2018 SHL Finals – Game 5

QUEBEC TIGRES 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

When the Anchorage Igloos won the first three games of this championship series, the pundits were all but ready to hand them the Vandy.  Maybe the Quebec Tigres would win one to avoid the embarrassment of a sweep, but that was all.  Surely, Quebec couldn’t win back-to-back games in the hostile confines of Arctic Circle Arena, much less the four straight they’d need to win the series.

But after today’s 4-2 win in Game 5, the Tigres now have the back-to-back road wins they needed.  And after they scored three goals in the third period to secure a come-from-behind win, the momentum is firmly in Quebec’s corner.  Mind you, they haven’t won yet.  They still need to win two more.  But after a game that seemed virtually tailor-made to sow doubt in the minds of the Igloos, a miracle comeback no longer seems like an impossibility.

“Seems like Anchorage might have been taking this win for granted,” said LW Stellan Fisker.  “But we never gave up on ourselves, and we aren’t going to.”

As for the Igloos, there was a definite undercurrent of unease in the locker room after the game.  “We definitely felt like this was one we could have had,” said C Jake Frost.

Similar to Game 4, the first couple of periods were a little on the slow side, as the Tigres used their defense to set the pace.  And just like Game 4, the visitors got on the board first, with RW Stephane Mirac getting on the board just 20 seconds in on a shot that banked in off the left post.  Unlike in Game 4, Anchorage struck back and re-took the lead.  RW Ben Summers tied it up on a power-play goal eight minutes in, and C Harvey Bellmore put the Igloos ahead with a redirect that found the upper left corner of the net with six minutes left in the period.

As the teams headed to the locker room after the first intermission with the Igloos up 2-1, the crowd seemed cheerful and confident of victory.  Forty more minutes, and their heroes would be circling the ice showing off their latest trophy.  Perhaps the boys in blue allowed themselves to entertain the same fantasies.

After a scoreless second period, the Igloos found themselves a mere 20 minutes away from the title.  The crowd’s cheering became more intense, and the fans began serenading some of the players by name.  “We might have gotten ahead of ourselves a bit,” admitted Frost.

Neither the Igloos nor their fans were ready for what happened in the third period, but it’s likely to be seared in their minds for a long time to come.  49 seconds into the period, Fisker fired a low line drive that deflected off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s stick, bounced off his arm, and went into the net.  “That was a soft one,” admitted Worthington.  “I should have stopped it.”

After that, Tigres LW Walt Camernitz stole the show.  Quebec made a splash in the offseason by signing the ex-Washington winger to a five-year, $20 million deal.  Camernitz proved to be a worthwhile investment, jump-starting their moribund offense and turning the Tigres from a promising young club into a contender.  It was only fitting that he would provide the winning goals in the biggest game of their season so far.

At 7:15 into the third, during the tail end of a power play, Camernitz fired a severe-angle shot that somehow eluded Worthington and found the twice, giving Quebec its first lead of the period.  Just over three minutes later, C Mikhail Ilyushin fed him a pass in the left faceoff circle, and he thundered a slapper that Worthington never seemed to see to make it a 4-2 game.

“Walt is worth every penny we paid him,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “He has brought us scoring, defense, and leadership all in one package.”

The Tigres weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  They had to kill off an extended 5-on-3 situation in the latter half of the third; Frost nearly scored on the two-man advantage, but his shot rang off the post.  But that was as close as the Igloos would come to scoring.  By the time the final siren sounded, the crowd sat stunned and virtually silent, denied the celebration they were sure was coming.

Anchorage coach Sam Castor cautioned against panic.  “We still just have to win one of these in order to get the title,” the coach said.  “But we’ll need to play a sharper, more disciplined game than we saw out there tonight.  We’re close, but we haven’t won anything yet.  We need to remember that.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 5”

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2018 SHL Division Playoff – Game 4

Eastern Division Series

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, QUEBEC TIGRES 0

After the Hamilton Pistols dropped the first two games of the best-of-five Eastern playoff to the Quebec Tigres despite outshooting their opponent in both games, many observers predicted that the Tigres would make quick work of the series.  Hamilton had finished the regular season on a cold streak, and it looked like Tigres goalie Riki Tiktuunen would extend their slump right out of the playoffs.

