CHL Update: Freeze Rookie Arsenyev Is Red-Hot

If you look at the top of the CHL leaderboards for goals-against average (1.22) and save percentage (.960), you’ll see an unexpected name: Kostya Arsenyev of the Minnesota Freeze.  Arsenyev’s presence among the league leaders is unexpected for several reasons.  He’s not just a rookie, but a virtually unknown one, chosen at the tail end of the draft.  Coming into the season, many regarded him as a long shot to make the league at all.  But those who doubted Arsenyev didn’t know about his secret weapon: his determination and drive to succeed.

Kostya Arsenyev

The 21-year-old Arsenyev was born in Ukraine.  For the last three seasons, he had played as a backup netminder in the KHL with Vladivostok.  His numbers were decent but not spectacular.  Arsenyev struggled with homesickness and frustration with his playing time.  Over the summer, he made the difficult decision to leave the KHL.  Given the troubled relations between Ukraine and Russia, he and his family felt increasingly uncomfortable with him playing in a Russian-based league.  Arsenyev also worried that he would never have a chance to break through in the league.

Rather than play in the Ukrainian league or in Europe, however, Arsenyev made the bold decision to come to America and declare for the SHL draft.

“I want to come to America for long time,” Arsenyev said.  “It is my dream.”

But deciding to play in America was just the beginning of his challenge.  Arsenyev was one of the older players in the draft; when combined with his undistinguished KHL record, this made him an unappealing prospect to most team.  He almost went undrafted; he was taken with the second-to-last pick by the Anchorage Igloos, who didn’t even have a vacancy in the crease.

“At that stage in the draft, there wasn’t anyone we were really interested in,” said Igloos GM Will Thorndike.  “It wasn’t quite ‘close your eyes and pick a name,’ but it was close to that.”

The cap-strapped Igloos initially considered not bothering to extend Arsenyev a contract.  But they gave him a ticket to training camp and a shot to stick.  Determined to claim his chance, Arsenyev worked extremely hard and beat out incumbent Freeze backup Darren Lovelette.

“During the scrimmages, out of the corner of my eye, I’d see somebody making an incredible save, and I’d look over and it was him,” said Freeze coach Petr Kokrda.  “I kept thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Arsenyev called his parents in Ukraine to share the good news, and they cried together on the phone.  “My dream is true!” Arsenyev said.  “I am very happy.”

When the season began, Arsenyev found himself in a familiar spot: playing second fiddle, in this case to top prospect Curt Freeze.  Arsenyev was determined not to let his KHL experience repeat itself.

“I know I must be great when I play,” said Arsenyev, “or I do not play.”

And great is exactly what Arsenyev has been.  He made his debut at the end of Week 1, stopping 29 shots in a 6-1 rout of the Utah Owls.  Three nights later, facing the defending champion Idaho Spuds, Arsenyev made 28 saves in a 1-1 tie.  Later that week, he managed to top himself, putting up a 36-save shutout over the Milwaukee Hogs.

On Thursday, Arsenyev struggled for the first time in his SHL career.  Facing the Halifax Atlantics, Arsenyev faded in the third period, allowing three goals – including one in the last minute of the game – to turn a 2-0 lead into a loss.  After the game, he sat disconsolately at his locker, feeling that he’d blown his chance.  But then Kokrda came over, put his hand on Arsenyev’s shoulder, and assured him that he would continue to play – and perhaps even get more frequent starts.

“What I’ve seen out of Kostya so far has been incredible,” said Kokrda.  “He’s got an amazing work ethic, and he’s always looking for ways to improve.  If anything, he wants it so badly that he tries too hard to be perfect.  I’m trying to get him to understand that we’re not going to deport him if he has a bad start or two.”

Granted, the season is still young, and there’s plenty of time for this Cinderella story to go awry.  The odds that Arsenyev finishes the season with the league’s best GAA or save percentage are extremely slim.  But then, the odds that he’d get this far were pretty slim too.  And he’s determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that he succeeds.

CHL Update: Freeze-Moose Dud Prompts Coach’s Call for Refund

As a minor league, the CHL is focused on player development; the on-ice results, while important, are ultimately secondary.  This can sometimes mean that the games themselves aren’t of the highest artistic or competitive caliber.  Sunday’s contest between the Minnesota Freeze and the Maine Moose, though, was so bad that Moose coach Barney Flintridge called for refunds… on behalf of the opposing fans.

