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].”

Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown

The Eastern Division race is as hot as it gets right now.  With the trading deadline coming next week, both playoff spots are up for grabs, and four of the division’s six teams have a real shot at the postseason.  With such a fierce and wide-open competition, the stakes of each game are heightened – especially when two contenders face off.

Sunday’s game between the Hershey Bliss and New York Night was a case in point.  Neither team is particularly known for playing rough; they generally focus on scoring rather than fighting.  But this time, they produced a notably chippy, nasty game in a 5-2 Hershey win.  If this is a preview of coming attractions down the stretch, the East could be in for a wild ride.

“There was a lot of hate out there on the ice today,” said Night D Dominic Sanchez.  “It was fun and scary at the same time.”

This was the back end of a home-and-home between the Night and Bliss, who entered the game tied for first place in the East.  Hershey came into the game hungry for revenge: New York had won Saturday’s game 3-2 at the Chocolate Center, handing the Bliss there fourth straight loss.

Nick Foster

And per his usual, Night coach Nick Foster rubbed salt in the wound during his postgame press conference.  Foster, who has ridiculed the Bliss as soft all season, came to the podium holding a roll of Charmin.  “I brought this because it reminds me of Hershey,” said Foster.  “It’s really soft, easy to squish, and I love wiping my [butt] with it.”

Foster’s jibe riled up the Bliss clubhouse, which made it clear that they were going to respond physically.  “We’ll show Foster who’s really soft,” one Hershey player said.

Sure enough, less than two and a half minutes into the game, Bliss D Steve Cargill dropped the gloves with New York blueliner Donald Duckworth.  The two traded blows until Cargill wrestled Duckworth to the ice – no small task given Duckworth’s rugged physique.  Both sides smacked their sticks on the boards in appreciation.  The Bliss had made their point; outside observers might have assumed that was the end of hostilities.  In fact, though, said hostilities were just beginning.

A couple minutes after the Cargill-Duckworth scrap, Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak hit Night star Brock Manning with a high stick, opening a gash next to Manning’s left eye.  Nahorniak claimed the high stick was accidental; the Night insisted it was intentional, and called for the Hershey winger to be ejected.  Nahorniak received a double minor instead.

Manning dashed into the locker room to be patched up, then returned and scored a game-tying power-play goal, then pointed at Nahorniak.  (Manning finished out the first period, but did not return to the ice after that; he also missed the following two games.)

Not to be outdone, Hershey proceeded to score a pair of goals a little more than two minutes apart.  Each time, their celebration “coincidentally” wound up in front of the Night bench.

A couple minutes after that, New York C Tom Hoffman avenged Manning by ramming the butt end of his stick into Nahorniak’s stomach in the middle of a scrum in front of the Hershey net.  That earned Hoffman a double minor penalty of his own.  The Night committed a couple more penalties before the period ended, but the score remained the same.

Tensions didn’t ease in the second period.  After only 46 seconds, Night D Andy Ruger challenged Cargill to another fight.  Cargill gladly accepted the challenge; this time, Ruger got the better end, bloodiyng Cargill rather badly.  Both players received majors for their trouble.

Less than a minute after that bout, Bliss C Vance Ketterman scored to make it 4-1.  With the competitive portion of the game essentially over, both teams turned the physicality up even further.

Night D Rocky Winkle enraged Hershey by spearing Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick in the groin.  This time, it was Hershey calling for Winkle to be ejected; instead, he received a double minor.  Bliss RW Remi Montrechere upset New York with a high stick that nearly caught Night C Rod Remington in the teeth.

Early in the third period, Hershey LW Lance Sweet dumped New York LW Chase Winchester into the boards with a hard cross-check.  The Night were angered that Sweet received only a two-minute penalty, instead of a major or an ejection.  On the ensuing power play, Duckworth and Winkle combined on a score; they celebration by flashing their middle fingers at the Hershey bench.  They weren’t penalized, but Bliss D Reese Milton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a little bit later for squirting his water bottle at the New York bench.

The rest of the game unfolded with a slew of hard checks and minor penalties, but no major conflagrations.  After the game ended, both teams dissolved into a fit of pushing and shoving that didn’t quite turn into a line brawl.

