Zarkovich’s “Happy Dance” Injury Dampens Tigres’ Victory

The playoff battle in the east is still a four-team race, but the Quebec Tigres have fallen behind the pack in recent weeks.  The defending division champs struggled with injuries throughout the season.  They made a bold move to acquire D Matt Cherner from Dakota at the deadline; he has produced, but has not single-handedly lifted Quebec back to contention.

On Sunday, the Tigres got a much-needed decisive win, pounding the Saskatchewan Shockers by a 6-0 score.  The win completed a sweep of a home-and-home series with the Shockers, and helped Quebec keep pace with the Hershey Bliss and Hamilton Pistols, both of whom also won that night.

Drustan Zarkovich

But in keeping with the Tigres’ luck this season, the win came at a price, as C Drustan Zarkovich went down with an injury.  Worse yet, his injury didn’t come from a hard check or any part of the game; rather, it stemmed from an overenthusiastic postgame celebration.

Naturally, the mood was jubilant in the Quebec locker room after the game.  D Laurie Workman got the party started by blasting Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” on the speaker in his locker.  The song is one of Zarkovich’s favorites, and he jumped up and began to dance with the music.

“We win big time and I score a goal, so I feel happy,” said Zarkovich.  “And I feel like I want to do my happy dance.”

According to reports from inside the locker room, Zarkovich’s dance wasn’t a model of physical grace, but it was enthusiastic, and his teammates began clapping and cheering along (at least those who weren’t diving for cover).  Egged on by the reaction, the center’s dance moves became wilder and he began making wider circles around the room.

In the midst of the jubilation, however, Zarkovich reportedly stepped on a stool and went down in a heap.  He was later diagnosed with a sprained ankle.

“I cannot believe it,” said Zarkovich.  “I sprain my ankle doing my happy dance?  This is the worst luck.  The world must hate me.”

When asked about Zarkovich’s injury, Tigres coach Martin Delorme pinched the bridge of his nose and paused for several moments before responding.  “This was not what we needed right now,” said Delorme.  “Zarko is a very… colorful person.  There are other words I am trying not to use.  I wish I could say that this could happen to anyone, but really, it could happen only to him.”

The center missed the rest of Quebec’s games this week and will reportedly miss next week’s as well, but the team hopes he will be ready to return to action after that.  “Unless he steps in a hole or falls off of his pogo stick or something similar,” Delorme said.  “I think perhaps we should cover him in bubble wrap when he is off the ice.”

Continue reading “Zarkovich’s “Happy Dance” Injury Dampens Tigres’ Victory”

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Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

West Strikes Early in All-Star Victory

Could this be the year?  The SHL’s Eastern Division squad came into Wednesday’s third annual SHL All-Star Game hungry for revenge.  In last season’s game, the West humiliated the East in a 9-2 rout.  The West has always been considered the league’s stronger division, but the East has slowly been improving.  The Quebec Tigres took the eventual champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in last year’s finals. Eastern teams have been much more competitive in this season’s interdivision games.  With a raucous and rowdy home crowd behind them at the New York Night’s Neon Sky Center, the East hoped that the third time would be the charm.

Instead, the rule of threes worked against the East, as the West scored three goals in the game’s first three minutes, and wound up winning by three, 5-2, continuing their unbeaten All-Star streak.

“I think we’re all getting pretty sick of those bastards,” said Hamilton Pistols LW Steven Alexander, who was held scoreless in the game.  “We’ve got to win one of these.”

The Big Apple crowd definitely made its presence felt, even during the introductions.  They cheered loudly for the four Night players who made the Eastern squad, while booing each of the Western players with remarkable vigor.  They also booed their loathed rival Alexander, who responded by blowing kisses to the crowd, and Washington Galaxy C Eddie Costello, who won a slot that the Night’s fans felt should have gone to their own Brock Manning.

“One thing about the New York fans: you always know where you stand,” joked Anchorage’s Sam Castor, who coached the Western team.

