East Captures First All-Star Win

Traditionally, the West has been considered the stronger of the SHL’s two divisions.  In recent seasons, however, the East has been getting stronger.  They’ve won two of the last three Vandys.  During the most recent round of interdivisional play leading into the break, the Easthad a winning percentage above the .600 mark.  One thing the East had never done, however, was win an All-Star Game.  This year, they hoped to walk into the Kansas City Smoke‘s Heartland Telecom Center and skate away with the win.

Apparently, the fourth time was the charm.  Powered by a hat trick from Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart, the East dominated the first two periods and survived a late rally from the West to claim a 5-3 victory.

“Finally, victory is ours!” shouted Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette, who handed out celebratory cigars to his teammates after the game.  “We’ve been waiting a while for this one.”

As befits Kansas City’s reputation for music, the pregame skate was accompanied by a string of songs with ties to the city.  The tunes spanned the decades, from Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker to modern-day blues guitarist Samantha Fish.  During player introductions, the Western team skated out to Wilbert Harrison’s “Goin’ to Kansas City,” while the Eastern squad emerged to the theme from “Rawhide,” a nod to the city’s connections to the livestock industry.

Eastern coach Keith Shields was determined that his team get off to a strong start.  Last year, the West scored three times in as many minutes, essentially burying the East’s hope of victory.  “I wanted to do to [the West] what they did to us last time,” said Shields.  And that is essentially what his team did.

Hart opened the scoring just under two minutes into the game, streaking to the net and redirecting a shot from Pistols C Calvin Frye over sprawling Western goalie Ty Worthington.  Approximately one hundred seconds later, Frye got a goal of his own when Worthington allowed a juicy rebound on a shot by Hershey’s Lance Sweet and Frye stuffed it home on the short side.  Then around the six-minute mark, Hart and Sweet got loose on a breakaway, just as if they were on the Love Line back in Hershey.  Sweet faked a slapshot and passed it to Hart, who went top shelf to make it 3-0.

“The boys ran the game plan to perfection,” said Shields.  “I loved it!”

The West got one back on a strike from the slot by Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes, but they closed out the first period trailing by two.  But lest the three-time champs get any ideas about rallying, the East got back on the scoring train at the start of the second.  Pistols LW Steven Alexander got on the board on a thundering slapper from the left faceoff circle to restore the East’s three-goal lead.  Then two and a half minutes later, Hart struck again, this time on a power-play wraparound shot that slipped between Worthington’s pad and the pole.

Even though the home team now trailed 5-1, the fans tossed their hats onto the ice to honor Hart’s achievement.  One of them was a cowboy hat; Sweet picked that one up and slapped it on Hart’s head.  The Hershey wing let loose with a “Yeehaw!” and fired his invisible six-shooters into the air.

West coach Sam Castor wasn’t willing to give up, in spite of the sizable deficit, and he directed his team to play a more wide-open style in the third period.  The East responded in kind, and the result was a frantic frame in which the teams combined for 47 shots.  The West’s relief goalie, the Portland Bluebacks‘ Jesse Clarkson, turned aside all 27 Eastern shots.  The Western offense, on the other hand, had more success against the East’s backup netminder, Mike Ross of the New York Night.  Less than four minutes into the final period, the West narrowed the deficit to two with goals from D Sebastian Pomfret and C Tom Hoffman, teammates on Castor’s Anchorage Igloos.  But Ross stopped the West’s remaining shots, and the East kept the action in the other end for long stretches over the last ten minutes, sealing their victory.

Hart’s three-goal performance made him the unanimous choice for All-Star MVP honors.  As a reward for the selection, the Bliss star received a Kia Seltos SUV, along with a gift package of barbecue sauces from some of Kansas City’s best-known joints.  “The last time we were in KC, I tried burnt ends for the first time,” said Hart.  “I’m looking forward to making some ‘cue of my own at home.”

In the victorious Eastern locker room, the players smoked their cigars and doused each other with beer and hard seltzer.  “Don’t mess with the Beast Division, baby!” shouted Alexander.  “The world turned upside down!”

The East will try to make it two in a row next year on home ice, as next year’s game is north of the border at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle.

Continue reading “East Captures First All-Star Win”

2020 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2020 Eastern Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Keith Shields, was as follows:

First Line:

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton.  Last year, the voting in the East was dominated by fans of the Pistols and New York Night, the latter of which hosted the game.  Without the draw of hosting and with the Night’s lackluster record this year, votes from the New York metro area dipped considerably, while backers of defending champion Hamilton came out in force to support their heroes.  Alexander was the league’s top vote-getter, earning his fourth straight trip to the game and his third appearance in the starting lineup.  Although the feisty winger’s numbers are not quite up to his career norms, he is tied for the league lead in goals with 21.

