- On the Saturday of the All-Star Break, the Boston Badgers traded LW Cary Estabrook to the Hamilton Pistols for F Norris “Beaver” Young. Read more about the trade here.
- Prior to the beginning of play this week, the Dakota Jackalopes demoted D Victor Addison to their CHL affiliate in Idaho and called up D Rodney Black from Idaho to replace him. Addison was a lightly-used reserve in Dakota this season; he appeared in only 7 games, recording no points and a -4 rating. Recently, he had been passed on the depth chart by Geoff Moultrie. Black, meanwhile, was one of the CHL’s top blueliners, putting up 29 points (19 goals, 10 assists) in the first half and earning a berth in the All-Star Game.
- Also prior to the start of play, the Kansas City Smoke demoted C Edz Zalmanis and RW Andrew “Lucky” Fortuno to their CHL affiliate in Omaha, while calling up C Owen Griffin and RW Adriaen van der Veen from Omaha. Kansas City’s offense was lackluster in the first half; they averaged only 24.3 shots per game, second-worst in the league, and they are dead last in plus-minus at -30. The 23-year-old Zalmanis, who signed a 5-year, $3.5 million free agent contract in the offseason, put up only 4 assists and a -9 rating in 23 games. Fortuno did a bit better, with 7 points (4 goals, 3 assists) and a -6 plus-minus in 24 games. The 21-year-old van der Veen was a CHL All-Star and one of leading scorers, with 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists). Griffin, 22, was leading the CHL in plus-minus at +24; he notched 30 points (5 goals, 25 assists) in the first half.
- On Wednesday, the Jackalopes placed Black on the 10-game disabled list. Black got off to a strong start with Dakota after being called up, with a goal and an assist in 2 games, but he exited in the third period of Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Kansas City with an upper-body injury that’s expected to keep him out for 2 to 3 weeks. Since the Jackalopes had 8 defensemen on their roster already, they chose not to call anyone up at this time.
- On Friday, the Badgers activated G Roger Orion from the disabled list, after he’d missed three and a half weeks with a lower-body injury. With Orion activated, Boston returned Jonas Schemko to their minor-league affiliate in Hartford. Schemko looked good in his brief stint with the Badgers, going 1-1-1 with a 2.27 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
- On Saturday, the Washington Galaxy placed LW Charlie Brooks on the disabled list. Brooks suffered a lower-body injury in Saturday’s 6-0 rout of Boston. To replace Brooks on the roster, the Galaxy promoted LW Alan Youngman from their farm team in Baltimore. Youngman is one of the CHL’s top scorers, notching 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) so far on the season.
This week’s interview is with Boston Badgers G Roger Orion.
SHL Digest: We’re here with someone who’s very familiar to longtime SHL fans, Roger Orion. Roger, thanks for speaking with us.
Roger Orion: Well, I’ve got plenty of time right now, since I’m on the DL.
SHLD: Yes, that’s sadly true. But let’s talk about how you made your way to Boston. You made two trips to the Finals with the Galaxy. A lot of fans assumed you’d be there for your whole career.
RO: Hey, I used to think so too!
SHLD: But you went to free agency last offseason, and a number of teams wanted to sign you, including big contenders like Seattle and Hershey. But you stunned the hockey world by signing with the Badgers. What led you to make that decision?
RO: Honestly, [GM] Jody [Melchiorre] had a lot to do with it. He was totally honest with me from the beginning. He laid out his vision for what he’s building here, and I really liked what he said.
SHLD: When you say he was “honest,” what do you mean?
RO: Well, when I met with him, the first thing he sad was, “I have to ask: are you actually considering signing here, or are you just meeting with us to bid up your contract? If you’re just here to drive up your price, I respect that, but let’s go grab a beer instead. If you’re serious, then let’s talk about how you can help us build a great team.” I told him I don’t meet with teams unless I’m interested. He saw I was serious, and he respected it.
SHLD: What was the vision he sketched out?
RO: He told me, “If you’re interested in winning the Vandy right away, there are a lot better places to sign. But if you want to help build an organization that can win lots of Vandys, this is your place.” He told me about the kind of hard-working, team-focused, defense-oriented team he wanted to build. He told me that he saw me as a cornerstone of the team, and that he was looking at the money and term to show it. He moved Boston right up to the top of my list.
