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.”
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.)
“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.