Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown

The Eastern Division race is as hot as it gets right now.  With the trading deadline coming next week, both playoff spots are up for grabs, and four of the division’s six teams have a real shot at the postseason.  With such a fierce and wide-open competition, the stakes of each game are heightened – especially when two contenders face off.

Sunday’s game between the Hershey Bliss and New York Night was a case in point.  Neither team is particularly known for playing rough; they generally focus on scoring rather than fighting.  But this time, they produced a notably chippy, nasty game in a 5-2 Hershey win.  If this is a preview of coming attractions down the stretch, the East could be in for a wild ride.

“There was a lot of hate out there on the ice today,” said Night D Dominic Sanchez.  “It was fun and scary at the same time.”

This was the back end of a home-and-home between the Night and Bliss, who entered the game tied for first place in the East.  Hershey came into the game hungry for revenge: New York had won Saturday’s game 3-2 at the Chocolate Center, handing the Bliss there fourth straight loss.

Nick Foster

And per his usual, Night coach Nick Foster rubbed salt in the wound during his postgame press conference.  Foster, who has ridiculed the Bliss as soft all season, came to the podium holding a roll of Charmin.  “I brought this because it reminds me of Hershey,” said Foster.  “It’s really soft, easy to squish, and I love wiping my [butt] with it.”

Foster’s jibe riled up the Bliss clubhouse, which made it clear that they were going to respond physically.  “We’ll show Foster who’s really soft,” one Hershey player said.

Sure enough, less than two and a half minutes into the game, Bliss D Steve Cargill dropped the gloves with New York blueliner Donald Duckworth.  The two traded blows until Cargill wrestled Duckworth to the ice – no small task given Duckworth’s rugged physique.  Both sides smacked their sticks on the boards in appreciation.  The Bliss had made their point; outside observers might have assumed that was the end of hostilities.  In fact, though, said hostilities were just beginning.

A couple minutes after the Cargill-Duckworth scrap, Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak hit Night star Brock Manning with a high stick, opening a gash next to Manning’s left eye.  Nahorniak claimed the high stick was accidental; the Night insisted it was intentional, and called for the Hershey winger to be ejected.  Nahorniak received a double minor instead.

Manning dashed into the locker room to be patched up, then returned and scored a game-tying power-play goal, then pointed at Nahorniak.  (Manning finished out the first period, but did not return to the ice after that; he also missed the following two games.)

Not to be outdone, Hershey proceeded to score a pair of goals a little more than two minutes apart.  Each time, their celebration “coincidentally” wound up in front of the Night bench.

A couple minutes after that, New York C Tom Hoffman avenged Manning by ramming the butt end of his stick into Nahorniak’s stomach in the middle of a scrum in front of the Hershey net.  That earned Hoffman a double minor penalty of his own.  The Night committed a couple more penalties before the period ended, but the score remained the same.

Tensions didn’t ease in the second period.  After only 46 seconds, Night D Andy Ruger challenged Cargill to another fight.  Cargill gladly accepted the challenge; this time, Ruger got the better end, bloodiyng Cargill rather badly.  Both players received majors for their trouble.

Less than a minute after that bout, Bliss C Vance Ketterman scored to make it 4-1.  With the competitive portion of the game essentially over, both teams turned the physicality up even further.

Night D Rocky Winkle enraged Hershey by spearing Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick in the groin.  This time, it was Hershey calling for Winkle to be ejected; instead, he received a double minor.  Bliss RW Remi Montrechere upset New York with a high stick that nearly caught Night C Rod Remington in the teeth.

Early in the third period, Hershey LW Lance Sweet dumped New York LW Chase Winchester into the boards with a hard cross-check.  The Night were angered that Sweet received only a two-minute penalty, instead of a major or an ejection.  On the ensuing power play, Duckworth and Winkle combined on a score; they celebration by flashing their middle fingers at the Hershey bench.  They weren’t penalized, but Bliss D Reese Milton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a little bit later for squirting his water bottle at the New York bench.

The rest of the game unfolded with a slew of hard checks and minor penalties, but no major conflagrations.  After the game ended, both teams dissolved into a fit of pushing and shoving that didn’t quite turn into a line brawl.

After the team, both teams pointed fingers at their opponents.  Bliss coach Chip Barber focused on the two Night spearing penalties.  “Butt-ending is one of the dirtiest plays in hockey, and everyone knows it,” said Barber.  “Normally, you might get two of those [penalties] in a year.  But two in one game?  That’s just ugly hockey.”

