Sailors Outlast Smoke in Crazy 8-7 Win

As the regular season winds to a close, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Seattle Sailors will make the postseason for the first time in their existence (and, ironically, in their last season in Seattle).  It also looks increasingly likely that the Kansas City Smoke will finish with the league’s worst record, which means that they’ll get the top pick in the draft.

On paper, Sunday’s game was a mismatch.  But anything can happen in a single game, and the contest turned out to be a wild see-saw affair, culminating in a frenzied third period in which the teams combined to score seven goals.  In the end, Seattle emerged with a razor-thin 8-7 victory that allowed them to hold onto first place in the West for another day.

“This was like playing shinny as a kid,” said Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent.  “Just firewagon action back and forth, all offense.  It was crazy.”

The game started with a bang, as Argent fired a shot that beat Kansas City netminder Gus Parrish just 26 seconds into the contest.  Smoke RW Tyler Cloude answered a couple minutes with a low shot that went five-hole on Sailors goalie Rocky Goldmire.  Just over five minutes after that, Seattle RW Vince Mango tucked a slapper just under the crossbar to give his team a 2-1 edge, which it maintained for the rest of the period.

In the first minute of the second period, C Darien Picard got Kansas City back even by beating Goldmire on a breakaway.  After that, though, Seattle went on a run, aided by some bad Smoke penalties.  First, C Mike Rivera went to the box for elbowing.  Kansas City killed off the penalty, but couldn’t get the puck out of their own end, allowing RW Rodney McElvern to tip a shot home and put the Sailors back in front.  A minute after McElvern’s goal, D T.K. O’Neill hit Argent in the mouth with his stick, drawing blood and earning a double minor.  Mango made the Smoke pay, hitting pay dirt on a shot from the right faceoff circle.  A couple minutes later, RW Zachary Merula took a cheap slashing penalty in the offensive zone.  This time, it took only 36 seconds for Mango to overwhelm the exhausted KC penalty kill, scoring again to complete his hat trick.  It was now a 5-2 Seattle lead, and it seemed like the rout was on.

The plucky Smoke refused to give up, however.  With 49 seconds left in the second stanza, LW Veikko Sikanen gathered up a rebound and stuffed it home, closing the gap to two.  Then in the first couple of minutes of the third, Rivera and Merula made up for their penalties by scoring just 14 seconds apart, tying the game and stunning the crowd at Century 21 Arena.

“We couldn’t believe that it was a game again,” said Mango.  “We were sure we’d put them away, but they came back on us.”

Seattle answered back just 24 seconds after Merula’s score, as C Napoleon Beasley beat Parrish on the short side to give the Sailors the lead again.  But KC wasn’t ready to give up.  LW Tadeusz Adamczyk scored to tie it yet again, and exactly a minute later, Cloude found the back of the net to give Kansas City its first lead of the game.

“[The Smoke] were like the Black Knight in Monty Python; we cut their limbs off and they just kept coming,” said Mango.  “’It’s just a flesh wound!’”

Fortunately for the Sailors, they had one more good push left, which they deployed in the final five minutes of the game.  C Marco Venezio got behind the defense and scored on a breakway to tie it up one more time.  A mere twelve seconds later, RW Elliott Pepper stormed down the ice on an odd-man rush and scored what provide to be the winning goal.  A pair of late penalties erased whatever chance Kansas City had for a comeback.

Harold Engellund

Sailors coach Harold Engellund praised his team for its resilience.  “One of the things I appreciate about this team is the way they can take a punch and keep going,” said Engellund.  “[The Smoke] didn’t make this one easy on us, but we hung in there and got the W.  That says something about the competitive character around here.”

Critics of the Sailors often argue that their lackluster defense will prevent them from succeeding in the playoffs, and giving up seven goals to the league’s worst team certainly argues in that direction.  Engellund, however, brushed off those concerns: “The bottom line is that we did what it took to win.  Maybe it wasn’t pretty, but so what?  You don’t get points for style, just for winning.”

