Both Divisions Decided on Final Day

The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years.  Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec.  But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale.  This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.

Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors.  The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale.  The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game.  “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”

The Sailors got off to a fast start.  Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead.  Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0.  The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.

In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear.  In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board.  Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score.  A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen.  But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads.  Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win?  For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango.  In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home.  Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.

“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.

With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division.  The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy.  “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols.  The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead.  But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs.  Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.

Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory.  Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner.  Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead.  Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game.  “You’d hate to see that.  It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”

Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols.  Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York NightNick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.

“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said.  “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”

The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them.  But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in.  Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.

LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants.  Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter.  Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.

In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again.  The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside.  When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.

In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title.  (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)

True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division.  As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice.  In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music.  “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes.  “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart.  It really does.  If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”

The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude.  “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate.  Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage.  And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”

Alexander was more blunt than his coach.  “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything.  They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic.  Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”

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Strong Showing for Tigres at SHL Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueThe SHL’s third annual awards banquet had a definite theme.  Several of the awards went to members of the Quebec Tigres, who went from finishing in last place in 2017 to coming within a game of winning their first-ever SHL title.  “The Tigres went on a remarkable journey this season,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “It’s great to see that journey recognized with these very well-deserved honors.”  As always, the awards were voted on by SHL players, coaches, and media.

The 2018 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Walt Camernitz, Quebec Tigres

Camernitz signed with Quebec as a free agent this season, landing a five-year, $20 million deal.  The Tigres hoped that Camernitz would provide a spark for their stagnant offense, and he provided it in spades.  He wound up recording 31 goals and 74 points, both good enough to place him in the league’s top 10.  In addition to his stellar performance, he elevated his teammates’ games; linemates Stephane Mirac and Mikhail Ilyushin both had career seasons beside him.

“When you are a big-name free agent, there is a great weight on you to perform,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “Walt took that very seriously, and he gave us everything we could have hoped for.  I am most grateful for him.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Hamilton C Calvin Frye, Anchorage C Jake Frost, and Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.

Coach of the Year: Martin Delorme, Quebec Tigres

This season has been a sweet vindication for Delorme, who walked away from a Michigan team on the cusp of championship contention in order to help his hometown team get off the ground.  In only the third season of the Tigres’ existence, Delorme guided the club to the Finals and nearly to the Vandy.

“Coach Delorme has kept us together and focused on playing our best,” said Mirac.  “He doesn’t accept excuses.  But he’s also a good man to play for, and we know that he is solid behind us all the way.

Delorme beat out Hamilton’s Keith Shields. Michigan’s Ron Wright, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to win the honor.


Rookie of the Year: 
LW Lix Darnholm, Boston Badgers

Darnholm was universally regarded as the best pure scorer in the draft, so it came as little surprise when the expansion Badgers chose the 19-year-old Swede as their franchise centerpiece with the top puck.  Although Boston had a rough debut season, Darnholm delivered on his considerable promise, scoring nearly a quarter of the Badgers’ total goals.  He led all rookies in goals with 29 and in points with 60.

“Lix is a joy to watch on the ice,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.  “He’s a fluid skater and a sharp passer, and he has a remarkably heavy shot for a guy who’s as skinny as he is.  And he’s got a sense of the game a lot beyond his years.  I’ve guzzled a lot of Maalox coaching this team, but not because of Lix.”

Darnholm withstood a surprisingly strong challenge from Kansas City C Darien Picard to win the votes.  Also receiving consideration were Quebec D Laurie Workman, Kansas City RW Zachary Merula, and Washington G Darrell Bondurant.

Sharp Shooter Award and Commissioner’s Trophy: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

The Sharp Shooter Award and the Commissioner’s Trophy are the two awards that are not given out as the result of a vote.  The Sharp Shooter Award is given to the player who finished with the highest goal total, while the Commissioner’s Trophy is bestowed on the player with the most points.  This season, for the first time ever, both awards went to the same player: McNeely, who was a shining star in a difficult season for the Galaxy. For the second straight year, Hamilton’s Steven Alexander was the runner-up for the Sharp Shooter award, finishing with one goal fewer than McNeely’s 57.

Meanwhile, the Washington winder finished the year one shy of the century mark in points, adding 42 assists to his league-leading goal total.  That gave him a comfortable eight-point margin over Hamilton’s Claude Lafayette.

“Obviously, this is a team sport, and we really want to win things as a team,” said McNeely.  “But this was a good season for me personally, and I’m glad that I’ll be able to take some positive memories away from the year.  I’d rather have a Vandy on the mantle, sure, but this is a good consolation prize.”


Goalie of the Year: 
Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec Tigres

This award was a bit of a surprise, as it was the first time that Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist didn’t take home the trophy.  In 2018, Lundquist had a bit of a down season by his usual standards, but still remained among the league’s elite, going 38-12-4 with a 1.69 GAA and a .934 save percentage.  But some combination of the Tigres’ surprising season and a desire to reward a fresh face led the voters to select Tiktuunen instead, in a close vote.

Tiktuunen had a very strong campaign, and played a key role in Quebec’s success.  On the season, Tiktuunen went 31-20-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .930 save percentage.  The Finnish-born netminder gained a reputation around the league for his stoic, cold-blooded demeanor and his ability to avoid getting rattled in difficult situations.

“Riki’s so cool and calm that he helps keep the rest of us calm,” said teammate Richard McKinley.  “He’s like a security blanket, because you know he’s going to take care of business no matter what happens.”

Defenseman of the Year: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan Gray Wolves

This is the second straight year that a Wolves player won this honor; Kronstein’s teammate Max Madison captured the award last season.  Kronstein is not as pugilistically inclined as Madison, who is infamous for dropping the gloves at the slightest provocation.  However, Kronstein is just as capable a defender as his counterpart on Michigan’s top pairing, leading the league in blocked shots and among the top five in takeaways.

In addition to his defensive excellence, Kronstein is a strong contributor in the offensive end.  His 59 points were the second-most among SHL blueliners in 2018, and his 18 goals and +34 rating led all defensemen.  “Fritz is an amazingly dynamic young player,” said coach Ron Wright.  “He’s a strong physical presence, but he’s also surprisingly fast, and he’s an excellent scorer and passer.  He’s the total package.”

Kronstein emerged victorious out of a crowded field that included 2016 winner Raymond Smyth of Hamilton, along with Dakota’s Matt Cherner, Hershey’s Reese Milton, and New York rookie Donald Duckworth.

 

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.