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.”

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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.”