West Stages Comeback For Ages In All-Star Game

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
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Eastern All-Star Rosters

The roster for the Eastern Division in the SHL’s first All-Star Game, as announced by coach Rodney Reagle, are as follows:

First Line

LW: Steven Alexander, HamiltonThe 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, HersheyThe 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 YorkSanchez 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, WashingtonMcNeely 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.

 

Second Line

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.”

 

Third Line

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, QuebecJones 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.

 

Goaltenders

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.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 3

Roger Orion

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.”

Eastern Division Wide Open Early

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.”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 6

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2

A lot of things had to happen for Ron Wright to become the coach of the Michigan Gray Wolves.  The Wolves had to come up short to Anchorage in the Western race.  The SHL had to decide to expand to Quebec, and incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme had to decide to leave and coach his hometown team.   Wright had to have a falling-out with Hamilton, the team he coached last season, and decide to leave.

Both Wright and the Wolves couldn’t be happier that everything worked out the way it did.  The fit between the gritty, hard-working, serious-minded team and the driven, fanatically prepared, and hard-nosed coach was perfect.  The Wolves thrived under Wright’s leadership, and they completed their mission today, defeating the Washington Galaxy 3-2 to win the SHL Finals and claim their first Vandy.

“No way do we get this far without Coach Wright,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “When we got off to a strong start, he was on us to make sure we didn’t slack off or take our foot off the gas.  And when Warren [Marlow] went down, he made sure we kept our heads up and didn’t let it get to us.  He was our guiding light all the way.”

Wright, meanwhile, gave credit to the players.  “It’s a privilege to coach these guys,” said the Michigan boss.  “As a coach, you can give them a map and show them the way, but they’re the ones who have to take the journey.  These guys have never hesitated; they’ve been willing to pay the price to be great.  They’ve worked hard, practiced hard, kept their noses to the grindstone.  This is the payoff.  The champagne tastes pretty sweet.”

The Wolves looked set to run away with the Finals after they captured the first two games by a combined score of 6-0.  But after the series shifted to Washington, the competition became much tighter.  The Galaxy took two of the three games at Constellation Center, and each game was decided by a single goal.  The Wolves suffered a major blow when Marlow, their second-line center, went down with an apparent concussion in Game 4.

As the series came back to Cadillac Place for Game 6, the Wolves were eager to close out the series.  “We weren’t panicking, for sure,” said D Frank Mudrick.  But we definitely didn’t want it to go seven.”

The first period was an action-packed one, as the teams combined for 23 shots.  Michigan struck fairly quickly, as Bailes beat Galaxy goalie Roger Orion with a backhand to the glove side less than five minutes into the game.

“That helped settle us,” said Bailes.  “Definitely better to play from ahead.”

But Washington didn’t fold.  They held the Wolves to that 1-0 lead for the rest of the period.  And a couple minutes into the second period, Washington got the equalizer on a slapshot by LW Casey Thurman.

Midway through the second, a much slower period offensively, Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely was hit with a double minor for spearing the Wolves’ Jorma Seppa.  On the ensuing power play, RW Oskar Denison buried a shot from the top of the faceoff circle to give Michigan the lead again, and they carried that 2-1 edge into the dressing room at the end of the period.

During the break, Wright urged his team to turn it up a notch.  “A one-goal lead isn’t safe,” Wright told his men.  “Get the next one, and we can break their back.”

Unfortunately for Michigan, the team didn’t heed Wright’s admonition.  Less than two minutes into the third period, McNeely tied it up again by firing a low slapper past a screened Dirk Lundquist.  As the third period wore on, the Wolves’ repeated attempts to reclaim the lead went frustratingly awry: they pushed several shots just wide, and Denison fired a head-hunter that got past Orion but banged off the crossbar.

In the final minute, with both teams seeming content to play for overtime, Wright called timeout and admonished his team.  “You look dead on your feet out there!” the coach barked.  “There’s no ties in the playoffs.  Let’s go out there and win this right now!  They can’t hold out much longer.  Go out there and knock ’em out!”

Wright’s pep talk paid off.  The Wolves came out of the timeout with more energy, winning the faceoff and storming down into the Washington end.  Wolves D Fritz Kronstein fed a beautiful pass to a streaking Seppa, who fired a hard, low shot.  Orion made a tremendous sprawling save, but couldn’t corral the rebound.  The puck bounced out to Bailes, who elevated it just out of Orion’s reach and dented the twine with 27 seconds left.