Foster, meanwhile, noted the attack against some of his top players.  “I know [the Bliss are] desperate to show me how tough they are,” the New York coach quipped, “but this is ridiculous.  They tried to take Brock’s head off, then they tried to put Chase in a wheelchair.  Okay, we get it, you’re big tough boys.  Now put your [genitals] away and play some hockey next time.”

The league declined to hand out any supplemental discipline, but Commissioner Perry Mitchell warned that they wouldn’t be so lenient next time.  “We know that emotions run high in games like this,” Mitchell said in a statement.  “But there’s a line between good hard hockey and dirty hockey, and both teams came too close to that line.  If it happens again, the league will act appropriately.”

Continue reading “Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown”

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Interview of the Week: Spencer Kirkpatrick

This week’s interview is with Hershey Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with one of the key contributors on the East’s co-leading teams, Spencer Kirkpatrick.  Spencer, thanks for speaking with us!

Spender Kirkpatrick

Spencer Kirkpatrick: Glad to do it.  It’s definitely an exciting race!

SHLD: That it is!  Your team in Hershey started the week in first.  But now after an 0-4-0 week, you’re in a first place tie with New York, with Hamilton and Quebec nipping at your heels.  The top four teams are separated by only three points!

SK: Yeah, it’s a real bumper-car derby at the top.  This week was a real disappointment for us; we can’t afford to lose any ground.

SHLD: You guys obviously came out of the break flat.  Do you think the week off disrupted your momentum?

SK: No question that it did.  Hockey players are creatures of habit; we like playing a regular schedule, and a week off throws off our rhythms.  But everyone else had the same break, so that’s not an excuse for us.

SHLD: Why do you think the division is so competitive this year?

SK: Good question!  I think the East has been getting better every year I’ve been in the league, but it’s taken time to recognize that.  Hamilton and Quebec made the playoffs last year, so it’s no surprise that they’re in the mix again.  We won the Vandy in 2017, so it’s no surprise that we’re in the mix.  We’ve proven that last year was just a weird fluke.  And New York… I mean, I think you have to give [Nick] Foster some credit.  He runs his mouth a lot, but he’s gotten his team playing the right way.

SHLD: Speaking of Foster, he made some headlines earlier this year calling the Bliss “soft.”  How did your team react to that?

SK: We’ve heard that kind of crap before, so we just shrug it off.  And we know that Foster is just trying to play to the fans and stir things up with the press, so we don’t pay attention to it.

SHLD: But doesn’t it make you mad, at least a little bit?

SK: I mean, sure.  I think it’s ridiculous.  Our guys are as tough as anyone else in the league.  But we’re used to this kind of talk.  It used to be that everyone called us chokers, but then we won the Vandy.  So the best way to stop the talk is to win.  Always.

SHLD: So looking ahead to the second half, what do you need to do to hold off the competition and make the postseason?

SK: I think we need to play hard-nosed hockey, avoid dumb turnovers, and make sure we’re getting quality looks on offense.  On defense, we need to make sure we protect home plate.  It’s not going to be easy, but we just have to play our game.

SHLD: Of the three other teams in the mix, which one do you fear the most?

SK: Hey, they’re all tough!  But if you’re asking which is the toughest to play against, I’d say Quebec.  The way they play, the way they trap and bang you into the boards, they’re just miserable to play against.  Playing Hamilton, it’s skill against skill, it’s good.  And New York, that’s just a track meet, flying up and down the ice.  Quebec leaves me with the most bumps and bruises after, by far.

SHLD: The West is quite competitive, too.  Is there an opponent out there who you’d prefer to face if you make the Finals?

SK: (laughs) No way!  You’re not getting me to bite on that one.  We’ve got to focus on getting to the playoffs first!

SHLD: Fair enough.  We’ve spent this whole interview talking about your team, and not about you.  What’s one thing about you that fans don’t know?

SK: Hmm… well, I’m the reigning Madden champion on the team.  When we’re on the road, in a hotel, Madden is what we play.  And I’ve won two seasons in a row now!

SHLD: Oh yeah?  Which team do you play as?

SK: The Broncos.  I’m Canadian, so I didn’t watch a lot of football growing up.  But I’m from Calgary, and that’s big horse country.  So the Broncos remind me of home.

SHLD: Pretty cool!  Well, Spencer, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.  Good luck in the second half!

