Bliss Claim Final Playoff Spot

Coming into the final week of the 2020 SHL season, three of the four playoff spots were spoken for.  The Portland Bluebacks, Anchorage Igloos, and Hamilton Pistols had all secured their tickets.  But the Hershey Bliss and Quebec Tigres were locked in a battle for the final berth in the East.  In the end, it was the Bliss, powered by a red-hot offensive attack, who earned the spot and a rematch with the defending champion Pistols.

“When this team needed to come up big, they did it,” said Hershey coach Chip Barber.  “They have the heart of a champion, and they played like champions this week.”

The Bliss opened the week one point up on the Tigres.  Facing a home-and-home with last-place Washington, Hershey rolled to a pair of routs, outscoring the hapless Galaxy by a combined score of 13-5.

Justin Valentine

“That was a pair of trap games right there, but we didn’t get caught in the trap,” said C Justin Valentine, who scored four goals in the Bliss’ 8-3 Sunday win at Constellation Center in DC.  “We didn’t let ourselves take those games for granted; we kept our foot on the gas and kept piling it on.”

Meanwhile, Quebec faced a home-and-home against the Pistols.  They won the front half at Centre Citadelle 5-4, but in the return engagement, Lasse Koskinen stopped all 38 Tigres shots en route to a 2-0 shutout.  The loss pushed Quebec to the brink of elimination.

On Thursday, the Bliss went to Boston seeking a closeout win against the scrappy Badgers.  Boston took an early lead, holding a 2-1 edge after the first period.  But Hershey hung tough, essentially grinding the home team’s offense to a halt for much of the rest of the game.  D Reese Milton tied it up on a shot from the faceoff circle in the first minute of the second.  In the third, Hershey broke the game open by scoring four times on their way to a 6-3 win.

As the Bliss celebrated their third postseason trip in the last four years, team captain Valentine paused the thumping music and celebrated his teammates’ resilience.  “Everybody outside this room was ready to write us off,” he shouted as he wiped the champagne from his eyes.  “Everybody thought Quebec was going to chase us down, but we held on and sent them packing.  Now everybody’s expecting Hamilton to wipe us out.  Let’s go shock the world one more time… wait, make that two more times!”

Meanwhile, Quebec sat in silence and pondered their near miss.  “It is a great disappointment, yes,” said RW Stephane Mirac.  “To come this close and not succeed, it is an arrow to the heart.  But we cannot feel ashamed; we gave a great effort.  Still, I wish we had won.”

Tigres coach Martin Delorme praised his team’s competitiveness.  “Although we fell short of our goal,” Delorme said, “we can hold our head high.  We gave every ounce of our devotion and our effort.  We have the components of greatness here.  And next season, I believe we will achieve it.”

The Bliss open their series in Hamilton on Friday.

Tigres, Bliss Dueling for Playoff Position in East

The SHL’s playoff picture is slowly but surely coming into focus.  The Portland Bluebacks officially clinched the Western title this week, and the Anchorage Igloos have established a clear upper hand for the second and final spot.  In the East, the defending champion Hamilton Pistols are almost certainly going to make the postseason for the third straight season.  But the Pistols’ opponent remains very much up in the air.  The Eastern playoff will feature a rematch from one of the last two years, but which one?  Will Hamilton face their opponent from last season, the Hershey Bliss, or their 2018 foe, the Quebec Tigres?

For most of the season, the Bliss have been the odds-on favorite for the spot.  They’ve been in one of the top two spots in the division for almost the entire year.  As usual, their offense has been paced by the “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet (25 goals, 50 assists), C Justin Valentine (34 goals, 32 assists), and RW Christopher Hart (17 goals, 45 assists).  Goaltending has long been a problem for Hershey, but this year they seem to have located a reliable tandem.  Christien Adamsson, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, has been a solid starter (20-18-4, 2.89 GAA, .911 save percentage).  Meanwhile, rookie Nash Gould (8-5-1, 2.91, .909) has excelled in a backup role.  Add in a defense that’s been solid if unspectacular, and it’s no surprise that Hershey has been a contender.

Chip Barber

“We’re just playing good steady hockey,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Not too high, not too low, as smooth as a perfect ganache.”

The Tigres have little use for the kind of graceful, balanced game played by the Bliss.  Martin Delorme‘s crew relies on a rugged, hard-hitting defense to win.  It might not be pretty, but it is effective.  Quebec allows a paltry 28,9 shots per game, the stingiest mark in the league.  Relatedly, they lead the league in blocked shots (16.6 per game) and goals-against average (2.32)

“Everyone on our team is working together on defense,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “We work together to make the other team’s life miserable.”

