Champion Pistols Look Poised to Repeat

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols delighted the Greater Toronto Area by claiming their first-ever championship.  In the wake of their title — and considerable roster turnover — some wondered whether the Pistols would be up to the challenge of prevailing in the improving East and defending their title.  So far this season, Hamilton looks like they’re very much up to the challenge, and are well-positioned to defend their title.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re feeling good about where we are, and we’re confident that we can match up with anyone who wants to take the Vandy away from us.”

Over the first month or so of the season, Hamilton found themselves in close competition with the Hershey Bliss.  After that, though, they ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak to establish a comfortable division lead.  They’re currently riding a 15-3-3 run.  They’ve survived their share of injuries, including to stars like C Calvin Frye and LW Steven Alexander.  It’s seemed that nothing can slow them down.

Steven Alexander

“Everyone in this room is focused on repeating,” said Alexander.  “There’s no slowdown and no slacking off.  We’re driven to keep the Vandy here.’

Last season’s success was built on the strength of their powerful offense, and the same is true this season.  Hamilton is tied for the SHL lead in goals per game, averaging an eye-popping 3.8 goals per game.  GM Marcel LaClaire has a knack for finding affordable veterans who produce outsized contributions, and this season is no exception.  The Pistols added RW Ben Summers and C Marco Venezio for a combined $1.5 million, and both players are providing bang for their back.  Venezio (9 goals, 13 assists, +8 rating) has stepped into the second-line center role that Eddie Costello filled so well last season, while Summers (16 goals, 16 assists, +15) has provided the secondary scoring threat that the team was lacking.  They have clicked brilliantly with linemate Magnus Gunnarson, who is on track for a career year (14 goals, 28 assists, +13).

“We have the best second line in the league, no question about it,” said Frye.  “And that makes us a really dangerous team, because nobody has an answer for our top six.”

At the other end of the ice, netminder Lasse Koskinen (17-7-4, 3.13 GAA, .914 save percentage) has rebounded from an early-season slump back to his typical elite level of play.  And when backup Ron Mason (8-3-1, 2.90, .912) is in the crease, the Pistols don’t miss a beat.

“Having Koski and Mase in net is great,” said Shields.  “We know that whoever’s got the start on a given night is going to give us a top-notch performance.  And knowing that, our guys are free to be more aggressive and maximize their scoring chances.”

Are there any warning signs for the Pistols?  They may not have lost much recently, but some of their losses have come against potential playoff opponents.  They’re 2-3-0 this season against Hershey; their last meeting was a 6-0 Bliss blowout at Chocolate Center.  And when the Pistols hosted the Western-leading Portland Bluebacks just before the All-Star break, the Bluebacks cruised to an easy 4-0 victory.

But Alexander says the Pistols aren’t concerned about those results.  “When it gets to be playoff time, it’s a different game and a different atmosphere,” the winger noted.  “We’ve been tested in the battle, and we’ve come out strong.  And we’re going to do that again this year.  Just you wait.”

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

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].”

Change of the Guard Seems Imminent in SHL’s Last Week

Going into the final week of the 2017 SHL season, neither division race is terribly close, unlike the last couple of seasons.  Barring a seismic shift in the coming week, we aren’t going to see anything as dramatic as the 2016’s Hershey-Washington last-game showdown for the division.  Nonetheless, even if things unfold as expected, the results will still have their share of surprises.  As it stands, neither of last year’s Finals opponents will make a return trip this season.

In the West, the Michigan Gray Wolves head into the season’s final week trailing the Anchorage Igloos by 6 points.  The Wolves and Igloos have been the division powers since the league’s inception, so it’s no surprise that they will finish one-two yet again.  But the Wolves have been unable to make up the ground they lost when top scorers Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow went down with injuries in midseason.  “We’ve fought hard all year, and I know we’re going to keep battling to the end,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “But we’re in a difficult spot right now.”

Michigan’s best chance to narrow the gap came on Wednesday, when they faced the Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  The game was a true heavyweight clash, as the Wolves stifled Anchorage’s league-best offense, with the Igloos responding in kind.  After two scoreless periods, Michigan actually drew first blood seven minutes into the third, when Lunsford dented the twine on a hard slapshot between Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s legs.  “That got us fired up,” said Lunsford.  “We thought this was the goal that was going to set us on a run to take the division.”

But with just over a minute left in the game, the Igloos tied the game on a fluky goal by D Sebastian Pomfret, who flicked a rebound that bounced off the back of Michigan netminder Dirk Lundquist back and into the goal.  That sent the game to overtime, where Wolves C Wesley Knight committed a tough holding-the-stick penalty.  15 seconds into the power play, Igloos LW Les Collins beat Lundquist stick-side to seal a 2-1 win.

“That was a back-breaker,” admitted Lunsford.  “To go from thinking you’re on the road to the division to feeling like you’re on the brink of elimination… it’s a kick in the gut, no question.”

As surprising as the West race has been, things have been even more shocking in the East.  The Washington Galaxy have won the division in each of the last two seasons and established themselves as the class of the division.  When they caught fire out of the All-Star Break, winning 10 in a row and snatching first place away from the Hershey Bliss, it looked like they were set up to run to yet another title.  It hasn’t unfolded that way, though, as the Bliss have grabbed the lead right back over the last couple of weeks.

And while Hershey has played well, the race in the East has been a story of Washington collapse.  The Galaxy have dropped 11 of 15 over the last three weeks, and they head into the final week of the season 8 points back of the Bliss.  For a team with a reputation for stepping it up in the second half, their dismal performance has been completely unexpected.  “We can’t figure it out,” said LW Casey Thurman.  “We know we can do better than this, but it’s kind of like we’re stepping on the gas and there’s nothing there.”

Certainly, the Galaxy’s using scoring punch has been absent during their recent skid.  They’ve fallen from sixth in the league in goals scored to second-to-last, ahead of only Quebec.  Several of their stars, including Thurman (2 goals in the last 15 games), C Eddie Costello (3 goals), RW Jefferson McNeely (3 goals), and C J.C. Marais (2 goals), have been in slumps.  But the offense hasn’t been the only culprit.  The normally stout defense, which allowed fewer than two and a half goals per game over the first two-thirds of the season, has allowed over three per game during their slide.  Backup goalie Ron Mason has lost his last five starts.  Their special units have flatlined over the last three weeks, with their power play dropping from a league-leading 24.1% success rate to a middle-of-the-pack 19.6%, and their penalty kill going from 82.9% efficiency to 78.8%.  “It’s like it’s all falling apart at once,” said Costello.

For the Bliss, who have heard over and over that they’re too soft, too sloppy, or too star-dependent to beat the Galaxy, the turnabout has been pretty sweet.  “We’ve taken a lot of crap over the years about how we can never win the big one, or how Washington’s got our number,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’ve never bought into that story, but we knew we were were going to keep hearing it until we proved it.”  On Saturday, Hershey came into Constellation Center and walloped Washington 5-1.  “That one definitely felt good,” said Valentine.  “To be able to go into their building and shut them down like that… it gave us confidence that this isn’t going to be like the other years.  It’s a new era for us.”