2019 SHL Playoff – Game 4

Eastern Division Series (Hamilton wins, 3-1)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, HERSHEY BLISS 1 (OVERTIME)

A month and a half ago, Eddie Costello was going nowhere.  The veteran center, who is in his contract year, was biding his time playing meaningless games with a Washington Galaxy team that was mired in the depths of the division.  Though Costello had numerous friends on the team, he longed for the excitement of a playoff race.

Then the Hamilton Pistols came along and acquired Costello at the trade deadline.  The Pistols were firmly fixed on winning the Vandy, and they felt that the center would provide the secondary scoring they needed.  He didn’t come cheaply – he cost the Pistols two top prospects and a first-round pick – but they felt his speed, scoring touch, and postseason experience would be just what the young club needed.

Today, Costello repaid the investment that Hamilton made in him, scoring an overtime goal that propelled the Pistols to their first-ever SHL Finals appearance with a 2-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“The playoff excitement, this is what you live for as a player,” Costello said in the middle of a boisterous Hamilton locker room, as teammates pounded his back and poured beer on his head.  “I didn’t think I was going to be here this year, but these guys took the plunge, and thank God they did!”

Costello’s goal brought an end to a tense, close game that bore no resemblance to the Pistols’ 5-0 blowout the night before.  In that game, the visiting Bliss seemed rattled by the din at Gunpowder Armory, and never got their heads into the game.  This time around, Hershey didn’t allow the noise to distract them.

“We’re all professionals, and we’re not going to let a little crowd noise throw us off our game,” said C Justin Valentine before Game 4.  “We just need to tune it out and focus on what happens on the ice.”

Indeed, Hershey played with an edge and a hunger that was missing in the previous game.  Even when the seemingly unstoppable Steven Alexander scored on a first-period power play to put the Pistols ahead and whip the crowd into a frenzy, the Bliss didn’t panic.  They hung tough and didn’t let the Pistols add to their lead through the remainder of the first and through all of the second.

In the opening seconds of the third, Hamilton D Hercules Mulligan took a cross-checking penalty.  Although Hershey’s power play had been missing in action since Game 2, they clicked this time, with Valentine jabbing a rebound underneath the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to tie the score.  The crowd quieted suddenly, and the normally mild-mannered Valentine capped his hand to his ear, mocking the silence.

The game remained tied through the remainder of regulation, even through a bizarre stretch that saw a Bliss penalty followed by two Pistol penalties in the span of 33 seconds.  As the game went into overtime, the fans resumed their raucous cheering, albeit with a bit of a nervous edge.

Just over six minutes into the extra session, Bliss LW Sven Danielsen was attempting to bring the puck into the offensive zone when he was leveled by a ferocious check from Pistols D Burt “Hacksaw” Hampton.  The crowd cheered the hard hit, but Pistols RW Kenny Patterson spotted the puck trickling free in the neutral zone.  He scooped it up just ahead of a couple Hershey players, then flicked a headman pass to Costello.

Costello sailed through center ice and past the blue line.  All that stood between him and the net was Bliss goalie Brandon Colt and D Nikolai Kulkarov.  The center bore down on the net, using Kulkarov as a screen, and fired a low line drive toward the right post.  The puck eluded Colt’s catching glove, banked off the post, and went in.

Costello turned around, dropped to his knees, threw his arms in the air, and slid toward his jubilant teammates, who engulfed him near the blue line.

“Bring on the Igloos!” roared Alexander during the postgame celebration.  “What are they gonna do to stop us?!”

In the visiting locker room, Bliss coach Chip Barber praised his team in defeat.  “My guys gave it a heck of a ride this season,” said Barber.  “When you consider where we came from last year and everything we overcame, there’s nothing to hang our heads over.  We just ran across a team that was a little better.  It would have been good to get a few more bites of the chocolate bar, but it’s still a sweet season.”

 

E Final - Game 4, Hershey @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey            0   0   1    0   1
Hamilton           1   0   0    1   2

Hershey                G   A PTS PIM +/-   Hamilton               G   A PTS PIM +/-

Milton          D      0   1   1   0   0   Alexander       LW     1   0   1   0   0
Valentine       C      1   0   1   2   0   Smyth           D      0   0   0   0   0
Baldwin         D      0   0   0   2   0   Frye            C      0   1   1   0   0
Hart            RW     0   1   1   0   0   Risch           D      0   0   0   0   0
Nahorniak       LW     0   0   0   0   0   Lafayette       RW     0   0   0   0   0
Meloche         D      0   0   0   0  -1   Gunnarson       LW     0   0   0   0   1
Kirkpatrick     C      0   0   0   2  -1   Mulligan        D      0   1   1   2   0
Montrechere     RW     0   0   0   0   0   Glasco          D      0   0   0   2   0
Danielsen       LW     0   0   0   4   0   Patterson       RW     0   1   1   2   1
Aubin           D      0   0   0   0   0   Campbell        LW     0   0   0   2   0
Kulkarov        D      0   0   0   0  -1   Dyomin          D      0   0   0   0   1
Daniels         RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Marais          C      0   0   0   0   0
Ketterman       C      0   0   0   0   0   Hampton         D      0   0   0   2   1
Swindonburg     LW     0   0   0   4  -1   Estabrook       F      0   0   0   0   0
Cargill         D      0   0   0   0   0   Costello        C      1   0   1   2   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 1   2   3  14   0   TOTALS                 2   3   5  12   1

