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.”