2017 SHL Finals – Game 6

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1, HERSHEY BLISS 0

The Anchorage Igloos knew that it was now or never.  In today’s Game 6 of the SHL Finals at Arctic Circle Arena, the Igloos had to win or they would be finished, suffering a stunning upset at the hands of the Hershey Bliss.  The Igloos showed up with the proper sense intensity, and finally pushed across a goal in the third to win 1-0 and stave off elimination.

“We knew we needed to come out desperate,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We knew we needed to leave it all out there on the ice.  We knew we might get beat, but it wasn’t going to be because we were outskated or outhustled.  And we weren’t.”

Anchorage came out determined to push the pace and run past Hershey.  This strategy had two advantages: First, with Hershey’s top scorer Justin Valentine sidelined with an injury, the Igloos suspected that the Bliss would take a while to establish a rhythm on offense.  Second, since Igloos netminder Ty Worthington was also injured, Anchorage hoped that an aggressive approach would limit Hershey’s zone time and reduce the pressure on backup Riley Lattimore.

“We came out determined to dominate,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We just wanted to blow the doors off them.”

Dominate they did; they outshot Hershey 21-8 in a fast-paced, high-flying period.  But the period ended in a scoreless tie, as Bliss goalie Brandon Colt made a number of sterling stops to thwart the Igloos at every turn.  “This series would have been over already if Brandon hadn’t been so awesome,” said Bliss D Reese Milton.  “He’s really taken his game to the next level in this series.”

The game slowed down considerably in the second period, as the Igloos’ initial burst of energy wore off and Hershey was able to establish a more effective defensive rhythm.  Six and a half minutes into the period, the Bliss appeared to draw first blood, as RW Noah Daniels threaded a gorgeous pass to LW Russell Nahorniak, who fired the puck home between Lattimore’s legs.  But Castor challenged the goal, arguing that Hershey had entered the zone offside.  The referees spent over four minutes reviewing the play, as the Igloos and their fans waited with their hearts in their throats.  Finally, after an agonizing wait, head referee Laurent Villiers announced that the play was offside and waved off the goal, as the crowd roared.

“That was a huge momentum swing for us,” said Frost.  “When we dominated the first period and couldn’t score, and if that had counted… it would have crushed us.”

Both teams had a power play in the period but failed to convert.  After two periods, the game remained scoreless.  Anchorage was outshooting Hershey 32-14, but had nothing to show for it.

“We definitely knew the stakes, but so did they,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “It was a really well-played game on both sides.”

The tension in the arena amped up even further in the final period, as both teams were eager to close it out.  There were no fights, no penalties, no extracurriculars, just two teams giving it their all.  As the minutes ticked away and the zeroes remained on the scoreboard, both benches began to wonder if the game-winning goal would ever come.

“I don’t know if we could have handled OT,” said Koons.  “I was about to have a heart attack as it was.”

Finally, with 4:18 left in the game, Anchorage C Nile Bernard fired a shot from the right faceoff circle.  Colt made the save, but allowed an unusually juicy rebound.  The puck skidded to D Olaf Martinsson, who gathered it up and fired it at the open half of the net.  Colt reached back for it, but the puck found the twine.  Martinsson dropped his stick, shouted and pumped his fists as his teammates gathered around to celebrate him.

“If you’d have asked me to bet who would get the GWG, I wouldn’t have put money on Olaf,” laughed Frost.  “But he’s a pro, like everyone in here, and he came through when the spotlight found him.”

The Igloos switched to a more defensive style after Martinsson’s tally, and successfully denied the Bliss time in the offensive zone.  Hershey got only one more shot off in the final four minutes of the game.

Heading into the winner-take-all Game 7, Castor said that his team is ready.  “We showed today that we’ve got what it takes when the chips are down,” said the Igloos coach.  “We know tomorrow’s game will be at least as intense as this, probably more.  But we’re in this to win it, all the way.  We won’t accept anything less.”

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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.

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SHL Player of the Week – Week 10

Noah Daniels

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.”

Bliss Bag Double Hat Trick, Crush Hamilton

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.”

Noah Daniels

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.

Christopher Hart

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.”

Bliss Enjoying Sweet Life Atop East

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.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

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.

Justin Valentine

“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.”