This year’s CHL playoffs had a… familiar ring to them. Three of the four playoff teams also made it last season. (Only the Halifax Atlantics were newcomers.) In the Finals, the Idaho Spuds faced off against the Virginia Rhinos for the second straight season. Just like last season, the series lasted 6 games. And just like last season, the Spuds emerged victorious, claiming their second consecutive Howard Trophy.
“This is the way to do it!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox, shouting to be heard over the booming music in the victorious locker room. “Go all the way and then have a big party. I’m ready to do this every year!”
Idaho came into the Finals as the favored team, but they knew that the series would be no cakewalk and that the Rhinos would give them a battle. “There’s a reason why Virginia makes the Finals every year,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne before the series started. “They know how to bring their game up a level when it counts. I know we’re going to have our hands full.”
The Rhinos showed in Game 1 that they would be no pushovers. They walked into Treasure Valley Arena and muzzled Idaho’s roaring offense. They limited the Spuds to just 25 shots, and goalie Quentin Chislic turned them all aside. Second-period scores by RW Hank Diehl and LW Errol Garner were enough to deliver Virginia a 2-0 victory. The home team was eager to get even in Game 2, which turned out to be something of a defensive chess match. D Jackson Creed finally got the Spuds on the board in the series midway through the first period, and RW Dylan Alizarin added a power-play marker early in the second to double the lead. C Ron Yaeckel struck back for Virginia later in the second, but the Rhinos’ offense sputtered after that (they managed only 19 shots in the contest) and they went on to lose 2-1.
The action shifted to the Tidewater for the next three games. In Game 3, the pace picked up and both offenses got their opportunities. The Rhinos took the early lead on a power-play score from D Graham Bellinger. But Idaho overturned that lead early in the second, as RW Trace Walker and D Geoff Moultrie scored just over a minute apart. Goalie Kelvin White slammed the door from there, stopping 34 Virginia shots to secure the Spuds’ 2-1 victory. Game 4 wound up going to overtime, as Idaho LW Terry Cresson scored on the man advantage early in the third to even the score. In the extra session, Idaho had numerous opportunities to take control of the series, but Chislic made one ten-bell save after another to keep the Rhinos in it. (He had 10 saves in overtime, and 34 for the game.) Finally, just over 14 minutes into overtime, Bellinger scored his second goal of the game to give Virginia a 3-2 win and even the series.
LW Zane Skandalakis, who had been one of the Rhinos’ leading regular-season scorers, finally returned from injury for Game 5, and it seemed like the series momentum might be shifting in favor of the underdogs. But Idaho scored three times in the first five minutes of the third period to break open a tie game. Virginia battled back, with a goal by Yaeckel and another by D Valeri Nistrumov with under five minutes remaining, but they couldn’t come up with the equalizer, and fell 5-4 to move within one game of elimination.
Coming back home for Game 6, the Spuds were looking to close things out. But the Rhinos once again refused to go quietly. D Rusty Sienna‘s goal on a shot from the point gave Idaho the early lead, but Virginia surged ahead before the end of the first on goals by Skandalakis and D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta. The score remained the same through the second, as Idaho wasted three power-play opportunities. It looked as though the Rhinos would force Game 7. But RW Britt Cadmium finally tied it in the third, finishing a beautiful dangle with a snipe between Chislic’s legs. Then close to the period’s midpoint, Cresson picked up a sloppy pass in the neutral zone and fed Wilcox, who crashed the net and tucked it top-shelf for what would prove to be the game-winning goal in a 3-2 series clincher.
In a tight series that consisted almost entirely of one-goal games, it was fitting that netminder White, who finished the series with a 2.08 GAA and a .929 save percentage, was chosen as the Finals MVP. “This was a real chess match of a series,” said McCoyne. “If Kel hadn’t been on his toes in the net, a couple of those games could have easily gone the other way. He snuffed out a lot of potential rallies.”
For the Rhinos, who have been to the Finals four straight years but have only won once. they could only ponder what might have been. “Ever see that movie ‘Sliding Doors’?” said coach Jeffrey Marsh. “When you lose a series, it’s a lot like that. The puck goes in instead of hitting the post, that failed clear actually makes it out of the zone instead of winding up in the back of the net, and suddenly you’re dyeing your hair blond and marrying some other guy. I don’t actually remember how that movie ended because I fell asleep halfway through, but it was probably like that.”