“I think I’ll go home and finish getting drunk. Maybe sniff some glue while I’m at it.”
- Washington Galaxy D Leonard Wright, on his plans after Washington’s 5-0 loss to Anchorage on Saturday
“I think I’ll go home and finish getting drunk. Maybe sniff some glue while I’m at it.”
MICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2 (OT)
Whatever else you might say Game 4 of the SHL Finals, it finished off with a bang. The first three games of the series have followed a familiar pattern: two periods of tense, grinding, defense-first play, followed by a third period of wide-open firewagon hockey. In Game 4, the high-flying action was compressed into the final 5 minutes, as a slow-paced game turned frenetic at the end. It took more than the allotted 60 minutes, but ultimately the Michigan Gray Wolves, thanks to a little-used reserve, pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory over the Washington Galaxy. Michigan moved within a single win of the Vandy, but it came at a steep cost, as the Wolves lost a key offensive playmaker in C Warren Marlow.
“We got the W, and that’s what counts the most,” said Michigan coach Ron Wright. “But losing Warren… that’s a real blow.”
The Wolves notched their win thanks to a little-used reserve. Under ordinary circumstances, F Isaac Preston wouldn’t be expected to play at all in the Finals. He played in only 17 games this season, recording 3 assists and no goals. But when LW Vladimir Beruschko suffered an injury in the last week of the season, Preston was thrust into a starting spot.
“My first priority was, don’t embarrass myself or the team,” said Preston.
The reserve forward made very little impact through the first three games. But in this game, Preston came through when it counted. About a minute into overtime, Michigan D Bjorn Tollefson faked a slapshot from the left faceoff circle. He got Galaxy G Roger Orion to commit, then slid a pass over to Preston. With a wide-open net, Preston buried the game-winning shot under the crossbar.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that open, not even in practice,” said Preston. “If I’d missed it, I’m pretty sure my teammates would have beaten me to death.
Preston’s winner capped a flurry in the final five minutes of frenzied action, which stood in stark contrast to most of the play up to that point. Michigan struggled all game to enter the zone and get shots on net, much as Washington had done in the first two games. Michigan got off only 20 shots in the entire game, including a season-low four in a brutal second period. “It’s like they watched our game film from the first two and turned our own game plan against us,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, were able to generate more offense, but had a devil of a time getting pucks past Wolves goalie Dirk Lundquist. “You can’t fake him out, you can’t sneak one under him, you can’t fool him, nothing,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman. “I think he must be able to read minds or something.”
Late in the first period, Washington C Eddie Costello beat Lundquist on a breakaway to give the Galaxy the lead. Early in the third, Bailes struck on the power play to tie it up. But that was it for offense… at least until the final five minutes.
With three and a half minutes left in regulation, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz accidentally caught Marlow under the eye with a high stick. On the resulting power play, Wolves C Wesley Knight deflected a slapshot past Orion to put Michigan ahead 2-1.
“That’s on me,” said Camernitz. “In that situation, late in a close game, I can’t take a penalty like that. Got to maintain better control of my stick.”
A disconsolate silence fell over Constellation Center, as the Galaxy seemed doomed to a heartbreaking defeat. But in the waning seconds of the game, Washington launched a final desperate rush. A Thurman slapshot got lost in a scrum in front of the net. The puck bounced between bodies as Lundquist tried to get a glove on it. Finally, with four seconds left, the puck squirted behind Lundquist and over the goal line. Wright challenged the goal, claiming that a Galaxy player had kicked it in. After several minutes of review, the referees upheld the goal, as the crowd exploded with delight. Costello got credit for the tally.
Fortunately for the Wolves, they prevailed in overtime, although with a cost. Marlow made the initial pass that led to Michigan’s winning goal, but he paid for it when Galaxy D Rusty Anderson laid a devastating hit on him and Marlow’s head hit the ice. After the game, he entered the league’s concussion protocol. Wright sounded doubtful that his second-line center would be able to return in the series.
“We’ll have to reevaluate him tomorrow and see where things stand,” said the coach.
