Both Divisions Decided on Final Day

The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years.  Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec.  But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale.  This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.

Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors.  The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale.  The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game.  “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”

The Sailors got off to a fast start.  Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead.  Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0.  The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.

In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear.  In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board.  Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score.  A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen.  But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads.  Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win?  For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango.  In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home.  Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.

“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.

With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division.  The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy.  “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols.  The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead.  But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs.  Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.

Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory.  Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner.  Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead.  Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game.  “You’d hate to see that.  It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”

Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols.  Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York NightNick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.

“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said.  “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”

The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them.  But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in.  Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.

LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants.  Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter.  Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.

In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again.  The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside.  When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.

In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title.  (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)

True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division.  As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice.  In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music.  “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes.  “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart.  It really does.  If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”

The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude.  “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate.  Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage.  And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”

Alexander was more blunt than his coach.  “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything.  They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic.  Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”

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West Romps to Easy Victory in All-Star Game

Conventional wisdom around the SHL has long held that the West is the stronger of the two divisions.  The West has regularly produced the team with the best record every year, and have generally dominated inter-division play.  The conventional wisdom has been shifting lately, though. The Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in an upset last year.  The Hamilton Pistols are tied for the best record in the league.  And the East has gotten the better end of inter-division play this year, going 40-30-2 so far.  Are we witnessing a changing of the guard?

At the All-Star Game on Sunday night at Cadillac Place in Michigan, The West made a powerful statement that they’re still the division to beat.  They chased Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen with five goals in the first period, and rolled along from there to a 9-2 rout.  It was a dominant performance that left the fans chanting “West Is Best!” for the last several minutes of the game.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about how the East is catching up, or maybe they’re even the better division,” said Anchorage Igloos C Jake Frost, who scored a goal and had three assists.  “Well, this ought to cool off that talk for a while.”

The fabulous first period was a reflection of the division’s impressive depth, as each goal was scored by a player on a different team.  The game was only 22 seconds old when Dakota Jackalopes C Lars Karlsson went top-shelf to open the scoring.  Just over a minute later, Anchorage’s Jerry Koons redirected a shot from his Igloos teammate Frost to make it 2-0.  Eight minutes into the period, it was D Fritz Kronstein of the Michigan Gray Wolves who blasted a shot from the blue line that dented the twine before Koskinen could get his glove up.  Thirty seconds after that, Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango took off on a breakaway and slipped a shot between Koskinen’s legs.  Finally, with just under five minutes remaining, Kansas City Smoke LW Pascal Royal fired a slapshot from the faceoff circle that found the back of the next, making it 5-0.

Koskinen, who was expected to play the first two periods, was yanked after the first.  After the game, Koskinen hinted that he might have partied a bit too hard before the game.  “My first All-Star Game,” said the Hamilton netminder.  “Lots of parties, lots of fun.  Maybe too much fun for me.”

The competitive portion of the game was essentially over after the opening period, and the East did what it could to salvage a few shreds of dignity.  Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart finally broke the shutout 5:43 into the second period, stuffing home a rebound past Michigan goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  Lundquist made 36 saves over the first two periods, before leaving to a standing ovation.  Igloos netminder Ty Worthington turned aside 12 shots in the third, although Quebec Tigres D Laurie Workman managed to put one shot past him.

“I got to start The Bear and send in Ty for belief,” said West coach Sam Castor.  “Talk about a dynamic duo.”

There were a number of Western players who were deserving of MVP honors, but in the end the award went to Koons, the only player to score multiple goals in the game.  In addition to the award, Koons received a brand new Kia Stinger sports sedan.

“Picking the MVP from this game is like picking the best noodle of a spaghetti dinner,” said Koons.  “But hey, I got this cool car of it, so I’ll take it!”

