The SHL selected Hershey Bliss RW Noah Daniels as its Player of the Week. Daniels had a 10-point week (7 goals, 3 assists), a particularly remarkable feat for a player who came into the week having scored only 25 points on the season. Thanks to Daniels’ hard work, the Bliss went 4-1-0 on the week and jumped back into first place in the East.
On Sunday, Daniels turned in his first career hat trick, contributing to Hershey’s 7-1 pummeling of Hamilton. (More on that game here.) On Tuesday, the winger scored two more goals and added three assists as the Bliss shredded Quebec 9-2. And on Friday, Daniels scored two more to help Hershey tip New York 4-3.
“Noah’s a real fighter,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “He may not be the biggest or most gifted player out there, but he’s out there working hard every shift and clawing for every opportunity. He’s made himself a player, and he deserves all the recognition he can get.”
Coming into the home stretch of the season and trailing the Washington Galaxy in the East, the Hershey Bliss were eager for a statement win to set up a strong run to the finish. They got that win in the form of a 7-1 shellacking of the Hamilton Pistols. The game was remarkable not only for the one-sided score, but for the fact that two Bliss players recorded hat tricks in the same game, an SHL first.
“Talk about an incredible day,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “Two hat tricks at once? That’s like finding a vending machine that sells king-size candy bars.”
Hershey took control of the game practically from the drop of the puck, scoring four goals in the first period. Two of the goals were scored by RW Noah Daniels, while one was netted by RW Christopher Hart. Seeing Hart, a member of Hershey’s famed “Love Line,” score was no surprise. Daniels scoring twice, on the other hand, was rather remarkable. The second-line winger, who is better known for his passing skills than his shot, came into the game having scored only 8 goals on the season.
“Noah’s an unselfish, pass-first guy,” said Barber. “But he had a couple good looks, and he took advantage.”
Daniels got his hat trick two minutes into the second period, stuffing home a rebound past Pistols goalie Dennis Wampler. The handful of Bliss fans at Gunpowder Armory tossed their hats onto the ice, and even some Hamilton fans applauded. Daniels shyly waved at the crowd before skating to the bench, where he was greeted by his teammates squirting him with their water bottles.
“We don’t have a Gatorade container on the bench to dump on him, so we did the next best thing,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.
Midway through the period, Hart scored his second goal on a slapper from the point, making it 6-0. As that point, a buzz started to rise on the Bliss bench. “The game was in the bag, so we needed something to get excited about,” said Constantine. “When Harty got his second, we started looking up and down the bench with our eyebrows raised, thinking, ‘Maybe…?'”
C Jens Bunyakin finally got the Pistols on the board with a power-play goal a minute and a half into the third. Five minutes later, Hart and linemate Justin Valentine broke out on an odd-man rush. Valentine deked a shot, then flicked a pass to Hart, who buried a shot under Wampler’s catching glove to complete his hat trick. The Bliss saluted his accomplishment by tossing their helmets on the ice.
“The fans had already thrown their hats,” said Valentine. “We didn’t want Chris to feel left out.”
Hart skated over to the bench and received the same water-bottle shower that Daniels had received. “It was really… wet,” Hart said later.
It was a great night for Hershey, and it seems to have ignited the Bliss; they haven’t lost a game since. Might that be the statement win that propels a strong stretch run? “I think it shows the kind of explosive offense we have as a team,” said Hart. “If we win this thing, this is the game that we’re going to look back on.”
The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness. Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title. The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all. Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.
“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart. Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.
As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players. “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said. “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind. Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title. You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”
Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart. The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half. They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.
“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine. “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship. What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’ Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal. Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”
What’s the secret to Hershey’s success? They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.
Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team. They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league. Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season. But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet. This year, the top line is getting considerably more help. LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points). C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season. And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).
Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger. The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease. They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier. “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.
Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch. Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him. Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA. And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.
“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber. “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season. Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season. But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”
Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half. The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well. Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in. Our fate is in our hands.”