- On Sunday, the New York Night activated LW Lee Fleming from the disabled list. Fleming missed nearly a month with a lower-body injury sustained after blocking a shot. To make room for Fleming on the roster, the Night returned RW Mickey Simpson back to their minor-league affiliate in Utah. Simpson, who had been called up when Fleming was injured, recorded 3 assists and a -5 rating in 9 games up with the big club.
- On Monday, the Night released F Bobby “Wacko” Warner and signed F Harper Hawking for the remainder of the season. The Night signed Hawking to a short-term contract to replace Simpson with their Utah farm club. The 20-year-old Hawking played in 9 games for Utah, notching 3 assists and a +2 rating. He played well enough to earn the respect of the coaching staff, who opted to keep him around after Simpson returned. Warner, who had been with Utah since the 2017 season, had 2 assists and a -1 rating in 13 games this season.
- On Wednesday, the Michigan Gray Wolves activated C Hunter Bailes from the disabled list. Bailes, who is Michigan’s leading goal scorer despite playing in only 19 of their 32 games, was out for two and a half weeks with a lower-body injury. In a corresponding room to make roster space for Bailes’ return, the Wolves reassigned C Phoenix Cage to their affiliate in Cleveland. Cage has spent time with Michigan in each of the last three seasons, and recorded three points (2 goals, 1 assist) during this most recent stint.
- On Tuesday, the New York Night placed LW Lee Fleming on the disabled list. Fleming went down awkwardly in the third period of the Night’s 3-2 win over Boston after taking a puck off of his right leg. He was later diagnosed with a lower-body injury and is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks. To fill Fleming’s roster spot, New York promoted RW Mickey Simpson from their minor-league affiliate in Utah. Simpson was having a strong campaign with the Owls, putting up 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists) in 14 games.
- On Wednesday, the Washington Galaxy and Kansas City Smoke swapped minor leaguers. The Galaxy sent RW Brendan Bailey and a 3rd-round pick to the Smoke in exchange for F Jimmy Horton. The 23-year-old Bailey recorded a goal and a +1 rating in 11 games for Washington’s minor-league club in Baltimore. The 21-year-old Horton notched 2 assists and a +4 rating in 4 games with KC’s affiliate in Omaha. The primary purpose of the trade was to open up salary cap space for the Galaxy, who needed to sign an additional defenseman due to injuries in Baltimore. After making this deal, they inked free agent Zbynek Otradovec to a temporary 10-game contract.
- On Saturday, the Boston Badgers demoted F Liam Engstrom to their CHL affiliate in Hartford and promoted C Hollis Shivers to the majors. According to the Badgers front office, the move was made to give the 19-year-old Engstrom more ice time in order to foster his development. Engstrom had appeared in only 3 games for Boston this season, and had not recorded a point. The 22-year-old Shivers recorded 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 16 games with Hartford.
- Also on Saturday, Kansas City shuffled their blueline corps yet again, demoting Scott Hexton to their farm club in Omaha and calling up Lowell Sharkey to the SHL. The 28-year-old Hexton signed with KC as a free agent this offseason. The front office hoped that he could provide some veteran stability to their young defensive group, but things didn’t work out as planned. In 9 games, Hexton put up a -9 rating and failed to record a point. The 19-year-old Sharkey was a 4th-round draft pick in 2018, and has impressed in Omaha. After putting up 36 points in his rookie season, Sharkey has already registered 17 points (2 goals, 15 assists) so far this year.
Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced. “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber. “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters. “How’s it going to come out? I don’t know. What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it. We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”
In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room. “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players. “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.” One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.
Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up. “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said. “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me. I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team. I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one. Let’s do it!” Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”
“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”
It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.
“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet. “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope. We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”
Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice. LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit. Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0. The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.
“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine. “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”
But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum. As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger. The Bliss needed a hero. True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.
When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title. The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss. He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.
But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd. When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone. After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net. But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore. Hershey was on the board at last.
But McLearen wasn’t finished. Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming. Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.
“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.
Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute. Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game. D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.
Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period. “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor. “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey. That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”
Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk. On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play. C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle. The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on. The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops. Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal. On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.
After 60 minutes, the game remained tied. Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher. Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session. “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet. “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”
Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long. Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end. Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway. The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal. McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.
“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet. “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell. The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”
There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy. Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.
“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek. “Finally, we made it!”
The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness. Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title. The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all. Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.
“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart. Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.
As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players. “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said. “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind. Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title. You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”
Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart. The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half. They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.
“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine. “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship. What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’ Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal. Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”
What’s the secret to Hershey’s success? They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.
Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team. They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league. Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season. But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet. This year, the top line is getting considerably more help. LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points). C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season. And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).
Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger. The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease. They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier. “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.
Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch. Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him. Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA. And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.
“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber. “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season. Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season. But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”
Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half. The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well. Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in. Our fate is in our hands.”