What made the game – a 2-0 Minnesota victory – such a dud?  Start with the offenses.  The two teams produced a total of 28 shots – combined – in the contest.  The Moose fired a total of 16 shots, while the victorious Freeze had only 12.  Worse yet, the action declined as the game went on.  In the first period, the teams combined for 13 shots, a fairly respectable number for two defense-minded teams like these.  But across the final two periods, Maine and Minnesota had only 15 shots between them.

And it’s not as though that number concealed a big number of narrow misses or blocked shots, either.  Both teams worked throughout the game to deny entry into the offensive end, meaning that much of the action stalled out in the neutral zone.  And once Minnesota scored a pair of goals in the second, they sat on their lead and focused on keeping the puck away from the Moose, the hockey equivalent of basketball’s old four-corner stall.

There weren’t any fights or big checks to liven up the action, either.  There were a total of four penalties called in the game, all minors: one puck-over-glass penalty, an embellishment call, and a pair of high sticks.

Barney Flintridge

After the game, Flintridge – often a prickly interview – roasted the game in no uncertain terms.  “In my 40 years playing and coaching at every level of this sport, that was the worst game I’ve ever seen,” said Flintridge.  “Just garbage from beginning to end, ugly and boring.  They say hockey is the world’s fastest and most exciting sport, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this game.  My biggest challenge during this game was not falling asleep on the bench.”

The coach then bashed the Freeze’s decision to grind clock once they got ahead.  “At the beginning, at least it sort of looked like hockey,” Flintridge said.  “But once [Minnesota] got a couple-goal lead, they turtled for a period and a half.  Just disgraceful.  And my guys should have tried to break that, but I think they must have taken sleeping pills on the flight out here, and they hadn’t worn off yet.”

Flintridge concluded his harangue with an appeal to the fans.  “If any of the fans out there were watching hockey for the first time, I’m sorry.  It’s not like this most of the time.  I imagine some of the fans were just happy because they won, but the rest of you should demand a refund.  You were promised a hockey game, and instead you got this pile of crap.  At least, [the Freeze] should have given the fans pillows, so they could be comfortable while this was going on.”

Patrick Chillingham

Freeze coach Patrick Chillingham defended his team’s strategy.  “We’re still in the playoff chase, and we’re going to do what it takes to win,” Chillingham said.  “I’m not going to be embarrassed about that.  Besides, it takes two teams to make a slow game.  Barney’s boys weren’t exactly lighting it up out there.  It’s a long season, and not every game’s going to be a barnburner.”

Responding to Flintridge’s call for fan refunds, Chillingham said, “If Barney wants to hand out refunds, he can do it out of his own check.  But I believe our fans were satisfied with this game.  When they come to a Freeze game, our fans are looking for two things: a chance to see tomorrow’s SHL stars, and a home team win.  They got both of those.

“Tell you what, though: the next time the Moose comes to town, we can give Barney a pillow so he can nap on the bench.  I’ll even pay for it.  It must be hard staying up this late at his age.”

CHL Update: Everest’s Remarks Get Chilly Reception from Freeze Fans

Minnesota Freeze C Tanner Everest has shown a great deal of promise this season.  He has persevered through injury and posted promising stats that suggest he could be in the SHL sooner rather than later.  He has also been popular with Freeze fans, who have nicknamed him “The Yeti,” both as a play on his last name and because of his appearance (“big and hairy,” in his words).

Everest might not be so popular with the fans any more, however, after he took some potshots at Duluth (where the Freeze play) and other CHL cities in a recent interview.

Tanner Everest

A local paper decided to do a profile on Everest as part of a series of features about the team that have run thoughout the season.  During the interview, Everest was asked if he is looking forward to making the SHL someday.  “Of course I am!” replied the center.  “That’s what every athlete dreams of: competing at the highest level.”

The interviewer then asked if there was anything in particular that Everest was looking forward to in the SHL.  “Well, for one thing, I can’t wait to take road trips and visit some of the SHL cities.  New York, of course.  DC and Boston, Seattle, KC… there are a lot of cool cities in that league.”

The interviewer then reportedly quipped, “What, Duluth isn’t cool enough for you?”

