Both Divisions Decided on Final Day

The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years.  Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec.  But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale.  This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.

Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors.  The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale.  The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game.  “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”

The Sailors got off to a fast start.  Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead.  Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0.  The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.

In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear.  In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board.  Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score.  A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen.  But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads.  Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win?  For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango.  In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home.  Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.

“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.

With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division.  The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy.  “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols.  The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead.  But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs.  Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.

Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory.  Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner.  Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead.  Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game.  “You’d hate to see that.  It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”

Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols.  Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York NightNick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.

“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said.  “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”

The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them.  But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in.  Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.

LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants.  Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter.  Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.

In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again.  The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside.  When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.

In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title.  (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)

True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division.  As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice.  In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music.  “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes.  “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart.  It really does.  If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”

The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude.  “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate.  Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage.  And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”

Alexander was more blunt than his coach.  “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything.  They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic.  Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”

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Shockers Get Used to New Role: Contender

The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory.  For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice.  The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West.  Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy.  Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.

“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.

Morris Thompson

What has driven Saskatchewan’s success?  Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson.  When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined.  That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.

So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations.  “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM.  “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions.  That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”

The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck.  Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances.  This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth).  “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal.  It’s really paying off for us.”

The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season.  They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60.  Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.

“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes.  “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”

The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system.  “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.

With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade?  The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them.  Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division?  Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?

“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews.  “The next few days are going to be interesting.”

In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty.  The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.

“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson.  “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder.  If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested.  But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come.  I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that.  I’m not just thinking about this year.”

Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race

At the midway point of the season, both the East and West divisions are more competitive than usual.  Four clubs in each division have a real shot at the playoffs; on the flip side, no team is so dominant that their postseason trip is essentially certain.  It’s anybody’s game, and that’s exciting for the fans, as almost every game has potential playoff ramifications.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating for the teams, especially when stretches of strong play don’t create any separation in the standings.  And when a team suffers a particularly tough loss, it stings even more knowing that the line between making the playoffs and watching them on TV appears so thin.

Just ask the Saskatchewan Shockers.  Under the guidance of new coach Morris Thompson, they’re playing smart, strong, disciplined hockey.  They’ve posted their best first-half record ever.  And yet, they’re mired in fourth place, remaining close but agonizingly far for a playoff spot.  Sasktchewan’s precarious position made Thursday’s mystifying loss, in which they played well against the Hershey Bliss only to lose in a 5-0 blowout, a truly bitter pill to swallow.

“I know it’s weird to say this about a game we lost by 5, but I thought we were the better team in a lot of the game,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain.  “This game was just really weird.”

It’s hard to say whether Chamberlain’s claim that Saskatchewan was “the better team” holds water, but they definitely dominated the first period.  The Shockers came out firing, dictating the pace of play.  Aided by a pair of power plays, they outshot the Bliss 19-11.  “I thought we should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 after that,” said Chamberlain.

Instead, the game remained scoreless, thanks to Hershey goalie Brandon Colt.  He isn’t usually considered among the league’s top goalies, but he played like one on Thursday.  He made a dramatic kick-out save on a power-play blast by Chamberlain, bringing the crowd at Chocolate Center to its feet.  He also made a brilliant stop in the closing minutes of the period, robbing C Elliott Rafferty on a breakaway.  The Shockers also suffered some poor luck; on their two power plays in the period, they rang three shots off the posts.

Saskatchewan again got the better of the play to start the second, only to see Colt stymie them again and again.  Just after the nine-minute mark of the period, the Shockers got their third power play of the night when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was whistled for cross-checking.  Saskatchewan failed to convert yet again, managing only one shot, and the momentum seemed to shift toward the home team.

The game remained scoreless until late in the second.  With 2:31 remaining, Hershey RW Noah Daniels deflected a blast from D Steve Cargill and bounced it past Shockers goalie Zeke Zagurski into the net.  It was a fluke goal, but after seeing so many of their shots stopped, spirits sagged on the Saskatchewan bench.

“We couldn’t understand how we were losing when we’d played so much better,” said Rafferty.