“We knew it was over then,” said McNeely.  “We knew we weren’t coming back from that.”

After the final horn sounded, the victorious Wolves celebrated with boisterous elan.  A jubilant Lundquist hopped on top of his net and waved his stick to lead the crowd in cheers and chants, then clambered down and did a pair of cartwheels on the ice.  Bailes, Seppa, and RW Gordon Lunsford fired their helmets and gloves into the crowd, giving several fans priceless souvenirs of an unforgettable night.  Backup goalie Art Cowan raced onto the ice with as many bottles of bubbly as he could hold in his jersey, and the players sprayed each other and the fans.

A little later, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell emerged with the Vandy and handed it to Wolves owner Luke Faltura, saying, “If ever there was a team that balanced style and grace with blood and guts, it’s got to be the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Enjoy a trophy well-earned!”  There was a brief awkward pause, as the team sorted out who would have the honor of taking the trophy on its first ceremonial lap around the ice.

Finally, Bailes and Lundquist grabbed Wright, hoisted him on their shoulders, and handed him the Vandy.  As Wright circled the ice, supported by his players, he waved to the crowd and blinked back tears.

“That was a metaphor for our whole season,” said Wright.  “From the first day of practice to our ultimate moment of glory, we did it together.  That’s what makes this team so special.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 5

Washington SmallMichigan SmallWASHINGTON GALAXY 3, MICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 2

The Washington Galaxy aren’t going quietly.  Facing elimination in the SHL Finals, the Galaxy withstood an onslaught of shots from the Michigan Gray Wolves and struck in the final minute to steal a 3-2 win, living to fight another game.

“Not dead yet, boys!” crowed Washington coach Rodney Reagle after the game.  “Just like the Bee Gees, we’re stayin’ alive!”  The coach then proceeded to demonstrate his best disco moves.

The Wolves did their best to send the Galaxy packing.  They came out firing from the start of the game, and wound up outshooting Washington 33-22.  But Galaxy netminder Roger Orion stood tall amid the barrage, turning aside 31 shots and outdueling Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist.

“All series, we’ve been hearing about how, oh,Lundquist is so great, Lundquist is God,” said Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.  “But you know what?  Roger’s a damn good goalie too.  He doesn’t get the headlines Lundquist does, but he can be just as clutch.”

Michigan actually drew first blood in this game, with RW Oskar Denison drilling one home just inside the left pipe late in the first period.  “I was not expecting it to go in,” admitted Denison.  “I was hoping to have a big rebound that someone could put in.  I got lucky.”

Washington was able to get even early in the second.  After Wolves D Bjorn Tollefson was penalized for high-sticking, Galaxy RW Sindri Pentti cashed in on the power play, going five-hole on Lundquist.  Washington went into the locker room after two periods tied at 1, despite getting outshot 23-14.  “We were pretty anxious between periods there,” said McNeely.  “Yeah, it was tied, but [the Wolves] were really in the driver’s seat as far as puck control and zone time.  We knew we needed to slow them down and break their rhythm.”

The Galaxy succeeded in disrupting Michigan’s offensive flow, narrowing the shot gap to 10-8 in the third period.  A little more than five minutes into the third, Washington C Eddie Costello and LW Casey Thurman broke away on a two-on-one, with Thurman going top shelf to give the Galaxy their first lead of the game.  The lead was fairly short-lived, as Wolves C Hunter Bailes deflected a shot past Orion a little more than four minutes later.

The latter half of the third period was frustrating for both teams, as neither side was able to generate much offensive action.  “It kind of felt like we were both playing not to lose,” admitted Tollefson.

But with less than a minute left in the game, Thurman shoveled a sharp-angle shot past Lundquist, and the sellout crowd at Constellation Center exploded as Thurman did a celebratory belly-flop on the ice and his teammates banged their sticks against the boards.

“It was a tight game, and you knew the game-winner wouldn’t come easy,” said Thurman.  “But I think the fact that it was do-or-die, that gave us that little extra edge we needed to get over the top.”

The good news for the Wolves is that they still have a 3-2 series lead, and the action shifts back to Cadillac Place, where they drubbed Washington twice by a combined 6-0 margin.  But there’s also cause for Michigan to be anxious, as they’re missing a pair of key forwards, Vladimir Beruscko and Warren Marlow.  In this game, the Wolves were forced to give ice time to Kimmo Eliasson, a street free agent who signed an emergency contract with the team at the start of the Finals.

