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”