Scratches:
HSY:  Minnik, Chappelle, Lapointe, Sweet (DL)
HAM:  Constantine, Baker, Klemmer

Hershey             SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Colt                32    30    2  0.938

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            40    39    1  0.975


First Period
------------

GOALS:
05:36  HAM  Alexander PP (Frye, Mulligan)

PENALTIES:
02:14  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (Tripping)
03:15  HAM  Hampton 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
05:28  HSY  Valentine 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)
15:42  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Holding the Stick)
19:38  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Delay of Game)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
09:00  HAM  Costello 2:00 (High-sticking)
12:32  HSY  Danielsen 2:00 (Roughing)
14:21  HSY  Baldwin 2:00 (Tripping)
18:08  HSY  Swindonburg 2:00 (High-sticking)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
00:34  HSY  Valentine PP (Hart, Milton)

PENALTIES:
00:09  HAM  Mulligan 2:00 (Cross-checking)
07:30  HSY  Kirkpatrick 2:00 (High-sticking)
07:51  HAM  Patterson 2:00 (Diving)
08:03  HAM  Campbell 2:00 (Tripping)

Overtime
--------

GOALS:
06:31  HAM  Costello (Patterson)

PENALTIES:
None


SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Hershey           11  12  14    3  40
Hamilton          12   8  10    2  32

POWER PLAYS
-----------

Hershey          1 for 6
Hamilton         1 for 7

INJURIES
--------

None
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Kulkarov Finds Bliss in SHL

Nikolai Kulkarov

When Nikolai Kulkarov joined the SHL in 2016 as a draft pick of the Hershey Bliss, he was regarded as a promising prospect, a heavy hitter who also had the speed and agility to move the puck and contribute on offense.  He was also regarded as something of a mystery, a painfully shy young man who barely spoke English and spent most of his time either on the ice or in his apartment.

Now in his third season with the Bliss, Kulkarov hasn’t yet blossomed into the two-way star that some observers projected.  But he has blossomed considerably as a person.  His English is far from perfect, but he can now hold his own in conversations and interviews.  He’s also considerably more outgoing and free with his teammates.  According to the young blueliner, he owes his personal growth to a couple of men: teammate Ruslan Gromov… and Pat Sajak.

“I learn my English from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” said Kulkarov.

In his first season with Hershey, the culture shock was nearly unbearable for Kulkarov.  “Everything is different in America,” said the young blueliner.  “Especially the big cities, like New York and Washington.  Hershey was smaller and more comfortable, but still difficult.  I was missing home very much.”  He hid in the shower after games to avoid questions from reporters.  His Bliss teammates tried to help by inviting him out to dinners and team gatherings, but Kulkarov almost always declined, afraid that he would be embarrassed by his limited English proficiency.  “I was scared I would say something dumb or mean by accident, and then they would hate me or not want me around,” he explained.

Instead, whenever he was not at practice or a game, Kulkarov stayed in his apartment or hotel room, reading Russian books and websites and listening to familiar songs from home, and calling his family for long and sad conversations.  “I thought very much about going home, maybe to the KHL,” the defenseman said.

Kulkarov might have given up and gone home if not for Gromov.  The veteran blueliner noticed the rookie’s reticence and began speaking to him in the clubhouse.  “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘Nik, I think maybe you are a shadow, because I only see you for games.’  He gave me the chance to talk to someone who understands.”  Kulkarov opened up about his homesickness, his anxiety about speaking English, and his difficulties adjusting to life in America.

“Ruslan said he would be my protector,” the defenseman said.  And Gromov proceeded to take Kulkarov under his wing.  He served as the young man’s unofficial translator, invited him out with small groups of teammates to get more comfortable, and gave him a suggestion to work on his English.

“He told me to watch television,” Kulkarov explained.  “Then I could hear English and learn to understand in private.”

So in addition to his twice-weekly English classes, the rookie started watching American TV shows for hours a day.  He quickly became a fan of “Wheel of Fortune.”  He was first drawn to the show by the bright and colorful set, but he soon became captivated by the show’s host, Sajak, and his easy banter with contestants.  “Pat looked very relaxed and comfortable,” said Kulkarov.  “He was cool.  I wanted to be cool too.”

