- On Monday, the Kansas City Smoke‘s CHL affiliate in Omaha activated D Lowell Sharkey from the injured list. Sharkey, who is a highly-regarded prospect in the Kansas City organization, missed five weeks with a lower-body injury. In order to make room for Sharkey on the roster, the team released D Kjell Hanson. The 24-year-old Hanson appeared in 15 games for Omaha, recording 2 assists and a -4 rating.
- On Friday, the Dakota Jackalopes placed C Tanner Brooks on the injured list. The 23-year-old Brooks suffered an upper-body injury during Thursday’s 4-1 win over Quebec, and is expected to miss at least three weeks. To fill in during Brooks’ absence, the Jackalopes promoted C Jacob Cunniff from their CHL affiliate in Idaho. Cunniff is Idaho’s leading scorer, with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) so far on the season.
- Also on Friday, the Hershey Bliss activated LW Russell Nahorniak from the injured list. Nahorniak missed five weeks with a lower-body injury. In order to accommodate Nahorniak’s return, the Bliss sent LW Sergei Tarisov back to their affiliate in Milwaukee. Tarisov appeared in 13 games during Nahorniak’s absence, recording 3 goals and a +3 rating. To make room for Tarisov on Milwaukee’s roster, the team released F Jerry Casenovia.
- In one more Friday move, the Saskatchewan Shockers placed D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng on the injured list. Oflyng had to be helped off the ice after being slammed head-first into the boards on Thursday, and is expected to miss up to six weeks. The loss is devastating to the surging Shockers, as Oflyng led the team in points with 30 (8 goals, 22 assists). To fill Oflyng’s roster spot, Saskatchewan called up D Pierre Chappelle from their CHL affiliate in Virginia. The 31-year-old Chappelle was tied for the Virginia team lead in goals (with 15) and points (with 29).
- On Saturday, the Hamilton Pistols placed C Marco Venezio on the injured list. Venezio suffered a lower-body injury during Saturday’s game against Saskatchewan, and is expected to miss three to four weeks. Venezio has been a stalwart on Hamilton’s second line, putting up 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) on the season. To fill Venezio’s spot on the roster, Hamilton called up C Hilliard Macy from their affiliate in Oshawa. It’s the second SHL stint for the 20-year-old Macy, who appeared in 5 games for Hamilton earlier in the season. The Pistols also signed F Bobby Warner to a minor-league contract.
- Also on Saturday, the Shockers placed C Cyril Perignon on the injured list. Perignon suffered a lower-body injury against Hamilton on Saturday; he is expected to miss at least a month. Perignon has recorded 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) and a +1 rating on the season for Saskatchewan. To replace Perignon, the Shockers called up C Trent Harlow from Virginia. At the time of his callup, Harlow led the Rhinos with 30 points.
The Idaho Spuds were an unlikely contender in the CHL. Last season, playing as the Muncie Squirrels, they finished fourth in their division. Their rebuilding parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, called up several of the best prospects from that squad. The Spuds received a warm reception in their new home, regularly selling out Treasure Valley Arena. But the idea that they’d finish above .500, much less make the playoffs, seemed far-fetched to most observers.
However, coach Gilbert McCoyne wasn’t interested in what most observers thought. “I wasn’t about to put any limits on what we could achieve,” McCoyne said. “I just told my guys, ‘Why not us?’”
McCoyne’s power-of-positive-thinking approach paid dividends. Idaho not only made the playoffs, they dismissed the heavily-favored division-winning Omaha Ashcats in a stunning sweep. Then in the Finals, they dethroned the defending champion Virginia Rhinos in six games to win their first-ever Howard Trophy.
“This season has been one wild ride!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox. “We never gave up and never stopped believing, and now we’re the champs!”
The series opened in Boise in front of another pair of sellout crowds, and the Spuds gave their fans plenty to cheer about. In Game 1, fueled by the energy of their fans, a fired-up Idaho team outshot the Rhinos 32-20. The Spuds capitalized on their power play opportunities, going 3-for-4 in man-advantage situations, and goalie Kelvin White registered a shutout in a 3-0 Idaho win. In Game 2, the Spuds once again had a huge advantage in shots, outshooting Virginia 43-23, but White wasn’t quite as sharp. Idaho squandered a 4-2 lead in the third period when Rhinos LW Yuri Laronov and LW Errol Garner scored 90 seconds apart, but RW Britt Cadmium came through with what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 5-4 triumph.
The Rhinos regained their footing a bit in the middle three games, which took place on their ice. In Game 3, Virginia got a pair of second-period goals from Laronov and D Gustaf Bergstrom, and goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 30 Idaho shots for a 2-0 win. In Game 4, Virginia got the early edge, only to see Idaho seize control of the game in the second on the way to a 6-2 blowout that included three third-period goals. Staring at elimination, the Rhinos pushed back in Game 5, building a 3-0 lead through the first forty minutes. The Spuds pushed back in the third, putting up another three-goal frame, but Virginia held on for a 5-3 win. C Trent Harlow scored two goals in a winning effort for the defending champs.