Also during the game, the SHL announced the winner of its “For the Love of Hockey” fan video contest.  The winner was 27-year-old Sarah Fennelly of Anchorage.  Sarah’s video featured pictures or herself, her father, and her grandfather, all of whom grew up playing pond hockey in Alaska.  She then included footage of the three of them at an Igloos game, cheering on the home team.  “Hockey is our heritage and our common language,” Sarah said.  “We’re so different in so many ways, but hockey brings us together.”  All three generations of the Fenelly family were in attendance at the All-Star Game, and they received warm applause from the crowd.

“My grandfather hasn’t been in great health lately, and we weren’t sure if he would be able to come,” Sarah said.  “But he insisted.  He never misses a hockey game.”

 

2018 SHL All-Star Game, East All-Stars @ West All-Stars, Cadillac Place

                   1   2   3   OT   F
East All-Stars     0   1   1        2
West All-Stars     5   2   2        9

 
East All-Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-   West All-Stars         G   A PTS PIM +/-

Thurman         LW     0   0   0   0  -2   Koons           LW     2   0   2   0   2
Milton          D      0   0   0   0  -4   Kronstein       D      1   3   4   0   4
Frye            C      0   0   0   0  -2   Frost           C      1   3   4   0   2
Sanchez         D      0   0   0   2  -4   Madison         D      0   3   3   0   4
McNeely         RW     0   0   0   0  -2   Mango           RW     1   1   2   0   2
Alexander       LW     0   1   1   0  -2   Chamberlain     LW     0   0   0   0   2
Smyth           D      0   0   0   0  -2   Barnes          D      0   4   4   0   2
Valentine       C      0   1   1   0  -2   Karlsson        C      1   0   1   0   2
Buchanan        D      0   0   0   0  -2   Keefe           D      0   0   0   0   2
Hart            RW     1   0   1   0  -2   Ericsson        RW     1   2   3   0   2
Darnholm        LW     0   1   1   0  -1   Royal           LW     1   1   2   0   1
Workman         D      1   0   1   2   1   Cherner         D      0   0   0   0  -1
Ilyushin        C      0   0   0   0  -1   Marlow          C      0   0   0   0   1
Mulligan        D      0   1   1   0   1   Frederick       D      0   0   0   0  -1
Mirac           RW     0   0   0   0  -1   Pepper          RW     1   1   2   2   1
----------------------------------------   ----------------------------------------
TOTALS                 2   4   6   4  -5   TOTALS                 9  18  27   2   5

Scratches:
EAS: None 
WAS: None 

 
East All-Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            20    15    5  0.750
Tiktuunen           27    23    4  0.852

West All-Stars      SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Lundquist           37    36    1  0.973
Worthington         13    12    1  0.923

 

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

GOALS:
00:22  WAS  Karlsson (Ericsson, Kronstein)
01:34  WAS  Koons (Frost, Madison)
07:58  WAS  Kronstein (Madison, Ericsson)
08:33  WAS  Mango (Barnes, Frost)
15:03  WAS  Royal (Pepper, Barnes)

PENALTIES:
03:07  WAS  Pepper 2:00 (Elbowing)

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

GOALS:
01:44  WAS  Frost PP (Mango, Kronstein)
05:43  EAS  Hart (Alexander, Valentine)
17:29  WAS  Pepper (Barnes, Royal)

PENALTIES:
00:33  EAS  Workman 2:00 (Interference)


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

GOALS:
02:53  WAS  Koons PP (Frost, Barnes)
04:30  EAS  Workman (Mulligan, Darnholm)
05:01  WAS  Ericsson (Kronstein, Madison)

PENALTIES:
01:09  EAS  Sanchez 2:00 (Delay of Game)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
East All-Stars    25  12  13       50
West All-Stars    20  12  15       47

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

East All-Stars   0 for 1
West All-Stars   2 for 2

 
INJURIES
--------

None

2018 Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held at Michigan’s Cadillac Place, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Jerry Koons, AnchorageIt’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the Igloos winger, but it’s his first time being voted into the starting lineup.  In a reverse of last year’s results, Koons was voted in over Dakota’s “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  He had a breakout season in 2017, scoring 44 goals and 90 points and winning the MVP award.  He hasn’t been on that same pace this season, but he’s off to a solid point; his 35 points put him in the top 10 in the league.