Smoke Snap Skid With 6-5 Shocker Over Igloos

The Kansas City Smoke have been stumbling through a dismal month of hockey.  Coming into Saturday’s game, they’d lost five in a row and 13 of their last 14.  Since a rare three-game winning streak that ended on Valentine’s Day, Kansas City has posted a pitiful 1-18-1 record.  They’re weak on both sides of the puck; they’re dead last in goaltending (3.94 GAA and .885 save percentage), tenth on defense (34.5 shots allowed per game), and ninth on offense (100 goals scored).

On Saturday, the Smoke hosted the Anchorage Igloos at Heartland Telecom Center.  Given that the Igloos are fighting tooth and nail for playoff position in the crowded West, they were widely expected to stomp the Smoke.  Instead, Kansas City burst out with a rare offensive explosion, stunning Anchorage with a 6-5 win.  The Smoke scored as many goals in this game as they had during their prior five-game losing streak.

“This is a big win for us!” crowed Smoke RW Zachary Merula.  “When you’re in a slump like we’ve been, it’s easy to get down on yourself.  But we showed that we can beat anybody!”

After the first two periods, Kansas City had played Anchorage close, but still found themselves trailing 4-3.  This seemed like a harbinger of yet another defeat; third periods have been a horror show for the Smoke all season.  They’d blown countless leads in the last period; coming in behind, they seemed ripe for another blowout.

But in the locker room before the third, D Tony Hunt rallied his teammates.  In a young clubhouse, the 35-year-old Hunt has been a vocal leader.  He exhorted the Smoke to go out and steal a win.

“Hey guys, have you noticed [the Igloos] out there?” Hunt said.  “They’re just skating around.  They think they’ve got this one in the bag.  I think it’s time for us to go out there and give ‘em a shock!  We’ve got awesome fans, and it’s been a while since we’ve given them any good news.  Let’s go out and give ‘em a W they won’t forget!”

The fired-up Smoke didn’t take long to make good on Hunt’s words.  Just 41 seconds into the final period, RW Tyler Cloude snapped a shot between the pads of Anchorage goalie Wendell Cantillon to tie the score.  Hunt waved his arms to the crowd and got them to scream at the top of their lungs.

After that, Smoke C Mike Rivera took the spotlight.  Rivera is the Kansas City captain, but he generally prefers to lead by example.  Five minutes after Cloude’s tying blast, Rivera got behind the Anchorage defense and beat Cantillon on the short side to give the Smoke their first lead since the second minute of the game.  Ninety seconds later, Rivera redirected a slapper from LW Trevor Green into the net to make it 6-4 Kansas City.  Rivera jumped into the glass as the fans roared with delight.

“I got goose bumps, no lie,” said Rivera.  “Our crowds are usually pretty chill, but they really got amped this time.  Dude, it was amazing.”

The Smoke may have caught the Igloos napping early in the period, but the defending champs didn’t go down quietly.  Just over a minute after Rivera’s second goal, Igloos C Jake Frost scored to cut KC’s lead to one.  The crowd’s buzz turned uneasy; they’d certainly seen plenty of late collapses before.

But Hunt began thumping his stick against the boards, and persuaded his teammates to do the same.  Pretty soon, they had the crowd clapping in unison.

“What Tony did was really cool,” said Merula.  “I mean, these fans had every reason to think we were going to blow it, but Tony turned ‘em around and got them to believe.  And they got us to believe.”

Throughout the rest of the period, the Smoke fans showered their heroes with cheers and chants.  And the players responded, making rare blocks and steals.  Goalie Dennis Wampler made a couple of ten-bell saves that earned standing ovations.  And for the final minute of the game, all the fans got on their feet and roared, urging the Smoke on to a most unlikely victory.

“How ‘bout that W, huh!” exclaimed Smoke coach Randy Bergner, grinning ear to ear.  “This season’s been a slog at times, so I give a ton of credit to Hunter and the boys for making a stand.  And a big salute to our fans, who were the best I’ve ever seen!  We couldn’t have done this without them.”

