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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2017 SHL Finals – Game 6

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1, HERSHEY BLISS 0

The Anchorage Igloos knew that it was now or never.  In today’s Game 6 of the SHL Finals at Arctic Circle Arena, the Igloos had to win or they would be finished, suffering a stunning upset at the hands of the Hershey Bliss.  The Igloos showed up with the proper sense intensity, and finally pushed across a goal in the third to win 1-0 and stave off elimination.

“We knew we needed to come out desperate,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We knew we needed to leave it all out there on the ice.  We knew we might get beat, but it wasn’t going to be because we were outskated or outhustled.  And we weren’t.”

Anchorage came out determined to push the pace and run past Hershey.  This strategy had two advantages: First, with Hershey’s top scorer Justin Valentine sidelined with an injury, the Igloos suspected that the Bliss would take a while to establish a rhythm on offense.  Second, since Igloos netminder Ty Worthington was also injured, Anchorage hoped that an aggressive approach would limit Hershey’s zone time and reduce the pressure on backup Riley Lattimore.

“We came out determined to dominate,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We just wanted to blow the doors off them.”

Dominate they did; they outshot Hershey 21-8 in a fast-paced, high-flying period.  But the period ended in a scoreless tie, as Bliss goalie Brandon Colt made a number of sterling stops to thwart the Igloos at every turn.  “This series would have been over already if Brandon hadn’t been so awesome,” said Bliss D Reese Milton.  “He’s really taken his game to the next level in this series.”

The game slowed down considerably in the second period, as the Igloos’ initial burst of energy wore off and Hershey was able to establish a more effective defensive rhythm.  Six and a half minutes into the period, the Bliss appeared to draw first blood, as RW Noah Daniels threaded a gorgeous pass to LW Russell Nahorniak, who fired the puck home between Lattimore’s legs.  But Castor challenged the goal, arguing that Hershey had entered the zone offside.  The referees spent over four minutes reviewing the play, as the Igloos and their fans waited with their hearts in their throats.  Finally, after an agonizing wait, head referee Laurent Villiers announced that the play was offside and waved off the goal, as the crowd roared.

“That was a huge momentum swing for us,” said Frost.  “When we dominated the first period and couldn’t score, and if that had counted… it would have crushed us.”

Both teams had a power play in the period but failed to convert.  After two periods, the game remained scoreless.  Anchorage was outshooting Hershey 32-14, but had nothing to show for it.

“We definitely knew the stakes, but so did they,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “It was a really well-played game on both sides.”

The tension in the arena amped up even further in the final period, as both teams were eager to close it out.  There were no fights, no penalties, no extracurriculars, just two teams giving it their all.  As the minutes ticked away and the zeroes remained on the scoreboard, both benches began to wonder if the game-winning goal would ever come.

“I don’t know if we could have handled OT,” said Koons.  “I was about to have a heart attack as it was.”

Finally, with 4:18 left in the game, Anchorage C Nile Bernard fired a shot from the right faceoff circle.  Colt made the save, but allowed an unusually juicy rebound.  The puck skidded to D Olaf Martinsson, who gathered it up and fired it at the open half of the net.  Colt reached back for it, but the puck found the twine.  Martinsson dropped his stick, shouted and pumped his fists as his teammates gathered around to celebrate him.

“If you’d have asked me to bet who would get the GWG, I wouldn’t have put money on Olaf,” laughed Frost.  “But he’s a pro, like everyone in here, and he came through when the spotlight found him.”

The Igloos switched to a more defensive style after Martinsson’s tally, and successfully denied the Bliss time in the offensive zone.  Hershey got only one more shot off in the final four minutes of the game.

Heading into the winner-take-all Game 7, Castor said that his team is ready.  “We showed today that we’ve got what it takes when the chips are down,” said the Igloos coach.  “We know tomorrow’s game will be at least as intense as this, probably more.  But we’re in this to win it, all the way.  We won’t accept anything less.”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 5

HERSHEY BLISS 6, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

Few people thought the Hershey Bliss would make it this far.  Coming into the SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos were the heavy favorites; the biggest question seemed to be whether they would win in four or five games.  After their 6-1 blowout in today’s Game 5, the Bliss find themselves one win away from the Vandy.  It was a game that came at a heavy price for both sides, however, as each team lost a key contributor for the rest of the Finals.

“We’re really excited to be one win away from the ultimate goal,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Now we’ve got to win one more, and we’re going to win it for Justin.”

That’s right; Hershey will need to win a game on enemy ice without their leading scorer, C Justin Valentine.  The Bliss captain went down with seven minutes left in the game.  Valentine was exiting his own zone and trying to get loose for a breakout when Igloos D Ted Keefe checked him low.  Keefe ducked as he made contact, causing Valentine to cartwheel over him and land awkwardly on his right leg.

Valentine lay on the ice for over a minute as the crowd at Chocolate Center fell silent.  Valentine limped off the ice on the arms of linemates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart and did not return to the ice.  After the game, Barber confirmed that Valentine was done for the series.

“Justin hyperextended his knee and strained his hamstring when he got hit,” said the Hershey coach.  “He really wants to get back out there for the rest of the series, but he can’t even walk at this point, much less skate.”