Pistols coach Keith Shields dismissed the naysayers.  For one thing, he felt that Tiktuunen’s success wasn’t sustainable.  “Tiktuunen’s a great goalie, but he’s not unbeatable,” Shields told reporters.  “I feel like the puck luck is due to break our way.  If we keep firing pucks at him, he’s going to crack eventually.”

Even more, though, he felt that the enthusiasm of the home crowds would shift the momentum in Hamilton’s favor.  “You feed off the energy of your fans in your building,” said Shields.  “Our fans are great, and I know they’re gonna be loud for us.  That will give us extra energy and tilt the ice our way.”

The Pistols and their fans validated the coach’s faith in the last two games.  After surviving a long grind and pulling out a double-overtime win in Game 3, Hamilton came out strong and used the energy in the building to fuel a 2-0 win, sending the series to a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Quebec.  Tiktuunen looks mortal, and the Pistols’ top-notch top line is getting hot at the right time.

“Now, all those smart guys who were reading our obituary after the first two games, don’t you feel silly?” said Shields.  “I told you this team was too talented to be held down, especially with our fans behind us.”

The game started slowly, as both clubs seemed a bit drained from their Game 3 marathon.  But an early penalty on Tigres D Doug Wesson got the crowd fired up, and the Pistols quickly warmed to the task.  They pinned Quebec in their own zone through the power play, and LW Steven Alexander broke through with a shot from the bottom of the left faceoff circle that snuck in above Tiktuunen’s blocker.  If was only the second shot of the entire game, but it put Hamilton in front.

“Getting that first goal was huge,” Alexander said.  “It fired up the crowd and fired up our bench, too.  It was the shot of adrenaline we needed.”

As the second period began, the Pistols had found a rhythm.  They nearly cashed in on another early-period power play, as RW Kenny Patterson fired a shot that dribbled between Tiktuunen’s pads.  The Quebec netminder managed to sweep the puck away before it crossed the goal line, however.  A couple minutes later, Hamilton killed off an elbowing penalty to LW Jamie Campbell, and the crowd roared and stomped so hard that the benches shook.

“It felt like it was an earthquake,” said Tigres C Mikhail Ilyushin.

Shortly after the Campbell penalty ended, Pistols C Calvin Frye grabbed a loose puck near his own blue line and fired a perfect pass to Alexander, who had leaked out of the zone.  Alexander streaked up the ice, deked past Quebec D Hal Pugliese, and thundered a slapshot that beat Tiktuunen and went bar-down for a second goal.

That two-goal lead felt more like ten given Quebec’s challenges in jump-starting its sluggish offense.  The Tigres had one more power play opportunity in the second and two in the third, but they couldn’t convert on them, and they found it virtually impossible to generate shots during 5-on-5 play.

“We need more quality and more quantity on offense,” said Quebec coach Martin Delorme.  “What we saw tonight will not get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen looked sharp, turning aside all 24 shots he faced.  “Lasse really stayed on it tonight,” said Hamilton D Hercules Mulligan.  “There were stretches were the action in our end was so dead he probably wanted to pull out a rocking chair and take it easy.  But whenever they made it through to our end, he was on his toes and making the stops.”

All in all, it was a decisive win for the Pistols, and momentum is definitely on their side going into the deciding game.  But will they be able to keep it going as the action shifts back to Quebec?  Shields pointed out repeatedly that his team got a boost from the red-clad throngs at Gunpowder Armory; how will they do amid the orange-clad throngs at Centre Citadelle, rooting for their defeat?  How badly will the Pistols miss third-line center Edz Zalmanis, who left the game late in the second period with an upper-body injury and is reportedly done for the year?

And what about Tiktuunen, who looked superhuman in the first two games but distinctly mortal in the last two?  Will he rediscover his mojo on home ice, or have the Pistols figured him out?

A shot at the Vandy rides on the answers to those questions.  Both teams can’t wait to find out what happens next.

