2017 SHL Finals – Game 7

HERSHEY BLISS 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3 (OVERTIME)

Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced.  “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber.  “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters.  “How’s it going to come out?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it.  We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”

In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room.  “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players.  “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.”  One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.

Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up.  “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said.  “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me.  I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team.  I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one.  Let’s do it!”  Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”

“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”

It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.

“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet.  “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope.  We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”

Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice.  LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit.  Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.

“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine.  “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”

But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum.  As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger.  The Bliss needed a hero.  True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.

When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title.  The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss.  He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.

But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd.  When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone.  After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net.  But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore.  Hershey was on the board at last.

But McLearen wasn’t finished.  Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming.  Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.

“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.

Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute.  Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game.  D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.

Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period.  “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor.  “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey.  That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”

Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk.  On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play.  C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle.  The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on.  The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops.  Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal.  On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.

After 60 minutes, the game remained tied.  Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher.  Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session.  “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet.  “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”

Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long.  Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end.  Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway.  The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal.  McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.

“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet.  “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”

Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”

There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy.  Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.

“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek.  “Finally, we made it!”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 7”

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SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 3:

The Quebec Tigres made a huge deal at the top of the draft after their planned choice went awry.  The Tigres had planned to take scoring winger Rod “Money” Argent with the #2 pick, addressing their major shortcomings on offense.  But after the Seattle Sailors surprisingly drafted Argent with the first pick, Quebec found themselves with no obvious choice.  So they traded down, dealing the #2 pick to the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for the #5 pick, a second-round pick, and D Dmitri Kalashnikov. Hamilton sought the #2 pick in order to grab G Lasse Koskinen, who immediately became the team’s top netminder.  While Quebec did not wind up with an impact player of Argent’s caliber, they traded quality for quantity.  With the #5 pick, they plucked RW Rupert MacDiarmid, who put up 15 goals and 39 points in juniors last year.  In Kalashnikov, the Tigres added an elite and ferocious defender, whose 109 penalty minutes were the second-most in the SHL last season.  The Tigres used the second-round selection to nab D Hal Pugliese, who took Penn Tech to the NCAA tournament three times in his collegiate career.

The Dakota Jackalopes also dealt a first-round pick, sending the #6 selection to the New York Night along with C Phil Miller in exchange for C Mike Rivera.  The trade represents a bold gamble for both teams.  For Dakota, adding Rivera augments their high-flying offense, as the Jackalopes attempt to catch up with their division rivals in Michigan and Anchorage.  Last season, Rivera banged home 23 goals and collected 39 points with New York. He is expected to anchor Dakota’s second line this year.  For New York, the trade reflects new coach Nick Foster’s desire to build a more balanced club.  Although Rivera was a strong contributor on offense, he is widely considered a defensive liability.  Miller, who put up 18 goals and 30 points between Saskatchewan and Dakota in ’16, is regarded as more of a two-way player.  With the sixth pick, the Night grabbed goaltending prospect Sherman Carter, who recorded a 2.27 GAA and a .930 save percentage in juniors last season.  In addition to drafting Carter, New York signed the top free-agent netminder, Jesse Clarkson, to complete an overhaul of one of their weakest positions.

After the draft, the Night made a pair of deals aimed at improving their third line.  First, they swapped G Oliver Richardson to the Saskatchewan Shockers for the rights to G Hector Orinoco, then sent Orinoco’s rights along with F Dill Howlter to Hamilton for winger Andrei Volodin.  Richardson, who posted a 6-10-0 mark with a 4.37 GAA for New York last season, became expendable after the Night drafted Carter and signed Clarkson.  He represents an upgrade for the Shockers, who have struggled to find a solid backup for Zeke Zagurski since the league’s inception.  Orinoco played last season in the German league, where he record a 17-11-2 record with a 3.06 GAA.  He will likely spend the season in the minors for Hamilton, barring an injury.  The 25-year-old Volodin should bring a little extra scoring punch to New York’s third line.  He scored 18 goals and 34 points for Hamilton in the 2016 season.  The 20-year-old Howlter failed to record a point in 9 games for New York last season.

The Washington Galaxy sent longtime backup goalie Gus Parrish to the Seattle Sailors in exchange for F Yann Eberlein.  The deal was a bit disappointing for the fans, as Parrish was a beloved figure in Washington, adored for his boyish enthusiasm and flair for colorful quotes.  Last season, Parrish went 7-6-0 with a 3.21 GAA as the Galaxy defended their Eastern Division title.  But after Washington signed free agent Ron Mason in the offseason, Parrish found himself without a job.  Eberlein struggled in limited action with the Sailors last year, recording 2 goals and 7 points in 34 games.  Washington hopes that the 25-year-old Swiss forward can provide a solid presence off the bench.  The Galaxy suffered from poor third-line and bench production last season, as rookies Henry Van Alpin, Barry Sullivan, and Oliver Wallington all turned in disappointing campaigns.