After the team, both teams pointed fingers at their opponents.  Bliss coach Chip Barber focused on the two Night spearing penalties.  “Butt-ending is one of the dirtiest plays in hockey, and everyone knows it,” said Barber.  “Normally, you might get two of those [penalties] in a year.  But two in one game?  That’s just ugly hockey.”

Foster, meanwhile, noted the attack against some of his top players.  “I know [the Bliss are] desperate to show me how tough they are,” the New York coach quipped, “but this is ridiculous.  They tried to take Brock’s head off, then they tried to put Chase in a wheelchair.  Okay, we get it, you’re big tough boys.  Now put your [genitals] away and play some hockey next time.”

The league declined to hand out any supplemental discipline, but Commissioner Perry Mitchell warned that they wouldn’t be so lenient next time.  “We know that emotions run high in games like this,” Mitchell said in a statement.  “But there’s a line between good hard hockey and dirty hockey, and both teams came too close to that line.  If it happens again, the league will act appropriately.”

Continue reading “Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown”

Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

Hamilton, Quebec Are Surprising Successes

One week into the SHL’s second season, and one thing seems clear: The league is more balanced than it was last season.  There are no winless teams left, unlike last year, when it took the Saskatchewan Shockers three weeks to notch their first victory.  There are also no undefeated teams standing.

“It really feels like anyone can win on any given night,” said Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor, whose team is off to a 3-2-0 start.

Perhaps the best indication of the topsy-turvy nature of the season’s opening week are the two teams at the top.  The league points leaders aren’t the teams you’d expect: not the defending champion Igloos, or the Michigan Gray Wolves team that chased them all season, or the Eastern division-winning Washington Galaxy.  Instead, the teams with the matching 3-1-1 records are an expansion club and a squad that had a major rebuild in the offeason.

Quebec TigresThe Quebec Tigres made a big splash before they ever took the ice, hiring Michigan coach Martin Delorme to guide the construction of the new franchise.  Delorme is well-known for his love of hard-nosed defense, and the Tigres built their squad in the image of their new coach.  Outside observers were impressed with the cast of scrappy no-names that Quebec assembled, but it was widely assumed that they were bound for the basement, as is usually the case for expansion clubs.  In particular, it was assumed that the Tigres lacked the sort of offense necessary to contend.

At least so far, Quebec has foiled those expectations.  Their offense hasn’t been elite, but it has been functional; the Tigres have scored 15 goals so far, more than three other clubs, despite missing scoring RW Flint “Steel” Robinson for a couple games.  The good-enough attack has been backed by a hard-working, hard-hitting defense that has surpassed even the most optimistic projections.  The Tigres have surrendered 10 goals so far; only Michigan has allowed fewer.

Several Quebec players have credited Delorme for the strong start.  “This is a hungry group,” said Tigres D Ward Jones.  “We’re eager to make a name in the league.  Coach Delorme has done a great job getting everybody on the same page and making sure we’re prepared.  Everyone thinks that expansion teams are weak and disorganized, but not us.  We’re driven and discipline, and that starts at the top.”

Another key to Quebec’s success: rookie netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  The Tigres picked the 21-year-old Finn with the second overall selection in the entry draft.  He came highly touted, but was expected to encounter typical rookie struggles.  So far, though, he’s played like an old hand.  His 3-0-1 record, 1.71 GAA and .940 save percentage rank him with the league’s elite.  Teammates and opponents alike have been tremendously impressed by what they’ve seen.

“Riki is just exceptional,” said Tigres LW Pascal Royal.  “He is incredibly athletic; he can reach over and block shots out of nowhere.  But really amazing is his instincts; he almost never gets fooled or plays out of position.  Very smart.”

It all adds up to a strong start for a team expected to finish in the Eastern division cellar.  Perhaps more surprising is that the team that most people expected to join them there has instead joined them in the division penthouse.

Hamilton PistolsThe Hamilton Pistols had a tumultuous and disappointing season last year.  They finished last in the East with a 22-35-3 record.  After that pratfall, Pistols management decided to clean house in the offseason.  Veteran coach Ron Wright departed by mutual consent to take the Michigan job, and the front office dealt several highly-paid players and focused on stockpiling draft picks.