Once the game started, though, the West wasted no time asserting control of the contest.  Just 71 seconds into the game, Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes redirected a shot from teammate Elliott Rafferty into the top-left corner of the net to put the West on the board.  Just over a minute later, Igloos LW Jerry Koons and RW Nicklas Ericsson got loose on a 2-on-1 rush, and Koons finished with a shot through the five-hole to make it 2-0.  35 seconds after that, Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango fired a slapshot that beat Eastern goalie Jesse Clarkson on the glove side for the West’s third tally.

“They really came out firing,” said Clarkson after the game.  “My head was just spinning trying to keep up.”

East coach Martin Delorme considered lifting Clarkson after the initial onslaught, but did not want to embarrass the netminder in front of his home fans.  He did wind up relieving the starter after the first period, however.

The East’s backup netminder was Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, who started last year’s game but was removed after being rocked for five goals in the first period.  He admitted afterward that he’d celebrated a bit too hard in the run-up to the game.  He was much more solid this time around.  Michigan Gray Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison greeted him with a screened blast from the blue line that found the twine 55 seconds into the period.  After that, Koskinen stopped all but one of the 25 shots he faced the rest of the way. A deflection from Igloos C Jake Frost later in the second was the only other blemish on his record.

“I feel I made up for myself this time,” said Koskinen.  “Not as much parties, not as much stay out late.”

Unfortunately for the East, any hope of a comeback was stymied by Michigan’s Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, who smothered everyone of the 34 shots he faced over two periods.  Even the East-favoring crowd gave Lundquist a standing ovation when he came up with a sprawling stop on a breakaway attempt by the Night’s Rick “The Stick” Nelson late in the first period.

“Lundquist is just a force of nature,” said Castor.  “Nothing puts that guy off his game.”

Lundquist’s brilliance earned him the All-Star MVP honors, the first time a goalie has received the award.  “When you consider the fact that the whole game is basically defense-optional,” said Barnes, “you’re that much more impressed about what The Bear did.”

Along with the award, Lundquist received a brand-new Kia Telluride SUV.  “Wow, this is a big one,” said the Wolves goalie.  “You could fit a whole kid’s hockey team in there.  But I have no kids, so I can put all of my fishing gear in it.”

The East did manage to break the shutout in the third period, scoring twice against the Western backup, Anchorage’s Ty WorthingtonHershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart struck first, beating Worthington through the five-hole about five and a half minutes into the period.  A minute and a half later, New York’s Chase Winchester scored on a wraparound that snuck past Worthington’s pad, touching off the largest cheer of the night, as the crowd saluted one of its own.

“We managed to save a little pride,” said Winchester.  “But that’s no substitute for actually winning.  Next year, it’s ours.”

If so, the East will need to win on the road; next year’s game is at Heartland Telecom Center in Kansas City.

 

SHL All Star Game 
West All Stars @ East All Stars, Neon Sky Center

                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars     3   2   0        5
East All Stars     0   0   2        2 
 
East All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-   West All Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Koons           LW     1   1   2   0   2
Sanchez         D      0   0   0   0  -2   Kronstein       D      0   0   0   0   2
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -2   Frost           C      1   1   2   0   2
Milton          D      0   0   0   0  -2   Madison         D      1   1   2   0   2
Nelson          RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     0   1   1   0   2
Winchester      LW     1   0   1   0   0   Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0  -2   Barnes          D      1   0   1   0   2
Beauchesne      C      0   0   0   0   0   Beasley         C      0   1   1   0   0
Risch           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Pomfret         D      0   0   0   0   2
Lafayette       RW     0   1   1   0   0   Mango           RW     1   0   1   0   0
Camernitz       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Airston         LW     0   2   2   0   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   1   Chouinard       D      0   0   0   0  -1
Costello        C      0   1   1   0  -1   Rafferty        C      0   2   2   0   1
Workman         D      0   2   2   0   1   Fairwood        D      0   1   1   0  -1
Hart            RW     1   0   1   0  -1   Merula          RW     0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 2   4   6   0  -3   TOTALS                 5  10  15   0   3

Scratches:
WAS:  none
EAS:  none

 
East All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Clarkson            18    15    3  0.833
Koskinen            26    24    2  0.923

