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.”