Everest chuckled and rolled his eyes.  “I mean, come on.  Duluth’s not exactly the Big Apple.  It’s not quite Little House on the Prairie, but it’s close.  And the places we visit… I mean, what’s the biggest place we city?  Salt Lake City?  All those Mormons, it’s not exactly Fun City.  Baltimore?  Lock your doors and keep moving.  Cleveland?  Never seen the sun there once.  Milwaukee’s okay, but it’s cold as hell.  The point is, none of these are places you’d go, like, on purpose.  There’s a reason why they call it the minor leagues, right?”

The profile ran on Sunday, and Everest’s unflattering remarks on Duluth and other CHL cities were front and center.  Everest claimed he had been quoted out of context, a defense that did nothing to stem the fans’ displeasure.

During the Freeze’s next home game on Thursday, the fans reacted to the announcement of Everest’s name with boos.  Several also brought signs with slogans such as “THIS ‘LITTLE HOUSE’ IS NOT YOUR HOME” and “EVEREST: NOT MINNESOTA NICE.”

“Getting booed by your own fans… that’s pretty painful,” Everest admitted.

Later in the week, Everest apologized to fans for his remarks.  “I made some comments that I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry about that,” he told reporters.  “I was trying to joke around with the [reporter], but it came off like I hated it here and in this league, and that’s not true.  I like this league, I like Duluth, and I love the fans here.  I want to go to the SHL someday, but I’m glad I’m here now.  The Yeti messed up, but I hope you forgive me.”

Everest also poked fun at his remarks by filming a commercial for Paul Bunyan’s Pancake House.  In the commercial, Everest first goes to an unnamed restaurant, where he’s served a comically tiny plate of food.  “Hey, what is this, Little House on the Prairie?” he says.  “This is minor-league food!”  Everest then heads to Paul Bunyan’s, where he is served their Bottomless Pancake Stack.  “That’s more like it!” he says.  “Even in a small town, you can get a big meal at Paul Bunyan’s.  Come on down and strap on your feedbag!”

The controversy largely seemed to blow over by the end of the week.  One fan, though, had a final thought: “I hope Tanner realizes that if he does make the SHL, he’s going to play in… Anchorage.  That’s not exactly the Big Apple either.”

CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title

The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business.  The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship.  But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.

“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox.  “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away.  We were all hungry for revenge.”

Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied.  They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep.  Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.

“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”

Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium.  The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation.  The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history.  Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win.  “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.

The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2.  They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win,  Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort.  “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh.  “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”

With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28.  Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph.  Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period.  In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury.  But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.

The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series.  “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors.  Onward and upward!”

Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship.  “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there.  We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title”

CHL Update: Rhinos, Freeze Advance to Finals

The first round of the CHL playoffs mirrored the first round of the SHL playoffs in a number of ways.  One series ended in a sweep, with the victor headed to the finals for the second straight season, trying to avenge last year’s shocking loss.  The other series went the distance, with both teams holding serve on home ice; the winner is making their first-ever trip to the championship round.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos felt as though they should have won the title last season, even though they were upended by Utah in 5 games in last season’s final.  “I think we all had the belief that the better team lost last time,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “We are on a mission of revenge.”

The Rhinos played with purpose and passion in the division playoff, dispatching the Oshawa Drive in three straight.  Despite the fact that Virginia thrived on scoring this season, they relied on stout defense to succeed in this playoff; they shut out the Drive in each of the first two games. They won Game 1 by a 4-0 margin, with C Tanner Brooks getting a short-handed goal to open the scoring and LW Yuri Laronov recording a power-play tally to end it.  The Rhinos eked out a 1-0 victory in Game 2, with RW “Real” Hank Diehl scoring the lone goal on a deflection early in the second period.  Goalie Gus Parrish was at the top of his game, turning aside 22 shots in the first game and 19 shots in the second.  In Game 3, with the series moving north of the border, Virginia opened up a 3-0 lead before D Ingolf Gudmundsen finally recorded the Drive’s first goal of the series late in the second period.  Oshawa LW Norris “Beaver” Young struck on the power play two minutes into the third period to close the gap to one, but they couldn’t muster the tying tally as the Rhinos completed the clean sweep.

“Everyone in this locker room is focused on one thing: winning the Howard Trophy,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “If we have to go over, under, around, or through our opponents to make it happen, that’s what we’re going to do.  We’re like Andy Dufresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ climbing through that sewer pipe on our way to freedom.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Freeze had a bumpier road than the Rhinos did, as the Colorado Springs Zoomies pushed the series to the limit.  But like their parent club, the Anchorage Igloos, the Freeze survived and will advance to the Finals.

