Pistols, Bliss Ready for Rematch in East Playoff

This year’s Eastern Division playoff has a familiar ring to it.  The matchup features the same two teams that faced off last year.  In one corner, the Hamilton Pistols, the defending champions who are looking to be the first SHL team to win back-to-back titles.  In the other corner, the Hershey Bliss, the scrappy contenders who had to battle all the way until the last week of the season to secure a postseason spot.

“This should be a hell of a matchup,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “We know each other inside and out, our strengths and weaknesses, our go-to moves, all of that.  It’s like playing against your twin brother.”

Calvin Frye

The champs have returned with the core of their highly potent offense intact.  Hamilton led the SHL in goals with 233, an average of over 3.6 per game.  This season has seen a potential passing of the torch, however.  Last season, the Pistols’ heart and soul was their captain, Alexander, who scored 70 of his 100 points in the second half of the season and practically willed his team to the title.  This season, Alexander wasn’t even the leading scorer on the team; that would be his linemate, C Calvin Frye, who scored 42 goals to lead the league.

Alexander doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight with his younger teammate.  “Cal’s the perfect complement to me and Claude,” he said, referring to his longtime friend RW Claude Lafayette.  “If he’s the future of this team, then we’re in great shape.”

For his part, Frye vigorously insists that Alexander is still the man.  “This is still Alex’s team, no question,” Frye said.  “It’s his hustle, his scrappy spirit, his hunger and intensity that shaped us.”

The Pistols lost a couple of key contributors from last year – most notably C Eddie Costello, who’s now in Portland – but they also filled the holes with capable veterans on fairly cheap deals. C Marco Venezio and RW Ben Summers, the two key additions, have bolstered the Pistols’ second line and given the team a depth it lacked previously.  (That second line took a big hit with the late-season injury to LW Magnus Gunnarson, who was having a career year.  He will miss the entire divisional round.)

“Our top line is the best in the league,” said coach Keith Shields, “but our second line’s nothing to sneeze at either.  We’ve got a lot of ways to beat you.”

Though they’ve kept last year’s scoring touch, Hamilton has taken a big step back on defense.  They were ninth in the league in GAA at 3.19, thanks in large part to spotty play in their own end; they allowed 36.2 shots per game on average.

The Bliss, meanwhile, are eager to wash the bitter taste of last season’s playoff from their mouths.  They won the first game and took an early 2-0 lead in Game 2, only to see everything fall apart after that.  They coughed up that early lead, and collapsed in a ghastly five-goal third period that turned a loss into an 8-4 rout.  When the series shifted to Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory, the Bliss were rattled by the noisy crowd and haunted by the previous game’s fiasco, suffering a 5-0 shellacking that essentially ended the series.  (The Pistols took a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 to officially close things out.)

Justin Valentine

“We really weren’t happy with the way the series got away from us,” said C Justin Valentine.  “We’re definitely ready to redeem ourselves.  That was a painful lesson, but we came away stronger and tougher.”

Although the Pistols finished with the superior record, Hershey’s underlying statistics were better in many ways.  They scored nearly as many goals as Hamilton (226), but their defense was noticeably better; they allowed just 32.4 shots per game, good for fifth in the league.

In the end, Hershey’s chances in the series may come down to goaltending.  They have largely the same roster as last year except in net, where they replaced veteran Brandon Colt with Christien Adamsson, who turned in a credible campaign (24-19-5, 2.96 GAA, .907 save percentage).  But Adamsson has never been never appeared in the postseason before.  Neither has his backup, rookie Nash Gould.  It’s unkown how they’ll perform in the playoff limelight.  Meanwhile, Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen is in the playoffs for the third straight year, and has shown he can stay cool under pressure. Will that give the champs a crucial edge?

“Christien’s been terrific for us,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “I’m confident that he’ll rise to the occasion.”

If Adamsson proves to be the right man for the moment, Hershey has an excellent shot at getting revenge for last year’s embarrassment.  If he struggles, however, the Pistols might move one step closer to a second straight crown.

No Early Favorites in East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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