East Pulls Out All-Star Win in OT

The last couple of SHL All-Star Games have featured some important firsts.  Last season, the East won the game for the first time in four tries.  This time around, the fans in attendance at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle witnessed the first overtime contest in All-Star history.  After losing an early lead, the East hung on to force an extra session, and RW Christopher Hart of the Hershey Bliss banged it home to give the home team a 3-2 victory.

“Would have liked to see that in regulation,” said Hart of his game-winner, “but we’ll take the W however we can get it.”

The game was curiously lacking in offensive fireworks, at least by All-Star standards.  It was such a defensive contest that the fans might have thought they were watching just another Quebec Tigres home game.

“Normally, guys aren’t too interested in playing defense or blocking shots in a game like this,” said Western coach Sam Castor, whose team blocked an astounding 28 shots.  “But when in Quebec, do as the Tigres do, I guess.”

At the beginning, it appeared that the game would be a blowout for the East.  LW Steven Alexander of the Hamilton Pistols scored on the game’s first shot just six seconds in, a beautiful snipe from the point that seemed to go right through the Anchorage IgloosTy Worthington, the West’s goalie.  Just over three minutes later, Alexander’s Pistols teammate D Raymond Smyth finished an odd-man rush by going top shelf over a sprawling Worthington.

But the barrage of goals stopped almost as quickly as it started.  The East would not score again for the remainder of regulation.  And at the halfway mark of the first, the west got on the board when Igloos D Sebastian Pomfret fired a knuckling shot from the blue line that beat a screened Riki Tiktuunen, the East’s netminder.

After a sleepy second period in which the teams combined for 12 shots and no goals, the East game into the third looking for one more score.  “We felt like with the way the game was going,” said Alexander, “one more would put it away for us.”  And just before the eight-minute mark of the frame, Boston Badgers D Matt Cherner had a golden opportunity.  Pistols C Calvin Frye skated hard toward the net and got backup goalie Brandon Colt to collapse at the right post.  Frye then feathered a perfect pass to Cherner, who stood in the slot facing a wide-open net.  Cherner wound and fired… and pinged it off the crossbar.

“I really wanted that one back,” said Cherner, who redeemed himself later by setting up Hart’s game-winner.  “I wanted a highlight-reel shot, and I just overtorqued it a little.”

As the minutes ticked away with the East still failing to find the insurance goal, the tying tally felt increasingly inevitable.  And sure enough, with just under six minutes remaining, Portland Bluebacks RW Vince Mango executed a beautiful toe drag that broke down Eastern goalie Nash Gould, and tucked it just under the crossbar to tie it at 2.  Mango then skated over to the television camera right behind the net, mashed his face into the glass, and let out a scream.

“That was right on brand for Vince,” quipped linemate Elliott Rafferty, who got the primary assist on Mango’s score.  “If anyone could figure out how to French-kiss a camera, it’d be him.”

Seemingly frustrated by the need for overtime, the East dominated possession in the extra session.  And just 90 seconds in, Hart jammed in a shot past Colt at the goal mouth to end it.

With the game-winning goal in addition to an assist, Hart won Alll-Star MVP honors for the second straight year.  Along with the award, Hart received a Kia K% sports sedan and a year’s supply of genuine Canadian maple syrup (or “sirop d’erable,” as it’s known in Quebec).

“I heard you can pour syrup on basically anything and it’ll taste good,” said Hart.  “And I’ve got a sweet tooth, so this should be fun!”

The East can make it three wins in a row next season, but they’ll have to do it in enemy territory, as the game will be held at Anchorage’s Arctic Circle Arena.

Continue reading “East Pulls Out All-Star Win in OT”

2021 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2021 Western Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Sam Castor, is as follows:

First Line:

LW: Zachary Merula, Milwaukee.  The Growlers are a big hit with fans in their debut season, as evidenced by the surge in ballots from the Cream City in this year’s voting.  Thanks to the lift from the Milwaukee contingent, Merula secured his first All-Star start.  (It’s his second appearance; he represented Kansas City in 2019.)  This was the closest race of them all; Merula won by less than 750 votes.  His starting slot isn’t just the product of a fanatical fanbase, though; Merula has raised his game to become an elite two-way winger.  He leads the Growlers with 14 goals (on 20.3% shooting, a top-ten figure in the league) and 27 points, while his 37 blocks are the most of any forward in the SHL.