D: Fritz Kronstein, MichiganThe Wolves remain the top defensive squad in the SHL, and their top defensive pairing was rewarded with their second straight starting appearance.  This season, Kronstein was the top-vote getter among all defensemen, a recognition of his emergence as a two-way force.  He leads the Wolves with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists), and he is the leader among all blueliners in the league in plus-minus with a +24 rating.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  For the second straight season, Frost was the runaway winner of the starting center spot for the West, garnering almost 60% of the votes at the position.  The tall center has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since his debut, and this season is no exception; his 22 goals are the fourth-highest total in the SHL.  “Having Koonsy and Frosty out there on the top line, that makes you feel good as a coach,” said Castor.  “With the kind of year we’re having, I wasn’t taking that for granted.”

D: “Mad Max” Madison, Michigan.  It wasn’t clear whether Madison was going to be able to make the game, as he has missed the last three weeks with a lower-body injury.  But he has declared that he’s “feeling great and ready to go,” and plans to make his return to the ice in front of his home crowd.  Madison’s numbers have taken a hit due to his injury, but he was off to a solid start before getting hurt, putting up 3 goals and 7 assists in the first 15 games of the season.

RW: Vince Mango, Seattle.  The Sailors sniper has proven to be a polarizing figure around the league, as his theatrical goal celebrations and loquaciousness with the press rub some traditionalist fans the wrong way.  But he’s attracted enough fans to squeak out a narrow victory in fan voting, garnering a few thousand more votes than Michigan’s Gordon Lunsford and Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  Mango is known for his scoring, and he has 16 tallies on the season, which places him among the Top 10 in the league.  Mango described the results as a “changing of the guard.”

 

Second Line

LW: Troy Chamberlain, SaskatchewanThe Shockers winger makes his second straight All-Star appearance.  Chamberlain continues to be the driving force behind Saskatchewan’s offense, leading the team in both goals (with 13) and points (29).  But he’s also not just a force on offense; he’s known around the league as a diligent and capable two-way player.  Although the Shockers have slipped back in the playoff race recently, Chamberlain’s play has been a key to their push to contend.

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan. For the second season in a row, Chamberlain and Barnes represent the Shockers’ only All-Star representatives.  Barnes continues to emerge as one of the SHL’s top blueline talents.  His 21 assists are the most among Saskatchewan players, and he’s also managed to light the lamp four times.  In addition, he’s a rugged and hard-hitting defender who’s been nicknamed “Stonewall” by his teammates due to his ability to deny opposing skaters entry into the offensive zone.  He’s even in plus-minus rating this season, one of only three Saskatchewan players not in the negative.

C: Lars Karlsson, Dakota.  Karlsson is one of two Jackalopes players appearing in this year’s All-Star Game, although it’s hard to know how much longer he will remain in a Dakota uniform.  Karlsson’s contract is up at the end of the season, and he figures to be one of the most sought-after rentals, as the rebuilding ‘Lopes seem unlikely to resign him.  The veteran center has done a good job blocking out the distractions and is putting up a fine season, leading the team in both goals (15) and points (31).

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage. The top two defensive pairings for the West look the same this year as last, as Castor turned to his veteran puck-moving stalwart to fill out the second pair.  Keefe turns 33 this season, but is playing like a man a decade younger.  He’s got the best offensive numbers among the Igloos’ defensive corps, with 8 goals and 19 assists on the season.  He’s a hard-checking defenseman who likes to scrap, and he’s one of the league’s best at steals and forcing turnovers as well.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage. As mentioned above, Ericsson narrowly missed being voted into a starting slot on the Western squad, and Castor had no hesitation about picking his own player to complete the second line. Despite having what for him is a bit of a down season (7 goals, 20 assists), Ericsson continues to be regarded as one of the league’s elite passers.  “He could fit a puck through the eye of a needle if he had to,” said Castor.