So whenever Kulkarov found himself in an awkward situation or was struggling for a word, he tried to emulate Sajak’s cool.  “If I can be like Pat,” the defenseman said, “then I will not feel so uncomfortable.”

With Sajak’s example in mind, Kulkarov worked with Gromov to improve his speaking skills.  He practiced conversations and interviews with his teammate, and asked about things that he saw or heard that he didn’t understand.  “Ruslan was very patient with me,” said Kulkarov.  “Even if my question was dumb or I made silly mistake, he did not laugh or make fun.”

Today, Kulkarov is comfortable handling post-game interviews on his own, and he enjoys spending time with his teammates off the ice.  He still watches “Wheel of Fortune” when he can.  And he tries to pay forward the help that Gromov gave him.  When the Bliss drafted a Russian, C Yegor Nestorov, this season, Kulkarov took the young player under his wing.

“I want all players to know: life in America is not so scary,” said Kulkarov.  “There are many people here who will help you.  You do not have to be alone.”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 7

HERSHEY BLISS 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3 (OVERTIME)

Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced.  “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber.  “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters.  “How’s it going to come out?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it.  We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”

In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room.  “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players.  “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.”  One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.

Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up.  “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said.  “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me.  I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team.  I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one.  Let’s do it!”  Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”

“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”

It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.

“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet.  “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope.  We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”

Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice.  LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit.  Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.

“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine.  “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”

But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum.  As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger.  The Bliss needed a hero.  True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.

When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title.  The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss.  He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.

But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd.  When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone.  After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net.  But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore.  Hershey was on the board at last.

But McLearen wasn’t finished.  Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming.  Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.

“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.

Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute.  Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game.  D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.

Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period.  “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor.  “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey.  That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”

Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk.  On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play.  C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle.  The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on.  The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops.  Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal.  On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.

After 60 minutes, the game remained tied.  Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher.  Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session.  “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet.  “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”

Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long.  Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end.  Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway.  The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal.  McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.

“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet.  “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”

Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”

There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy.  Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.

“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek.  “Finally, we made it!”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 7”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 5, HERSHEY BLISS 1

The Anchorage Igloos entered the Vandenberg Cup Finals as heavy favorites.  The “favorite” label can come with considerable pressure in the playoffs, as anything can happen in a short series.  In Game 1, at least, the Igloos didn’t let the pressure get to them, as they scored three goals in the first period and cruised to a 5-1 win over the Hershey Bliss.

“If all the games are this easy, it’ll be a short series,” said Anchorage RW Nicklas Ericsson, who had a goal and two assists.  “But we know they won’t all be this easy.”

The Bliss put themselves in trouble in the first period, committing four penalties.  The Igloos took advantage, scoring a pair of power-play goals.  Four minutes into the game, Hershey D Nikolai Kulkarov was whistled for hooking when he brought down Anchorage C Derek Humplik in order to prevent a breakaway.  Igloos C Jake Frost buried a slapshot from the top of the faceoff circle to make it 1-0.  Late in the period, Bliss C Henry Constantine flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.  Before they could kill it off, D Joel Baldwin tried to draw a tripping call, but was called for embellishment.  Igloos RW Remi Montrechere cashed in during the waning seconds of the period, putting a rebound home past a sprawled Brandon Colt.  In between, LW Les Collins scored during 5-on-5 play, and the Igloos went to the locker room with a 3-0 edge, depsite being outshot 19-8.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena razzed the visiting Bliss on their way into the locker room.

“We were a little shell-shocked,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine of the first 20 minutes.  “We’d dominated long stretches of play, but look at the scoreboard and they were wiping the floor with us.”

In the second period, Baldwin tried to fire up his struggling team by starting a pair of fights.  In mid-period, he responded to a rough check by RW Tony Citrone by throwing hands with him.  Late in the period, he scrapped with Collins after the two traded jabs during a faceoff.

“I felt like we needed to shake things up,” said Baldwin.  “And I thought a good fight or two might change the momentum.”

Baldwin’s fisticuffs failed to spark Hershey, however, as Anchorage LW Jerry Koons scored the only goal of the period, yet another power-play tally.

Bliss LW Noah Daniels salvaged some dignity for his team, scoring four and a half minutes into the third period to foil Anchorage netminder Ty Worthington‘s shutout bid.  But Ericsson put one more home for the Igloos to restore their four-goal advantage, and that’s how the game ended.

Hershey coach Chip Barber was crestfallen after the game.  “Not the way that we wanted to start this series,” Barber told reporters.  “This loss was as bitter as biting into a chunk of backer’s chocolate.  But it only counts as one loss, thank goodness.”

Barber highlighted a couple of areas for his team to improve on in Game 2.  “Obviously, we’ve got to cut down on the penalties,” the Bliss coach said.  “Against a team this good, you can’t give them extra chances.  And we’ve got to find ways to get some more pucks past Worthington.”  The Igloos goalie made 38 saves in the game.

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 1”