CHL Update: Spuds Down Rhinos, Claim Second Straight Crown

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.”

CHL Update: Wild Third Period Leads to OT Thriller in Oshawa

Fans who showed up at Oshawa’s General Motors Arena on Sunday for a CHL interdivision clash between the Oshawa Drive and the Idaho Spuds probably weren’t expecting anything noteworthy.  The Drive and Spuds have no rivalry to speak of, and on paper, the matchup between Western-division-leading Idaho (14-7-3 coming into the game) and third-place Oshawa (9-12-3 coming in) seemed like mismatch.

Surprisingly, the fans were treated to a thrilling contest, highlighted by a crazy third period in which the home town built a three-goal lead, lost it, and had to head to overtime before finally claiming a 4-3 win.

“That game was just plain bat-[guano] insane,” said Oshawa coach Harvey Williams.  “No other way to put it.’”

Going into the third, it looked like things were going to end well for the home team, despite being outplayed.  Although Idaho outshot Oshawa 23-14 through two, Drive goalie Hector Orinoco was in top form, turning aside every shot and staking his team to a 2-0 lead.

When LW Troy Blackwood went top-shelf on Spuds goalie Guy Laroche to put Oshawa up 3-0 a mere 96 seconds into the third, the crowd was ready to start celebrating its victory.  They began chanting “Start the bus!  Start the bus!” at the dejected Idaho bench.

Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne saw the crowd’s taunting chant as an opportunity.  “You hear that?  Hear it?” McCoyne barked at his players.  “The folks up in the stands seem to think the game’s over already.  Are you gonna let ‘em get away with that?”

“Hell no!” responded Spuds F Trace Walker.  “Time for us to turn the bus around!”  His teammates thumped their sticks on the ground in approval.

Just over three minutes later, Walker found D Gray Torian with a laser-beam pass in the slot.  Torian tipped the puck past Orinoco’s catching glove to break the shutout.

Unfortunately for the Spuds, they struggled to generate another goal as the minutes ticked off the clock.  With just under six minutes to go and the Drive still up 3-1, the fans began the “Start the bus!” chant again.

“They’re really trying that again?” hollered Walker.  “Time to really make ‘em pay.”

A few seconds later, Walker ripped a shot over Orinoco’s left shoulder to make it 3-2.  Walker skated around with his hand cupped over his ear, but the crowd had fallen quiet.

Just over a minute later, Drive C Albert North tried to draw a penalty, snapping his head back as though Torian had hit him with a high stick.  But eagle-eyed referee Alan Cole wasn’t fooled, and he sent North to the box for embellishment.  Oshawa managed to kill off the penalty, barely, but were unable to get the puck out of their own end.  Idaho kept up the pressure after the penalty expired, as the exhausted Drive desperately tried to hold off the vistors.

Finally, with 15 seconds left, the puck got lost in a scrum in front of the Oshawa net.  It seemed to bounce off a forest of sticks and bodies before winding up on the blade of Spuds D Rodney Black, who jammed it home to tie the game and stun the crowd.

Orinoco slumped on the ice and several Oshawa players slammed down their sticks and looked at the ceiling in frustration.  Williams argued vigorously for a goaltender interference call, to no avail.

The Spuds turned the heckling back on the fans, chanting “Stop the bus!  Stop the bus!” before launching into a round of the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus” as the fans sat in disconsolate silence.

“I was really proud of the way the boys didn’t give up when it looked bad,” said McCoyne.  “Especially on a long road trip like this, it can be hard to find the energy.  But they found it – thanks to the fans.  Appreciate it!”

At the end of regulation, the Drive filed quietly into their locker room, unsure what had happened.  “It’s like [the Spuds] drove the bus right over us,” said C Pat Collistone.

But with a pep talk from Williams and a crucial opportunity to catch their breath, Oshawa pulled themselves together, and D Elvis Bodett banged home the winning goal 24 seconds into overtime.

“I don’t know if they were trying to give me another heart attack or what,” quipped Williams, who only recently returned to the bench after collapsing on the bench due to cardiac trouble.  “I told ‘em after the game, ‘Don’t do that to an old fart with a bad ticker like me!’”