E Final - Game 4, Quebec @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Quebec             0   0   0        0
Hamilton           1   1   0        2

 
Quebec                 G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Camernitz       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Alexander       LW     2   0   2   0   1
Workman         D      0   0   0   0   0   Smyth           D      0   1   1   0   0
Zarkovich       C      0   0   0   2   0   Frye            C      0   2   2   0   1
McKinley        D      0   0   0   0   0   Risch           D      0   0   0   2   0
Mirac           RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0   1
Fisker          LW     0   0   0   0   0   Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Ilyushin        C      0   0   0   0  -1   Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0   0
Jones           D      0   0   0   0   0   Constantine     C      0   0   0   4   0
Robinson        RW     0   0   0   0   0   Werner          D      0   0   0   2   0
MacDiarmid      LW     0   0   0   0   0   Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0   0
Pugliese        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0
Kalashnikov     D      0   0   0   2  -1   Glasco          D      0   0   0   0   1
Pentti          RW     0   0   0   0   0   Zalmanis        C      0   0   0   0   0
Miller          C      0   0   0   0   0   Soforenko       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Wesson          D      0   0   0   2   0   Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 0   0   0   6  -1   TOTALS                 2   3   5  10   1

Scratches:
QUE:  Shovshenkov, Zhzhynov, Kane
HAM:  Kratz, Jennings, Rodney

 
Quebec              SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Tiktuunen           31    29    2  0.935

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            24    24    0  1.000

 

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

GOALS:
03:31  HAM  Alexander PP (Smyth, Frye)

PENALTIES:
02:34  QUE  Wesson 2:00 (Diving)
04:06  HAM  Constantine 2:00 (Cross-checking)
14:06  QUE  Kalashnikov 2:00 (Diving)

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

GOALS:
09:07  HAM  Alexander (Frye)

PENALTIES:
01:37  QUE  Zarkovich 2:00 (Tripping)
05:03  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Elbowing)
17:18  HAM  Werner 2:00 (Interference)

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

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
01:29  HAM  Risch 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
14:35  HAM  Constantine 2:00 (Holding the Stick)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Quebec             7   8   9       24
Hamilton           8  11  12       31

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

Quebec           0 for 5
Hamilton         1 for 3

 
INJURIES
--------

Edgars Zalmanis (HAM) -- Upper-body  20 games

 

2018 SHL Division Playoff – Game 2

Eastern Division Series

QUEBEC TIGRES 2, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

The Quebec Tigres are taking an unconventional route to success.  In Game 1, the Hamilton Pistols outshot them by a 2-to-1 margin, but Quebec still pulled out a 2-1 win in overtime thanks to the heroics of goalie Riki Tiktuunen.  In Game 2, the Tigres managed to reduce the Pistols’ volume of shots, although Quebec was still outshot.  With Tiktuunen turning in another strong game, the Tigres were able to come from behind and claim a 2-1 win that gives them a 2-0 lead in the series.

“I think all of our postseason paychecks should go to Riki,” said Quebec C Mikhail Ilyushin.  “He has been our star in this series.”

Of the 27 shots Hamilton aimed at Tiktuunen in this game, the Finnish netminder turned aside 26 of them.  The only one that eluded him occurred in the first minute of the game, when the Tigres failed to clear Pistols D Clayton “Crusher” Risch from in front of the net, and he redirected a shot from C Edz Zalmanis underneath the crossbar.

“Riki never had a shot at that one,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “Even Superman cannot stop what he cannot see.”

Faced with their first deficit of the series, the Tigres went to work trying to even the score.  But Quebec’s attempts to rally were stymied by a rash of penalties.  They spent a significant chunk of the first period killing off penalties to LW Walt Camernitz and D Laurie Workman.  Then in the second period, Tigres C Drustan Zarkovich was sent to the penalty box three separate times.

“I spent so much time in the sin bin, I thought maybe I should bring my toothbrush,” said Zarkovich.

In between penalty kills, D Richard McKinley managed to tie the game for Quebec by going five-hole on Pistols netminder Lasse Koskinen.  It was one of only six shots for the Tigres in the second period.  “Between the penalties and all, it felt like we were trying to climb out of a pit of quicksand,” said Camernitz.

Just over three and a half minutes into the third period, Camernitz fired a laser that seemed to go through Koskinen and into the net, giving Quebec the lead.  “I thought I was going to look down and find a hole in my jersey,” said Koskinen.

After Camernitz’s tally, the Tigres turned up their defense for the rest of the period, holding the Pistols to eight shots, all of which Tiktuunen turned aside.