SK: Thanks!  I’ll take all the luck I can get.

Bliss Run Wild At Sheetz as Season Ends

The Hershey Bliss saw their disappointing season wind to an end this week.  The players have long since resigned themselves to the fact that they won’t have a chance to defend their title.  As a result, they weren’t consumed by sadness or anger as the regular season drew to a close; rather, they were possessed by a feeling that C Justin Valentine described as “a really deep, deep weirdness.”  That weirdness boiled over on Saturday in a most unusual rest stop.

All of Hershey’s games this week were on the road, so the team spent the week flying from one Eastern city to another, including two separate trips across the border and back.  “We were all pretty punchy this week,” admitted Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick.  On Thursday night, they flew back in from Quebec.  Rather than heading to Washington, site of Saturday’s finale, the Bliss went home to Hershey to participate in an autograph session scheduled at a local mall on Friday.

Then on Saturday morning, the team boarded a bus down to DC.  “Somehow, it felt like our season in a nutshell,” said Valentine.  “Instead of getting ready for the playoffs, here we are rolling through the countryside in a bus, on our way to a meaningless game against our supposed rivals, who aren’t making the playoffs either.  I think something kind of snapped for us on that ride.”

When the bus got to Thurmont, Maryland, the team insisted on stopping.  The bus pulled into the Sheetz just off of US Route 15, and the team descended on the convenience store.  “We get a lot of buses through here,” said Sheetz clerk Alvin Clark, “but something about the way these guys came in told me they were going to be trouble.”

As the Bliss wandered the aisles, they began behaving (in Valentine’s words) like “a bunch of four-year-olds on a sugar high.”  Valentine and his fellow “Love Line” mates Lance Sweet and Christopher Hart grabbed sodas out of the case, snuck up on their teammates, and poured the sodas over their heads.  The team’s defensemen grabbed a 24-pack of beer and engaged in a drinking contest.  Kirkpatrick and RW Noah Daniels monopolized the Made-to-Order food screens, trying to top each other with increasingly elaborate custom orders.

LW Trevor Green cleaned out the store’s entire supply of jerky, reasoning that “maybe we’ll get in a crash, and this will buy us a day or two before we have to resort to cannibalism.”  Meanwhile, RW Sven Danielsen (known as the team’s “den mother”) bought one of every medicine on the shelf, saying that “you can’t be too careful on the road.”

Goalie Brandon Colt took things to another level when he grabbed a couple of donuts out of the pastry case and used them to play Frisbee with his backup, Milo Stafford.  The pair knocked over display racks left and right as they dove for donuts.

Chip Barber

After about 15 minutes of this madness, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber (wondering where his team had gone) came into the store.  As he took in the chaos around him, the coach’s eyes bulged and the veins on his forehead throbbed.  “What the hell is going on here?!” Barber shouted, as his players froze.  After a couple of them mumbled attempts at an explanation, the coach held help his hand.  “Never mind, I don’t want to know.  You’ve got two minutes to clean this up and get out of here.”

The players sighed and obeyed the coach’s orders.  Just as the bus was about to pull away, however, Stafford came running out of the store, hollering after his colleagues.  As he got on the bus, Stafford explained that he’d found something he had to buy.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out an inflatable water toy in the shape of a rubber duck.  “I love rubber ducks!” Stafford said by way of explanation.

“I don’t know if I’m a coach or a zookeeper,” sighed Barber.  “Those guys were basically looting that poor store.  And they didn’t even grab any chocolate bars!”

Somehow, in spite of all the craziness of the morning, Hershey managed to win the game that night, defeating rival Washington 4-3 in overtime.  For the Bliss, it was a day to remember at the end of a season to forget.  “It was a cathartic experience, and I’m glad we did it,” said Sweet.  “Even though they’ll probably never let us in that Sheetz again.”

Bliss Enjoying Sweet Life Atop East

The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness.  Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title.  The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all.  Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.

“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart.  Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players.  “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said.  “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind.  Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title.  You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”

Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart.  The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half.  They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.

Justin Valentine

“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship.  What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’  Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal.  Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”

What’s the secret to Hershey’s success?  They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.

Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team.  They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league.  Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season.  But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet.  This year, the top line is getting considerably more help.  LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points).  C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season.  And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).

Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger.  The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease.  They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier.  “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.

Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch.  Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him.  Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA.  And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.