Until recently, Quebec’s grinding defense was good. but not quite enough to get them into contention.  Then at the trading deadline, the Tigres acquired C Warren Marlow from Michigan, strengthening the team’s weakest position.  Marlow has been reasonably effective with Quebec ( 8 points in 14 games), but more importantly, he seems to have been the missing piece that unlocked Quebec’s most effective lineup.  After a brief losing streak following Marlow’s arrival, Quebec is now on a nine-game unbeaten streak.  Fittingly, it’s been a rather homely streak; four of the games were ties, and two others were overtime wins.  But the Tigres have been slowly accruing points and climbing in the standings.

On Saturday, the Bliss and Tigres faced off at Chocolate Center.  Despite coming off a streak of five straight overtime games, Quebec came out full of energy.  The Tigres outshot the Bliss 14-9 in the first period, and RW Weldon “Candy” Kane got Quebec on the board in the first period with a rebound from the slot.  In the second, Hershey has a 14-9 shot advantage, and C Spencer Kirkpatrick got a power-play tally to even things up.  Early in the third, D Steve Cargill had another man-advantage tally to put Hershey in the lead.  But the Tigres, showing their trademark grit, fought back.  LW Rupert MacDiarmid evened the scored with a laser-beam shot from the left faceoff circle midway through the third, and RW Stephane Mirac put Quebec ahead a couple minutes later.  After that, the visitors managed to grind the clock and hold on for a 3-2 victory.

The win lifted the Tigres into second place with eight games to go.  “We’ve fought really hard to get this far,” said Mirac, “and now that we’re here, we’re not going to let go.”

If the Bliss do come up short, they may look back with regret at the trading deadline.  Like the Tigres, they inquired about Marlow.  As the deadline approached, however, they pulled out of talks and instead struck a deal with Dakota to acquire RW Arkady Golynin – a deal that was vetoed by the league as too one-sided.

“We can’t let ourselves think about that,” said Barber when asked about the vetoed trade.  “We have to focus on what we can control.”

So it call comes down to this: eight games for all the marbles, including one more head-to-head match on Tuesday in Quebec.  Will the Tigres’ unyielding defense outlast the Bliss’ balanced attack?  Fans across the SHL look forward to finding out.

Continue reading “Tigres, Bliss Dueling for Playoff Position in East”

Two Big Rallies Highlight Wild Saturday

The SHL season is reaching a critical juncture.  The playoff races are coming into focus, and each game is magnified in importance, as contenders fight hard for every possible point.  On Saturday. two teams in the thick of the playoff chase – the Anchorage Igloos and the Quebec Tigres – staged amazing third-period rallies to salvage points from what looked like certain defeat.

The Igloos were at Neon Sky Arena facing the New York Night, a struggling team that fired its coach last week.  Struggling or not, the Night still have a powerful offense and can run up the score at any time.  And they barraged the Igloos and backup goalie Curt Freeze.  They fired 17 shots in the first period and scored three times.  By the midpoint of the second period, New York led 6-2, and the fans were razzing the Anchorage players mercilessly.

Jerry Koons

But the Igloos refused to give in.  In the waning minutes of the second, RW Broni Zhlotkin got on the board to pull Anchorage within 6-3, but they headed into the locker room still trailing by three with only 20 minutes remaining in regulation.  “Even though we were behind, we felt confident,” said LW Jerry Koons after the game.  “We know that we’re a strong enough team not to be counted out of any game.”

To start the third period, C Jens Bunyakin won the opening faceoff, and the Igloos stormed up the ice and scored, with Zhlotkin finishing to make it a two-goal game.  Then, seven and a half minutes later, D Tony Citrone went five-hole on New York netminder Sherman Carter, and the Igloos were within one goal.  A mere thirty seconds later, LW Tadeusz Adamczyk tied it up with a shot that banked in off the crossbar.  The Igloos had effectively silenced the crowd, but they weren’t done.  With less than five minutes remaining in the game, C Tom Hoffman fired a hard, low slapper that eluded Carter’s catching glove and landed in the back of the net.  It proved to be the winning goal in a 7-6 Anchorage victory that kept the Igloos in second place by four points over the Saskatchewan Shockers.

Meanwhile, Quebec is slowly, doggedly trying to catch up to the Hershey Bliss and secure the second and final playoff spot in the East.  With a game at home against the fifth-place Dakota Jackalopes, the Tigres came in looking for an easy win.  But they were in for a rude awakening, as Dakota shelled goalie Riley Lattimore.  After the first frame, Dakota had built a 5-1 lead despite being outshot 16-13.  In the second period, Quebec was able to regain control of the game’s tempo, slowing things down considerably.  But they couldn’t score, and they came into the third still staring at that four-goal deficit.