Delorme praised his team’s effort, although he criticized them for taking too many penalties.  “We looked much more like ourselves today,” the Quebec coach said.  “As long as we can avoid taking careless calls, we will be in good shape.”

Pistols coach Keith Shields remained upbeat, although his team is now only one loss away from elimination.  “The whole mojo of this series is going to shift when we’re back in our place,” Shields told reporters.  “We’ve got to solve Tiktuunen, but I’m confident we can do that when we’ve got our crowd behind us.”

 

E Final - Game 2, Hamilton @ Quebec, Centre Citadelle

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton           1   0   0        1
Quebec             0   1   1        2

 
Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-   Quebec                 G   A PTS PIM +/-

Alexander       LW     0   0   0   0  -1   Camernitz       LW     1   0   1   2   1
Smyth           D      0   1   1   0   0   Workman         D      0   0   0   2   0
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -1   Zarkovich       C      0   0   0   6   0
Risch           D      1   0   1   0   0   McKinley        D      1   0   1   0   0
Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Mirac           RW     0   1   1   0   1
Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   0   Fisker          LW     0   0   0   0   0
Mulligan        D      0   0   0   5  -1   Ilyushin        C      0   0   0   0   1
Constantine     C      0   0   0   0   0   Jones           D      0   1   1   0   1
Werner          D      0   0   0   0  -1   Robinson        RW     0   0   0   0   0
Patterson       RW     0   0   0   0   0   MacDiarmid      LW     0   1   1   0   0
Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0   Pugliese        D      0   0   0   0   0
Glasco          D      0   0   0   0   0   Kalashnikov     D      0   0   0   4   0
Zalmanis        C      0   1   1   0   0   Pentti          RW     0   0   0   5   0
Soforenko       LW     0   0   0   0   0   Miller          C      0   0   0   0   0
Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   0   Wesson          D      0   0   0   0   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3   7  -1   TOTALS                 2   3   5  19   1

Scratches:
HAM:  Kratz, Jennings, Rodney
QUE:  Shovshenkov, Zhzhynov, Kane

 
Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            21    19    2  0.905

Quebec              SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Tiktuunen           27    26    1  0.963

 

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

GOALS:
00:59  HAM  Risch (Zalmanis, Smyth)

PENALTIES:
04:34  QUE  Camernitz 2:00 (Diving)
08:10  QUE  Workman 2:00 (Tripping)

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

GOALS:
02:51  QUE  McKinley (MacDiarmid)

PENALTIES:
00:08  QUE  Zarkovich 2:00 (Delay of Game)
03:40  QUE  Zarkovich 2:00 (Roughing)
16:58  QUE  Zarkovich 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)

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

GOALS:
03:43  QUE  Camernitz (Jones, Mirac)

PENALTIES:
06:23  QUE  Pentti 5:00 (Fighting)
06:23  HAM  Mulligan 5:00 (Fighting)
12:32  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Delay of Game)
13:02  QUE  Kalashnikov 2:00 (Roughing)
19:13  QUE  Kalashnikov 2:00 (Holding the Stick)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hamilton          12   7   8       27
Quebec             7   6   8       21

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

Hamilton         0 for 7
Quebec           0 for 1

 
INJURIES
--------

None

Western Division Series

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, MICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 2

Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor is always quick to point to his team’s depth as its greatest strength.  “Guys like Frosty and Koonsy and Ty [Worthington] get all the headlines,” Castor says, “but lots of teams have stars.  But even if your stars match up with ours, we’re still going to beat you because our second and third lines, and our bottom-pair D, is better than yours.  No other team can match up with us all the way down.”

In Game 2, the Igloos showed the truth of Castor’s statement.  Thanks to the exceptional performance of their third line and the ability to push the pace of the game, Anchorage once again stunned the Michigan Gray Wolves in their building, winning 4-2 to take a 2-0 lead in this best-of-five series.

“It’s the triumph of the scrubs,” said Igloos C Harvey Bellmore.  “We may not get a ton of ice time, but we’re making the most of it.”