In the third, the Shockers pushed hard in the early going, only to come up empty yet again.  Bliss C Justin Valentine banged home a rebound just until 7 minutes in to make it 2-0.  D Bruce Minnik went to the sin bin a couple minutes later, giving Saskatchewan its fourth power play of the game.  By this time, the Shockers were stressing out, shanking shots left and right and missing out on quality chances.

Twenty second after the power play ended, Bliss LW Lance Sweet and RW Christopher Hart broke out on an odd-man rush, and Hart beat Zagurski to give Hershey a three-goal edge.

The dam seemed to burst after that; the Shockers all but gave up, and Hershey scored twice more before the game mercifully ended.

The frustration in the Shockers locker room was palpable after the game.  Rafferty, who was denied at least three times by brilliant Colt saves, smashed his stick to pieces against his stool.  Zagurski opted for a different approach; he went into the shower with his equipment still on, sitting in soaked silence.

To make matters worse, the three teams ahead of Saskatchewan in the West standings (Michigan, Seattle, and Anchorage) all lost, costing the Shockers a rare chance to gain ground.

“In any season, there’s always going to be a few games you wish you could have back,” said Thompson.  “But this one was a knife to the gut.  When you get a 6-0 edge in power plays, you really need to win it.  This one really stings.”

Continue reading “Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race”

Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire

Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski is not widely known around the league as a colorful character.  Within the Shockers’ locker room, however, the netminder has a reputation for being a little… well, quirky.  “Zeke marches to the beat of his own drum, that’s for sure,” said D Chris Oflyng.  “I mean, he’s not as crazy as our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], but he’s his own kind of cat, definitely.”

Zeke Zagurski

Zagurski’s quirky side made a rare appearance on the ice, when the goalie was caught using one of his water bottles in a non-traditional way.

In the middle of the first period of Sunday’s season-opening game against the Michigan Gray Wolves, during a TV timeout, Zagurski reached for one of the two bottles sitting on top of his net.  Rather than squirting it into his mouth, however, the Shockers goalie unscrewed the top and shook the bottle until a foil-wrapped package fell out.  Zagurski then peeled back the foil, revealing a hot dog that he’d apparently smuggled onto the ice in the bottle.

“When we saw Zeke unscrewing the top of the bottle, we thought he was going to dump the water on his head,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We were a little worried, like ‘Is he getting overheated? Is he sick?’  Then out comes this hot dog, and he starts eating it.  Then we were like, ‘Ah, that makes sense. Only Zeke would bring himself a hot dog to eat during the game.’”

Zagurski’s mid-game nosh drew the attention of Michigan’s radio broadcasting team.  “Something strange happening over in net for Saskatchewan,” said color commentator Blackie Sprowl.  “What’s Zagurski got in his hand over there?”

“Looks like it’s a… hot dog,” replied play-by-play man Philip Shelton.  “He’s eating a hot dog.  Folks, this is really happening: Zeke Zagurski is eating a hot dog while he’s on the ice.  I don’t know where it came from, but… wow.”

“I thought we were the only ones allowed to eat during a game!”  quipped Sprowl.

“So did I, but it’s snack time for Zagurski, apparently,” said Shelton.  “We can’t make this stuff up, folks.”

“He’s my hero!” said Sprowl.

Ron Wright

Wolves coach Ron Wright, on the other hand, was less amused.  He barked at referee Darren St. James to make Zagurski throw the frankfurter away.  When St. James declined to intervene, Wright lobbied St. James’ officiating partner Bernie Craig to assess the Saskatchewan netminder an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Like St. James, Craig refused to get involved.

Wright remained steamed about the incident after the game.  “I thought it was a disgrace,” Wright said of Zagurski’s midgame dog-scarfing.  “We’re supposed to be professionals, and this is supposed to be a serious game.  Instead, we’ve got a guy out here acting like a clown, and nobody does anything.  [Zagurski] has been in this league long enough to better.”