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  Backed by the voting power of the Greater Toronto Area, Risch was the top vote-getter among Eastern defenseman, making his second All-Star appearance and his first start.  The 24-year-old is on track for a career season; he’s already scored more goals in the first half (8) than he ever has in an entire year.  He isn’t just an offensive force, either; he continues to deliver strong play in his own end.  His 73 blocks is the second-most among Eastern players.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey.  In something of an upset, Valentine managed to hold off Hamilton’s Calvin Frye to make his first All-Star start since 2017.  Valentine is the leading man in Hershey’s famous “Love Line,” and he’s producing in line with his top season.  He’s currently in third place in goals with 20 and tied for third in points with 42.  He’s also among the top ten in plus-minus at +14, a distinction he shares with his fellow Love Liners.

D: Matt Cherner, Boston.  In another upset, Cherner surged into second place, ahead of Hershey’s Reese Milton and New York’s Dominic Sanchez, who have been the East’s starting defensemen in each previous All-Star Game.  Cherner reportedly benefited from a strong crossover vote, as fans from his previous teams in Dakota and Quebec cast ballots for him in significant numbers.  It’s his second All-Star appearance, and his debut representing the East; he showed up on the West’s roster back in 2018.  Like his fellow top-pairing blueliner Risch, Cherner has 8 goals and 28 points so far this season.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rabid voting base lifted Lafayette to his first ever All-Star start (and only his second overall start), appearing alongside his longtime teammate and friend Alexander.  Lafayette won his spot by less than 5,000 votes over Hershey’s Christopher Hart and New York’s Rick Nelson.  Lafayette is one of the league’s elite passers, and it’s no surprise that he leads the SHL in assists with 35.  His 42 points overall ties him with Valentine for the league’s third-highest total.

 

Second Line:

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey.  Shields mentioned during the lineup announcement that he has a great deal of respect for the Bliss, Hamilton’s fiercest rival.  His admiration came through in his picks, as he tapped three Bliss players (in addition to starter Valentine) to the lineup.  It’s the second All-Star selection for Sweet, who also appeared in the SHL’s inaugural midseason contest in 2017.  Sweet is a highly deserving choice; he leads the league in points with 44, and is in the top 10 in both goals (16) and assists (28).

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton.  Shields’ respect for Hershey was topped only by his affection for his own squad; the coach selected four players from his Vandy-winning, division-leading Pistols.  The veteran Smyth, though, is no homer pick; his 30 points are tied for the highest total among SHL defensemen, and his 26 assists are tied for fifth in the league overall.  He also leads the league in plus-minus rating with +17.  It’s Smyth’s third trip to the All-Star Game, making a reappearance in the lineup after a one-year absence.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  After Frye was beaten out by Valentine for the starting center spot, there was no doubt that Shields was going to tab his star for a spot.  Frye is only of only four Eastern players to have appeared in every All-Star contest to date.  Frye is tied with his teammate Alexander for the league lead in goals with 21, and his 43 points is the second highest total in the SHL.  “I’ll bet this is the last time for a long time that Calvin isn’t the starter,” said Shields.  “If he keeps producing the way he has been, he’s going to make it impossible for the fans to ignore.  He’s just a special, special player.”

D: Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton. It’s the third straight All-Star appearance for the 22-year-old Mulligan and the third appearance for a Hamilton defenseman in this lineup.  It’s the first time since 2017 that a single team landed a trio of blueliners on the roster; Michigan was the last team to accomplish the feat. The hard-hitting Mulligan brings an extra edge of the Eastern roster; his 68 blocks is sixth in the SHL and second on the Pistols to his linemate Risch.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart joins his linemates Sweet and Valentine on the East roster.  Surprisingly, Hart is the only one of the trio who has appeared in every All-Star contest, though he has never started.  Like his fellow Love Liners, Hart is in the top ten in the league in points (39), assists (26), and plus-minus (+14).  “Last year, I had to carry the Love Line banner all by myself at the game,” said Hart.  “This time, I’ll be there with both my brothers, and that’s the way it ought to be.”

 

Third Line:

LW: Magnus Gunnarson, Hamilton.  At a loaded position, Shields tapping his own player again generated some controversy around the league.  Many felt that New York’s Chase Winchester or Boston’s Casey Thurman would be a more fitting choice.  But Gunnarson is having a strong season in his own right.  He has produced 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) at the halfway point.  And when Alexander missed several games with an injury in the first half, Gunnarson stepped in and kept the Pistols from missing a beat.  It all adds up to an All-Star debut for the 24-year-old winger.