Continue reading “Smoke Snap Skid With 6-5 Shocker Over Igloos”

Interview of the Week: Mike Rivera

This week’s interview is with Kansas City Smoke C Mike Rivera.

SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking to the captain of the Kansas City Smoke, Mike Rivera.  Mike, thanks for speaking with us.

Mike Rivera

Mike Rivera: It’s cool.  You asked me to do it, so I did.

SHLD: And we appreciate that.  You have a reputation for being a pretty laid-back guy.

MR: That I do.  My nickname’s “River,” and it fits, ‘cause I just go with the flow.

SHLD: And yet you’ve got the captain’s “C” on your sweater.  How did that come about?

MR: [laughs] Well, you know, on an expansion team you got a lotta young guys, and you can’t give them the C.  Originally, they were gonna give it to Hunter [D Tony Hunt], but he didn’t want it.  We’d played together in New York, so he told them to give me the C instead.  It might have been a joke.  No big deal, though.

SHLD: As team captain, you have a leadership role on a team with a lot of young players.  Do you see yourself as a mentor to those youngsters?

MR: I don’t know, dude.  I mean, if they come and ask me something, like for tips on taking faceoffs or if they want to know the good restaurants in town – I’m happy to talk to ‘em.  But I’m not, you know, their dad, so I let ‘em come to me.  I don’t go to them.  I figure the coaches do the teaching around here.  I don’t want to get in the way of that.

SHLD: How do you feel about the young players on your team?

MR: They’re cool.  And they’re good.  I mean, Ruler [RW Zachary Merula], Cloudy [RW Tyler Cloude], Pic [C Darien Picard]… they’re a damn good bunch of dudes, and they all work way harder than I did at their age.  They’re gonna crush it.  And on the D side, we got Hermie [Gary Hermine] and the Bastard [Bastien Chouinard].  Tough dudes, for sure.  I bet one of them is gonna get the C soon.

SHLD: You grew up in southern California, near Los Angeles.

MR: That’s right.  La-La Land, that’s me!

SHLD: How did a SoCal kid wind up getting into hockey?

MR: Well, my mom’s family is from Canada, believe it or not.  We’d go visit them, and they’d be talking about hockey, and it got me excited.  So one day my dad took me to a Kings game, and it was like whoa!  It was just magic for me.  Gretzky was still with the Kings then, and he was awesome.

SHLD: Must have been hard to find friends to play hockey with in LA.

MR: Yeah, no kidding.  Roller hockey sometimes, maybe.  But ice hockey?  No chance.  Fortunately, there was a league in the area, and my folks made pretty good money, so they signed me up.

SHLD: Returning to the present, you’re having a strong year in Kansas City.  What do you think are the keys to your success?

MR: Mostly, I’ve just been relaxing and doing my thing.  We don’t have a lot of drama in the locker room like there was in New York.  We don’t have a bunch of expectations on us like I had in Dakota.  I can just… be, and do my thing, you know.

SHLD: The trade deadline is coming up next month, and your strong play might earn you the attention of contending clubs.  Would you be excited to go to a contender, or would you prefer to stay put?

MR: Either way’s cool with me.  Not like it’s my decision, though.  It’s not like our GM’s gonna get an offer and go, “Wait, Mike Rivera?  He said he wanted to stay here!  Better not trade that dude.”  In the end, we’re all pieces of meat in the supermarket window.  If I stay, cool.  If I go somewhere else, that’s cool too.  You know, go with the flow.

SHLD: For a guy with such a laid-back attitude, it was a surprise to hear your quote from last week that going winless for a week was “reality… crashing down on us like a ton of cement dropped off the top of the Empire State Building.”

MR: (laughs) Well, come on, dude.  I mean, winning’s better than losing, right?  Losing sucks.  But it comes with the territory so, you know.

SHLD: Well, that about wraps this one up, Mike.  Thanks for an engaging interview!

MR: Sure thing.  Peace out!

