” said Barber.  “We’ve all been burned by him at some point or another.”  Smyth remains one of the league’s best-regarded two-way defensemen.  He has 27 assists on the season, second-highest among SHL blueliners, while also providing the rugged, hard-hitting defense that is his trademark.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey. Last season, Valentine was voted onto the team as a starter.  This season, he needed Barber to name him to the Eastern squad.  Fortunately, the Bliss coach described Valentine as “a no-brainer choice.  We’re not having the kind of year we expected, but Justin’s still an All-Star in my book.”  Although the center is having a bit of an underwhelming year, he is tied for the team lead in goals (12) and points (33).

D: Kevin Buchanan, Washington.  This wasn’t a popular choice among Bliss fans, as Buchanan has been a frequent target of boos at Chocolate Center for his vicious hits and his habit of taunting the Bliss as “soft” in postgame interviews.  Still, Barber didn’t hesitate to select him, noting that “this is the All-Star game, not the Miss Congeniality Awards.  Kevin’s one of those games that you hate when he’s on the other team, but you love when he’s on your side.”  Buchanan is having a surprisingly strong season on offense (5 goals, 23 assists), but it’s his hard hits and smothering defense that fans love — or love to hate.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey. Hart joins his fellow “Love Line” member Valentine on the East’s second line.  Alexander was not alone in believing that Lafayette should have received this slot instead, but Barber said that “Chris is still getting the job done, even if the team is struggling right now.”  Hart is the Bliss’ assist leader with 23, and he’s tied with Valentine for the highest point total with 33.

 

Third Line

LW: Lix Darnholm, BostonUnsurprisingly, Darnholm is the sole representative for the expansion Badgers on the Eastern roster.  The 19-year-old Swedish-born winger is one of the few bright spots for Boston on offense.  He has scored 13 goals so far this season, which is tied with Kansas City’s Noel Picard for the second-highest total among expansion players.  His 28 points is also the second-highest among expansion clubs; only the Smoke’s Royal, a fellow All-Star, has a higher point total.

D: Laurie Workman, QuebecThe Tigres have the second-best record in the East, so it’s something of a surprise that none of their players can be found on the top two lines.  Quebec is nonetheless well represented, with four All-Stars, including three on the bottom line.  Barber said this was by design: “I figured teammates would prefer to play together.”  The rookie Workman is the only Tigres defender on the team.  He is having a strong debut season, with 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) and a +10 rating to go along with stout defense.

C: Mikhail Ilyushin, Quebec.  The 28-year-old Ilyushin makes his first All-Star team this season.  The Tigres have undergone an offensive renaissance this season, with their top line leading the way.  Ilyushin, who centers that top line, has been a key part of that production.  He is second on the team with 34 points on the season, including 12 goals and 22 assists, and he is tied for the team lead with a +13 rating.

D: Jack “Hercules” Mulligan, Hamilton. Mulligan celebrates his second season in the SHL with his first trip to the All-Star game.  A first-round draft pick in 2017, Mulligan is living up to his advance billing with the Pistols.  He’s best known for his fearlessness and his devastating checks, which have become a regular feature of YouTube clips and highlight videos.  He contributes on the offensive end as well, having registered 18 assists so far this season to go with a +11 rating.

RW: Stephane Mirac, Quebec. Mirac joins teammates Ilyushin and Workman on the East’s third line.  The Tigres star makes his first All-Star appearance.  In 2017, Mirac was in the grip of a sophomore slump; this time around, he’s rediscovered the form that caused Quebec fans to nickname him “Stephane Miracle.”  He has scored 16 goals this season, which ranks among the SHL’s top ten, and is a steady and diligent presence on defense.

 

Goaltenders

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton. The strong voting presence from southern Ontario helped Koskinen get over the hump and get the start in his first All-Star appearance.  “I am very honored to have this opportunity, and the recognition for all of my hard work.”  Koskinen’s excellent work has been a key factor in the Pistols’ early success; his .933 save percentage is the league’s best, and he is tied with Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist for the SHL lead with 18 wins.

Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec. Tiktuunen was selected to attend the All-Star Game last season, but he had to bow out due to an injury.  This time, the Finnish netminder is healthy and able to appear in the game.  Tiktuunen has the second-best save percentage in the league, stopping pucks at a .930 clip; only Koskinen has a better percentage.  Tiktuunen’s 17-7-0 record and 1.99 GAA testify to his tremendous work in the crease and the success that the Tigres are having this season.

East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”