Bliss Run Wild At Sheetz as Season Ends

The Hershey Bliss saw their disappointing season wind to an end this week.  The players have long since resigned themselves to the fact that they won’t have a chance to defend their title.  As a result, they weren’t consumed by sadness or anger as the regular season drew to a close; rather, they were possessed by a feeling that C Justin Valentine described as “a really deep, deep weirdness.”  That weirdness boiled over on Saturday in a most unusual rest stop.

All of Hershey’s games this week were on the road, so the team spent the week flying from one Eastern city to another, including two separate trips across the border and back.  “We were all pretty punchy this week,” admitted Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick.  On Thursday night, they flew back in from Quebec.  Rather than heading to Washington, site of Saturday’s finale, the Bliss went home to Hershey to participate in an autograph session scheduled at a local mall on Friday.

Then on Saturday morning, the team boarded a bus down to DC.  “Somehow, it felt like our season in a nutshell,” said Valentine.  “Instead of getting ready for the playoffs, here we are rolling through the countryside in a bus, on our way to a meaningless game against our supposed rivals, who aren’t making the playoffs either.  I think something kind of snapped for us on that ride.”

When the bus got to Thurmont, Maryland, the team insisted on stopping.  The bus pulled into the Sheetz just off of US Route 15, and the team descended on the convenience store.  “We get a lot of buses through here,” said Sheetz clerk Alvin Clark, “but something about the way these guys came in told me they were going to be trouble.”

As the Bliss wandered the aisles, they began behaving (in Valentine’s words) like “a bunch of four-year-olds on a sugar high.”  Valentine and his fellow “Love Line” mates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart grabbed sodas out of the case, snuck up on their teammates, and poured the sodas over their heads.  The team’s defensemen grabbed a 24-pack of beer and engaged in a drinking contest.  Kirkpatrick and RW Noah Daniels monopolized the Made-to-Order food screens, trying to top each other with increasingly elaborate custom orders.

LW Trevor Green cleaned out the store’s entire supply of jerky, reasoning that “maybe we’ll get in a crash, and this will buy us a day or two before we have to resort to cannibalism.”  Meanwhile, RW Sven Danielsen (known as the team’s “den mother”) bought one of every medicine on the shelf, saying that “you can’t be too careful on the road.”

Goalie Brandon Colt took things to another level when he grabbed a couple of donuts out of the pastry case and used them to play Frisbee with his backup, Milo Stafford.  The pair knocked over display racks left and right as they dove for donuts.

Chip Barber

After about 15 minutes of this madness, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber (wondering where his team had gone) came into the store.  As he took in the chaos around him, the coach’s eyes bulged and the veins on his forehead throbbed.  “What the hell is going on here?!” Barber shouted, as his players froze.  After a couple of them mumbled attempts at an explanation, the coach held help his hand.  “Never mind, I don’t want to know.  You’ve got two minutes to clean this up and get out of here.”

The players sighed and obeyed the coach’s orders.  Just as the bus was about to pull away, however, Stafford came running out of the store, hollering after his colleagues.  As he got on the bus, Stafford explained that he’d found something he had to buy.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out an inflatable water toy in the shape of a rubber duck.  “I love rubber ducks!” Stafford said by way of explanation.

“I don’t know if I’m a coach or a zookeeper,” sighed Barber.  “Those guys were basically looting that poor store.  And they didn’t even grab any chocolate bars!”

Somehow, in spite of all the craziness of the morning, Hershey managed to win the game that night, defeating rival Washington 4-3 in overtime.  For the Bliss, it was a day to remember at the end of a season to forget.  “It was a cathartic experience, and I’m glad we did it,” said Sweet.  “Even though they’ll probably never let us in that Sheetz again.”

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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.”

Bliss Enjoying Sweet Life Atop East

The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness.  Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title.  The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all.  Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.

“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart.  Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players.  “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said.  “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind.  Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title.  You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”

Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart.  The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half.  They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.

Justin Valentine

“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship.  What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’  Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal.  Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”

What’s the secret to Hershey’s success?  They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.

Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team.  They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league.  Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season.  But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet.  This year, the top line is getting considerably more help.  LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points).  C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season.  And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).

Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger.  The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease.  They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier.  “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.

Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch.  Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him.  Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA.  And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.

“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber.  “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season.  Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season.  But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”

Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half.  The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well.  Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in.  Our fate is in our hands.”

Tigres’ Offense Goes Missing

If you looked at the Quebec Tigres‘ defensive statistics, you’d probably figure they were a leading contender in the East.  They have a ferocious, hard-hitting defense that’s great at slowing the pace and preventing opponents from establishing momentum on offense.  And on the rare occasion that a team can get a shot off, Quebec has one of the league’s best netminders, Riki Tiktuunen, there to stop it.