D: Rudolf Kerasov, Anchorage.  There’s a generational shift underway in the West, as evidenced by this result.  Kerasov, who received the most votes of any blueliner in the division, is one of a shocking five first-time All-Stars on the Western squad.  He is shining on both ends of the ice this season for the boys in baby blue; his 20 assists place him just outside the top ten in the SHL, while his 64 blocks represent a team high.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  Unlike his teammate Kerasov, Frost is an old hand at the midseason showcase.  With the Igloos’ loyal backers firmly in his corner, the veteran center makes his fourth All-Star start after last season’s shocking omission.  Frost’s resurgence in votes is tied to an upswing in his on-ice performance.  He scored 26 goals in the first half, leading the SHL by 5 votes over his nearest competitor.  His 35 points, meanwhile, is the third-highest in the league.

D: Brady Prussian, Milwaukee.  Contrary to popular belief, Prussian is not a first-time All-Star.  In fact, just last season he appeared in the All-Star Game… the CHL All-Star Game, that is.  Prussian’s meteoric rise to stardom, combined with the enthusiastic support of Growlers fans, earned him this remarkable honor.  He has 10 goals already on the season, one of only three defensemen in double digits in that category.  He has a total of 26 points, one off of the team lead, along with 50 blocks and a 51.6 Corsi for %.

RW: Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City.  Last season, Frederiksson’s exceptional rookie campaign earned him an All-Star slot.  He looks to be even better as a sophomore, and that was enough to win him the start, by about 1,500 votes over Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  Frederiksson has 19 goals so far in the 2021 campaign, good for third in the SHL, while his 38 points places him second in the league.

 

Second Line:

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage.  Koons narrowly lost the starting spot to Merula, but it comes as no surprise that Castor found a spot for him on the squad.  Koons has appeared in every All-Star Game to date, one of three players on the West squad to earn that honor.  (All three, coincidentally, play for the Igloos.)  Although Koons is generally better known for scoring than passing, he has been an assist machine this season; his 27 assists are the second-highest total in the league.  Thanks to his brilliance at setting up scores, he has 33 points on the season, tied for fourth in the SHL.

D: Gary Hermine, Kansas City.  Hermine has blossomed into a top-level defenseman over the last couple of seasons, and Castor rewarded his emergence with a second straight All-Star spot.  Hermine has long been valued more for his offensive contributions on the blueline than for his defense, but he’s taken his defensive game up a notch this season.  The SHL leader in blocks this season?  Believe it or not, it’s Hermine, whose 91 assists is five mor than his nearest competitor.  He continues to shine on offense as well, with 22 points (4 goals, 18 assists) so far on the season.

C: Eddie Costello, Portland.  The Bluebacks may have had a disappointing first half, but that didn’t stop Costello from garnering his third consecutive All-Star nod.  While he made it as a starter last season thanks to Portland’s frenzied fan base, this time Costello is on as a reserve.  Whatever the source of Portland’s woes so far, Costello is certainly not to blame: his 25 assists are good for third in the league, while his 32 points places him in the league’s top ten.  Advanced stats are kind to him as well, as evidenced by his 51.5 CF%.

D: Zander Phthalo, Milwaukee.  Phthalo is one of the many first-time All-Stars on the West.  Milwaukee’s early success this season has helped raise the profile of Phthalo, along with several of his teammates.  He doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his body, as his 70 blocks place him firmly on the league leaderboard; on the other end, his 19 assists place him second on the team.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  The veteran winger and passing wizard continues his string of All-Star appearances with a fifth consecutive honor.  Lest you think that this is a charity selection by his own coach, Ericsson remains a key contributor on the high-performing top line of the first-place Igloos: he’s tied for fourth in the SHL in assists with 23, and he remains in the top ten in points with 31.