The Jackalopes and the Hershey Bliss made a minor deal just before the start of the season, swapping bottom-pairing defensemen.  Dakota sent Pierre Chappelle to Hershey in exchange for Scott Hexton.  The Jackalopes were looking to strengthen their blueline corps a bit, and Hexton (3 goals, 12 points last season) grades out as an above-average defender.  On the other hand, the Bliss were looking to enhance their offensive production beyond their loaded top line.  Chappelle (5 goals, 20 points last year) provides an upgraded scoring threat relative to Hexton.  The 28-year-old Montreal native is on his third team in as many seasons; Dakota picked him up from Hamilton during last offseason.

SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 2:

Seattle SmallHamilton SmallThe expansion Seattle Sailors made a splash and landed some veteran talent to guide them in their inaugural campaign.  The Sailors acquired C Cliff Derringer, RW “King George” Lane, and D Hylton Windham from the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for first-round and third-round picks and F Elmo Jacobson.  In Derringer, the Sailors land a solid scorer (21 goals and 35 points last season) who is expected to anchor their top line.  Lane, meanwhile, is a capable passer (23 assists in 2015) who may be placed on the top line to feed Derringer and top draft pick Vince Mango.  Windham appeared in limited action for Hamilton last season, scoring 4 points in 22 games, but is best known for being the first native of the Bahamas to play professional hockey.  The Pistols are rebuilding under new coach Keith Shields, and the picks (which were used to draft D Clayton “Crusher” Risch and LW Norris “Beaver” Young) will help position the team for the future.  The 24-year-old Jacobson spent last season with Saskatchewan, for whom he scored 9 points.

Quebec SmallNew York smallThe other expansion team, the Quebec Tigres, made several moves after the expansion draft. First, they dealt RW Kenny Patterson and D Teddy Morrison to the New York Night in exchange for LW Pascal Royal.  The Tigres have made a point of acquiring as many Quebec natives as possible, and Royal certainly qualifies.  He will also provide the Tigres with a dose of badly-needed offense, having put up 15 goals and 40 points in New York.  Patterson is being reunited with his former club, as Quebec plucked him from New York in the expansion draft.  The winger scored 13 goals and 37 points for the Night last year.  Morrison was a gritty defender who spent last season with Washington, putting up 12 points in 56 games.

Quebec SmallSaskatchewan SmallThe Tigres also strengthened their blue line by acquiring Viktor Babykin, a rugged stay-home defenseman, from the Saskatchewan Shockers, along with F Alois Rodney in exchange for rookie D Brody “Bruiser” McCallan.  Babykin is known as one of the SHL’s meanest players, a man who never hesitates to drop the gloves and was one of the league leaders in penalty minutes last year.  His pugnacious personality also created some friction in the Shockers locker room, however.  The 21-year-old McCallan, the Tigres’ third-round draft pick, spent last season in the Quebec junior league, where he put up 12 points.  Rodney, who was the last player selected in the draft,  put up 6 points in limited action in the Swiss league last season.

Quebec SmallHamilton SmallIn their final deal, the Tigres picked up another left winger, Stellan Fisker, from the Hamilton Pistols.  Fisker put up 17 goals and 30 points for Hamilton last season.  The Pistols sent Fisker and the just-acquired Jacobson to Quebec in exchange for a pair of rookies, LW Magnus Gunnarson and the aforementioned Rodney, and a second-round pick in next year’s draft.  Gunnarson, who was selected in the second round by Quebec, scored 15 goals last season for Lake Erie State.

Hershey SmallAnchorage SmallThe Hershey Bliss and the Anchorage Igloos struck a major deal on draft night, with the Bliss sending G Riley Lattimore to the Igloos in exchange for RW Sven Danielsen.  Lattimore began last season as Hershey’s starting goalie, but struggled and wound up losing playing time to backup Milo Stafford.  Lattimore finished the season with a 12-18-1 record with a 3.70 GAA, as the Bliss stumbled to a disappointing third-place finish in the East.  He became expendable after Hershey picked netminder Buzz Carson in the second round of the draft.  Lattimore will serve as a backup in Anchorage, who lost their former second-string goalie, Ron Mason, to Seattle in the expansion draft.  Danielsen, meanwhile, spent last season on the second line for the champion Igloos, netting 11 goals and 28 points.  He lost his spot on the Anchorage depth chart to Remi Montrechere, as the Igloos found themselves with forward depth to spare.

Dakota SmallHamilton SmallIn a minor swap of defenders, the Dakota Rapids shipped Jose Martinez and rookie Fyodor Agrozonov to the Hamilton Pistols for Pierre Chappelle.  Chapelle was a solid two-way defenseman for the Pistols last season, putting up 10 points.  Martinez was an offensive-minded defender who struggled somewhat in Dakota, posting 7 points in 52 games.  Agrozonov is a 22-year-old who played the last two seasons in the KHL.