“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber.  “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season.  Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season.  But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”

Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half.  The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well.  Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in.  Our fate is in our hands.”

East Up for Grabs

Who’s going to win the SHL’s Eastern division?  Who knows?  If the first three weeks of the season have proven anything, it’s that there’s no clear favorite.

“Maybe, instead of beat each other up for 60 games, we should just pick the winner’s name out of a hat,” said Washington Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle.  “That would probably be just as fair.”

Washington SmallReagle’s Galaxy were the division favorites coming into this season after essentially going wire-to-wire last season and pushing the champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in the SHL Finals.  But much like the Igloos, Washington has struggled to stay above the .500 mark.  Unlike the Igloos, however, the Galaxy haven’t had to deal with any major injuries.

So what’s plaguing Washington?  Offensive malaise.  While RW Jefferson McNeely has bounced back from a disappointing season to be an elite scoring force, LW Casey Thurman has gotten off to a slow start (5 goals, 11 points).

The primary culprit, though, has been the Galaxy’s third line.  Last year, the line was a secret weapon for the Galaxy, providing a consistent offensive presence.  This year has been a different story.  Washington lost LW Todd Douglas and C Drustan Zarkovich in the expansion draft; their replacements, rookies Henry Van Alpin and Barry Sullivan, have struggled badly.  Van Alpin failed to record a point in 10 games, and has been a healthy scratch in three straight games.  Sullivan, expected to be a strong two-way force, has posted only 1 goal and 2 assists so far.  The current points leader on the third line: stay-home D Bill Corbett.

“Obviously, we’ve had some growing pains with the third line,” said Reagle.  “If we can get them producing the way we expect, I think we can start to pull away.”  So far, though, they haven’t.  Their 8-6-1 start has them on top of the division by a single point.

Hershey SmallIf any team in the East was expected to challenge Washington, it was the Hershey Bliss.  They stumbled to a disappointing third-place finish last year after a major injury to star LW Lance Sweet sank their season.  This year, though, Sweet was back to 100%, and the team seemingly strengthened itself on both ends in the offseason.

The result?  So far, not much.  Hershey’s 6-7-2 record puts them fourth in the division, three points back.  The “Love Line” – the famous first line that won the fan’s hearts last season – is off to a so-so start after providing the bulk of the Bliss offense last year.  Neither Sweet, C Justin Valentine, nor RW Christopher Hart leads the team in goals this year; all three trail rookie C Spencer Kirkpatrick, who has 7.

At the other end of the ice, the leaky goaltending that bedeviled the Bliss last year remains a problem.  Hershey dealt last year’s starting netminder, Riley Lattimore, to Anchorage and handed the crease to 21-year-old prospect Buzz Carson.  It hasn’t worked out so far, as Carson has posted a 1-5-1 record and a 3.67 GAA.  Like Lattimore before him, Carson is in danger of losing the starting job to veteran backup Milo Stafford.

“Obviously, we’re not happy with what we’ve seen in net so far,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “It’s like biting into a nice tasty chocolate bar and getting a big squirt of lemon juice.  A burst of sour in the middle of the sweet.  We’ve got to get better.”

With neither Washington nor Hershey taking control, the door is open for some surprise contenders.

New York smallLast season, the New York Night finished in second place more or less by default with a 28-29-3 record.  Their high-caliber offense was undermined by a near-total indifference to defense and spotty goaltending.  This season is largely the same story – the Night are first in offense and last in defense once again – but despite being outscored on the season, their 7-6-2 record has them only a point behind Washington.

Hamilton SmallTied with New York is the Hamilton Pistols.  The Pistols were widely perceived to be writing off the season as part of a rebuilding effort, but had a surprisingly strong first week and remain in the hunt.  Powered by a brilliant performance from their potent first line and a comeback showing from goalie Brandon Colt, the Pistols remain stubbornly above the .500 mark.

Quebec SmallEven the expansion Quebec Tigres, whose offense has cratered after an injury to Zarkovich and who have slid into the cellar, are only six points behind the first-place Galaxy.

Will Washington and Hershey right the ship and take control of the division?  Will Hamilton and New York be able to spring a major upset?  Will Quebec be able to keep up?  Anything seems possible in this wide-open division.

The ever-optimistic Reagle sees a bright side.  “Look at the NFL,” the Washington coach said.  “For years, they’ve managed to sell widespread mediocrity as thrilling and competitive.  We can do the same!  Tune in next week for As The East Turns.”