West All Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           34    34    0  1.000
Worthington         18    16    2  0.889
 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
01:11  WAS  Barnes (Rafferty, Airston)
02:24  WAS  Koons (Ericsson, Frost)
02:59  WAS  Mango (Beasley, Madison)

PENALTIES:
None


Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
00:55  WAS  Madison (Rafferty, Airston)
14:28  WAS  Frost (Koons, Fairwood)

PENALTIES:
None


Third Period
------------

GOALS:
05:35  EAS  Hart (Workman, Costello)
07:03  EAS  Winchester (Lafayette, Workman)

PENALTIES:
None



 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
West All Stars    18  13  13       44
East All Stars    18  16  18       52

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

West All Stars   0 for 0
East All Stars   0 for 0

 
INJURIES
--------

None

CHL Update: SHL’s a Family Affair for These Players

Does hockey run in the blood?  There are plenty of examples of family acts in NHL history: the Sutter brothers, Gordie Howe and his sons, Bobby and Brett Hull, and many others.  The SHL doesn’t have any of those… yet.  But there are three CHL players who are working hard and hoping to join their relatives in the big time.

Tanner Brooks

Arguably, Virginia Rhinos C Tanner Brooks is the closest of the three to making the leap.  The 22-year-old center has been in the CHL since 2017, and he has earned raves for his strong defensive plays.  The Rhinos’ parent club, the Saskatchewan Shockers, seriously considered making Brooks their third-line center out of training camp this year.  Instead, the Shockers kept him in the minors for another season to develop his offensive game further.

2019 has been a breakout year for Tanner; he’s among the CHL’s top scorers with 15 goals and 10 assists so far.  He seems to be on the verge of making the big time, either with Saskatchewan or as an attractive deadline trade piece.

When Tanner does reach the majors, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Washington Galaxy LW Charlie Brooks.  Charlie is seven years older than Tanner, and he serves as example and inspiration to his little brother.  “I wouldn’t be a hockey player today if it wasn’t for Charlie,” Tanner Brooks said.  “He taught me how to skate, and he let me tag along with him to the rink when I got older.  And he was always teaching me what he knew about the game.”

Charlie has followed Tanner’s career with great interest, and he’s excited to someday take the ice against (or with) his brother.  “I think Tanner will be a better player than me,” Charlie said.  “He’s taller and stronger, and he’s always been driven to succeed.  If he does, I’ll be proud as heck.”

Charlie and Tanner’s parents still live in their childhood home in the Toronto area, but they faithfully attend as many of both brothers’ games as possible each year.  “They always come to the same number of games for both of us, so they aren’t playing favorites,” said Tanner.  “When I’m playing in Oshawa or Charlie’s in Hamilton, they’re definitely there for those.  But they travel to see us too.  It’s really great.”

Felix Delorme

Hartford Harpoons RW Felix Delorme doesn’t have a brother in the SHL, but he has another family connection: his uncle is Quebec Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  Felix is only 20, and he was drafted by the Boston Badgers in 2018.  He’s off to a strong start this year (13 goals, 8 assists), but likely still a season or two away from his SHL debut.  But when he does, he knows he’ll have at least one fan, albeit behind the opposing bench.

Felix grew up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.  His father worked the second shift in a paper mill; due to his late hours, he had few opportunities to teach his son about the game.  Fortunately, Uncle Martin was able to step in and help.

Beginning at age 7, Felix began attending his uncle’s summer hockey camps in Montreal.  These sessions didn’t always go smoothly.  “Uncle Martin always talked about defense and fundamentals, and all I wanted to do was shoot,” Felix admitted.  But he did absorb a lot of key lessons about the game, lessons he practiced in the winter playing shinny with his friends.

Martin Delorme believes that his nephew will make the SHL someday.  “He was a strong-minded boy, and sometimes we clashed heads,” Martin said.  “But he was very determined and confident in himself.  Plus he has a great natural talent.  I know he will be a good player.”

