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.”

Smoke Hosts “KC Bar-B-Q Battle”

The expansion Kansas City Smoke want to provide their fans with, in the words of team president Eddie Whitmore, “an authentic KC experience.”  As anyone who’s ever been to the city knows, barbecue is an essential part of that experience.  So it comes as no surprise that during Tuesday’s game, the Smoke treated their fans to the “KC Bar-B-Q Battle.”

Between the second and third periods, public address announcer Curtis Burton told the fans that “it’s time to settle the oldest question in Kansas City once and for all: Arthur Bryant’s or Gates?”  At that moment, two teams of youth hockey players skated onto the ice.  But instead of wearing Smoke jerseys as usual, they were sporting the logos of Kansas City’s oldest and most venerable ‘cue chains.  One team was clad in red and yellow with the familiar script of Arthur Bryant’s, a KC institution since 1940.  The other team was dressed in black and red, emblazoned with the logo of Gates Bar-B-Q, which opened its doors in 1946.

“For generations, folks in KC have argued about whose ‘cue reigns supreme,” Burton continued.  “Tonight, we declare a winner on the ice!”

The fans roared as the teams of youngsters raced up and down the rink, in search of slow-cooked glory.  The Bryant’s team got on the board first, as 8-year-old Danny Kneuven buried a shot from the hash marks.  But the Gates team didn’t have to wait long to get even, as 7-year-old Sam Gillard slipped one through the five-hole to make it a 1-1 game.  Gates fans roared approval for the tally, and the whole stadium expressed their delight when Gillard celebrated by dropping to the ice and doing the swim.

In the final minute of the contest, Gates got a goal from 8-year-old Millie Watkins, and it looked as though they would be the victors.  But in the waning second, Kneuven got free on a breakaway and banked one home off the right post to make it 2-all.  Rather than settle the contest with overtime or a shootout, Burton indicated that the winner would be determined by which restaurant had the highest sales at that night’s game.  (Both Bryant’s and Gates have stands at Heartland Telecom Center.)  Fans of both joints lined up well into the third period to put their favorite over the top.

After the final horn sounded, Burton announced that Gates was the winner, prompting a joyful celebration from some fans and a moan from others.

The Bar-B-Q Battle proved so compelling that coach Randy Bergner hardly cared that the Smoke lost the game.  “To tell you the truth, I was more invested in the Bryant’s-Gates contest than the actual game,” Bergner told reporters.  “Too bad the wrong side won.  Bryant’s for life!”

Whitmore proclaimed himself delighted with the event.  “This one was a real hit with the fans,” he said.  “Since it happened, I’ve been flooded with emails from people wanting us to include other places.  ‘What about Joe’s?  What about L.C.’s?'”  Asked if he planned to stage the event again with a wider selection of restaurants, the president smiled and said, “Stay tuned.”

Whitmore indicated that the team was planning to expand the contest to music at future games.  “There are other KC arguments that we want to settle,” he said.  “Who’s the king of KC blues?  Who’s the best jazz band in the city?  We’ve got plenty of material to work with, because we’ve got such a deep and rich cultural history.  As deep and rich as the sauce on Gates’ burnt ends.”