 

Third Line

LW: Pascal Royal, Kansas CityThe SHL requires that every team be represented on the All-Star teams, and Royal is the Smoke’s lone representative.  The 27-year-old winger has had something of a career resurgence in KC, and he leads the team in points (31) and assists (19).  The All-Star Game is something of a showcase for Royal, who seems a likely possibility to be moved at the trading deadline.

D: Matt Cherner, Dakota.  Cherner makes his first-ever All-Star appearance.  Like his Jackalopes teammate Karlsson, he’s likely to attract attention from teams around the trading deadline, although given that his contract doesn’t expire until 2020, he’s less likely to be moved.  Cherner is one of the league’s best offensive-minded defensemen, and he’s putting up a strong season, scoring 7 goals and 23 assists to date.

CWarren Marlow, Michigan. Marlow was not originally chosen as an All-Star last season, but he wound up going as a replacement after teammate Hunter Bailes suffered an injury in the days before the game.  He is the only Wolves player selected by Castor… a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed at Cadillac Place. Marlow has actually recorded more points than Bailes so far this season (27 to 26), although Bailes has scored more goals (18 to 13).  He also has the unusual distinction of being one of four regular starters in the SHL who has yet to record a penalty this season.

D: Dave Frederick, Anchorage. In a selection considered debatable by some, Castor tabbed the 31-year-old Frederick to make his All-Star debut in the West’s bottom pairing.  Wolves fans argued for the selection of Brooks Zabielski or Frank Mudrick over Frederick, while Sailors supporters protested that Doron Lidjya was unfairly snubbed.  In fairness to Frederick, he has some points in his favor: he’s second among Western defenders in plus-minus at +19, and he’s produced on offense, putting up 4 goals and 11 assists so far this season.

RW: Elliott Pepper, Seattle. The Sailors get their second representative in Pepper, who’s making his first All-Star appearance.  The winger got off to a strong start that earned him Player of the Week honors in the season’s first week.  He’s cooled off some since, but he remains one of the league’s better offensive performers, with 16 goals (tied with fellow All-Star Mango for the Seattle team lead) and 13 assists so far on the year.

 

Goaltenders

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Michigan.  Although the SHL’s best-bearded goalie isn’t quite as dominant this season as he has been in years past, he still won the starting nod handily, according to the fan vote.  Lundquist’s numbers are certainly nothing to sneeze at, either: his 18 wins are tied for the league lead, while his 1.91 GAA is second-best and his .926 save percentage is good for third overall.

Ty Worthington, Anchorage. The Igloos netminder will be the Western backup once again this time around. Although Worthington got off to something of a slow start this season, he’s rebounded nicely in recent weeks, helping Anchorage firm up their hold on second place in the West.  Overall, his numbers remain quite respectable: 13-11-0, 2.41 GAA, .923 save percentage  — good enough to get the nod over Saskatchewan’s Zeke Zagurski.

Interview of the Week: Pascal Royal

This week’s interview is with Kansas City Smoke LW Pascal Royal.

SHL Digest: We’re here today with another one of the league’s surprising top scorers, Pascal Royal of the expansion Kansas City Smoke.  Pascal, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Pascal Royal

Pascal Royal: But of course!  It is my pleasure.

SHLD: Last week, we spoke with Misha Petronov, who is having a mid-career breakout season.  The same thing is happening for you!

PR: Thank you for noticing. I am very happy with my performance so far.

SHLD: You’ve been a consistent 15-goal scorer throughout your career; this year, you’re only 20 games into the season and you’ve already scored a dozen.  The most points you’ve ever scored in an SHL season is 53, back in 2016; you’re already at 28 for this year.  What is the secret to your success?

PR: Just lucky, I guess. (laughs) To be serious, I worked very hard this offseason.  When you are an expansion player, you feel as though you have been left out with the garbage.  I felt I had much to prove.

SHLD: Well, you’re definitely proving yourself.  You’ve already racked up nearly as many points as you did all of last season.  Do you think you can keep this pace up?

PR: Yes, I believe so.  It helps that our offense is going very well.  That was a problem last year.