Martin and Felix text regularly, and they speak via video chat when their schedules allow.  Felix fills his uncle in on his latest progress; Martin gives his nephew tips and suggests SHL players to watch.  “I hope we can still do this even when we are on enemy teams,” Felix said.

Davis McNeely

Both Tanner Brooks and Felix Delorme are in different organizations then their SHL relatives.  So far, there is only one SHL-CHL family pairing where both members are in the same system.  RW Jefferson McNeely is a star for the Washington Galaxy.  And his younger brother, D Davis McNeely, plays for the Galaxy’s CHL affiliate, the Baltimore Blue Crabs.

Unlike Brooks and Delorme, the 20-year-old McNeely is not considered a top prospect.  Since signing with the Galaxy in 2017, he has generally been relegated to Baltimore’s bottom pairing, and this year he has only 1 assist in 21 games (albeit with a +4 rating).

For Davis, the family connection brings pain as well as pleasure.  “Everyone seems to think I only got signed because of Jeff,” said Davis.  “I get heckled about it in other cities. ‘Your brother’s better than you!’ and stuff like that.  Even here, when I’m slumping, people say, ‘They can’t get rid of him because, well, you know.’  Sometimes I want to go to another team, just so I can prove I deserve to be here.”

Jefferson McNeely vigorously denies that he asked the Galaxy to sign his younger brother.  “Davis is his own man, always has been,” said Jefferson.  “The Galaxy scouted him and signed him all on their own.  I’m glad they did, because he’s a good player.  But this idea that I ‘made’ the team sign him is just silly.  I don’t have that kind of pull, anyway.”

Davis’ case may be an extreme example, but all three can’t help but he overshadowed by their big-league relatives.  For now, Tanner Brooks is still “Charlie’s brother,” and Felix Delorme is still “Martin’s nephew.”  But all three of them eagerly await their shot at the SHL spotlight, and the chance to make a name for themselves.

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.

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.

 

Tigres Looking Up After Finals Loss

The SHL Finals were a wild ride for the Quebec Tigres.  They dropped the first three games, including wo at home, and appeared to be on their way to a sweep at the hands of the Anchorage Igloos’ postseason bulldozer.  Then they won the next three games, a dramatic momentum swing that had the fans at Centre Citadelle dreaming of a title.  Then, in a back-and-forth Game 7, Quebec came up just short.

In the locker room after the final game, the Tigres’ mood was slightly disappointed, but still positive.  After all, this trip to the Finals – on the heels of their first-ever season with an above-.500 record – marks them as a team on the rise in an Eastern Division that seems up for grabs.

“We didn’t get the ultimate prize,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “but we proved that we belong.  We proved that we can play at the highest level.  That gives us a ton of confidence heading into next season.”

Although Quebec had home-ice advantage in the Finals, having finished with one more point than Anchorage in the regular season, the Tigres were widely considered the underdogs.  The Igloos were making their third trip to the Finals in the last four seasons, and they’d just finished sweeping the mighty Michigan Gray Wolves in the Western playoff.

“Everyone was sure that we didn’t stand a chance against a talented veteran club like [the Igloos],” said D Ward Jones.  “They thought we were fun and scrappy, but basically a fluke.  We showed them that we weren’t.”

Martin Delorme

The outcome of the season was a vindication for Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who walked away from a strong Michigan squad to become the first coach of his home-province team.  The Wolves went on to win the Vandy without him the following season, while Quebec languished in the basement.  As recently as last season, when Delorme was feuding with his star player and attracting unwelcome attention for his personal foibles, it seemed as though the coach might have made a fatal mistake.

Now, though, Delorme is being hailed as a local hero.  “When I was a boy, I dreamed of starring for the Canadiens, to be the next Guy Lafleur,” said Delorme.  “Too bad I was not that good.  But now I am living my dream in a different way.”

Delorme lauded his club for a valiant effort, and believes this run could be the building block for future greatness.  “This series was the greatest test we have ever faced, and we showed our courage and strength,” said Delorme.  “I do not expect this to be a one-year thing.  We can learn our lessons from this experience and become even stronger.”