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: Spuds Aim for Repeat Against Rhinos

This year’s CHL Finals has something in common with this year’s SHL Finals: it’s a rematch.  One team finished with the league’s best record, and is looking to win back-to-back titles.  The other is turning Finals trips into a habit, having made it every year of the league’s existence.  Both teams got here by sweeping their division-round opponents.

In the West, the Idaho Spuds came into the playoffs as the favorite, not to mention the defending champs.  They demonstrated strength on both ends of the ice this season, and they came into the playoffs with a quiet confidence.  “We’re definitely looking to go back-to-back,” said C Dale Wilcox.  “We’ve got the talent and the drive, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be us.”

But before they could defend their title, the Spuds had to make it past the Omaha Ashcats, who surged down the stretch to make it into the playoffs.  The series opened before a noisy sellout crowd at Boise’s Treasure Valley Arena, and the Spuds ran the Ashcats off the ice in a dominant first period. The visitors struck first on a goal by RW Rene Courcel just 31 seconds in, but Idaho ruled the ice from there, scoring three times (one by Wilcox and two by C Chayce Yonge) and outshooting the Ashcats 17-6, on their way to a 4-1 victory.  Game 2 was a different story; both teams were flying up and down the ice and taking shots by the bucketload; they combined for an astounding 94 shots.  The teams traded the lead throughout the game; Ashcats RW Louis LaPlante scored with just 2:30 left in regulation to tie it up and force overtime, but it was Spuds RW Dylan Alizarin who was the ultimate hero, scoring just under 9 minutes into the extra session to seal a 6-5 Idaho win.  As the series shifted to Omaha for Game 3, Ashcats superfan “Krazy Karl” Loesser – who burned jerseys and dolls outside the arena as a “sacrifice” to the hockey gods to get his team into the postseason – wanted to hold another pregame sarcifice ceremony, but the team vetoed his request.  They may have regretted it later, as the Spuds won 4-2 to complete the sweep.  D Geoff Moultrie scored the go-ahead goal for Idaho late in the second period, and LW Terry Cresson added an insurance tally in the third to seal it.  Goalie Kelvin White came up big with a 40-save performance to thwart Omaha’s comeback bid.

“I really loved the energy and intensity I saw, from the players and our fans too,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne.  “We’re playing great hockey, probably our best of the season, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the Finals.”

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos surged in the second half to make it back to the postseason, but they finished just three points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Halifax Atlantics.  The series, which pitted Halifax’s patient defense-focused attack against Virginia’s more well-rounded game, was widely expected to be a close match.  But the Rhinos quickly demonstrated otherwise, turning up their speed to expose the Atlantics’ highly-regarded D.

Game 1 quickly turned into a laugher; the Rhinos scored three times in the first period and never looked back in a 6-1 rout.  Each Virginia goal was scored by a different player; RW Mark Clark even recorded a short-handed tally to put an exclamation point on the blowout.  Halifax switched goalies from Jonathan Crane to Art Cowan for Game 2, but it made no difference.  Virginia skated rings around the slow-footed Atlantics, outshooting them 30-13 and outscoring them 5-0.  Unlike the previous game, the Rhinos had a multi-goal scorer this time: D Roscoe “Ruckus” Corbetta struck twice.  Quentin Chislic managed to stay awake in net long enough to complete the shutout.  With their backs against the wall and back at home for Game 3, Halifax finally managed to slow the game down; the teams combined for just 32 shots, After RW Alois Rodney scored a power-play within the first minute of the game, Halifax turned the contest into a rock fight, bogging down the action in the neutral zone and clinging desperately to their lead.  But Virginia finally broke through the trap in the third period, and Clark scored to tie the game.  Halifax managed to force overtime, but C Trent Harlow put the Atlantics (and everyone watching the game) out of their misery less than four minutes in, banging one home off the left post for a 2-1 victory.

“The only problem with making the Finals every year,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey Marsh, “is that I’m running out of movies to steal inspirational speeches from.  I think this year, it’s going to be either ‘Patton’ or ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.'”

Idaho is favored to prevail in the Finals; their combination of skills and their ability to adjust to any playing style makes them a dangerous foe.  But Virginia’s been here before – many times – and they’re not apt to let the Spuds dictate the terms of play.  One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely that another sweep is in the cards.  Whoever intends to win the title is in for a long, hard fight.

CHL Update: One Newcomer Joins Familiar Faces in Playoffs

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Three of the four postseason qualifiers from last season will be returning this year, joined by a team that’s new to its city.  As always, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:


Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos have made the playoffs an annual tradition; the Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate has finished atop the East in every one of the CHL’s four seasons of existence.  This season’s trip, however, was far from guaranteed.  Six weeks ago, the Rhinos were in fifth place with a sub-.500 record.  They finished strong, however, going 17-7-0 down the stretch to surge to the front of the pack.  Virginia’s success was built largely on its stout defense; they allowed an average of 27 shots per game, fourth-lowest in the league.  Offensively. the Rhinos were middle of the pack, but they were built on balance; they had five players who scored between 17 and 20 goals, so they don’t have an obvious star for opponents to key on.  They begin the series without one of their top weapons, rookie LW Zane Skandalakis, but they hope to have him back within a couple of games.  One potential controversy lurks: Who should start in net?  Heralded prospect Quentin Chislic (25-19-1, 2.41 GAA, .908 save percentage) got the bulk of the work during the regular season, but backup Eino Malmquist (10-9-0, 2.08, .922) posted results that were as good or better.  Coach Jeffrey Marsh said that he’s sticking with Chislic, but if the Rhinos struggle in the first game or two, might he turn to Malmquist?  “Hey, I’ll take two good goalies over one any time,” the coach noted.  “If Chiz gets hurt, we know we can plug in Malmo and not miss a beat.  Just like Allstate, we’re in good hands.”

