West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”

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CHL Update: Owls Shock Rhinos in 5 To Win Championship

Coming into the first-ever CHL playoffs, no one gave the Utah Owls much of a chance to win.  Although they had been hot during the last month of the season, they only finished a few games above the .500 mark.  They had few players among the league leaders in any category, and they were better known for their wacky hotel escapades than for anything they did on the ice.  The smart money suggested that the Owls would be easily knocked out by the Omaha Ashcats in the Western Division playoff; failing that, they’d be taken down by the high-scoring Virginia Rhinos in the finals.

By the time the playoffs were over, however, the smart money wasn’t looking so smart.  Utah stunned Omaha by winning the division finals in four games and making it look easy.  Then in the Finals, with barely more drama, the Owls defeated the Rhinos 4 games to 1 to claim the inaugural Howard Trophy as CHL champions.

“Nobody believed in us,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax.  “Everyone was just standing around, waiting for us to fail.  But we showed them!  We showed everybody that we’re the best there is!”

In Game 1, Utah walked into Waterfront Center and pushed the pace, with the teams combining for 85 shots.  The Owls hammered the Rhinos 6-2, with six different players scoring goals for the Owls.  “I absolutely did not see that coming,” said Virginia goalie Shawn Stickel.  “We’d heard those guys liked to play fast, but we weren’t expecting that kind of crazy speed.  It’s like they had rockets in their skates.”  Not only did the Rhinos lose the game, they lost winger Nick Krombopoulos for the series with an upper-body injury.

In Game 2, Virginia seemed to restore order, downing Utah 3-1.  But both sides wound up losing a defenseman to injury; the Rhinos lost Ivan Ackler, while the Owls saw Boris Badenov go down.  The series shifted to Wasatch Arena for Game 3, where the Owls turned the tables with a 3-1 win of their own.  In Game 4, Virginia took an early 2-0 lead, only to see Utah tie it up with a pair in the second period.  RW Colton Jabril put the Rhinos back up with a tally two minutes into the third period, and it looked like his team was about to tie the series up again.  But Owls LW Mickey Simpson banked one in off the crossbar with 12 seconds left to send it to overtime, and then C Remi “Roadrunner” Gallert nabbed the game-winner 2:05 into OT to give Utah a 3-1 series lead.

“After that, we knew we had it,” said Banjax.

The Owls took care of business in Game 5, with F Diego Garcia scoring two goals to lead his team to a 4-1 win.  The infamously boisterous team managed not to lay waste to the arena; instead, they formed a dogpile on the ice and soaked in the joy of an unexpected victory.

Utah’s secret?  Goalie Sherman Carter.  The top prospect started the season with the Owls before earning a quick call-up to the New York Night, before being sent down for the final games of the CHL season.  He was the key to the Owls’ postseason success, putting up a 1.99 GAA and a .949 save percentage against the league’s highest-scoring team.  Unsurprisingly, Carter was chosen as the Finals MVP.

“Sherm has been nothing short of awesome for us,” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.  “The only sad thing is that he’s probably not going to be back here next year.  He’s headed to the pros to stick next year, and I know he’s going to be special.”

In the midst of the postgame celebration, Banjax was asked whether he thought his team could repeat next year.  “Probably not,” said the Utah center.  “But then, no one thought we’d win it this year.  So who knows?  I can’t wait to find out.”

CHL Update: Virginia’s Rhinos Rolling

So far in the SHL’s minor league, the competitors have been pretty well matched.  Most of the teams are within a game or two of the .500 mark.  There are a couple of exceptions, however.  In particular, there’s one team that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Virginia Rhinos.  The affiliate of the Saskatchewan Shockers is threatening to run away with the league.

The Rhinos’ record is an astounding 18-6-1.  They are 7 points ahead of the next-best team in the league; in the East, they’re 9 points up on the second-place Maine Moose.  “This must have been what it was like to race against Secretariat,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge.  “Right now, all we can see are the taillights.”