D: Reese Milton, Hershey.  It’s the first time that Milton won’t be starting in an All-Star Game, but the Bliss blueliner keeps his string of appearances alive.  Milton’s offensive numbers (8 goals, 17 assists) are a tick below his career norms, but he remains as defensively strong as ever; his 77 blocks are the most in the East, and he maintains a solid +8 rating.

C: Alain Beauchesne, Boston.  The 22-year-old Beauchesne receives his second straight All-Star nod; his selection marks the first time that the Badgers have had more than one honoree.  This was another somewhat controversial choice: Night fans argued that Brock Manning should have gotten the call, while DC fans clamored for Harvey Bellmore.   But Shields went with the youngster, who leads Boston with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists).

D: Richard McKinley, Quebec.  The 21-year-old blueliner is the Tigres’ lone representative this year, and he makes his debut in the All-Star game.  Quebec is suffering through considerable offensive struggles this season, but McKinley is a relatively bright spot, having recorded 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).  He also is tied for the team lead in blocks with 65.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  Like the Tigres, the Galaxy have only one All-Star representative.  This season, the honors go to McNeely, who will make his third appearance in the game.  He is second on the Washington roster in goals (with 11) and points (with 27).  “Honestly, I would have given it to Harvey,” said McNeely.  “But it they want me to go again, sure, I’ll go.”

 

Goalies:

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a season when many of the East’s traditional top goalies are having down seasons, Koskinen’s solid performance and Hamilton’s strong voting base combined to earn the Pistols netminder his third straight All-Star trip and his second start.  Koskinen struggled in the opening weeks of the season, but he has improved as the season has gone along.  His 15 wins are second-most in the SHL; that achievement appears to have overshadowed his somewhat-subpar 3.14 GAA and .915 save percentage.

“Jersey Mike” Ross, New York.  With Shields in charge of choosing the East’s roster, is it a surprise that Ross is the lone Night player to make the All-Star squad?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the veteran goaltender, who is another first-time All-Star, has had a surprisingly strong season.  Believe it or not, Ross has the highest save percentage (.923) among starting goalies in the East.  After planned starter Sherman Carter imploded, Ross stepped in as the primary starter and has helped keep the Night afloat in the playoff race.

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night

The hottest rivalry in the SHL right now is clearly the feud between the Hamilton Pistols and the New York Night.  Night coach Nick Foster has spent multiple seasons adding fuel to the fire by slinging insults at the Pistols’ arena, their fans, and star Steven Alexander.  Foster’s barbs have turned every game between the teams into a grudge match.

Last week, the Night and Pistols tangled for the first time this season at Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory.  It proved to be a wild match full of insults, physical play, and shots galore.  In the end, the Night walked away with a 7-6 overtime win, with Foster making sure to twist the knife on his way out of town.

On Sunday, the teams held the rematch at New York’s Neon Sky Arena.  It promised to be another feud-filled game.  Most observers expected that the Night would have to answer for rookie C Norris Fletcher’s high stick to Alexander’s eye in last week’s game.  The Pistols, however, chose not to seek revenge with their fists, but with their sticks, scoring six goals in a frenetic first period on the way to a 10-5 drubbing.

Keith Shields

“The Lord reminds us that vengeance is His,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields, “but I have to admit this was pretty sweet.”

When the Pistols took the ice, they were greeted by the sounds of Craig Morgan’s “Redneck Yacht Club,” as well as the jeers of the New York faithful.  The cheers and jeers only got louder when Night RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored just 17 seconds into the game.  But Hamilton quickly flipped the script.  Just 23 seconds after Trujwirnek’s tally, Pistols RW Claude Lafayette found the upper-leftt corner of the net to tie things up.  Just over a minute late, LW Magnus Gunnarson drilled a slapper home past night netminder Sherman Carter to give Hamilton the lead.

The frantic firewagon pace of the game continued over the next several minutes, but the scoring hit a temporary lull, as Carter and the Pistols’ Lasse Koskinen both made acrobatic saves.  Just over six minutes into the period, C Rod Remington jammed home a rebound to pull back even.  That deadlock lasted a mere 11 seconds, though, before Pistols RW Ben Summers stuffed in a wraparound shot to put his team back in the lead.

Just before the midway point of the period, Pistols D Raymond Smyth forced a neutral-zone turnover and started an odd-man rush, which Alexander finished with a shot between Carter’s legs.  In the last game, the Pistols star drew a fine for a goal celebration that included a mock round of gunshots at the New York bench.  This time, Alexander dropped his stick and skated past the Night bench while taking a deep bow.