 

Third Line:

LW: Troy Chamberlain, Saskatchewan.  Chamberlain is not one of the first-time All-Star crew (it’s his third appearance), but it’s been awhile.  The last time that the winger received a spot in the game was in 2018.  Chamberlain is not one of the league’s marquee names, but he has quietly put together a great season for the surprising Shockers.  His 17 goals are good for fifth in the SHL, and tops among left wingers, ahead of some of the league’s biggest stars.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  Pomfret is becoming an All-Star regular; the blueliner is making an appearance in the game for the third consecutive year.  He is one of six Anchorage players on the squad; no SHL team has more All-Star representatives.  Pomfret is on pace to meet or beat career highs in a number of areas; in the first half, he has recorded 19 points (7 goals, 12 assists), 54 blocks, and a 51.1 CF%

C: Elliott Rafferty, Saskatchewan.  The Shockers’ strong first half has been driven by great performances from several players, including Rafferty.  The center’s tremendous play has earned him All-Star honors for the second time in his career.  Rafferty has been paired full-time with fellow All-Star Chamberlain on the top line for the first time this season, and the pair are generating tremendous chemistry; Rafferty himself is in the top ten in the SHL in both goals (15) and points (31).

D: Rennie Cox, Saskatchewan.  Cox is another of the first-time All-Stars.  His strong play this season led Castor to give him the nod over his better-known Shockers teammates Wyatt Barnes and Chris Oflyng (both of whom have been chosen in years past).  The West coach has expressed admiration for the hard-working Cox in the past, and this spot is a tribute to his well-balanced games.  He’s tied for the lead in goals among Saskatchewan blueliners with 9, and his 23 points are second to Oflyng; meanwhile, his 69 blocks place him in the league’s top ten, second on the team to Barnes.  He outshines both of his more famous teammates in plus/minus (+10) and CF (52.4%).

RW: Vince Mango, Portland.  In spite of Portland’s lackluster start to the year, the famously camera-loving Mango continues to be one of the league’s top scorers, which allowed him to receive All-Star honors for the fourth season in a row.  Mango is fourth in the league in goals with 18.  And in spite of his reputation as a one-way player, Mango’s 51.5 CF% suggest that he has been effective at tilting the ice.

 

Goalies:

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  In a year when many of the league’s top netminders are posting disappointing numbers, especially in the West, Worthington is continuing to perform with his usual excellence.  As a result, the voters rewarded him with his fifth straight All-Star appearance and his second start.  Worthington, who came out as bisexual during the offseason, is second in the league in wins (13) and GAA (.917), while his 2.43 GAA is good enough for fourth.

Brandon Colt, Michigan.  It’s hard to say which is more surprising: that the Wolves’ goalie is their only All-Star representative, or that it isn’t Dirk Lundquist.  With Lundquist struggling badly this season, Castor turned instead to Colt, who has been a capable backup in Michigan this season.  It’s the first All-Star appearance for the journeyman netminder.  He has posted a winning record in spite of the Wolves’ offensive struggles, thanks to a 2.42 GAA that is third-lowest in the SHL.  His .906 save percentage is tied with Kansas City’s Rocky Goldmire for second among Western netminders.

Mango Tries to Rally Stumbling Bluebacks, Draws Backlash

Last season, the Portland Bluebacks made their debut in the Rose City.  With a talented young roster and buoyed by the energy of sellout crowds night after night, the Bluebacks rolled through a dominant season, finishing with the best record in the league before falling to Anchorage in the divisional playoff.

This year has been an entirely different story.  The Bluebacks got off to a slow start, and they’ve remained anchored to the bottom of the Western standings.  Thanks to COVID restrictions, the crowds have been smaller and much less boisterous.  And the biggest news to come out of the team so far has been the surprise debut of an alternate uniform set.

Vince Mango

Star RW Vince Mango has observed the Bluebacks’ struggles with growing dismay.  And with the team’s postseason chances growing dimmer by the game, Mango decided that this was the week to try to rally the troops.  As is his wont, he issued the call to arms in a televised postgame interview following Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Hamilton Pistols.

“Every time I look at the standings, I want to punch myself in the face,” Mango began.  “Because it’s like, ‘No way, dude, that can’t be right.  We’re not a last-place team.’  ‘Cause there’s just way too much talent here for us to be last.  I can’t explain it.  It was like last year, we were vibing, just good vibes all the way.  This year, it’s just bad juju all the time.”

Mango went on to state that “something’s just missing” in Portland this year.  “Losing like we have, it should be making us, like, so sick we can’t stand it.  But it’s not.  We shouldn’t be able to sleep or eat, we’ve got to want to win the bad.  But it’s just, like, another day.  We’ve got to get that fire back, and do whatever it takes to win.  I know we can do it, because we did it last year.  Let’s go win this!”

