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.
“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.”