The Galaxy suffered a loss as well, with D Leonard Wright being sidelined after taking a rough open-ice hit. He suffered an upper-body injury, and Washington coach Rodney Reagle confirmed that he is likely to miss the rest of the series.
The Galaxy face an uphill battle, having to win the next three games in a row with half of their top defensive pairing on the shelf. “I’ve already got Bartlett’s Book of Inspiring Sports Cliches by my bedside,” said Reagle. “I’ll be working on my big speech tomorrow morning.”
For much of the past week, Washington Galaxy D Leonard Wright’s attention has been divided. On one hand, he has been focused on helping his team notch crucial wins and keep pace with Hershey atop the East. On the other hand, he’s been keeping a close eye on his phone, waiting for news from his wife Meghan, who was pregnant with their first child.
“Talk about bad timing on our part,” joked the defenseman. “I was hoping we could have [the birth] during the offseason, but when the docs set her due date right at the end of the season, I started freaking out a little.”
As a loyal teammate, Wright was loath to abandon his teammates at a crucial time of the year. “I asked the docs if there was any way we could delay things for a couple weeks, especially after it was clear the race was going to be tight,” said Wright. “When Meghan heard me say that, she just glared at me.”
Faced with the possibility of exile to the couch, but also balancing the demands of a tight race, Wright and his wife struck a compromise: if she went into labor while he was at a game or on the road, she would be prepared to have the baby on her own, and he would come to see her in the hospital at the soonest opportunity.
“It wasn’t ideal,” said Wright, “but it was the best we could come up with.”
Wright kept quiet about the impending birth and focused on the pennant race. However, he wasn’t able to avoid the attention of Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle, who noticed that Wright was checking his phone far more than usual.
“I know everyone thinks I’m a space cadet,” said Reagle, “but I do notice some things. And I could tell something was up with Leonard. I thought I remembered him mentioning at some point that his wife was pregnant, so I put two and two together.”
After morning skate on Monday, Reagle asked Wright what was going on. After an initial denial, the defenseman admitted that the baby was due any day now, but vowed to stay with the team regardless. The coach wouldn’t hear of it.
“I told him he was being an idiot,” Reagle said. “We’re going to have plenty of important games in Leonard’s career, but he’s only going to have his first kid once. I told him if he wasn’t there, he’d always regret it. I basically ordered him to go to his wife when it was time.”
Not only that, Reagle contacted Meghan and the hospital and asked them to keep him informed, so that he could make sure his player left when the baby was on its way.
During morning skate on Friday, Reagle got word from Meghan that she was going into labor. He immediately made an announcement over the practice facility’s PA: “Leonard Wright, please report to your home immediately! Your wife is going to have the baby! Get going, dummy!”
Wright hurriedly dashed to the locker room amid applause and catcalls from his teammates. He made it home in time to take Meghan to the hospital. That evening, she gave birth to a daughter, Lillian. Mother and child are both doing fine.
Wright missed that night’s game against Quebec, but he admitted it was worth it. “Coach Reagle was right,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything, not even a Vandy. I’m really glad he made me come.”
Meghan also expressed gratitude to Reagle. “He’s a really great guy,” she said. “He couldn’t have been nicer to me when we talked. It’s great to know there’s a coach out there who puts family first. I’m so grateful to him.”
Reagle sent flowers and a Galaxy onesie to the new parents. “I’m glad it was a happy ending for everyone,” he said. He expressed only one disappointment. “I asked if they would name the baby after me,” the coach said. “But I guess they thought having a girl named Rodney would be weird.”
Last season, the Washington Galaxy led the East virtually wire-to-wire, maintaining a steady single-digit lead for almost the entire season. This season was different, as the Hamilton Pistols and Quebec Tigres got off to surprisingly strong starts and the division remains tightly bunched in the early weeks. Over the last couple of weeks, though, the Galaxy have quietly kicked things into gear, going on a tear and opening up a double-digit advantage over their stumbling competitors. As the league hits midseason, Washington appears well-positioned for a return trip to the playoffs.
