The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week. Three of the four postseason qualifiers from last season will be returning this year, joined by a team that’s new to its city. As always, 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:
The Virginia Rhinos have made the playoffs an annual tradition; the Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate has finished atop the East in every one of the CHL’s four seasons of existence. This season’s trip, however, was far from guaranteed. Six weeks ago, the Rhinos were in fifth place with a sub-.500 record. They finished strong, however, going 17-7-0 down the stretch to surge to the front of the pack. Virginia’s success was built largely on its stout defense; they allowed an average of 27 shots per game, fourth-lowest in the league. Offensively. the Rhinos were middle of the pack, but they were built on balance; they had five players who scored between 17 and 20 goals, so they don’t have an obvious star for opponents to key on. They begin the series without one of their top weapons, rookie LW Zane Skandalakis, but they hope to have him back within a couple of games. One potential controversy lurks: Who should start in net? Heralded prospect Quentin Chislic (25-19-1, 2.41 GAA, .908 save percentage) got the bulk of the work during the regular season, but backup Eino Malmquist (10-9-0, 2.08, .922) posted results that were as good or better. Coach Jeffrey Marsh said that he’s sticking with Chislic, but if the Rhinos struggle in the first game or two, might he turn to Malmquist? “Hey, I’ll take two good goalies over one any time,” the coach noted. “If Chiz gets hurt, we know we can plug in Malmo and not miss a beat. Just like Allstate, we’re in good hands.”
The Halifax Atlantics are the fresh face in the CHL’s postseason picture, succeeding where the parent Quebec Tigres came up just short. They didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the season’s final day, when they beat Virginia 2-1 in overtime on a goal by D Jose Martinez to finally fend off a spirited challenge from the Baltimore Blue Crabs. The Atlantics are in their first season in Halifax; as a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, when they were known as the Maine Moose. Like the Rhinos, Halifax’s success is built on its defense. They led the league in blocks with 972, and they allowed only 25.6 shots per game, the CHL’s second-fewest. The Atlantics love nothing more than to slow down the pace of the game and grind their opponents to death. Unlike Virginia, the Atlantics’ offense is powered by a pair of stars. LW Jarmann Fischer finished with 33 goals, good for second in the league. C Dwight Flynn finished third in the CHL in points with 62; he’s the only player to make the league’s top ten in goals (25) and assists (37). If Halifax is going to bring a title to Atlantic Canada, they’ll need Fischer and Flynn to come up big. “We’re ready to take our game to the next level,” said Fischer. “We’ve been grinding all season, and we’re ready to keep doing that all the way to the end.”
The Idaho Spuds are the defending champions, and they come into the playoffs as favorites to repeat. Their 37-21-6 record was the league’s best, and their 80 points was eight ahead of their closest competitor. They finished with a plus-minus of +72, the league’s best by a long shot. They’re coming into the playoffs hot, having won 15 of their last 19 games. Their parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, may have had a chaotic season and face an uncertain future, but Idaho’s season was virtually trouble-free (at least when their players stayed off social media). Looking at the Spuds’ statistics, it’s hard to find a weakness. They led the league in scoring with 214 goals (3.3 per game), and they finished second in GAA with a stingy 2.32 figure. Netminder Kelvin White (32-11-3, 1.99, .928) was a brick wall; he led the league in wins and GAA and missed the save percentage crown by a single point. Their attack is led by C Dale Wilcox (26 goals) and RW Britt Cadmium (23), but Idaho loves to spread the wealth; they had a league-leading 11 players who finished with double-digit goals. It’s a stretch to find any Achilles heels with this club, but… last season, in their first year in the Gem State, the Spuds had the league’s best home record, at 22-7-3. This year, the crowds weren’t quite as huge, and the team actually did slightly better on the road. This is a small nit to pick, however; Idaho figures to be a formidable opponent throughout the postseason. “If anybody else wants the belt, they’re gonna have to come take it from us,” said LW Terry Cresson. “We’re definitely not giving it up without a hell of a fight.”
The Omaha Ashcats face the Spuds in the Western playoff for the second season in a row. Like the Atlantics, Omaha punched its playoff ticket on the season’s final day, knocking off Idaho 3-2 to finish ahead of the Utah Owls. That season-ending victory completed a 6-1-1 stretch run that occurred after superfan “Krazy Karl”Loesser held a “sacrifice” outside the arena to change the team’s luck; prior to that, they’d lost 7 of their previous 9 games. Was it the hockey gods at work, as Krazy Karl claimed, or a mere coincidence? “At this point in the season, we need all the help we can get,” said coach Butch Slazenger. “And I have no interest in pissing off the hockey gods, so I’ll just say thanks.” Unlike the East playoff, this series should feature plenty of shots; the Ashcats favor a fast-paced, firewagon style of hockey. They averaged 34.6 shots per game in the regular season; only Idaho had more. They do wind up getting burned sometimes on the other end; they gave up an average of 31 shots a game (only two teams were worse). If Omaha can spring an upset and make the Finals, it will likely be thanks to winning the penalty battle. The Ashcats are absolutely lethal on the power play; their 25.4% conversion rate led the league by a wide margin. Meanwhile, Idaho’s 79.9% penalty kill rate was dead last. The Spuds will need to play smart and stay out of the penalty box if they’re going to avoid the upset and defend their title.