Anchorage’s third line – which consists of Bellmore, LW Waldo Miranda, and RW Ben Summers – has been the difference maker so far in this series.  They’ve put up a +5 rating, and they’ve forced Wolves coach Ron Wright to use his top lines heavily in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Michigan got the early edge in this game, as Igloos LW Jerry Koons was whistled for diving within the first minute, and Wolves LW Todd Douglas cashed in on the ensuing power play for a 1-0 Michigan lead.  With the crowd at Cadillac Place in full roar, Castor decided to take a page from his Game 1 playbook and turn the contest into a track meet.  In order to do that, he turned to heavy minutes for his speedy bottom line.

“They can’t trap us if they can’t catch us,” Castor said.

Michigan initially withstood the onslaught – with the help of several Anchorage penalties – but the Igloos broke through before the end of the first period.  Just after killing off a 5-on-3 situation, D Olaf Martinsson blasted home the game-tying shot with the third line on the ice.  Six minutes later, Summers finished off an odd-man rush by slipping one between Dirk Lundquist’s pads for his third goal of the series.  After Wolves D Brooks Zabielski was called for holding the stick late in the first, Koons tipped on in on the power play to make it 3-1.  At period’s end, the arena was as silent as a library.

“They ambushed us and took us right out of the game,” admitted Wolves C Warren Marlow.  “We let the game get away from us.”

In the second period, D Fritz Kronstein scored on another power play to get the Wolves within a goal and stir up the crowd a bit.  But that was as close as they would get, and Bellmore fired one home just inside the post early in the third period to all but seal the game.  Whatever hope Michigan had of rallying in the closing minutes died after D “Mad Max” Madison and C Phoenix Cage both took penalties that Wright said were “just out of frustration.”

The Wolves, who finished with the SHL’s best record by a comfortable margin, find themselves in a most unexpected position.  If they’re going to avoid a humiliating sweep, they’ll need to win Game 3 on enemy ice.  If they’re going to advance to the Finals, they’ll need to reel off three straight wins, including two in Anchorage.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a deep hole,” said Wright.  “Obviously, it’s hurt us that [C Hunter] Bailes is out, but that’s an excuse.  We’ve let Anchorage dictate the game to us, and it’s burned us twice.  Now we need to go win the next three.  We’re capable of doing that, but we’re going to have to get control of the game if we’re going to do it.”

W Final - Game 2, Anchorage @ Michigan, Cadillac Place

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Anchorage          3   0   1        4
Michigan           1   1   0        2

 
Anchorage              G   A PTS PIM +/-   Michigan               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Koons           LW     1   0   1   4   0   Douglas         LW     1   1   2   0   0
Keefe           D      0   1   1   0   1   Kronstein       D      1   1   2   2  -1
Frost           C      0   1   1   0   0   Madison         D      0   1   1   4  -1
Martinsson      D      1   0   1   4   2   Lunsford        RW     0   0   0   0   0
Ericsson        RW     0   0   0   0   0   Beruschko       LW     0   0   0   0   0
Collins         LW     0   0   0   0   0   Mudrick         D      0   0   0   0  -2
Pomfret         D      0   0   0   0   1   Marlow          C      0   1   1   0   0
Bernard         C      0   0   0   0   0   Zabielski       D      0   0   0   2  -2
Frederick       D      0   1   1   0   2   Poulin          RW     0   0   0   0   0
Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0   0   Davenport       LW     0   0   0   0  -3
Miranda         LW     0   3   3   0   3   Bergdorf        D      0   0   0   0   0
Citrone         D      0   0   0   0   0   Knight          C      0   0   0   0   0
Calligan        D      0   0   0   6   0   Tollefson       D      0   0   0   0   0
Summers         RW     1   1   2   0   3   Denison         RW     0   0   0   0  -3
Bellmore        C      1   1   2   0   3   Cage            C      0   0   0   2  -3
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 4   8  12  14   3   TOTALS                 2   4   6  10  -3

Scratches:
ANC:  Zhlotkin, Druzek, Trammell
MIC:  Bailes (inj), Berlinger, Bullock, Eberlein

 
Anchorage           SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Worthington         23    21    2  0.913

Michigan            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           39    35    4  0.897

 

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

GOALS:
00:42  MIC  Douglas PP (Marlow, Kronstein)
10:45  ANC  Martinsson (Frederick, Miranda)
16:50  ANC  Summers (Bellmore, Miranda)
18:52  ANC  Koons PP (Frost, Keefe)

