CHL Update: Playoff Picture Clicks Into Place

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Both divisions weren’t resolved until the final week, with the wide-open, topsy-turvy East going down to the very last day.  As usual, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The defending champion Virginia Rhinos battled through a bumpy season.  Several of their key contributors from last season departed; Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett were called up by the parent Saskatchewan Shockers, while starting goalie Gus Parrish departed in free agency. The Rhinos suffered another blow when C Tanner Brooks, who was in the midst of a breakout season, was moved in a deadline trade.  But the Rhinos held on in the closely contested East (only seven points separated first place from last) and won their third straight division title.  As befits their just-above-.500 record, the Rhinos were in the middle of the pack this year on offense and GAA.  The secret to their success has been special team; both their power play (20.9% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.1%) were second-best in the league.  Virginia also did a good job staying out of the penalty boxes; their 585 PIMs were the CHL’s fewest.  Even though they just squeaked into the postseason, the Rhinos are eager to defend their title and confident that their past experience will serve them well.  “We do not get scared in the big situations,” said LW Yuri Laronov, whose 29 goals led the team.  “This has all happened for us before.”

The Cleveland Centurions didn’t secure a spot in the postseason until the last day of the regular season, when they beat the Oshawa Drive 2-1 to leapfrog the Canadian club into second place.  Like their parent club, the Michigan Gray Wolves, the Centurions are built around defense and goaltending.  Cleveland allowed only 21.8 shots per game, the fewest in the league by far, and 19-year-old Eugene Looney (19-15-1, 1.84 GAA, .914 save percentage) had a breakout season in net.  They’ve also got some punch on offense, with a trio of 20-goal scorers in LW Fendrick Scanlan, C Phoenix Cage, and RW Steve Brandon.  And like the Rhinos, they excel on special teams; their 24.8% power-play percentage led the league, while their 84% penalty kill percentage was fourth.  In the end, though, Cleveland wins when they can bang bodies, control the neutral zone, and slow the pace of the game.  “We don’t play pretty hockey,” admitted D Burton Cullidge.  “But guess what?  Life ain’t pretty either.  Ugly and effective beats pretty and soft every time.”

 

Western Division

The Omaha Ashcats were the only CHL team to punch their playoff ticket last week, completing a worst-to-first turnaround that they celebrated memorably with their “World’s Smallest Playoff Parade.”  The Ashcats are a strong team at both ends of the ice; they had the third-most goals in the league and finished fourth in GAA.  They have one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Brandon Lockwood (22 goals, 33 assists).  They don’t have any players on the offensive leaderboards, but they have a couple of quality scorers in RW Adriaen van der Veen (23 goals, 26 assists in 44 games) and LW Aaron Knorr (25 goals).  They have a pair of strong goalies in Bill Bates (22-8-2, 2.19 GAA, .920 save percentage) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (6-5-0, 2.16, .913).  Several of these players are likely to be called up to the parent Kansas City Smoke next season, so this season may have a bit of a last-dance quality for the squad.  “It’s been great for me watching this team grow up and grow together over the season,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “Now I want to see us take the next step and go all the way to the title.”

Like the Ashcats, the Idaho Spuds sailed through most of the year in comfortable playoff position.  They cooled off a bit toward the end of the season, though, and ultimately had to withstand a late charge from the defending division champion Minnesota Freeze in order to clinch their postseason spot.  The Spuds’ success has been built on a potent offense.  They scored 233 goals this season, far and away the most in the league; their +65 plus-minus rating is by far the league’s best.  They have three of the CHL’s top 10 goal scorers (D Brady Prussian with 31 – tied for the league lead, C Dale Wilcox with 29, and LW Terry Cresson with 28) and three of the top 10 assist leaders (Wilcox with a league-leading 51, RW Dylan Alizarin with 47, and Cresson with 37).  Idaho’s firewagon style meant that they gave up a lot of shots (30.9 per game, second-most in the CHL), but they got strong work from netminders Kelvin White (20-16-4, 2.44, .917) and Xavier St. Pierre (12-9-1, 3.28, .901).  They’re especially dangerous on their own ice: their 22-7-3 mark at Treasure Valley Arena was the league’s best home record.  If there’s a big hole in their game, it’s the penalty kill; their 78.5% kill rate was second-worst in the league, and they took 699 penalty minutes, which is the third-highest.  They come into the postseason on a cold streak, having lost 7 of their last 11 games.  Like the Ashcats, there’s a good chance that several of these players will be toiling for the parent Dakota Jackalopes next season.  Coach Gilbert McCoyne believes that the Spuds’ high-powered offense will be too much for Omaha to handle.  “We’re a well-oiled scoring machine,” said McCoyne.  “When we’re on, nothing can slow us down.  I think we’ll just run past [the Ashcats] and bury ‘em in an avalanche of goals.”