The coach called on the league to discipline Zagurski.  “Otherwise, why stop there?” the coach snapped.  “Why not wheel out a buffet table to center ice so we can all have a nice meal in mid-game?  Why not have Uber Eats deliver food to the benches?  If we’re going to be okay with eating food on the ice, why not let everyone in on it?  Seriously, is this a hockey game on an all-you-can-eat special?”

For his part, Zagurski (who made 35 saves, but lost 1-0) claimed to be mystified by the fuss.  “Goaltending is hard work, and I get hungry sometimes,” he told reporters.  He added that he’d been exploring his options for on-ice snacking for a while.  His original plan was to sew a pouch inside his jersey to hold some beef jerky, but “our clubhouse manager told me that would be an equipment violation,” so he opted for the hot-dog-in-water-bottle solution instead.

“Guys drink water on the ice all the time, and no one blinks an eye,” Zagurski concluded.  “I have one little hot dog, and suddenly it’s World War 3.”

Zagurski’s teammates confirmed that his appetite is indeed legendary.  “Everyone knows to hit the postgame buffet before Zeke gets to it,” said Oflyng, “or you’ll go hungry.  That guy’s an eating machine.”

The league did not discipline Zagurski, but SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell sent a communique to the referees clarifying that goalies’ water bottles must contain nothing but H2O, and indicating that future incidents would be penalized.  “Zagurski’s actions weren’t technically in violation of the rules, but this isn’t a road we want to go down,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “If players want to eat, they can wait until the intermission breaks or after the game.”

Zagurski agreed to abide by the commissioner’s ruling, but he asked plaintively: “Why is it a crime to be hungry?”

Continue reading “Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire”

2018 Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held at Michigan’s Cadillac Place, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Jerry Koons, AnchorageIt’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the Igloos winger, but it’s his first time being voted into the starting lineup.  In a reverse of last year’s results, Koons was voted in over Dakota’s “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  He had a breakout season in 2017, scoring 44 goals and 90 points and winning the MVP award.  He hasn’t been on that same pace this season, but he’s off to a solid point; his 35 points put him in the top 10 in the league.

D: Fritz Kronstein, MichiganThe Wolves remain the top defensive squad in the SHL, and their top defensive pairing was rewarded with their second straight starting appearance.  This season, Kronstein was the top-vote getter among all defensemen, a recognition of his emergence as a two-way force.  He leads the Wolves with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists), and he is the leader among all blueliners in the league in plus-minus with a +24 rating.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  For the second straight season, Frost was the runaway winner of the starting center spot for the West, garnering almost 60% of the votes at the position.  The tall center has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since his debut, and this season is no exception; his 22 goals are the fourth-highest total in the SHL.  “Having Koonsy and Frosty out there on the top line, that makes you feel good as a coach,” said Castor.  “With the kind of year we’re having, I wasn’t taking that for granted.”

D: “Mad Max” Madison, Michigan.  It wasn’t clear whether Madison was going to be able to make the game, as he has missed the last three weeks with a lower-body injury.  But he has declared that he’s “feeling great and ready to go,” and plans to make his return to the ice in front of his home crowd.  Madison’s numbers have taken a hit due to his injury, but he was off to a solid start before getting hurt, putting up 3 goals and 7 assists in the first 15 games of the season.

RW: Vince Mango, Seattle.  The Sailors sniper has proven to be a polarizing figure around the league, as his theatrical goal celebrations and loquaciousness with the press rub some traditionalist fans the wrong way.  But he’s attracted enough fans to squeak out a narrow victory in fan voting, garnering a few thousand more votes than Michigan’s Gordon Lunsford and Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  Mango is known for his scoring, and he has 16 tallies on the season, which places him among the Top 10 in the league.  Mango described the results as a “changing of the guard.”

 

Second Line

LW: Troy Chamberlain, SaskatchewanThe Shockers winger makes his second straight All-Star appearance.  Chamberlain continues to be the driving force behind Saskatchewan’s offense, leading the team in both goals (with 13) and points (29).  But he’s also not just a force on offense; he’s known around the league as a diligent and capable two-way player.  Although the Shockers have slipped back in the playoff race recently, Chamberlain’s play has been a key to their push to contend.