SHLD: It’s interesting that you mention last year.  You were with the Quebec Tigres, and even though you led the team in points with 34, they still left you unprotected in the expansion draft. Did that surprise you?

PR: No, if I am being honest.  Coach [Martin] Delorme was never happy with my defense.  They only picked me to begin because I am Quebecois, and they thought it would sell tickets.

SHLD: The Tigres are having a good year, and might even make the playoffs.  Are you sorry you’re not still there?

PR: Not really.  I want to be where I am wanted, and in Kansas City I am wanted.  I am looking forward.

SHLD: How do you like Kansas City?

PR: I like it!  It is a very fun place.  I love good music and good food, and there is a lot of both here.  Quebec is a nice town, but it is a little bit sleepier.

SHLD: Of course, when you’re on an expansion team and you do well, there’s always a risk that you might get traded.  How would you feel if you were dealt?

PR: I would be fine with it.  When you are a pro hockey player, you get used to being traded.  And if I am traded, I expect it would be to a contending team.  It would be fun to contend!  I have not in my career.

SHLD: Great attitude!  Well, thank you for an interesting interview, Pascal.  Good luck with the rest of the season!

PR: Thank you.  I am hopeful that the rest of my season will be so good.

West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”

Tigres’ Offense Goes Missing

If you looked at the Quebec Tigres‘ defensive statistics, you’d probably figure they were a leading contender in the East.  They have a ferocious, hard-hitting defense that’s great at slowing the pace and preventing opponents from establishing momentum on offense.  And on the rare occasion that a team can get a shot off, Quebec has one of the league’s best netminders, Riki Tiktuunen, there to stop it.

So why are the Tigres down in fourth with a sub-.500 record?  Because of their dysfunctional, sputtering offense.  Quebec has generated far fewer shots and scored fewer goals than any other team.  The team’s scoring shortcomings were especially apparent this week, when they lit the lamp only five times while failing to win a game.

“It is frustrating, I cannot lie,” said Tiktuunen, who posted an 0-1-3 record despite a 1.00 GAA and a .970 save percentage.  “Knowing that there is no margin for error, it puts much pressure on you to be perfect.”

“Defensively, we are world-class,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But offensively, we are at a junior level.  This must improve.”

On Saturday, the Tigres faced off against the Michigan Gray Wolves, Delorme’s former club.  Both squads feature a defense-first approach and have elite goalies, so goals were sure to be at a premium.  And sure enough, 65 minutes later, the teams had recorded the SHL’s first-ever scoreless tie.  Tiktuunen stopped 36 shots, while Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist made 21 saves.  “A defensive masterclass,” said Tigres D Dmitri Kalashnikov.  “It was like a brilliant chess match.”

A scoreless tie against the league’s best team left the Tigres feeling good.  But they weren’t so thrilled the next night, when they were shut out again by the Washington Galaxy.  Tiktuunen was on his game again, stopping 28 pucks, but Quebec managed only 12 shots and Galaxy LW Casey Thurman deflected a puck past Tiktuunen midway through the third period to steal a 1-0 victory.

“It’s like there’s a brick wall at our blue line,” said Tigres RW Stephane Mirac.  “No zone time, no shots.”

On Tuesday, the Tigres launched 32 shots at Hershey Bliss netminder Milo Stafford, but the veteran turned them all aside as Quebec recorded yet another scoreless tie.

“Three straight games and no goals,” said Delorme.  “This is not acceptable.  This offensive constipation cannot continue.”

Facing the porous defense of the New York Night, the Tigres finally got their attack in gear and put three pucks in the net.  But they couldn’t match the Night’s speed, surrendering 49 shots and allowing a 3-3 tie.

On Friday, with backup netminder Guillaume Levan in net, Quebec collapsed in the third, surrendering four goals on 15 shots in a 6-1 rout.

“We know that we have to step it up,” said Tigres LW Pascal Royal.  “Our defense and Riki are giving us chance after chance to win, but if we cannot score, we will squander those opportunities.”