PENALTIES:
00:32  ANC  Koons 2:00 (Diving)
01:43  ANC  Calligan 2:00 (Roughing)
07:33  MIC  Kronstein 2:00 (Tripping)
08:09  ANC  Martinsson 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
08:29  ANC  Koons 2:00 (Roughing)
17:19  MIC  Zabielski 2:00 (Holding the Stick)

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

GOALS:
13:24  MIC  Kronstein PP (Douglas, Madison)

PENALTIES:
09:57  ANC  Calligan 4:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
19:54  ANC  Martinsson 2:00 (Diving)

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

GOALS:
01:59  ANC  Bellmore (Summers, Miranda)

PENALTIES:
17:01  MIC  Madison 4:00 (Elbowing)
19:50  MIC  Cage 2:00 (Interference)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Anchorage         18  10  11       39
Michigan          11   6   6       23

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

Anchorage        1 for 4
Michigan         2 for 6

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2018 Eastern All-Star Roster

The rosters for the Eastern Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, as announced by coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber, were as follows:

First Line

LW: Casey Thurman, WashingtonLast season, Thurman had to be talked into accepting his All-Star nod, due to the fact that he was having an off season by his standards.  2018 is a different story; he’s off to a tremendous start, and when he was voted in as the East’s starting left winger (by about 800 votes over Hamilton’s Steven Alexander), nobody had to persuade him to accept the honor.  Thurman is third in the league in points with 50, and he’s in the top five in goals (21) and assists (29).

D: Reese Milton, HersheyAlthough the Bliss’ attempt to defend their surprise 2017 title have been fairly disastrous, it didn’t stop the fans from voting Milton into the starting lineup.  The blueliner, a well-known squirrel lover, is a bit off of his usual offensive pace, but he’s still putting up decent numbers (5 goals, 15 assists).  In addition, he continues to produce the kind of steady, lock-down defense that has made him one of the league’s top blue-liners.

C: Calvin Frye, HamiltonWith the Pistols tied for the league’s best record at the halfway point of the season, the fans in Hamilton are responding.  Attendance at Gunpowder Armory is up 22% this season, and the league has received 27% more All-Star votes from the Hamilton area than they did in 2017.  Given the fired-up fan base, it’s no surprise that Frye was voted in as the East’s starting center.  The rising star is establishing himself as one of the SHL’s top forwards.  He’s second in the league with 51 points, and his 24 goals is good for third place in the SHL.  In addition, his +27 rating is tied with his linemates for the tops in the league.

D: Dominic Sanchez, New York.  The 28-year-old is arguably the league’s best offensive defenseman, and bolstered by a strong backing from the New York area, he was voted to his second straight starting berth, again narrowly beating out Raymond Smyth of Hamilton.  Sanchez has 29 assists on the season, which places him in the SHL’s top five, to go with a team-best +10 rating.  His excellent performance earned him Player of the Week honors this season for the first time.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  The strong voting contingent from Hamilton nearly elevated Claude Lafayette into this spot, but in the end, McNeely’s exceptional season could not be denied, and he won the position for the second straight year by approximately 3,500 votes.  The Galaxy winger leads the league with 56 points, and is tied for the league lead in goals with 29.  “My home sweet home, DC, I wanna give you a kiss,” said McNeely as he celebrated the honor.

 

Second Line

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. Alexander was offended when he missed out on the starting spot, so much so that he nearly decided to boycott the game entirely.  Alexander certainly had a strong case for starting: he’s tied for the league lead in goals with 29, and he’s also tied for the lead in plus-minus at +27.  The winger was also upset that his best friend and Pistols teammate, Claude Lafayette, was not selected to the game.  But Lafayette convinced Alexander to participate, and the fiery scorer vowed to lift the East to victory.  “When our children tell our story,” Alexander vowed, “they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton. In a repeat of last season, Smuth narrowly missed out on a starting slot. but was immediately named to the squad as the top coach’s choice.  “Everybody in the East has had a chance to see Raymond work,” said Barber.  “We’ve all been burned by him at some point or another.”  Smyth remains one of the league’s best-regarded two-way defensemen.  He has 27 assists on the season, second-highest among SHL blueliners, while also providing the rugged, hard-hitting defense that is his trademark.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey. Last season, Valentine was voted onto the team as a starter.  This season, he needed Barber to name him to the Eastern squad.  Fortunately, the Bliss coach described Valentine as “a no-brainer choice.  We’re not having the kind of year we expected, but Justin’s still an All-Star in my book.”  Although the center is having a bit of an underwhelming year, he is tied for the team lead in goals (12) and points (33).