“That whole team should wear ninja outfits,” said New York Night C Brock Manning, whose team trails the Galaxy by 11 points. “They rarely look dominating, they don’t have a bunch of big-name stars… but damned if you don’t look up and see them pulling away every time. I don’t know how they do it.”
How do they do it? With a surprisingly potent and balanced offense, combined with a sturdy defense and solid goaltending. To the surprise of many observers, Washington is second in the league in goals with 104. The Galaxy’s top scorer is RW Jefferson McNeely, who has rebounded in a big way from a down year in 2015 to establish himself as a star. McNeely’s 18 goals and 36 points puts him in the top 10 in the league in both categories. McNeely’s emergence has taken considerable pressure off of linemate Casey Thurman, who was the team’s leading scorer in ’15 but got off to a slow start this year.
“I’m really glad to see Jefferson having a strong season,” said teammate Eddie Costello. “He’s an electric personality, and the fans are really getting to see that now that he’s breaking out. The people in DC are going to love this guy.”
But McNeely is far from the only quality scorer in the Galaxy’s lineup. Thurman (10 goals, 25 points) has been gaining steam during Washington’s recent run. Costello has done a great job setting up McNeely and Thurman, but is also a scoring threat in his own right (12 goals, 36 points). Washington has strong scorers on its second and third lines as well, including LW Walt Camernitz (15 goals, 29 points), RW Sindri Pentti (11 goals, 17 points), and C J.C. Marais (25 points)
“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” said Camernitz. “We pack a punch on all three lines, and we can score at any time. Some other teams, you contain their one or two big guys and you can shut them down. We’re not like that.”
Washington is no slouch in its own end, either. The Galaxy’s defensive prowess was a key reason they were able to push the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos to 7 games in last season’s SHL Finals, and if anything, they’re stronger this year. Defenseman Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom is the team’s chief enforcer, and his willingness to scrap is legendary around the league. But Washington is well stocked with solid two-way threat on the blue line. Top pairing Leonard Wright and Kevin Buchanan are strong playmakers at both ends, and second pairing Rusty Anderson and Grant Warriner provide a bit of a heavier, more defense-oriented look. The team also has several rugged wingers, most notably the hard-checking Pentti.
“A lot of teams in this league are imbalanced toward offense or defense,” said Buchanan. “We pride ourselves on being balanced. We can bang with the big boys, but we also have the speed and scoring ability to keep up with the faster clubs.”
Backstopping the defense is netminder Roger Orion, who has provided steady and drama-free prowess in the crease since the beginning. “Other goalies have flashier reps and bigger names,” said Costello. “But we’re happy to go to war with Roger any time. We know he’s going to take care of business back there.”
Overseeing the whole circus is the league’s most colorful coach, Rodney Reagle. A former goalie who was nicknamed “Reagle the Eagle” in his playing days, he’s done nothing to disprove the adage that goaltenders are a strange breed. Players, though, say that his offbeat style keeps the cluhbhouse loose even in tense moments.
“Coach, well… what can you say?” said Costello. “He’s one of a kind. And by that I mean he’s hard-core nuts. But we love that.”
Reagle keeps up a seemingly never-ending stream of pranks and jokes. Recently, in reaction to the “creepy clowns” stories circulating on the Internet, he had the visiting locker room at Constellation Center decorated with pictures of clowns.
“I’ve been in there,” said Reagle, “and afterward I had to curl up in the fetal position for a half hour. It’s totally going to unnerve our opponents. Think of it as psychological warfare.”
While creepy clowns may or may not be essential to Washington’s recent success, critics argue that the Galaxy are simply cleaning up against a weak division. As of this writing, none of the other teams in the East have an above-.500 record. The West, meanwhile, has a pair of powerhouses in the Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves. Even if Washington cruises back to the Finals, won’t they simply be crushed by whoever emerges from the West?
Reagle pointed out that people said the same thing last year, and the Galaxy nearly won the title. “If everyone wants to overlook us and say that we’re weak because our division is struggling, go ahead,” said the coach. “We’ll be happy to prove them wrong again.”