With the action shifting back to Treasure Valley Arena for Game 6, the Spuds were looking for the quick kill, while the Rhinos were looking to prove that they could be competitive away from home. Idaho controlled the play once again, outshooting Virginia 38-26, but Chislic kept the Rhinos in the game. LW Van Dyke Browning scored in the opening minute to give Idaho a quick edge, but Rhinos D Gunther Stephens answered less than four minutes later to tie things up. The Spuds got back in front in the second on a score by D Brett Stolte, and D Georg Ochre made it 3-1 early in the third with a blast from the top of the faceoff circle. Idaho then endangered their lead with a string of minor penalties, and Bergstrom finally converted with just over five minutes remaining to pull Virginia within one. The Spuds managed to stay out of the penalty box after that, though, and the Rhinos couldn’t come up with an equalizer in the time remaining.
Ochre, who led all Idaho scorers with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists), earned the Finals MVP honors. His teammates mobbed the quiet, rugged defenseman they fondly call “The Ogre.” As Wilcox quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the Ogre’s acceptance speech, ‘cause it’ll be the first time he’s said more than two words in a row.”
For many of the Spuds, their next challenge will come in the SHL, as they’re called up and tasked with reviving the Jackalopes’ sagging fortunes. “Making it in the SHL is a different kind of challenge,” admitted Wilcox. “But we’ve gotten this far by believing in ourselves, so why not keep going?”
This year’s CHL finals present an interesting contrast. One team has been in the finals every year of the league’s existence, and is bidding for back-to-back titles after surviving a back-and-forth first-round series that went the distance. The other club is in its first year in a new city, and is trying to go all the way in its first-ever postseason appearance, coming off of a surprising sweep of the league’s best regular-season team.
In the East, the Virginia Rhinos are getting to be old hands at the postseason; this is their third straight trip. Despite losing a number of key contributors from last season’s title-winning squad, the Rhinos managed to eke out the top seed in a closely-packed division. But Virginia wasn’t the least bit embarrassed or deterred by their narrow playoff qualification; they remain fixated on the ultimate goal. “We’re all focused on the repeat,” said RW Chris Quake. “No one in here doubts that we can pull it off.”
In the division playoff, they faced the Cleveland Centurions, who sported the league’s best regular-season defense. The Rhinos hunkered down for what they knew would be a tense, hard-fought battle. Game 1 was a chippy affair with a slew of penalties, a couple of fights, and not a lot of offense (28 shots between both teams). Virginia got goals from Quake and LW Jayden Gunn, while goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 16 Cleveland shots for a 2-0 shutout. In Game 2, the Rhinos rallied from behind with a pair of third-period tallies just 29 seconds apart from C Marvin Cascio and LW Yuri Laronov, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory. The action shifted to the shores of Lake Erie for Games 3 and 4, and the Centurions battled back. In Game 3, Rhinos C Trent Harlow notched a third-period goal to erase another deficit and force overtime, but Cleveland C Phoenix Cage scored 36 seconds into the extra session to stave off elimination with a 2-1 win. In Game 4, Centurions netminder Eugene Looney came up big, stopping all 27 shots in a 3-0 triumph to force a fifth game back in Virginia Beach. But in the deciding game, it was Chislic’s turn for another shutout (24 saves) as D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta netted two to lead the 3-0 series-clinching victory.
“That was a tough series, for sure,” said Corbetta. “But it got us tuned up, and we’re firing on all cylinders now and playing our best hockey.”
Virginia’s Finals opponent will be the Idaho Spuds, who played to sellout crowds after moving from Muncie in the offseason. The Spuds came into the postseason with the CHL’s top-ranked offense (3.6 goals per game), but they had a lackluster performance in the last few weeks of the regular season, and they were largely written off in their first-round series against the heavily favored Omaha Ashcats.
But the boys in russet brown not only beat the Ashcats, they did so in a stunning three-game sweep. In Game 1, they buried Omaha in an avalanche of shots (45 vs. the Ashcats’ 22) and scored three goals (from LW Rick Crisak, D Victor Addison, and LW Terry Cresson) before the game was 3 minutes old, on the way to a 4-2 win. For Game 2, Ashcats coach Butch Slazenger switched goalies from Bill Bates to Jim Fleetwood. Fleetwood did a better job, stopping 28 of 30 shots, but Spuds LW Van Dyke Browning scored three minutes into overtime for a 2-1 win. In order for Omaha to rally in the series, they’d have to win twice on enemy ice. Slazenger raised a number of eyebrows by going back to Bates for Game 3, a decision that looked foolish when Idaho went up 2-0 by the first minute of the second period. The Ashcats rallied back to tie thanks to tallies from blueliners Trevor Lockwood and Lowell Sharkey. With just over three minutes left in regulation, however, Spuds C Jacob Cunniff scored a power-play goal that would prove to be the difference in a 3-2 contest. Treasure Valley Arena – sold out as usual – exploded in cheers as the players formed a celebratory circle in front of their net.
“We’re probably going to be the underdogs again in the final, since [the Rhinos are] the defending champs,” said Idaho coach Gilbert McCoyne. “But we like that underdog role. If anyone’s thinking of sleeping on us, they’d better think again, because we’re ready to shock the world.”