Wolves coach Ron Wright said it’s no time to panic.  “We’ve got to remember what got us here,” Wright told reporters.  “We’re not a team that relies on any one star to succeed.  We rise and fall as a team, and that’s how we’re going to win this.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 4

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2 (OT)

Whatever else you might say Game 4 of the SHL Finals, it finished off with a bang.  The first three games of the series have followed a familiar pattern: two periods of tense, grinding, defense-first play, followed by a third period of wide-open firewagon hockey.  In Game 4, the high-flying action was compressed into the final 5 minutes, as a slow-paced game turned frenetic at the end.  It took more than the allotted 60 minutes, but ultimately the Michigan Gray Wolves, thanks to a little-used reserve, pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory over the Washington Galaxy.  Michigan moved within a single win of the Vandy, but it came at a steep cost, as the Wolves lost a key offensive playmaker in C Warren Marlow.

“We got the W, and that’s what counts the most,” said Michigan coach Ron Wright.  “But losing Warren… that’s a real blow.”

The Wolves notched their win thanks to a little-used reserve.  Under ordinary circumstances, F Isaac Preston wouldn’t be expected to play at all in the Finals.  He played in only 17 games this season, recording 3 assists and no goals.  But when LW Vladimir Beruschko suffered an injury in the last week of the season, Preston was thrust into a starting spot.

“My first priority was, don’t embarrass myself or the team,” said Preston.

The reserve forward made very little impact through the first three games.  But in this game, Preston came through when it counted.  About a minute into overtime, Michigan D Bjorn Tollefson faked a slapshot from the left faceoff circle.  He got Galaxy G Roger Orion to commit, then slid a pass over to Preston.  With a wide-open net, Preston buried the game-winning shot under the crossbar.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that open, not even in practice,” said Preston.  “If I’d missed it, I’m pretty sure my teammates would have beaten me to death.

Preston’s winner capped a flurry in the final five minutes of frenzied action, which stood in stark contrast to most of the play up to that point.  Michigan struggled all game to enter the zone and get shots on net, much as Washington had done in the first two games.  Michigan got off only 20 shots in the entire game, including a season-low four in a brutal second period.  “It’s like they watched our game film from the first two and turned our own game plan against us,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, were able to generate more offense, but had a devil of a time getting pucks past Wolves goalie Dirk Lundquist.  “You can’t fake him out, you can’t sneak one under him, you can’t fool him, nothing,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.  “I think he must be able to read minds or something.”

Late in the first period, Washington C Eddie Costello beat Lundquist on a breakaway to give the Galaxy the lead.  Early in the third, Bailes struck on the power play to tie it up.  But that was it for offense… at least until the final five minutes.

With three and a half minutes left in regulation, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz accidentally caught Marlow under the eye with a high stick.  On the resulting power play, Wolves C Wesley Knight deflected a slapshot past Orion to put Michigan ahead 2-1.

“That’s on me,” said Camernitz.  “In that situation, late in a close game, I can’t take a penalty like that.  Got to maintain better control of my stick.”

A disconsolate silence fell over Constellation Center, as the Galaxy seemed doomed to a heartbreaking defeat.  But in the waning seconds of the game, Washington launched a final desperate rush.  A Thurman slapshot got lost in a scrum in front of the net.  The puck bounced between bodies as Lundquist tried to get a glove on it.  Finally, with four seconds left, the puck squirted behind Lundquist and over the goal line.  Wright challenged the goal, claiming that a Galaxy player had kicked it in.  After several minutes of review, the referees upheld the goal, as the crowd exploded with delight. Costello got credit for the tally.

Fortunately for the Wolves, they prevailed in overtime, although with a cost.  Marlow made the initial pass that led to Michigan’s winning goal, but he paid for it when Galaxy D Rusty Anderson laid a devastating hit on him and Marlow’s head hit the ice.  After the game, he entered the league’s concussion protocol.  Wright sounded doubtful that his second-line center would be able to return in the series.

“We’ll have to reevaluate him tomorrow and see where things stand,” said the coach.

The Galaxy suffered a loss as well, with D Leonard Wright being sidelined after taking a rough open-ice hit.  He suffered an upper-body injury, and Washington coach Rodney Reagle confirmed that he is likely to miss the rest of the series.

The Galaxy face an uphill battle, having to win the next three games in a row with half of their top defensive pairing on the shelf.  “I’ve already got Bartlett’s Book of Inspiring Sports Cliches by my bedside,” said Reagle.  “I’ll be working on my big speech tomorrow morning.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 4”