SHLD: Hershey and Seattle are both at the top of their divisions here at the All-Star break, and they’ve got a real shot at making the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Badgers are down in the cellar. Do you ever have any second thoughts about your decision?
RO: No way. Why should I? I signed on for the long haul, and this is what I expected. I’m not some fading veteran at the end of my career, trying to chase that one last ring. I consider myself in the middle of my career, and I’m thinking long-term. I believe in what Jody and the organization are building.
SHLD: As you mentioned at the beginning, you’re on the DL right now. Is it frustrating not to be out on the ice?
RO: Of course it is! When you’re a player, you want to play. But I’m following the medical team’s advice, not trying to rush back and do something that could screw me up longer-term. Plus, it’s a good chance for Wags [Carson Wagner] and Schemmer [Jonas Schemko] to get some more ice time, and that’s a good thing.
SHLD: Throughout your career, you’ve been very involved with assisting wounded servicemen and -women. How did you get involved in that?
RO: When I played in DC, we took trips to Walter Reed and met a lot of soldiers who were recuperating from major injuries and trauma. And it just blew me away. We hockey players like to think we’re tough. But we’ve got nothing on these guys, people who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries or missing an arm or a leg. They’ve got strength and courage like you wouldn’t believe.
SHLD: And you’ve stayed involved in that cause in your new city.
RO: Absolutely. I have it in my contract that I get tickets to every home game to donate to wounded warriors. And in March, we’re going to have a special night where we’re going to bring them out on the ice to honor them, and have them come to the clubhouse. It’s gonna be great.
SHLD: Well, thanks for a thoughtful and interesting interview, Roger. Best of luck with the rest of the season!
RO: Thanks. I’m excited for the second half.
The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division. Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason. Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime. That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.
In the East, however, nothing seems certain. There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention. Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses. At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.
“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields. “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”
The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around. They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth). They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.
However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating. “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber. “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”
Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one. The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes. They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt. Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating. If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.
The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey. They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected. But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end. This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).
“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster. “He’s really saved our bacon.”
There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend. New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league. If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.
In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays. Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.
The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run. They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL. Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league. They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927). And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.
So why haven’t they broken out of the pack? One key reason is their special-teams play. Last season, those units were among the league’s best. This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.
Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star. LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team. It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York. Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip. But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.
The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season. So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline. Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.
Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always. And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be. They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league. Good, but not top-tier. Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season. The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.
Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard. “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said. “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.” The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.
The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season. Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.
“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.
In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season. They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome. “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned. “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”
Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism. Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean. Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start. And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).
“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello. “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”
There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack. For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.
When the SHL decided to hold its first-ever All-Star Game this year, they were hoping for an opportunity to showcase the league’s best players and provide a fun midseason diversion. The results of the game itself were strictly secondary.
As it turned out, the action on the ice surpassed everyone’s expectations, with a thrilling finish. Trailing 3-0 after two periods, the Western team scored five goals in the last period – including three in the final five minutes – to hand the East a stunning 5-4 defeat at Constellation Center in Washington.
“Can you get fired from coaching All-Star Games?” said Eastern coach Rodney Reagle. “That kind of collapse can get you walking the breadline.”
Prior to the West’s final-period rally, it appeared that they were going to pay the price for coach Ron Wright‘s controversial roster choices. Wright constructed his roster with an emphasis on defense, including several members of his own Michigan Gray Wolves team. He came under fire for omitting top scorers such as Seattle’s Vince Mango, Dakota’s Arkady Golynin, and Saskatchewan’s Napoleon Beasley from his squad.
Wright’s strategy appeared to backfire when his team was shut out over the first two periods. Making matters worse, the East scored three goals in the first period against Wolves netminder Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, who later admitted that he “wasn’t totally focused.” The first-place Hershey Bliss played a key role in the assault, with Justin Valentine and Christopher Hart both scoring on Lundquist.
“I stand by the choices I made,” said Wright. “But I know that if we’d put up a zero, I would never have heard the end of it.”