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CHL Update: Omaha Superfan Stages Live-In For A Win

When the Omaha Ashcats switched parent clubs this offseason from the Seattle Sailors to the expansion Kansas City Smoke, most fans assumed that the team would take a step back in the standings.  For the first month of the season, the Ashcats defied expectations, posting a respectable 11-8-0 record.  Since then, though, gravity has reasserted itself: the team has gone 6-24-2 to sink into the Western division basement.

By and large, the fan base has accepted this decline with a shrug, as attendance in Omaha has remained strong all season.  One diehard Ashcats fan, however, is distressed by his team’s slide – and is going to great lengths to bring his team some good luck.

43-year-old Karl Loesser, known as “Krazy Karl” to the Omaha faithful, has proclaimed himself “the Ashcats’ biggest fan.”  He is a well-known and very vocal presence at the Switching Yard.  He comes to games with a railroad whistle, which he blows to fire up the crowd, and a seemingly endless supply of posters and banners – “I’ve got one for everyone on the team,” he told reporters.

“If someone claims they’re an Ashcats fan but they’ve never heard of Krazy Karl,” said Omaha GM Steve Galesko, “then they’re not really a fan.”

When the Ashcats went on a lengthy losing streak earlier this season, Krazy Karl made an “offering to the hockey gods” by burning a T-shirt with the logo of that night’s opponent in front of the arena.  But when the team hit the skids again after the trading deadline, he suspected that stronger measures might be needed.

As a result, Krazy Karl is now living inside the arena… and vows to keep doing so until the Ashcats win again.

“I’m offering myself up to the hockey gods this time,” Loesser said this week.  “I don’t know what we did to piss them off, but it must have been huge.”

Krazy Karl approached Galesko to request permission to stay in the arena, and the GM was hesitant at first.  “I love Krazy Karl, don’t get me wrong,” said Galesko, “but our security staff wasn’t wild about having a guy wandering around the arena in the middle of the night.”

But the GM worked out an arrangement with his superfan.  Loesser spends the nights on a couch in the Ashcats’ locker room and uses the team showers in the mornings.  He eats breakfasts and some lunches with team employees; during games, he has unlimited access to the concessions stands.  For exercise and to pass the time, he walks laps around the concourse.

“It’s not a bad life, to be honest,” said Krazy Karl.  “But I want the team to win so I can go home!”

Thus far, the Ashcats have not fulfilled his hopes.  On Friday, they blew a late lead against Colorado Springs and fell 3-2 for their ninth straight loss.  But Krazy Karl remains optimistic.  “The hockey gods will recognize my sacrifice and reward us with a win soon,” he said.  “It’s meant to be.”

CHL Update: Inaugural Playoff Field Set

The first regular season of the Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s minor league, is now in the books.  (They finished a week ahead of the SHL due to the fact that they didn’t have an All-Star break.)  Now the league is looking forward to its first postseason.  The CHL will have a four-team playoff field, a setup that the SHL plans to adopt next season.  The division playoff will be a best-of-five matchup, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven series for the league championship.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Eastern playoff will feature a battle of contrasting styles.  The Virginia Rhinos got off to a strong start this season and never looked back on their way to claiming the division title.  The Rhinos built their success on the strength of a potent offense; their 223 goals were the most in the league by a considerable margin.  They had three of the league’s top 10 goal scorers in LW Yuri Laronov, D Blake Blacklett, and RW Colton Jabril.  Their high-octane offense is backed up by netminder Shawn Stickel, the league’s winningest goaltender, who went 30-16-1 with a 2.54 GAA and a .913 save percentage.  “We’ve got a mighty force here,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Anyone who’s going to stop us is going to have to put up a hell of a fight.”

The Maine Moose might just be a team capable of giving them that fight.  The Moose are the best defensive team in the CHL, true to the spirit of their parent club, the Quebec Tigres.  They are well known for their slow-down style, which is focused on denying opponents offensive zone time.  Maine’s rigid defense allowed only 1551 shots, over 100 fewer than their nearest competitor.  They also have the leagues stingiest penalty kill, stopping 87.8% of power plays cold.  “We might not be the prettiest team out there,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge, “but our style is darned effective.”   The Moose aren’t all about defense; they have scorers, too.  LW Aaron Knorr, who was the only player in the CHL to put up a four-goal game, scored 23 goals in the season; their top defensive pairing of Richard McKinley and Kirby Hanlon scored 18 apiece.  “Momentum’s been on our side,” said Knorr.  “If Virginia thinks we’re going to be an easy mark, they’re in for a shock.”

 

Western Division

Ever since they emerged from the pack in the West after the first quarter of the season, the Omaha Ashcats have been regarded as perhaps the CHL’s best team.  They’re not a team with a lot of flashy stars, but they’re a team with impressive strength and depth, as their league-leading +49 rating attests.  They have the league’s top three in plus/minus (LW Kendall Bannon, RW “Action” Asher Ravenbloom, and C Dale Wilcox), with D Duncan DeShantz close behind.  “This isn’t a team that relies on star power,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “We get our strength from the fact that we play as a unit.  All for one and one for all; it may sound corny, but we believe it.”  Goalie Gus Parrish provides some veteran experience to back up a young squad (24-12-1, 2.72 GAA).  Small wonder that Omaha is generally considered the favorite to win the CHL championship.