Less than a minute after Alexander’s goal, C Marco Venezio made it 5-2 by going top shelf from the slot.  D Clayton Risch closed out the scoring for the period with a deflection that a helpless Carter failed to corral.

When the clock struck zero on the opening frame, the Pistols had fired 27 shots at the New York net and scored a half-dozen times.  They’d driven Carter out of the game.  They’d also rendered the arena utterly quiet.

“We headed down the tunnel and we heard total silence,” said Lafayette.  “They were too shocked to even boo us.  It was beautiful.”

When the game resumed, a healthy chunk of the crowd did not return.  They correctly sensed that the Night were not going to rally.  And the Pistols declined to take their foot off the gas, scoring four more times against relief goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross.

The Pistols’ scoring was impressively democratic: their 10 goals were scored by nine different players, with only C Calvin Frye recording more than one.  (Frye had a chance at a hat trick during a third-period power play, but he instead passed to Smyth, who beat Ross on the short side.)  Every Hamilton player recorded at least one point.

“I think it’s a testament to what a balanced team we are,” said Shields.  “We don’t just rely on our stars.”  This could be interpreted as a shot at the Night, whose offense revolves around their star-laden top line.

After a pause, Shields added an unambiguous shot: “It’s also a testament to how fired up our whole team was after the last game.  Coach Foster is a great motivator, at least for our guys.”

For his part, Foster reacted to the shellacking with humor.  “Man, somebody really stuck a bee in their jockstraps, huh?  I guess it was mine.  I’m honored that I mean so much to them, that they went to all that trouble to whip my [expletive].  Well, congrats, you bastards!  We can’t wait to return the favor next time we’re in Tank Town, assuming their barn doesn’t collapse before then.”

Continue reading “Pistols Get Mad, Get Even in Rout of Night”

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].”

Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead

The Seattle Sailors had a golden opportunity to seize the lead in the tumultuous Western division on Saturday.  With the Michigan Gray Wolves and Anchorage Igloos both suffering losses, the Sailors only needed a win over the struggling Washington Galaxy to claim sole possession of first place.

Through the game’s first two periods, Seattle appeared to be on a glide path to victory, claiming a 6-1 lead.  But then came a nightmarish third period in which the Sailors collapsed, lost their lead, and had to settle for a tie and a share of the lead with Michigan.  It felt like a golden opportunity wasted for the team in green.

“A game like this, it’s just a total shot in the gut,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “It’s just devastating.”

When the puck dropped for the start of the third period, the Sailors were appropriately confident.  They’d rocked Galaxy netminder Darrell Bondurant for a half-dozen goals already.  The primary question seemed to be whether they’d keep pushing to run up a signature win, or if they’d ease up and focus on grinding the clock.

Just 30 seconds into the period, Seattle RW Elliott Pepper was sent to the penalty box for elbowing.  Eight seconds into the ensuing power play, Galaxy winger Jefferson McNeely fired home a slapper on the short side.  No big deal; it was still a 6-2 game.

Three minutes later, though, Galaxy LW Casey Thurman scored on an odd-man rush to make it 6-3.  A bit of a nervous rumble passed through the crowd; was Washington going to make this a game?  Sailors star Vince Mango quickly calmed the fans’ nerves, marching down the ice from the following faceoff and beat Bondurant top shelf to make it 7-3.  Back to cruising time again.

But the plucky Galaxy refused to give up, and they slowly chipped away at Seattle’s lead.  At just past the seven-minute mark, C Harvey Bellmore deflected a shot over the blocker of Sailors goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to cut the deficit back to three.  Then just before the mid-point of the period, Sailors D Woody Fairwood coughed up the puck in the neutral zone.  Washington stormed down the ice, and C Tucker Barnhill – centering a line of SHL rookies – tucked it home between Ross’s legs.  Suddenly it was a 7-5 game, and the crowd became deeply uneasy.  So did the Sailors bench.

“We’d already taken the W in our heads, and suddenly it was a game again,” said Sailors C Napoleon Beasley.  “We knew we had to respond.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund called time out to calm his anxious team, but he appeared not to make any major strategic changes.  He did not remove Ross from the game, and he largely appeared to settle on playing defensive hockey and grinding the clock.

However, defensive hockey has never been Seattle’s strong suit.  And a couple minutes later, a failed clear by Mango turned into another Washington opportunity, and McNeely snuck one just inside the right post to make it a 7-6 contest.