Shawn Stickel

What’s been the secret to the Rhinos’ success?  It starts with a turnaround season in net.  Last year, Shawn Stickel was a newly-drafted goalie backing up Zeke Zagurski in Saskatchewan.  Stickel’s rookie season was a disaster, going 1-12-0 with a 5.29 GAA.  His most notable exploit was getting arrested after getting liquored up on a cross-country flight and joyriding a baggage cart.  “I was on my own for the first time,” Stickel admitted, “so I was acting young and dumb.”

At risk of throwing away his career, Stickel devoted the offseason to getting himself back on track.  He went to an alcohol treatment program and swore off drinking.  He also spent countless hours refining his craft, studying tape to identify the flaws in his game and working with coaches and ex-teammates to correct them.  The results have been evident: this season, Stickel has gone 14-4-1 with a 2.20 GAA and a .927 save percentage.

“Honestly, I’m glad I wound up in the minors,” said Stickel.  “When you’re a backup in the pros, especially as a young guy, it’s hard to stay sharp and improve.  And you wind up with a lot of time on your hands, which I filled with drinking and goofing around.  Here, knowing my team’s counting on me almost every day, it’s easy to keep that mental edge.  And it’s given me an opportunity to practice the things I worked on over the summer, and continue to get better.”

Stickel’s solid goaltending seals up the defensive end for the Rhinos.  On the offensive end, they benefit from a potent and varied offense.  Their top line features two of the CHL’s top scorers, LW Yuri Laronov (11 goals, 28 points) and RW Colton Jabril (12 goals, 29 points), flanking one of the best passers, C Tanner Brooks (24 assists).  Coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh likes to activate his defensemen on the attack, and the results have been evident.  Blake Blacklett is the CHL’s premier offensive defenseman (12 goals, 26 points), and Virginia has a couple other strong two-way threats in Robby Rohrman (9 goals, 21 points) and Rennie Cox (8 goals, 19 points).

“I’m seeing a lot of guys here who are SHL-caliber already, to be honest,” said Marsh.  “I don’t know if there’s going to be room in Saskatchewan next year for all the guys who deserve to be there.”

To be sure, the season’s not yet at the halfway point, and the Rhinos could easily cool off between now and the end of the year.  But right now, it’s easy to look at the talent on the ice in Virginia every night and imagine them powering a future contender in Saskatchewan.  “All the guys we have are happy to be here,” said Marsh, “but I know none of them really wants to be here.  They want to be in the majors.  And it’s my job to help them get there.  I can’t wait to see how their careers unfold.”

Shockers Stumble to Finish Line

Saskatchewan SmallIt’s fair to say that the second half of this season was a disaster for the Saskatchewan Shockers.  After a surprisingly strong 14-15-1 record in the first half, the Shockers collapsed in the second half, posting a 7-23-0 mark.  That record included a pair of seven-game losing streaks.  Their late-season misadventures ranged from a stick getting wedged in the boards to a pair of players getting arrested after taking a joyride at the airport.  Their dismal half came to a suitably disappointing close, as the Shockers stumbled through a memorable final week.

“We took a big step forward this year,” said Saskatchewan coach Myron Beasley.  “It just doesn’t feel like it right now.”

The week began on an embarrassing note, as the Shockers lost in overtime to the SHL’s worst team, the expansion Seattle Sailors.  The win allowed Seattle to tie last year’s Shockers for the fewest-ever points recorded in a season with 23.  (The Sailors did wind up setting a record for fewest victories, finishing with 10 vs. the Shockers’ 11.)  Seattle won only two of its final 27 games; both were against Saskatchewan.

After the game, Beasley called the loss “kind of humiliating, to tell you the truth.”  Little did he know how much worse it could get.

The next night, the Shockers hosted their rivals, the Dakota Rapids.  The Rapids soared in the second half (19-8-3) while the Shockers cratered, and this game starkly illustrated the team’s opposite trajectories.  When the shelling stopped, the Rapids had set a new SHL record for goals in a game, pounding the Shockers 10-4.  Stickel, one of the stars of the airport misadventure, started in goal for Saskatchewan and surrendered all 10 goals. Beasley took some criticism for subjecting his backup netminder to such a pummeling, although he later admitted, “I kind of lost track of the score after a while.  I didn’t know it was that bad.”