So why are the Tigres down in fourth with a sub-.500 record?  Because of their dysfunctional, sputtering offense.  Quebec has generated far fewer shots and scored fewer goals than any other team.  The team’s scoring shortcomings were especially apparent this week, when they lit the lamp only five times while failing to win a game.

“It is frustrating, I cannot lie,” said Tiktuunen, who posted an 0-1-3 record despite a 1.00 GAA and a .970 save percentage.  “Knowing that there is no margin for error, it puts much pressure on you to be perfect.”

“Defensively, we are world-class,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But offensively, we are at a junior level.  This must improve.”

On Saturday, the Tigres faced off against the Michigan Gray Wolves, Delorme’s former club.  Both squads feature a defense-first approach and have elite goalies, so goals were sure to be at a premium.  And sure enough, 65 minutes later, the teams had recorded the SHL’s first-ever scoreless tie.  Tiktuunen stopped 36 shots, while Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist made 21 saves.  “A defensive masterclass,” said Tigres D Dmitri Kalashnikov.  “It was like a brilliant chess match.”

A scoreless tie against the league’s best team left the Tigres feeling good.  But they weren’t so thrilled the next night, when they were shut out again by the Washington Galaxy.  Tiktuunen was on his game again, stopping 28 pucks, but Quebec managed only 12 shots and Galaxy LW Casey Thurman deflected a puck past Tiktuunen midway through the third period to steal a 1-0 victory.

“It’s like there’s a brick wall at our blue line,” said Tigres RW Stephane Mirac.  “No zone time, no shots.”

On Tuesday, the Tigres launched 32 shots at Hershey Bliss netminder Milo Stafford, but the veteran turned them all aside as Quebec recorded yet another scoreless tie.

“Three straight games and no goals,” said Delorme.  “This is not acceptable.  This offensive constipation cannot continue.”

Facing the porous defense of the New York Night, the Tigres finally got their attack in gear and put three pucks in the net.  But they couldn’t match the Night’s speed, surrendering 49 shots and allowing a 3-3 tie.

On Friday, with backup netminder Guillaume Levan in net, Quebec collapsed in the third, surrendering four goals on 15 shots in a 6-1 rout.

“We know that we have to step it up,” said Tigres LW Pascal Royal.  “Our defense and Riki are giving us chance after chance to win, but if we cannot score, we will squander those opportunities.”

Bliss Nab Goalie at Deadline

Hershey SmallDakota SmallUnlike last year, there were some significant deals made at the trading deadline this year.  Perhaps the most significant deal involved the Hershey Bliss acquiring goalie Jesse Clarkson from the Dakota Rapids in exchange for netminder Buzz Carson and a first-round pick.  With the trade, Hershey patched their biggest hole to prepare for a playoff run, while Dakota finally pulled the trigger on a move they’ve seemingly planned to make since the SHL began.

“Going into the deadline, our #1 target was picking up a top-quality goalie,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Jesse was far and away the best guy available, and we got what we needed.  Now we’re ready to make a run at the division.”

jesse-clarkson
Jesse Clarkson

Goaltending has been a consistent problem for Hershey since the SHL’s inception.  Last year, the Bliss shuffled between Riley Lattimore and Milo Stafford between the pipes, with neither producing consistent results.  So in the offseason, the Bliss shipped Lattimore to Anchorage and drafted Carson, a highly-regarded prospect from Lake Ontario State.  The 22-year-old has shown flashes of promise (10-11-2, 2.88 GAA, .901 save percentage) and has improved with experience, but the Hershey front office felt that neither he nor Stafford was capable of providing playoff-caliber netminding.

“This wasn’t an easy deal for us to make,” said Lawrence.  “We really like what Buzz has shown, and he’s really blossomed with experience.  I believe he could be a goaltender in the Finals someday.  But we’re ready to get to the Finals right now, and Buzz isn’t quite there yet.  Jesse’s the guy we need now.”

buzz-carson
Buzz Carson

Dealing Clarkson represents a victory of sorts for Rapids GM Paul Mindegaard.  The 27-year-old Clarkson has provided solid netminding for Dakota since the league’s inception (including a 15-10-3 record, 3.21 GAA, and .914 save percentage this season), but Mindegaard has reportedly never been sold on him as an elite goaltender.  The GM has expressed a clear desire to give more playing time to youngster Christien Adamsson, a South Dakota native.  Rapids coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, preferred Clarkson.  This created a rift between the two that reportedly put the coach’s job in jeopardy after a lackluster start to the season.

The Rapids’ recent 10-1-1 streak was enough to save Engellund, but it apparently wasn’t enough to spare Clarkson.  Mindegaard noted that the Rapids trail division-leading Michigan by 17 points as justification for the deal.  “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to contend right now,” said the Dakota GM.  “With that in mind, we made a deal that will open up some more opportunities for Christien, sure.  But we’ve also got another high-quality goalie prospect in the deal, plus we’ve got a pick that will allow us to land another top young player.  We’re looking down the road at what it’s going to take to get by Michigan and Anchorage.”