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan. For the second season in a row, Chamberlain and Barnes represent the Shockers’ only All-Star representatives.  Barnes continues to emerge as one of the SHL’s top blueline talents.  His 21 assists are the most among Saskatchewan players, and he’s also managed to light the lamp four times.  In addition, he’s a rugged and hard-hitting defender who’s been nicknamed “Stonewall” by his teammates due to his ability to deny opposing skaters entry into the offensive zone.  He’s even in plus-minus rating this season, one of only three Saskatchewan players not in the negative.

C: Lars Karlsson, Dakota.  Karlsson is one of two Jackalopes players appearing in this year’s All-Star Game, although it’s hard to know how much longer he will remain in a Dakota uniform.  Karlsson’s contract is up at the end of the season, and he figures to be one of the most sought-after rentals, as the rebuilding ‘Lopes seem unlikely to resign him.  The veteran center has done a good job blocking out the distractions and is putting up a fine season, leading the team in both goals (15) and points (31).

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage. The top two defensive pairings for the West look the same this year as last, as Castor turned to his veteran puck-moving stalwart to fill out the second pair.  Keefe turns 33 this season, but is playing like a man a decade younger.  He’s got the best offensive numbers among the Igloos’ defensive corps, with 8 goals and 19 assists on the season.  He’s a hard-checking defenseman who likes to scrap, and he’s one of the league’s best at steals and forcing turnovers as well.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage. As mentioned above, Ericsson narrowly missed being voted into a starting slot on the Western squad, and Castor had no hesitation about picking his own player to complete the second line. Despite having what for him is a bit of a down season (7 goals, 20 assists), Ericsson continues to be regarded as one of the league’s elite passers.  “He could fit a puck through the eye of a needle if he had to,” said Castor.

 

Third Line

LW: Pascal Royal, Kansas CityThe SHL requires that every team be represented on the All-Star teams, and Royal is the Smoke’s lone representative.  The 27-year-old winger has had something of a career resurgence in KC, and he leads the team in points (31) and assists (19).  The All-Star Game is something of a showcase for Royal, who seems a likely possibility to be moved at the trading deadline.

D: Matt Cherner, Dakota.  Cherner makes his first-ever All-Star appearance.  Like his Jackalopes teammate Karlsson, he’s likely to attract attention from teams around the trading deadline, although given that his contract doesn’t expire until 2020, he’s less likely to be moved.  Cherner is one of the league’s best offensive-minded defensemen, and he’s putting up a strong season, scoring 7 goals and 23 assists to date.

CWarren Marlow, Michigan. Marlow was not originally chosen as an All-Star last season, but he wound up going as a replacement after teammate Hunter Bailes suffered an injury in the days before the game.  He is the only Wolves player selected by Castor… a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed at Cadillac Place. Marlow has actually recorded more points than Bailes so far this season (27 to 26), although Bailes has scored more goals (18 to 13).  He also has the unusual distinction of being one of four regular starters in the SHL who has yet to record a penalty this season.

D: Dave Frederick, Anchorage. In a selection considered debatable by some, Castor tabbed the 31-year-old Frederick to make his All-Star debut in the West’s bottom pairing.  Wolves fans argued for the selection of Brooks Zabielski or Frank Mudrick over Frederick, while Sailors supporters protested that Doron Lidjya was unfairly snubbed.  In fairness to Frederick, he has some points in his favor: he’s second among Western defenders in plus-minus at +19, and he’s produced on offense, putting up 4 goals and 11 assists so far this season.

RW: Elliott Pepper, Seattle. The Sailors get their second representative in Pepper, who’s making his first All-Star appearance.  The winger got off to a strong start that earned him Player of the Week honors in the season’s first week.  He’s cooled off some since, but he remains one of the league’s better offensive performers, with 16 goals (tied with fellow All-Star Mango for the Seattle team lead) and 13 assists so far on the year.

 

Goaltenders

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Michigan.  Although the SHL’s best-bearded goalie isn’t quite as dominant this season as he has been in years past, he still won the starting nod handily, according to the fan vote.  Lundquist’s numbers are certainly nothing to sneeze at, either: his 18 wins are tied for the league lead, while his 1.91 GAA is second-best and his .926 save percentage is good for third overall.