The Sailors then made a belated bid to turn it back on and add to their lead, but couldn’t find the switch.  And with three minutes left in the game, the Galaxy’s rookie third line struck again.  Newly acquired RW Mickey Simpson went bar-down to tie it up and sink Century 21 Arena into a shell-shocked funk.

After the game, Engellund took a somewhat philosophical tack.  “Is this an embarrassing one?  Heck yes,” the coach said in his postgame press conference.  “If we miss the playoffs by a point, are we going to look back and regret this?  You bet.  But we can’t let ourselves dwell on this.  We’ve got to keep moving forward and play like we know how.”

Mango, meanwhile, seemed to shrug it off.  “This was one of those crazy fluke games, you know?” the Sailors star said.  “Like an asteroid strike.  It’s one in a million.  But it doesn’t wipe out all the great wins we’ve had this year.  Just forget it and go to the next one.”

Can the Sailors forget this loss, or will the memory haunt them?  Whether they can make their first-ever playoff trip in their last season in Seattle may depend on the answer.

Continue reading “Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead”

Wolves Sink Sailors in Record-Breaking Fashion

After the Seattle Sailors made a couple of major acquisitions at the trading deadline, they considered themselves ready to grab a playoff spot.  And they didn’t hesitate to let the world know it.  “Michigan and Anchorage better be on notice,” said RW Vince Mango after the deal were announced last Thursday.  “Their time is almost up; we’re coming for them.  We’re building a new dynasty in the Pacific Northwest.”

The Sailors had their first chance to back up those bold words on Saturday, when they traveled to Cadillac Place to face the Michigan Gray WolvesRon Wright’s club was well aware of Mango’s boasts, and were prepared to teach the upstarts a lesson.  “Believe me, [Mango’s quotes are] up on our bulletin board,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.

Come Saturday night, Michigan had indeed taught the Sailors a lesson in particularly brutal fashion.  The Wolves came away with a 13-0 victory, the most lopsided game in SHL history.

“Maybe next time [Seattle] wants to call themselves a dynasty,” said Wright, “they might hold off until they finish over .500 for once.”

The game was a front-to-back thumping.  Nine different Michigan players scored goals, and everyone except D Brooks Zabielski recorded at least one point.  “We pride ourselves on having the kind of depth that most teams can’t touch,” said Wright.  “As I’m sure Seattle is learning, it takes more than a couple of big stars to win championships.”

Things went sideways for the Sailors early on, as they ended the first period down 3-0.  Bailes and RW Oskar Denison scored 21 seconds apart less than three minutes into the game, and C Warren Marlow added another tally with 6:45 remaining

Marlow scored twice in the second period to complete the hat trick.  “Marlie’s not the type to get his name in the papers all the time,” said Bailes, “but he just goes out there and gets the job done.  We like that.” Marlow completed his hat trick just over 11 minutes into the period.  The game was delayed for ten minutes while fans flung their hats to the ice and the arena crew cleaned them up.  The Sailors huddled on their bench and tried to regroup.  “We knew we needed to do something to change the momentum if we were going to get back in it,” said Seattle coach Harold Engellund.

Unfortunately for Engellund and his team, that momentum shift never came.  The wheels really came off after Marlow’s hat trick, as Michigan scored three more times before the period ended.  Wolves fans taunted Seattle goalie Rocky Goldmire with razzing repetition of his name and a running tally of the score every time the puck found the back of the net.

Engellund finally yanked his goalie after the second period was over.  “Rocky was looking a little shell-shocked out there,” said the Sailors coach.  “I knew he just needed to go get a shower and a beer.”

Ordinarily, with a virtually insurmountable lead and a whole period left to go, Wright would have ordered his team to take their foot off the gas.  But instead they kept the hammer down, putting five more goals past backup netminder “Jersey Mike” Ross.

“Were we sending a message?  You bet we were,” said Wright after the game.  “[The Sailors] said they were ready to play with the big boys.  We wanted to show them what that was really like.”

In the visiting locker room, the Sailors struggled to absorb their shellacking.  “Man, I really pissed them off, didn’t I?” said Mango.  “It’s just like when we were in school; stand up to the bully and he beats you to a pulp to teach you a lesson. Lesson learned, I guess.  But I can’t wait until we turn the tables and beat them up next time.”

For the Wolves, Mango’s boasts lit their competitive fires at a critical juncture of the season.  “Honestly, I should be thankful to Mango,” said Wright.  “It can be a struggle to find motivation when you’re as far ahead as we are.  But he ran his mouth and gave us all the motivation we needed.  I might have to hire him to come get us fired up again before the playoffs.  His calendar should be wide open then.”

Continue reading “Wolves Sink Sailors in Record-Breaking Fashion”