Valentine’s injury was a particularly crushing blow after this game, when he and the rest of the Love Line lit up the scoreboard.  Valentine, Hart, and Sweet combined to score four of Hershey’s six goals (two by Valentine himself), and assisted D Reese Milton on another.  “We hated to see our brother go down like that,” said Sweet.  “It’s gonna be tough doing it without him, but we’re going to get this done and win it for him.”

Anchorage didn’t emerge from Game 5 unscathed, either.  Midway through the first period, Bliss RW Sven Danielsen and Igloos D Olaf Martinsson got tangled up in front of the Anchorage net and slid into goalie Ty Worthington, twisting his arm underneath him in the process.  Worthington remained in the game, but he seemed to have trouble reacting to shots, especially on his stick side.  Igloos coach Sam Castor reported that his netminder had suffered a separated shoulder and would not be able to play in Games 6 or 7.

“I’m amazed that Ty managed to make it through the game, to be honest,” said Castor.  “He was in incredible pain.  But he’s an incredible competitor.”

With Worthington sidelined, the Igloos will face back-to-back do-or-die games with backup Riley Lattimore in the crease.  Lattimore was a reliable second-stringer this season, going 11-6-2 with a 2.96 GAA and a .909 save percentage.  Still, he represents a significant step down from Worthington.

“We have complete confidence in Riley Lattimore,” said Castor.  “All we have to do is defend our home ice, and we’ll bring home the Vandy.”

Technically, Castor’s statement is accurate, but it suggests normality in a Finals that has been anything but normal.  Can the Igloos win two with Lattimore in net?  Can the Bliss keep their offense going without Valentine?  Can Hershey win one more and claim a thoroughly unexpected Finals win?  Luckily for us, the only way to find out is to play the games.

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 5”

Bliss Nab Goalie at Deadline

Hershey SmallDakota SmallUnlike last year, there were some significant deals made at the trading deadline this year.  Perhaps the most significant deal involved the Hershey Bliss acquiring goalie Jesse Clarkson from the Dakota Rapids in exchange for netminder Buzz Carson and a first-round pick.  With the trade, Hershey patched their biggest hole to prepare for a playoff run, while Dakota finally pulled the trigger on a move they’ve seemingly planned to make since the SHL began.

“Going into the deadline, our #1 target was picking up a top-quality goalie,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Jesse was far and away the best guy available, and we got what we needed.  Now we’re ready to make a run at the division.”

jesse-clarkson
Jesse Clarkson

Goaltending has been a consistent problem for Hershey since the SHL’s inception.  Last year, the Bliss shuffled between Riley Lattimore and Milo Stafford between the pipes, with neither producing consistent results.  So in the offseason, the Bliss shipped Lattimore to Anchorage and drafted Carson, a highly-regarded prospect from Lake Ontario State.  The 22-year-old has shown flashes of promise (10-11-2, 2.88 GAA, .901 save percentage) and has improved with experience, but the Hershey front office felt that neither he nor Stafford was capable of providing playoff-caliber netminding.

“This wasn’t an easy deal for us to make,” said Lawrence.  “We really like what Buzz has shown, and he’s really blossomed with experience.  I believe he could be a goaltender in the Finals someday.  But we’re ready to get to the Finals right now, and Buzz isn’t quite there yet.  Jesse’s the guy we need now.”

buzz-carson
Buzz Carson

Dealing Clarkson represents a victory of sorts for Rapids GM Paul Mindegaard.  The 27-year-old Clarkson has provided solid netminding for Dakota since the league’s inception (including a 15-10-3 record, 3.21 GAA, and .914 save percentage this season), but Mindegaard has reportedly never been sold on him as an elite goaltender.  The GM has expressed a clear desire to give more playing time to youngster Christien Adamsson, a South Dakota native.  Rapids coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, preferred Clarkson.  This created a rift between the two that reportedly put the coach’s job in jeopardy after a lackluster start to the season.

The Rapids’ recent 10-1-1 streak was enough to save Engellund, but it apparently wasn’t enough to spare Clarkson.  Mindegaard noted that the Rapids trail division-leading Michigan by 17 points as justification for the deal.  “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to contend right now,” said the Dakota GM.  “With that in mind, we made a deal that will open up some more opportunities for Christien, sure.  But we’ve also got another high-quality goalie prospect in the deal, plus we’ve got a pick that will allow us to land another top young player.  We’re looking down the road at what it’s going to take to get by Michigan and Anchorage.”

Clarkson expressed relief that the deal had finally been made and expressed excitement at joining the Bliss.  “It feels like I’ve been on my way out of town for two seasons now,” said Clarkson.  “That really wears on a guy, so I’m glad that it finally happened.  And I’m really glad to go to a team that’s got a real shot to go all the way.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Carson, meanwhile, had a more mixed reaction.  “I really liked it in Hershey,” said the young goalie.  “I liked my teammates and the chemistry, and I really liked the chocolate.  But I’m hoping to have a good opportunity where I go next.  I think Christien Adamsson and I will inspire each other to get better.”

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.