Fortunately for Wright, the West’s offense came to life in the third after Reagle sat starting goalie Roger Orion in favor of backup Dennis Wampler. “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston of the Dakota Jackalopes broke the shutout with a slapshot from the left faceoff circle four and a half minutes into the period. The West gained additional momentum after killing off overlapping minor penalties. Just over a minute after the successful penalty kill, Airston’s Dakota teammate Lars Karlsson deflected a shot past Wampler to make it 3-2.
Valentine restored the East’s two-game edge a couple minutes later by going top shelf against the West’s backup goalie, Ty Worthington of the Anchorage Igloos. But in the closing minutes, the West staged an incredibly rally, led not by members of Wright’s Wolves, but by a pair of teammates from the Saskatchewan Shockers.
With just over five minutes remaining, the West managed a three-on-two breakaway that ended with Shockers winger Troy Chamberlain drilling it home between Wampler’s pads. Two and a half minutes later, Shockers defenseman Wyatt Barnes tied it up with a blast from the blue line that eluded the screened Wampler.
It looked as though the inaugural All-Star Game was headed for overtime, but with 10 seconds remaining, Chamberlain released a sharp-angle shot that snuck just inside the pole for the winning goal. Chamberlain’s late-game heroics earned him the MVP honor, with came along with a new Kia Optima sedan.
“This one’s for the fans back in Saskatchewan!” said Chamberlain as he accepted the award. “The Shockers might not win the championship this year, but we’re a team on the rise. Watch out for us!” Chamberlain’s speech was interrupted by Shockers owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz, who grabbed the MVP trophy and ran around the ice shouting, “Behold, baby! We finally won something!”
Per the terms of the bet between the coaches, Reagle now owes Wright six cans of Senate bean soup. “I hope Ron likes the soup,” said Reagle. “That was soup well earned.”
2017 SHL All-Star Game, West All-Stars @ East All-Stars, Constellation Center 1 2 3 OT F West All-Stars 0 0 5 5 East All-Stars 3 0 1 4 West All-Stars G A PTS PIM +/- East All-Stars G A PTS PIM +/- Airston LW 1 0 1 0 -1 Alexander LW 0 1 1 0 1 Kronstein D 0 1 1 2 -1 Milton D 0 1 1 0 1 Frost C 0 0 0 0 -1 Valentine C 2 0 2 0 1 Madison D 0 1 1 0 -1 Sanchez D 0 2 2 2 1 Ericsson RW 0 0 0 0 -1 McNeely RW 0 0 0 0 1 Koons LW 0 1 1 2 1 Sweet LW 0 1 1 0 -1 Barnes D 1 1 2 0 1 Smyth D 0 1 1 0 -1 Karlsson C 1 1 2 0 1 Manning C 1 0 1 0 -1 Keefe D 0 0 0 0 1 Buchanan D 0 1 1 0 -1 Lunsford RW 0 1 1 2 1 Hart RW 1 1 2 0 -1 Chamberlain LW 2 0 2 2 2 Thurman LW 0 0 0 0 -2 Mudrick D 0 1 1 2 2 Jones D 0 0 0 0 -2 Marlow C 0 1 1 0 2 Frye C 0 0 0 0 -2 Lambert D 0 1 1 0 2 Warriner D 0 0 0 0 -2 Poulin RW 0 1 1 0 2 Trujwirnek RW 0 0 0 0 -2 --------------------------------------- --------------------------------------- TOTALS 5 10 15 10 2 TOTALS 4 8 12 2 -2 West All-Stars SH SV G Sv% ---------------------------------------- Lundquist 25 22 3 0.880 Worthington 20 19 1 0.950 East All-Stars SH SV G Sv% ---------------------------------------- Orion 25 25 0 1.000 Wampler 16 11 5 0.688 First Period ------------ GOALS: 07:20 ASE Hart PP (Smyth, Sweet) 16:54 ASE Manning (Buchanan, Hart) 18:30 ASE Valentine (Sanchez, Alexander) PENALTIES: 06:20 ASW Kronstein 2:00 (Cross-checking) Second Period ------------- GOALS: None PENALTIES: 08:00 ASW Koons 2:00 (Interference) 12:41 ASE Sanchez 2:00 (Tripping) Third Period ------------ GOALS: 04:32 ASW Airston (Kronstein, Madison) 09:28 ASW Karlsson (Koons, Barnes) 11:41 ASE Valentine (Sanchez, Milton) 14:53 ASW Chamberlain (Poulin, Lambert) 17:29 ASW Barnes (Karlsson, Lunsford) 19:50 ASW Chamberlain (Mudrick, Marlow) PENALTIES: 05:30 ASW Lunsford 2:00 (Roughing) 06:25 ASW Chamberlain 2:00 (Delay of Game) 11:54 ASW Mudrick 2:00 (Interference) SHOTS ------ 1 2 3 OT F West All-Stars 12 13 16 41 East All-Stars 14 11 20 45 POWER PLAYS ----------- West All-Stars 0 for 1 East All-Stars 1 for 5 INJURIES -------- None
The roster for the Eastern Division in the SHL’s first All-Star Game, as announced by coach Rodney Reagle, are as follows:
LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. The young, scrappy, and hungry winger has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since the beginning. This year, Alexander is tied for the league lead in goals with 23. “I am not throwing away my shot,” Alexander told reporters, confirming that he will play.