Ty Worthington, Anchorage. The Igloos netminder will be the Western backup once again this time around. Although Worthington got off to something of a slow start this season, he’s rebounded nicely in recent weeks, helping Anchorage firm up their hold on second place in the West.  Overall, his numbers remain quite respectable: 13-11-0, 2.41 GAA, .923 save percentage  — good enough to get the nod over Saskatchewan’s Zeke Zagurski.

West Wide Open

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.”

Shockers Set SHL Record with 11-Goal Game

There’s no denying that it’s been another long season for the Saskatchewan Shockers.  They fell out of contention from almost the beginning of the season, and they were mathematically eliminated with almost three weeks left.  They unleashed yet another disastrous promotion on their fans, this time a poorly designed kids’ activity book.  Until this week, perhaps the most notable event of Saskatchewan’s season was when one of their players accidentally set fire to the locker room.

That all changed on Friday, as the Shockers finally delivered a season highlight worth celebrating.  They may be having a season to forget, but Friday was a game to remember, as Saskatchewan set a new SHL record for goals in a game in an 11-5 thumping of the Dakota Jackalopes.

“We sure know how to deliver excitement, huh?” said Shockers coach Myron Beasley with a huge grin.  “You saw more goals in this game than you’d see in a week watching Michigan or Anchorage.  You want fun, come see us!”

C Elliott Rafferty pointed out that Saskatchewan had scored 11 despite the fact that no player managed a hat trick.  “That’s a testament to the kind of depth we have here,” the center said.  Rafferty, C Napoleon Beasley, and D Dick Bradshaw each scored two goals, while LW Troy Chamberlain, D Wyatt Barnes, RW Brad Stevens, D Ed Francis, and RW Andrew “Lucky” Fortuno got one apiece.

The game was not a blowout at the beginning; at the end of the first period, the score stood 4-3.  The Shockers peppered Dakota goalie Buzz Carson, but the Jackalopes fired 19 shots at Oliver Richardson and put three behind him.  In the second period, Saskatchewan blew it open, scoring five unanswered goals and sending Carson to the showers.

The Shockers came into the third chasing history, but it seems that no one was aware of it.  The PA announcer made no mention of it, and the fans and benches seemed equally unaware.  Eight and a half minutes into the period, Chamberlain snapped a shot past new Dakota netminder Christen Adamsson for Saskatchewan’s tenth goal, tying the SHL record, first set by Dakota against the Shockers last season.   Five minutes later, Barnes buried a rebound to set a new record.  The crowd roared its approval, but again, no mention was made of the new record.

It wasn’t until after the game, when a journalist who had looked up the record asked about it, that the Shockers discovered what they had done.  “Hey, we’re famous!” shouted Beasley when informed of the record.  “That’s really cool.  Now we’ll be able to go to the record books and point and say, ‘Hey, I was part of that.'”

“This team is more dangerous than people think,” said Rafferty, who had two assists in the game in addition to his pair of goals.  “We’ve got some real snipers here.  We’re a young team and we’re still learning, but games like this show what we’re capable of.”

Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Owner Heinz Doofenschmirtz, whose passion for his team is well-known around the league, was ecstatic with his team’s performance.  The owner reportedly came into the locker room after the game and gave each player an $1,100 bonus check in recognition of the record-setting performance.  “I believe he’s doing a few laps around the ceiling about now,” said Beasley.

For the Shockers, the game was a welcome bright spot in an unremarkable year.  For the Jackalopes, it was yet another reminder of a season gone wrong.  Small-market Dakota spent heavily in the offseason to build a team that could contend for a title.  Instead, the Jackalopes have turned in another so-so season, and ownership has signaled that they intend to cut payroll next season.

Jackalopes coach Harold Engellund, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy, responded wearily to news of Saskatchewan’s record-setting performance.  “Well, congratulations to them,” said Engellund.  “They’re a team on the rise and they deserve it.  But that’s not a record you really want to be part of, not on the other end.  If this is what we’re remembered for this year, that’s not too good.”