Clarkson expressed relief that the deal had finally been made and expressed excitement at joining the Bliss.  “It feels like I’ve been on my way out of town for two seasons now,” said Clarkson.  “That really wears on a guy, so I’m glad that it finally happened.  And I’m really glad to go to a team that’s got a real shot to go all the way.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Carson, meanwhile, had a more mixed reaction.  “I really liked it in Hershey,” said the young goalie.  “I liked my teammates and the chemistry, and I really liked the chocolate.  But I’m hoping to have a good opportunity where I go next.  I think Christien Adamsson and I will inspire each other to get better.”

SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 2:

Seattle SmallHamilton SmallThe expansion Seattle Sailors made a splash and landed some veteran talent to guide them in their inaugural campaign.  The Sailors acquired C Cliff Derringer, RW “King George” Lane, and D Hylton Windham from the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for first-round and third-round picks and F Elmo Jacobson.  In Derringer, the Sailors land a solid scorer (21 goals and 35 points last season) who is expected to anchor their top line.  Lane, meanwhile, is a capable passer (23 assists in 2015) who may be placed on the top line to feed Derringer and top draft pick Vince Mango.  Windham appeared in limited action for Hamilton last season, scoring 4 points in 22 games, but is best known for being the first native of the Bahamas to play professional hockey.  The Pistols are rebuilding under new coach Keith Shields, and the picks (which were used to draft D Clayton “Crusher” Risch and LW Norris “Beaver” Young) will help position the team for the future.  The 24-year-old Jacobson spent last season with Saskatchewan, for whom he scored 9 points.

Quebec SmallNew York smallThe other expansion team, the Quebec Tigres, made several moves after the expansion draft. First, they dealt RW Kenny Patterson and D Teddy Morrison to the New York Night in exchange for LW Pascal Royal.  The Tigres have made a point of acquiring as many Quebec natives as possible, and Royal certainly qualifies.  He will also provide the Tigres with a dose of badly-needed offense, having put up 15 goals and 40 points in New York.  Patterson is being reunited with his former club, as Quebec plucked him from New York in the expansion draft.  The winger scored 13 goals and 37 points for the Night last year.  Morrison was a gritty defender who spent last season with Washington, putting up 12 points in 56 games.

Quebec SmallSaskatchewan SmallThe Tigres also strengthened their blue line by acquiring Viktor Babykin, a rugged stay-home defenseman, from the Saskatchewan Shockers, along with F Alois Rodney in exchange for rookie D Brody “Bruiser” McCallan.  Babykin is known as one of the SHL’s meanest players, a man who never hesitates to drop the gloves and was one of the league leaders in penalty minutes last year.  His pugnacious personality also created some friction in the Shockers locker room, however.  The 21-year-old McCallan, the Tigres’ third-round draft pick, spent last season in the Quebec junior league, where he put up 12 points.  Rodney, who was the last player selected in the draft,  put up 6 points in limited action in the Swiss league last season.

Quebec SmallHamilton SmallIn their final deal, the Tigres picked up another left winger, Stellan Fisker, from the Hamilton Pistols.  Fisker put up 17 goals and 30 points for Hamilton last season.  The Pistols sent Fisker and the just-acquired Jacobson to Quebec in exchange for a pair of rookies, LW Magnus Gunnarson and the aforementioned Rodney, and a second-round pick in next year’s draft.  Gunnarson, who was selected in the second round by Quebec, scored 15 goals last season for Lake Erie State.

Hershey SmallAnchorage SmallThe Hershey Bliss and the Anchorage Igloos struck a major deal on draft night, with the Bliss sending G Riley Lattimore to the Igloos in exchange for RW Sven Danielsen.  Lattimore began last season as Hershey’s starting goalie, but struggled and wound up losing playing time to backup Milo Stafford.  Lattimore finished the season with a 12-18-1 record with a 3.70 GAA, as the Bliss stumbled to a disappointing third-place finish in the East.  He became expendable after Hershey picked netminder Buzz Carson in the second round of the draft.  Lattimore will serve as a backup in Anchorage, who lost their former second-string goalie, Ron Mason, to Seattle in the expansion draft.  Danielsen, meanwhile, spent last season on the second line for the champion Igloos, netting 11 goals and 28 points.  He lost his spot on the Anchorage depth chart to Remi Montrechere, as the Igloos found themselves with forward depth to spare.

Dakota SmallHamilton SmallIn a minor swap of defenders, the Dakota Rapids shipped Jose Martinez and rookie Fyodor Agrozonov to the Hamilton Pistols for Pierre Chappelle.  Chapelle was a solid two-way defenseman for the Pistols last season, putting up 10 points.  Martinez was an offensive-minded defender who struggled somewhat in Dakota, posting 7 points in 52 games.  Agrozonov is a 22-year-old who played the last two seasons in the KHL.