West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”

Engellund On Hot Seat Again

Groundhog Day seems to be coming early for the Dakota Jackalopes and coach Harold Engellund this season.  Last year, Dakota came into the season with high expectations.  But when they stumbled out of the gate with a sub-.500 record, Engellund’s job was reported to be in jeopardy.  Shortly thereafter, the team rallied around their coach and went on a winning streak, and Engellund was spared.  This season, the Jackalopes spent heavily on trades and free agents and again came into the season expecting great things.  But they’re off to a sub-.500 start again, and Engellund is reportedly on the hot seat… again.

Harold Engellund

“The sense here is that ownership has spent a lot of money building a contender,” said a team source.  “And we’re still seeing average results.  At some point, you’ve got to start wondering if Harold is the coach that can get us to the next level.”

After the Jackalopes allowed six goals in the third period in a 7-4 loss to Anchorage, Engellund was asked about his job security.  “It’s not like I’m not used to this,” said the coach.  “This is a results-based business, and we’re not having the kind of results that would make me secure.  I know that the only way you stop the rumors is by winning.”

Prior to the season, the Jackalopes made perhaps more moves to improve than any other team in the league.  They bolstered their already-potent offense by trading for C Mike Rivera from New York, and aimed to shore up their defense by signing Rusty Anderson from Washington and acquiring Scott Hexton from Hershey.

The results?  Dakota’s offense has been even better than last year; their 104 goals are the most in the league.  Rivera (7 goals, 20 assists) has fit right in with the Jackalopes’ fast-paced attack.  But the defense, if anything, has taken a step back.  They’ve allowed 94 goals (they allowed 86 through this point last year).  The blueline corps itself has posted similar stats to last season; it’s the goaltending that has slipped a notch.

Last season, one of the points of contention between Engellund and the Dakota front office revolved around the net.  Engellund reportedly preferred veteran Jesse Clarkson, while the front office wanted prospect Christien Adamsson to get more playing time.  The team wound up trading Clarkson at the deadline, clearing the way for Adamsson (in conjunction with another youngster, Buzz Carson, who came over in the Clarkson deal).  The duo has combined to post an .899 save percentage; only cellar-dwelling Seattle is worse.

It all adds up to a so-so team, which is not what small-market Dakota wants to see.  The team is reportedly losing money at a concerning rate, and if the team isn’t going to challenge for the Vandy in its current form, ownership would like to tighten its belt and cut payroll.  Others within the front office, though, think that the Jackalopes can contend with the current roster, and that Engellund isn’t a strong enough leader to get the most out of the team.

Engellund remains popular with the players, a definite point in his favor.  But some in the organization feel that he is too close to the players, and is unwilling to call them out or push them hard.

“I don’t think there’s any magic bullet here,” said the coach.  “It’s a tough division, and Michigan and Anchorage set a high bar.  But that’s the bar we’ve got to clear.”

Asked if he was tired of the constant speculation about his employment status, Engellund said, “Well, yeah, it gets old.  At some point, you want to fish or cut bait.  But that’s how it is in this line of work.  There’s no tenure in coaching, no life appointment.  You do the job or you’re out the door.”

Jackalopes LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston strongly defended his coach this week.  “If you ask around the locker room, you’ll find out in a hurry that we’re all behind Coach Engellund 100%,” said Airston.  “Every one of us is happy that he’s in charge.  I’m sick of these rumors coming out of nowhere that Coach Engellund needs to go.  If the front office isn’t happy, they should man up and say it in public.  And don’t point the finger at Coach Engellund.  He’s not the problem.”

But Engellund himself said it best: It’s a results-based business.  As long as ownership expects a championship contender and the Jackalopes don’t deliver, the coach and players alike will be on the hot seat.

SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 3:

The Quebec Tigres made a huge deal at the top of the draft after their planned choice went awry.  The Tigres had planned to take scoring winger Rod “Money” Argent with the #2 pick, addressing their major shortcomings on offense.  But after the Seattle Sailors surprisingly drafted Argent with the first pick, Quebec found themselves with no obvious choice.  So they traded down, dealing the #2 pick to the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for the #5 pick, a second-round pick, and D Dmitri Kalashnikov. Hamilton sought the #2 pick in order to grab G Lasse Koskinen, who immediately became the team’s top netminder.  While Quebec did not wind up with an impact player of Argent’s caliber, they traded quality for quantity.  With the #5 pick, they plucked RW Rupert MacDiarmid, who put up 15 goals and 39 points in juniors last year.  In Kalashnikov, the Tigres added an elite and ferocious defender, whose 109 penalty minutes were the second-most in the SHL last season.  The Tigres used the second-round selection to nab D Hal Pugliese, who took Penn Tech to the NCAA tournament three times in his collegiate career.

The Dakota Jackalopes also dealt a first-round pick, sending the #6 selection to the New York Night along with C Phil Miller in exchange for C Mike Rivera.  The trade represents a bold gamble for both teams.  For Dakota, adding Rivera augments their high-flying offense, as the Jackalopes attempt to catch up with their division rivals in Michigan and Anchorage.  Last season, Rivera banged home 23 goals and collected 39 points with New York. He is expected to anchor Dakota’s second line this year.  For New York, the trade reflects new coach Nick Foster’s desire to build a more balanced club.  Although Rivera was a strong contributor on offense, he is widely considered a defensive liability.  Miller, who put up 18 goals and 30 points between Saskatchewan and Dakota in ’16, is regarded as more of a two-way player.  With the sixth pick, the Night grabbed goaltending prospect Sherman Carter, who recorded a 2.27 GAA and a .930 save percentage in juniors last season.  In addition to drafting Carter, New York signed the top free-agent netminder, Jesse Clarkson, to complete an overhaul of one of their weakest positions.

After the draft, the Night made a pair of deals aimed at improving their third line.  First, they swapped G Oliver Richardson to the Saskatchewan Shockers for the rights to G Hector Orinoco, then sent Orinoco’s rights along with F Dill Howlter to Hamilton for winger Andrei Volodin.  Richardson, who posted a 6-10-0 mark with a 4.37 GAA for New York last season, became expendable after the Night drafted Carter and signed Clarkson.  He represents an upgrade for the Shockers, who have struggled to find a solid backup for Zeke Zagurski since the league’s inception.  Orinoco played last season in the German league, where he record a 17-11-2 record with a 3.06 GAA.  He will likely spend the season in the minors for Hamilton, barring an injury.  The 25-year-old Volodin should bring a little extra scoring punch to New York’s third line.  He scored 18 goals and 34 points for Hamilton in the 2016 season.  The 20-year-old Howlter failed to record a point in 9 games for New York last season.

The Washington Galaxy sent longtime backup goalie Gus Parrish to the Seattle Sailors in exchange for F Yann Eberlein.  The deal was a bit disappointing for the fans, as Parrish was a beloved figure in Washington, adored for his boyish enthusiasm and flair for colorful quotes.  Last season, Parrish went 7-6-0 with a 3.21 GAA as the Galaxy defended their Eastern Division title.  But after Washington signed free agent Ron Mason in the offseason, Parrish found himself without a job.  Eberlein struggled in limited action with the Sailors last year, recording 2 goals and 7 points in 34 games.  Washington hopes that the 25-year-old Swiss forward can provide a solid presence off the bench.  The Galaxy suffered from poor third-line and bench production last season, as rookies Henry Van Alpin, Barry Sullivan, and Oliver Wallington all turned in disappointing campaigns.

The Jackalopes and the Hershey Bliss made a minor deal just before the start of the season, swapping bottom-pairing defensemen.  Dakota sent Pierre Chappelle to Hershey in exchange for Scott Hexton.  The Jackalopes were looking to strengthen their blueline corps a bit, and Hexton (3 goals, 12 points last season) grades out as an above-average defender.  On the other hand, the Bliss were looking to enhance their offensive production beyond their loaded top line.  Chappelle (5 goals, 20 points last year) provides an upgraded scoring threat relative to Hexton.  The 28-year-old Montreal native is on his third team in as many seasons; Dakota picked him up from Hamilton during last offseason.