D: Reese Milton, Hershey. The 25-year-old blueliner is one of the SHL’s best two-way threats, contributing solidly on offense (7 goals, 24 assists) and providing lock-down defense that has helped propel the Bliss to the top of the division. “For once, Reese will be on my side, instead of kicking my butt,” said Reagle.
C: Justin Valentine, Hershey. Valentine was the top overall vote-getter among Eastern All-Stars. He needed them all, as this was one of the most competitive positions. Valentine withstood a determined charge from New York’s Brock Manning, Hamilton’s Calvin Frye, and Washington’s Eddie Costello. Valentine is tied for the league lead in goals (23) and is in the top five in points (39).
D: Dominic Sanchez, New York. Sanchez was the beneficiary of a late surge in voting from the New York area, allowing him to surpass Hamilton’s Raymond Smyth to claim a starting spot. Sanchez is one of the league’s top offensive defenseman, and he has put up 30 points (6 goals, 24 assists) for the Night so far this season.
RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington. McNeely withstood a late charge from New York’s Rick “The Stick” Nelson to win this starting spot by less than 5,000 votes. The winger is having a bit of a down season, but he is still among Washington’s top scorers with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists). When reporters called McNeely to get his reaction to being selected, they discovered that he had not yet learned he had been chosen. “What’d I miss?” McNeely said.
LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey. Sweet is a member of Hershey’s well-known “Love Line,” among the top-scoring lines in the SHL. Sweet has more than held up his end of the bargain, putting up 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) on the season so far. He is just outside the league’s top 10 in both points and assists.
D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton. Smyth lost out on a starting spot to Dominic Sanchez in the final days of voting, but Reagle wasted no time tapping him as a reserve. Smyth has the numbers to back up his case: he has the most points (38) of any defenseman in the league, and he has an excellent defensive reputation as well.
C: Brock Manning, New York. Manning fell short to Valentine in the voting for the hotly-contested center position, but he was selected by Reagle as a reserve. Manning has long been one of the SHL’s top scorers, and this season is no exception; his 21 goals puts him in the league’s top five. As the Night have improved in recent weeks, Manning has led the way, scoring 10 goals in the last two weeks.
D: Kevin Buchanan, Washington. Buchanan was one of three Galaxy players that Reagle named to the Eastern squad. He is the top point-scorer among Washington’s defensive corps with 18, but he is known primarily as a stay-home defender. “I was afraid of what Kevin would do to me if I didn’t pick him,” said Reagle.
RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey. Hart joins his linemate Sweet among the Eastern reserves. He is among the top 10 in the league in points with 36 (10 goals, 26 assists). “Glad to see the Love Line representing!” Hart said. “We’re going to tear it up out there.”
LW: Casey Thurman, Washington. Thurman is having a bit of a down year by his standards, but he remains the Galaxy’s leader in goals scored (with 14), which is good enough to put him in the top 10 in the league. “I had to talk Casey into it a little,” said Reagle. “He didn’t think he deserved it, but I convinced him that he did.”