Game 1 was a back-and-forth affair, with the Freeze and Zoomies trading goals, and it ultimately went into overtime.  D Julian Staples ultimately nailed the game-winner six minutes into the extra session to give Minnesota a 4-3 win.  Game 2 was another close contest; Zoomies RW Joel Hagendosh got a short-handed goal midway through the third, and the game wound up in overtime once again.  One extra period wasn’t enough this time, but C Mason Alpine ended it a minute into the second OT with a slapper from the point that lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 victory.  Back home for Game 3, Colorado Springs kicked their offense into high-gear, rallying from a two-goal deficit to snatch a 6-4 win that staved off elimination.  In Game 4, the Zoomies made the most of the man advantage, scoring all three of their goals on the power play.  Even though the Freeze outshot them 39-23, Colorado Springs goalie Sonny Kashiuk stood on his head, making 38 saves in a 3-1 win.  In the winner-take-all Game 5, Minnesota again dominated on offense, outshooting the Zoomies 35-17.  But even though the Freeze scored four goals in a wide-open second period, the Zoomies hung tough, ultimately coming up short by a 5-4 score.

The Igloos sent their minor-league club a congratulatory video, with Anchorage players calling on their minor-league counterparts to help the organization capture both championship.  “We’re going to prove that we’re the best team right now,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We’re hoping you guys can go out and prove that we’re going to win the future too.”

Although Minnesota finished the regular season 11 points ahead of Virginia, most observers expect a closely-fought battle in the Finals.  The Rhinos will be looking to win the title they felt they were robbed of last year, while the Freeze will be looking to make their parent club proud.  The series begins Sunday at Northwoods Auditorium in Duluth.

CHL Update: Teams Punch Postseason Tickets

The Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s junior circuit, also ended its regular season this week, and their playoff field is now set.  Like the SHL, the CHL’s playoff field features a pair of returning postseason combatants as well as two new faces.  Just like season, the division playoffs will be best-of-five, with the victors meeting in a seven-game series for the league title.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos captured the division title for the second straight year, despite losing a couple of key contributors from last year – G Shawn Stickel and RW Colton Jabril – to their parent club in Saskatchewan.  Just like last season, the Rhinos have thrived on fast-paced, high-scoring hockey; the led the league with 224 goals.  Their offense was driven by Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, the CHL’s highest-scoring blueliners (with 33 and 31 goals, respectively).  Netminder Gus Parrish made the playoffs last year with Omaha; he signed as a free agent with Virginia this offseason and turned in another solid campaign, going 24-13-2 with a 2.48 GAA.  In addition to their potent offense and solid goaltending (as well as a league-best 88.4% penalty kill), the Rhinos bring a big chip on their shoulder and a fierce desire to claim the title that eluded them last season.  “We’re just the right amount of crazy to win this thing,” said coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Not, like, underpants-on-your-head crazy.  Just hockey crazy.  Crazy enough to be dangerous.”

The Oshawa Drive were not expected to make much noise this season.  They came off an underwhelming 2017 season where they finished last in their division, then saw the parent Hamilton Pistols call up several of their top players, such as LW Jamie Campbell, RW Michael Jennings, and D Buster Kratz.  So how did they turn things around to clinch their first-ever playoff spot?  They got strong seasons from players who washed out with the big club: LW Norris “Beaver” Young led the team with 72 points, and RW Jean-Michel Pireau put up a dozen goals and two dozen assists.  And several of their returning players stepped their game up a notch, including RW Anders Pedersen (64 points, 17 more than last season), D Elvis Bodett (29 goals, nearly double last year’s total), and G Hector Orinoco (whose GAA went down by three-fifths of a goal, and save percentage went up by 14 points).  Oshawa has developed a healthy dislike of the Rhinos, which should make for a hard-fought series.  If it turns chippy, keep an eye on Drive coach Peter James.  Several of their returning When these two clubs clashed early in the season, the normally mild-mannered James manhandled a Virginia defenseman who scrapped with the Oshawa bench.  Will the coach go into bouncer mode again if the Rhinos act up?  “I wouldn’t count on it,” James says.