D: Kevin Buchanan, Washington.  This wasn’t a popular choice among Bliss fans, as Buchanan has been a frequent target of boos at Chocolate Center for his vicious hits and his habit of taunting the Bliss as “soft” in postgame interviews.  Still, Barber didn’t hesitate to select him, noting that “this is the All-Star game, not the Miss Congeniality Awards.  Kevin’s one of those games that you hate when he’s on the other team, but you love when he’s on your side.”  Buchanan is having a surprisingly strong season on offense (5 goals, 23 assists), but it’s his hard hits and smothering defense that fans love — or love to hate.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey. Hart joins his fellow “Love Line” member Valentine on the East’s second line.  Alexander was not alone in believing that Lafayette should have received this slot instead, but Barber said that “Chris is still getting the job done, even if the team is struggling right now.”  Hart is the Bliss’ assist leader with 23, and he’s tied with Valentine for the highest point total with 33.

 

Third Line

LW: Lix Darnholm, BostonUnsurprisingly, Darnholm is the sole representative for the expansion Badgers on the Eastern roster.  The 19-year-old Swedish-born winger is one of the few bright spots for Boston on offense.  He has scored 13 goals so far this season, which is tied with Kansas City’s Noel Picard for the second-highest total among expansion players.  His 28 points is also the second-highest among expansion clubs; only the Smoke’s Royal, a fellow All-Star, has a higher point total.

D: Laurie Workman, QuebecThe Tigres have the second-best record in the East, so it’s something of a surprise that none of their players can be found on the top two lines.  Quebec is nonetheless well represented, with four All-Stars, including three on the bottom line.  Barber said this was by design: “I figured teammates would prefer to play together.”  The rookie Workman is the only Tigres defender on the team.  He is having a strong debut season, with 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) and a +10 rating to go along with stout defense.

C: Mikhail Ilyushin, Quebec.  The 28-year-old Ilyushin makes his first All-Star team this season.  The Tigres have undergone an offensive renaissance this season, with their top line leading the way.  Ilyushin, who centers that top line, has been a key part of that production.  He is second on the team with 34 points on the season, including 12 goals and 22 assists, and he is tied for the team lead with a +13 rating.

D: Jack “Hercules” Mulligan, Hamilton. Mulligan celebrates his second season in the SHL with his first trip to the All-Star game.  A first-round draft pick in 2017, Mulligan is living up to his advance billing with the Pistols.  He’s best known for his fearlessness and his devastating checks, which have become a regular feature of YouTube clips and highlight videos.  He contributes on the offensive end as well, having registered 18 assists so far this season to go with a +11 rating.

RW: Stephane Mirac, Quebec. Mirac joins teammates Ilyushin and Workman on the East’s third line.  The Tigres star makes his first All-Star appearance.  In 2017, Mirac was in the grip of a sophomore slump; this time around, he’s rediscovered the form that caused Quebec fans to nickname him “Stephane Miracle.”  He has scored 16 goals this season, which ranks among the SHL’s top ten, and is a steady and diligent presence on defense.

 

Goaltenders

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton. The strong voting presence from southern Ontario helped Koskinen get over the hump and get the start in his first All-Star appearance.  “I am very honored to have this opportunity, and the recognition for all of my hard work.”  Koskinen’s excellent work has been a key factor in the Pistols’ early success; his .933 save percentage is the league’s best, and he is tied with Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist for the SHL lead with 18 wins.

Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec. Tiktuunen was selected to attend the All-Star Game last season, but he had to bow out due to an injury.  This time, the Finnish netminder is healthy and able to appear in the game.  Tiktuunen has the second-best save percentage in the league, stopping pucks at a .930 clip; only Koskinen has a better percentage.  Tiktuunen’s 17-7-0 record and 1.99 GAA testify to his tremendous work in the crease and the success that the Tigres are having this season.

East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”