Among the Bluebacks, reaction to Mango’s interview was mixed.  Some players felt that his critique was right on the mark.  “Vince told it like it is,” said C Eddie Costello.  “We’ve definitely been a little too casual about losing ,and we’ve got to bring our game up a level like we did last year.  Sharper passes, more disciplined D, all that… definitely room for us to improve.”

Others felt that Mango needs to back up his words with action.  “It was a nice speech, for sure,” said LW Rod Argent.  “But there’s more to winning than good vibes.  If we need to be ‘doing what it takes,’ maybe we need to be putting in extra work at practice.  But I don’t really see Vince doing that.”

Still others noted that Mango’s early-season comments about wanting to play in Southern California did more to disrupt the “good vibes” in the locker room than anything else.  They felt that Mango was pointing fingers to deflect blame for his own role in the team’s struggles.  “Oh look, here comes the bus, and there’s Vince pushing us under it,” said one anonymous player.  “What’s the matter, did our losing [mess] up his next TV deal?”

Bluebacks coach Harold Engellund praised Mango for speaking out, while acknowledging that more work is needed.  “Vince is becoming a more vocal leader, and that’s good,” Engellund said.  “And he’s 100% right that we shouldn’t be okay with the way we’ve been playing.  The good thing is that we’re not out of it, and we’ve got time to turn that around.  But to do that, we’re all going to have to get better.  That includes me, it includes Vince, it’s everybody.  Team-wide, we’ve got to be better.”

Bluebacks Unveil Surprise “Blackout” Uniform

Fans who remember the preseason roundup of uniform changes for the 2021 SHL season will recall that the Portland Bluebacks were not one of the teams making changes.  This came as no surprise; the Bluebacks just arrived in Portland last season, and it would be strange for the team to change up its look after just one year.  But on Tuesday, the Bluebacks surprised the league when they took the ice in a previously unannounced and dramatically different alternate uniform set.

Just before puck drop against the Hamilton Pistols, the lights at Willamette River Arena suddenly went dark.  After a pause, PA announcer Aiden Morris intoned: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats.  We are current experiencing… a blackout!”

Portland Bluebacks’ “Blackout” Uniforms

Suddenly, green and blue spotlights shone on the Portland bench and the players emerged from the locker room wearing uniforms the fans had never seen before.  They were largely in black from head to toe, with glow-in-the-dark green and blue elements.  As the players circled around the rink, “Blackout” by the Scorpions boomed over the speakers.  The lights slowly came up, and the crowd cheered in enthusiastic approval of the new look.

Bluebacks owned Jared Carmichael said that the team had originally planned to announce the new uniforms before the season, but COVID-related production delays caused the team to hold off.  “We thought about waiting until next year to roll them out,” said Carmichael.  “But we figured that since the last year has been so rough on everybody, why not release them in mid-year as a fun surprise?”

The unis were an immediate hit in Portland; both the team shop in the arena and local sporting-goods stores sold out of the new jerseys within hours.  Fans took to social media posting pictures of the jerseys in regular light, in the dark and under black lights.  “It’s something that nobody else in sports has right now,” said Carmichael.  “We definitely want to stay on the cutting edge as much as we can.”

The Bluebacks players gave the new threads two thumbs up as well.  “It’s the most dramatic, modern look in the SHL, maybe in all of sports,” said RW Vince Mango, who scored a hat trick to lead the Bluebacks to a 4-3 win.  “Our regular unis look pretty good, but they’re kind of old-school.  These are something different and cool, and I love that we’re the only ones that have it.  The rest of the world is going to be trying to catch up with us now.”

“It’s a nice remix of our look,” said C Eddie Costello.  “It’s a little ahead of its time, which is always a good place to be.”

Carmichael said that the Bluebacks will wear the Blackout uniforms at least a couple more times this season, and will treat them as full-fledged alternates starting next year.  “How often we bring them out depends a lot on how the fans and the players react to them,” the owner said.  “So far, all the signs have been really positive, and we got the W tonight, so I expect we’ll keep them coming.  We don’t want to get them overexposed, but we’ll definitely see them some more.”

The owner added that the team may experiment with other alternate looks in the future.  “We’re not going to go full-on Oregon,” said Carmichael, referring to the university’s ever-changing football uniforms, “but I’m definitely open to experimentation.  I don’t ever want us to get stale.”