Walt Camernitz

“Honestly, we thought the game was probably done,” said C Mikhail Ilyushin.  “But Cammy [LW Walt Camernitz] provided a good speech.  He said, ‘Come on, guys.  We’re the better team, and we cannot lose like this.  We need to go out and light a fire.”

Ninety seconds into the third stanza, D Hampus Olsson lit the blaze that Camernitz was hoping for, jamming home a rebound from a severe angle.  But the Tigres were unable to get anything else going until Dakota took a pair of poorly-timed penalties.  D Kirby Hanlon, a former Tigre, committed high-sticking on a missed lift check just before the nine-minute mark.  It took only ten seconds on the ensuing power play for Quebec winger Rupert MacDiarmid to cash in.  And a mere six seconds after MacDiarmid’s goal, Dakota D Alex Angelos wound up in the sin bin after swinging a fist in Camernitz’s direction.  The Jackalopes nearly killed off that penalty, but Tigres RW Stephane Mirac fired a slapper home with three seconds left in the power play.  A couple minutes after that, Camernitz poked the puck loose in the neutral zone and found Mirac, who went streaking to the net and scored the tying goal on a beautiful deke.

Like the Igloos, the Tigres scored four times in the third period.  Unlike the Igloos, however, they weren’t able to score the go-ahead goal, and the game ended in a 5-5 tie.  Still, that tie – the third one in a weird week for Quebec – allowed them to move into a tie with Hershey for second place.

“We do not play the most beautiful hockey,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “But we play hard hockey, and we are quite determined and do not give up ever.”

It was a pair of thrilling games in an exciting week for the league.  If this is any indication of what’s to come, the last 12 games of the season should be a wild ride.

Continue reading “Two Big Rallies Highlight Wild Saturday”

Mirac Bashes Tigres’ “Slow and Ugly” Offense

When the Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy in 2018, it looked like we were witnessing the rise of a new powerhouse in the East.  Since then, though, the Tigres have largely found themselves treading water.  In 2019, Quebec spent most of the season barely above the .500 waterline and never seriously contended for a playoff spot (in spite of their deadline rental of D Matt Cherner).  So far, this season is unfolding along similar lines, as the Tigres once again lag behind the Hamilton Pistols and Hershey Bliss.

There are a number of possible explanations for the Tigres’ underwhelming performance.  Star RW Stephane Mirac, however, believes he has identified the primary cause: the team’s slow-paced, trapping style of play.

Stephane Mirac

Mirac sounded off about his frustrations after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Washington Galaxy.  A reporter asked Mirac about the team’s offensive struggles, and the star winger responded by pointing the finger at coach Martin Delorme’s schemes.

“We have no offense because our game is planned to prevent offense,” Mirac said.  “Our top goal is always to jam up the ice with bodies and keep the puck always between the blue lines.  It is like a pinball machine.  We are taking the skill out of the game and making it slow and ugly.  We win 1-0, or they win 2-1, it is all the same.”

The reporter followed up by asking Mirac how he would do things differently.  “We need to open up and allow some more flow,” Mirac replied.  “When we had no talent years ago, we needed this so we would have a chance to win.  But now we have much talent!  We don’t have to play slow.”

Asked if he’d discussed this with Delorme, Mirac replied: “Every day in practice I beg for more speed, more room for skill.  But every day we play the same, always ugly and slow.  I want to scream.”

This is not the first time that Mirac has complained about the team’s playing style, although he has not done so in a while.  Back in 2017, he slammed the team’s offense as “slow and predictable” in response to Delorme jokingly calling him a “missing person.”

Martin Delorme

The coach replied to Mirac’s outburst with a wry smile.  “Stephane is a very passionate man, and this is why I love him,” Delorme said.  “And he is a local hero, so he plays every game under the magnifying glass.  I am grateful for his passion to win and his hatred of losing.  But I would rather that he would leave the coaching to me.”

Asked if he had spoken to Mirac about the team’s playing style, Delorme replied, “Naturally we have.  Do you think he would go first to reporters?  However, I prefer to keep those conversations private.”

The coach echoed his star’s frustration with the team’s overall performance.  “Stephane and I share a desire for us to improve,” Delorme noted.  “I think we are capable of more than we have shown so far, and I include myself in that.  We need to find another level in ourselves to have the chance for the playoffs.  I believe Stephane can help us reach that level, but it will take all of us working together to get there.”