On Tuesday, the Shockers watched Michigan outshoot them 42-18 and clinch the West division title with a 3-1 win.  In many ways, it was the highlight of the Shockers’ week.  “At least we got to see someone having a good time,” said RW Brad Stevens.

The next night, the Shockers were in Anchorage, and Stickel was back in net.  The result was another thumping, with the Igloos winning 8-2.  Stickel’s last two calamitous outings swelled his GAA from 4.61 to 5.29.  “I think I’m kind of going deaf from the goal horn going off in my ear so many times,” he said after the Anchorage fiasco.

The Shockers closed out the season at home, and managed to salvage a shred of dignity, beating an imploding New York team 6-4.  But even in victory, Saskatchewan lost.  The win dropped the Shockers out of the second spot in the draft, allowing them to finish a single point ahead of Quebec.  In a shallow draft, the slip could cost the Shockers dearly.

Despite the second-half swan dive, the team announced that Beasley will return as coach next season.  “There were some guys offering me condolences after the announcement,” admitted the coach.  “But I’m happy about it.  After all, it means I still get paid!  Yippee!”

Beasley added in all seriousness that he was optimistic about next season.  “I know these last severaal weeks were kind of a slog,” the coach said, “but I think it’s made us stronger.  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?  We’re not dead yet.”

Shockers Players Detained in Airport Hijinks

Saskatchewan SmallA pair of Saskatchewan Shockers found themselves in hot water this week after a mischievous prank at the airport went awry.

The Shockers were feeling pretty punch at the end of a long flight home from Quebec on Friday night after toppling the Tigres 4-2.  The second half of the season has been a slog for Saskatchewan; after getting off to a better-than-expected 14-15-1 start, the team has lost 15 of 20 since.  So it’s little surprise that players might be looking to blow off some steam.

As they were leaving the plane, C Foster Culp and backup goalie Shawn Stickel decided to have a little fun.  They slipped down the stairs from the jetway, snuck onto the tarmac, hopped into the baggage tractor, and went for a joyride.  They were on the loose for about 10 minutes, merrily eluding airport personnel, but were ultimately stopped by a blockade before they could make it onto the runway.  The kerfuffle caused a 30-minute ground stop at the airport, in order to avoid endangering passengers.

shawn-stickel
Shawn Stickel
Foster Culp
Foster Culp

After being stopped, Culp and Stickel were taken into custody by airport security, and after questioning were detained overnight by the Saskatchewan police.  Coach Myron Beasley bailed the pair out the next day.

This isn’t the first time that Culp has gotten into trouble on the Shockers’ travels.  Last season, he caused the Shockers to be detained at the airport for several hours after jokingly telling customs officials that he had brought guns and drugs with him on the plane.  This incident was taken considerably more seriously, with officials threatening to press charges for the escapade.  (At press time, it was not clear what charges, if any, the pair might face.)

As the center later explained, it all began innocently enough.  “We’d been caged up on that plane for hours, and Shawn and I just wanted some fresh air,” Culp told reporters.  “We figured we’d just go outside for a bit, have a cigarette maybe, and that was it.  But then we noticed all the cool little trucks and things that go zipping around there, and we thought it would be fun to take a ride.”

Culp said that originally, they had planned to take one vehicle each and have a drag race on the runway.  “But the baggage cart was the only one close by, so we decided to just take that and go Thelma and Louise.”

“Needless to say, alcohol was involved in the incident,” Beasley said.

The Shockers fined both Culp and Stickel for their antics.  “I mean, I get it,” said the coach.  “Long flight, tough season, guys are going to get lubed up and these things can happen.  But it’s embarrassing to the team, and it’s a problem for everybody in the airport.”

The coach added that he felt the overnight detention was appropriate.  “It gave those guys a chance to dry out,” Beasley said.  “Which they clearly needed.”