It’s certainly not a surprise that the Ashcats are a huge favorite over the Utah Owls, who slipped into the playoffs with a less-than-breathtaking 31-24-5 record and are probably best known around the league for their rambunctious antics on the road.  Even though the Owls saw a couple of their top prospects, LW Sylvester Catarino and D Rocky Winkle, called up to the parent New York Night early in the season, they still held their own.  Utah’s greatest strength is their goaltending.  Veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross was the starter for much of the season and he was excellent, but prospect Sherman Carter rejoined the team down the stretch, and his numbers (2.30 GAA and .929 save percentage) suggest a player who could give the Ashcats fits.  But the player who really puts the fear of God into opponents is D Donald Duckworth.  He’s a two-way threat, the only player in the league to be in the top 10 in both goals (25) and penalty minutes (108).  “That guy’s just plain crazy,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax.  “You look at him the wrong way, and he’s liable to knock you into next week.  If you make him mad, God help you.”  Utah also finished the season hot, going 13-3-4 over the final month.  If the Owls can keep their penchant for on-the-road revelry (which have contributed to their 12-16-2 road record, the worst by far among playoff teams), they might give Omaha a run for their money.

 

CHL Update: Omaha Surges in West

A month ago, the CHL’s Western division was wide open.  No dominant team had emerged; the top four teams were within three points of each other, clustered around the .500 mark.  Now, though, one team has broken away from the pack.  The Omaha Ashcats have gone 15-4-1 over their last 20 games, and they are now tied with Virginia for the league’s best record.  They are 15 points ahead of their nearest competitor in the West.

How have the Ashcats done it?  “The talent’s been here all along,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “I think we’ve taken a while to gel as a team, but now that we’re all used to playing together and the guys are getting used to our offense, everything’s really clicking.  We’ve had the instruments, but it took us some time to write the symphony.”

Omaha’s offense has been the prime driver of their success.  They’ve been one of the CHL’s most prolific shooting teams, second only to the Rhinos in that department.  They lead the league in plus/minus rating at +30.  They have two of the league’s Top 10 goal scorers (LW Jarmann Fischer and D Bud Gatecliff, both with 19) and two of the Top 10 assist men (C Nikolai Valkov with 43 and RW Philippe Durien with 35).  Unlike Virginia, which relies heavily on its top line for its offense, the Ashcats spread the offensive load over their top two lines.  Omaha has seven of the league’s top 11 in plus/minus, with representatives from their top six and their top two defensive pairings.

“Our team isn’t about stars,” said Fischer.  “We are all about working together to make ourselves greater as a group.  The team is the star.”

The same team-first mentality applies to the team’s unselfish defense, which is among the league’s top units.  Similar to the Rhinos, it’s all backstopped by an SHL washout trying to rebuild his reputation in the minors.

Gus Parrish was the goofy, easy-going, well-liked backup in Washington for the last two seasons.  In the offseason, though, the Galaxy got an upgrade (signing veteran free agent Ron Mason) and shipped Parrish to the Seattle Sailors, Omaha’s parent club.  With a much more porous defense than he was used to in Washington, and thrust into an everyday role after an early injury to starter Rocky Goldmire, Parrish flopped.  He went 0-7-0 with a 6.55 GAA and an .848 save percentage before being demoted.  “The game was moving too fast for me, and I wasn’t used to it,” Parrish admits.

It took Parrish a bit to get over the blow to his pride, but in Omaha he found a welcome landing spot.  “Right away, it felt more like a college dorm than a locker room,” Parrish said.  “It was a fun environment with a bunch of young guys who took hockey seriously, but didn’t take themselves too seriously.”  The team regarded Parrish as an older brother, asking him about life in the majors.  He was able to forget about his disastrous experience in Seattle and just focus on the game.  His growing comfort has been reflected in his results, going 14-6-1 with a 2.84 GAA.

“I don’t have to do a lot of hand-holding with Gus,” said Bergner.  “He hasn’t been a prima donna or anything.  He’s down here having fun and doing a solid job.”

Bergner is already starting to look forward a bit to a possible championship series with Virginia.  Most of his players, though, have their eyes on a different prize: a callup to the struggling Sailors.  With the expansion draft looming, Seattle has been hesitant about calling up players, potentially showcasing them only to lose them later.  “We all love it here,” said Fischer, “but we don’t want to stay here.”

For now, though, the young Ashcats are happy to be playing well and looking forward to the future, whatever it may hold.  “I always tell the guys: enjoy the ride and don’t take anything for granted,” says Parrish.  “Don’t be in a hurry to get past right now, because right now can be pretty great.”