Western Division

The Minnesota Freeze came a long way in order to win the division.  They executed a worst-to-first turnaround after a dismal 2017 campaign, and they soared in the second half, going 22-7-3 to erase a 12-point deficit in the standings.  Their turnaround was sparked by a potent offense, led by LW Jean Pierre Fleury; he topped the CHL with 42 goals, nearly one-fifth of Minnesota’s total output.  And while the Freeze’s defense was so-so, they got considerable help from their goaltending tandem of Curt Freeze (27-10-4, 2.27 GAA, .920 sv%) and Darren Lovelette (14-7-2, 2.71, .899).  One potential X-factor: the Freeze were terrific on the road, posting a league-best 20-9-3 mark away from home, including a 12-3-1 mark during their second-half surge.  “When you’ve had to deal with a winter as long and cold as ours,” said Freeze coach Patrick Chillingham, “it makes you tough.  So a hostile crowd in a road barn isn’t going to rattle us.”

Although the Colorado Springs Zoomies are making their first trip to the postseason, the same group of players (more or less) made the playoffs last season as the Omaha Ashcats.  The Zoomies are still smarting from last season’s upset loss to the eventual champion Utah Owls in four games in the Western playoff.  They’ve got a couple factors working in their favor this time.  Last year, Utah’s Sherman Carter was the league’s best netminder; this year, the Zoomies’ Sonny Kashiuk laid claim to that title, going 29-16-3 with a 2.03 GAA and a .925 save percentage.  Colorado Springs also got an unexpected breakout season from RW Philippe Durien, who surprised everyone by finishing among the league’s top 5 goal scorers with 34.  The Zoomies also led the league on the power play, converting 23.8% of their opportunities.  On the downside, the Zoomies have cooled off considerably since their hot start, going a mere 15-15-2 in the second half, including a stretch shortly after the All-Star break when they lost 10 out of 13 games.  Coach Artie Gambisch is confident that his team is ready for the postseason.  “We’ve had our highs and lows this season, but the tough times have only made us stronger,” he said.

CHL Update: Freeze Turn Up the Heat

The CHL’s Minnesota Freeze have one of the most apt nicknames in sports.  They play in Duluth, the northernmost city in one of America’s northernmost states.  Sub-zero temperatures are not uncommon in the wintertime, and the city is frequently blanketed with substantial blizzards.

However, it’s been a particularly long winter in the Midwest, and freezing temperature and snow threats have continued to hang on even well into spring.  Next week’s forecast calls for highs in the 30s and 40s and the potential for more snow.  The seemingly endless chill convinced Minnesota GM Kent Rivers that it was time to take action.

“I’m not a superstitious person by nature,” said Rivers.  “But I can’t help but notice that we’ve been up near the top of the standings all season, and that it’s been unseasonably cold.  Obviously, we’re not going to start losing just to usher in spring, but if there’s something we can do to help, we’re up for it.”

In order to try to chase winter away, the Freeze changed their name for one game.  On Sunday, they competed against the Baltimore Blue Crabs as the Minnesota Thaw.  “I know our fans are ready for a little warmth around here, so at least they’ll find some inside the arena,” said Rivers.

In addition to the name change, Minnesota changed up their uniforms as well.  Instead of dark blue, their threads were reddish-orange.  In lieu of the typical “Freeze” wordmark in letters that appear to be made of snow-capped ice, the “Thaw” wordmark appeared to be melting, with puddles forming underneath.

In addition, the team changed up its playlist to feature songs focusing on heat.  Tunes like “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter and “Burn’ for You” by the Blue Oyster Cult allowed the fans to think warm.  In between periods, the Jumbotron featured clips of Minnesota players dressed in beach wear, engaging in summer sports like swimming and sand volleyball.

To top it all off, all fans in attendance received a pair of Thaw-branded sunglasses, with the message “Think Hot!” emblazoned on the temples.

The promotion went over well with the winter-weary fans of Duluth.  “For one night at least, I got to pretend it was summer,” said local fan Rick Schneider.  “I know it’s going to be about 15 outside when I leave, so reality’s gonna be a slap in the face.  But this was fun.”

Rivers stressed that the promotion was a one-night-only event.  “We’re not changing our name for good, and we’re not going to wear the [Thaw] jerseys again,” the GM told reporters.  “After all, we’re about to go to the playoffs!  We’ll stick with what got us here.”