D: Ward Jones, Quebec. Jones will be the Tigres’ only All-Star representative, as Riki Tiktuunen will miss the game due to injury. Jones is one of the key contributors to the Tigres’ largely anonymous but second-ranked defense. He has been a stalwart on Quebec’s top line, producing 3 goals and 3 assists while providing rugged defense.
C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton. Frye was not voted in as a starter despite being in the top ten in the league in both goals (14) and assists (28). Frye was named SHL Rookie of the Year last season, and he shows no signs of dropping off in his sophomore campaign, on pace for a 25-point improvement from his rookie point total.
D: Grant Warriner, Washington. The Galaxy’s second-year blueliner is proving his worth as a two-way contributor. He has thrived beside free-agent signing Patrick Banks in Washington’s second pairing, putting up 17 points to go with a +10 rating. “I didn’t want to pick too many of my own guys,” said Reagle, “but I look at the numbers until my eyes crossed, and I didn’t see anyone who was more deserving.”
RW: Ivan Trujwirnek, New York. The second-year winger known affectionately as “Trainwreck” has been a consistent contributor on a struggling Night team. His rugged, hard-working play quickly earned the notice of coach Nick Foster, who wound up promoting him from the third line up to the top line. He has continued to produce even with the promotion, putting up 8 goals and 11 assists.
Roger Orion, Washington. The Galaxy have been a defense-first team this season, and Orion has been a key piece of the equation. He is among the top 5 in the league in wins (9), GAA (2.50), and save percentage (.922). He was voted the starter by over 10,000 votes more than his closest competitor.
Dennis Wampler, Hamilton. Orion originally named Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen as the backup netminder, but the sophomore star was injured in Friday’s loss to Dakota. Pistols rookie Lasse Koskinen was another possibility, but he was also injured this week and therefore unavailable. So Reagle turned to Koskinen’s backup, Wampler. The second-year man has been strong, going 6-3-1 with a 2.47 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
The SHL selected Washington Galaxy G Roger Orion as its Player of the Week. For the week, Orion went 3-1-0 with a 1.25 GAA and a .955 save percentage. Orion’s steadfast performance between the pipers anchored a strong week for the Galaxy, allowing them to move into second place in the East.
Orion posted two shutouts on the week. On Sunday, Orion stonewalled the Tigres in Quebec to secure a 1-0 win. Then on Friday, he turned aside 31 shots in a 2-0 win over New York.
“I know guys like [Dirk] Lundquist and Riki Tiki [Tiktuunen] get all the attention when you talk about the best goalies in the league,” said Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle. “But I’m an old goalie, and I’d take Roger up against anyone in the league. He doesn’t waste any motion or get caught out of position. And he doesn’t let bad games shake his confidence. Just like me, he forgets about what happened yesterday. In my case, it’s because I’m old and my mind’s going. But for him, it’s because he’s a top-shelf competitor.”
Just like last season, the SHL’s Eastern division appears to be anyone’s for the taking, at least through the first two weeks. The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points. Each of the potential contenders has a surprising strength, but also a weakness that might undermine their hopes of victory.
“If anyone tells you they know who’s gonna win the East,” said Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine, “they’re either lying or drunk.”
Valentine and the Bliss are the current leaders in the East with a 6-3-1 record. Thus far, they’ve thrived with impressive defense. They’ve recorded the fewest shots allowed in the league, less even than famously stingy Michigan. Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber praised his team’s eagerness to block shots and win the board battles. “Our guys are willing to do the unglamorous work that wins games,” said Barber. “You can’t make chocolate without grinding up a few beans, and our guys have been grinding.”
The Bliss have needed that lockdown defense, because their goaltending has been lackluster. Free-agent signee Brandon Colt has posted a 3.09 GAA and an .897 save percentage. “I know I’ve got to step it up,” said Colt. “We’ve got a championship-caliber team here, and I need to get up to that level.”