With a roster full of kids, Hamilton was expected to struggle badly this season.  Instead, under the tutelage of first-time head coach Keith Shields, the Pistols have soared.  Hamilton has scored 19 goals, one off of the league lead, and that powerful offense has propelled them to the top.  The high-flying top line that escaped the offseason purge – LW Steven Alexander (8 points), C Rod Remington (10 points), and RW Claude Lafayette (7 points) – has a lot to do with that.  But some of the rookies have made a splash as well.

C Calvin Frye, one of Hamilton’s first-round picks, has put up 3 goals and 5 points in his first week in the SHL.  D Clayton “Crusher” Risch has provided the punishing defense that the team was looking for, along with a surprising passing touch (3 assists so far).

The biggest surprise, though, has been a redemption story.  Last season, goaltender Brandon Colt fizzled, posting a 16-17-3 record and a 3.79 GAA.  Wright pointed to the Pistols’ porous goaltending as a key reason for the team’s failure last season.  In the offseason, Hamilton shopped Colt aggressively but was unable to find a taker.  Left with no other option, the Pistols returned Colt as the starting netminder this season, and he has rewarded them handsomely so far.  Colt finished the first week 3-0-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

“I don’t know what the situation was last year, but Brandon’s been terrific for me,” said Shields.  “Hard worker, super athletic, just a great teammate and a solid goalie.  I’m sure glad we have him!”

The Pistols are equally glad to have Shields as a coach.  According to team sources, Pistols players became frustrated playing for the disciplinarian Wright last season.  The 33-year-old Shields, who is in his first head coaching position, is much more of a players’ coach: loose, fun-loving, and relaxed.  “Coach Wright was kind of like a drill sergeant,” said Alexander.  “Keith is more like your cool uncle or older brother.  He wants us to win, but he figures the best way to do that is to relax and have fun.  I can go for that.”

Obviously, it’s still early in the season, and the fast starts by the Tigres and Pistols could prove to be a mirage.  But if the upside-down nature of the first week sets the tone for the rest of the season, it could be a fun one for players and fans alike,

Pistols Tab Shields as New Coach

Hamilton PistolsThe SHL’s game of musical coaches appears to have reached its end.  First, Martin Delorme left the Michigan Gray Wolves to become the first coach of the expansion Quebec Tigres.  Next, Michigan hired Ron Wright away from the Hamilton Pistols to replace Delorme.  Now, the Pistols have hired Washington Galaxy assistant coach Keith Shields to serve as their head coach for next season.

“This is a real coup for us,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “We’ve got ourselves the brightest young coaching mind out there.”

Keith Shields
Keith Shields

Shields was highly regarded in SHL circles, having reportedly made the short list in both Quebec’s and Michigan’s coaching searches.  He could hardly be more different than Wright, the man he’s replacing.  Wright has been coaching longer than the 33-year-old Shields has been alive.  Wright is a defense-first coach, while Shields said he likes “a nice high-flying offense.”  Wright is known as a strict disciplinarian, while Shields shares the fun-loving outlook of his former boss, Galaxy head coach Rodney Reagle.

“Obviously, I want everybody working hard when they’re on the ice,” said Shields.  “But the season can be a long grind, and it’s important to relax and have fun sometimes too.  It’s a balance.”

The hiring of Shields is part of a larger rebuild for Hamilton, which finished with the league’s second-worst record last season.  The Pistols appear to be retooling around their high-scoring trio of LW Steven Alexander, C Rod Remington, and RW Claude Lafayette.  They recently shipped second-line C Cliff Derringer and RW “King George” Lane to the expansion Seattle Sailors for a package of draft picks.

“We believe this is the best path to a championship for us,” said LaClaire.  “In Steven, Rod, and Claude, we have the strongest first line in the league.  We intend to surround them with a group of fine young players.  Together with Keith’s leadership, we are confident that we are building a long-term contender.”

Shields expressed excitement at the opportunity to coach the Pistols.  “I really like what we’ve got here,” he told reporters.  “We’ve got a great first line, lots of scoring punch.  And I know we’re going to have a great draft and get a bunch of exciting young players.  I can’t wait to coach ‘em up!”

Reagle believes his protégé is destined for greatness.  “I’m gonna miss Keith, for sure, but I knew some smart team was going to snap him up,” said Reagle.  “He’s young, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.  It’s going to be fun competing against him.”

The Galaxy announced that second assistant coach Herman Chambers will be promoted to lead assistant to replace Shields.