The Bliss are also hamstrung by a pedestrian offense, as they continue to search for scoring beyond the “Love Line” of Valentine, LW Lance Sweet, and RW Christopher Hart. Second-line LW Russ Nahorniak has six goals, but no one other than he and the Love Line has scored more than two. The defense has been a particular black hole offensively; star Reese Milton has 12 points, but the other five have only combined for 8 points. “We’ve been taking care of business in our own end,” said second-pairing blueliner Vitaly Dyomin, “but we need to be stronger both ways.”
The surprising second-place squad is the Hamilton Pistols, who have won their last four in a row to rise to 6-4-0. The key to the Pistols’ surprising success has been their dominant top line; they are the runaway leaders in plus-minus rating, and four of them (LW Steven Alexander, C Calvin Frye, RW Claude Lafayette, and D Raymond Smyth) are among the league’s top 10 in points. “All the smart folks thought we were still a couple seasons away,” said coach Keith Shields. “But our first line is hotter than a firecracker, and it looks to me like we’re ready now.”
Aside from that top line, though, Hamilton is a young team that’s lacking in depth. The team’s third line has been a particular black hole. Shields has juggled players in and out to no apparent effect; they’ve combined for only two goals and a -6 rating. “We’re just getting wiped out when we’re on the ice,” said C Jens Bunyakin, who has a lone assist to his credit two weeks in. “That’s not good enough.”
If the Pistols are going to contend, they’ll also need to rely on rookie Lasse Koskinen in the crease. The Finnish prospect comes highly touted, but he’s shown his inexperience in his SHL debut (compiling a 4-3-0 record and a 3.26 GAA). He has come up strong in his last couple of starts, though, stopping 32 in a 3-2 win over Saskatchewan and 35 in a 5-1 beatdown of Washington.
Sitting a point behind Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres. As expected from a Martin Delorme team, the Tigres are making their name with defense and goaltending. Second-year netminder Riki Tiktuunen has been one of the league’s best so far, going 5-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a .949 save percentage. He’s been backed by a trapping, slow-down-oriented defense that makes Quebec’s games an exercise in patience at times. “I don’t care if people think us boring,” said Delorme. “Boring hockey can be winning hockey, and I am all about winning.”
What may keep the Tigres from winning, however, is their completely anemic offense. Quebec has scored only 22 goals this year, last in the league; more disturbingly, they’ve managed only 237 shots, 75 fewer than the next-worst team, Seattle. The Tigres had expected to draft top-prospect winger Rod “Money” Argent to address their lack of firepower, but were knocked for a loop after Seattle drafted Argent instead. Their already-struggling attack took a further hit when RW Flint “Steel” Robinson went down with an injury.
Quebec’s one-dimensional and unattractive style of play has made them less than popular with other teams. “I think we’re all agreed that we don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Quebec,” said Valentine. “The other teams are trying to win with talent. They’re trying to win by beating and bloodying the other team and hobbling their talent. It’s not cheating, but it’s close.”
Sitting in fourth, a point back of Quebec at 5-5-0, is the two-time defending champion Washington Galaxy. The good news for the champs is that they’re getting a career season out of goalie Roger Orion, who’s posted a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage. The Galaxy’s defense has also been strong, allowing only 336 shots, virtually tied with Quebec.
But Washington’s offense has kept the team mired in mediocrity. Part of that has been attributable to bad luck; they’ve converted on only 7.5% of their shots, one of the worst marks in the league. Anecdotally, Galaxy players say they’ve noticed an unusually high percentage of shanked shots and pucks pinging off of goalposts this season. However, their usually-stout power play has disappointed them as well; they’ve scored on only 18.4% of their shots, good for only sixth in the league.
“I don’t need to do a deep dive on the numbers to see where our problem is,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle. “The numbers say we’ve been meh. Our record says we’ve been meh. Watching us play, I’ve seen a lot of meh.”
It was shortly after this point last season that the Galaxy caught fire and took control of the East, holding it the rest of the way and fending off a late challenge from Hershey to claim the crown. Can Washington repeat the feat in 2017? Or will Hershey wreak their revenge? Or will Hamilton or Quebec play Cinderella and steal the title from the favorites?
“I’m not making any predictions two weeks in,” said Reagle. “As Shakespeare once said, that’s why they play the games. I think that was in Romeo and Juliet.”