The Halifax Atlantics are the fresh face in the CHL’s postseason picture, succeeding where the parent Quebec Tigres came up just short.  They didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the season’s final day, when they beat Virginia 2-1 in overtime on a goal by D Jose Martinez to finally fend off a spirited challenge from the Baltimore Blue Crabs.  The Atlantics are in their first season in Halifax; as a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, when they were known as the Maine Moose.  Like the Rhinos, Halifax’s success is built on its defense.  They led the league in blocks with 972, and they allowed only 25.6 shots per game, the CHL’s second-fewest.  The Atlantics love nothing more than to slow down the pace of the game and grind their opponents to death.  Unlike Virginia, the Atlantics’ offense is powered by a pair of stars.  LW Jarmann Fischer finished with 33 goals, good for second in the league.  C Dwight Flynn finished third in the CHL in points with 62; he’s the only player to make the league’s top ten in goals (25) and assists (37).  If Halifax is going to bring a title to Atlantic Canada, they’ll need Fischer and Flynn to come up big.  “We’re ready to take our game to the next level,” said Fischer.  “We’ve been grinding all season, and we’re ready to keep doing that all the way to the end.”


Western Division

The Idaho Spuds are the defending champions, and they come into the playoffs as favorites to repeat.  Their 37-21-6 record was the league’s best, and their 80 points was eight ahead of their closest competitor.  They finished with a plus-minus of +72, the league’s best by a long shot. They’re coming into the playoffs hot, having won 15 of their last 19 games. Their parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, may have had a chaotic season and face an uncertain future, but Idaho’s season was virtually trouble-free (at least when their players stayed off social media). Looking at the Spuds’ statistics, it’s hard to find a weakness.  They led the league in scoring with 214 goals (3.3 per game), and they finished second in GAA with a stingy 2.32 figure.  Netminder Kelvin White (32-11-3, 1.99, .928) was a brick wall; he led the league in wins and GAA and missed the save percentage crown by a single point.  Their attack is led by C Dale Wilcox (26 goals) and RW Britt Cadmium (23), but Idaho loves to spread the wealth; they had a league-leading 11 players who finished with double-digit goals.  It’s a stretch to find any Achilles heels with this club, but… last season, in their first year in the Gem State, the Spuds had the league’s best home record, at 22-7-3.  This year, the crowds weren’t quite as huge, and the team actually did slightly better on the road.  This is a small nit to pick, however; Idaho figures to be a formidable opponent throughout the postseason.  “If anybody else wants the belt, they’re gonna have to come take it from us,” said LW Terry Cresson.  “We’re definitely not giving it up without a hell of a fight.”

The Omaha Ashcats face the Spuds in the Western playoff for the second season in a row.  Like the Atlantics, Omaha punched its playoff ticket on the season’s final day, knocking off Idaho 3-2 to finish ahead of the Utah Owls.  That season-ending victory completed a 6-1-1 stretch run that occurred after superfan “Krazy Karl”Loesser held a “sacrifice” outside the arena to change the team’s luck; prior to that, they’d lost 7 of their previous 9 games.  Was it the hockey gods at work, as Krazy Karl claimed, or a mere coincidence?  “At this point in the season, we need all the help we can get,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “And I have no interest in pissing off the hockey gods, so I’ll just say thanks.”  Unlike the East playoff, this series should feature plenty of shots; the Ashcats favor a fast-paced, firewagon style of hockey. They averaged 34.6 shots per game in the regular season; only Idaho had more.  They do wind up getting burned sometimes on the other end; they gave up an average of 31 shots a game (only two teams were worse).  If Omaha can spring an upset and make the Finals, it will likely be thanks to winning the penalty battle.  The Ashcats are absolutely lethal on the power play; their 25.4% conversion rate led the league by a wide margin.  Meanwhile, Idaho’s 79.9% penalty kill rate was dead last.  The Spuds will need to play smart and stay out of the penalty box if they’re going to avoid the upset and defend their title.

CHL Update: Drunken Birthday Celebration Ends Poorly for Rhinos

The Virginia Rhinos like to have a good time.  But this week, the good times went a bit too far, as a celebration for G Quentin Chislic’s birthday at a local restaurant turned into a drunken escapade that led to multiple players being scratched for a key game.

On Friday, the Rhinos hosted the Halifax Atlantics.  As it happened, Friday was also Chislic’s 23rd birthday.  To celebrate in style, seven Virginia players took Chislic out for lunch at Jose Tequilas, a local Mexican chain restaurant.

Unsurprisingly, lunch included a couple rounds of beer.  Those couple rounds were followed by a couple more, which were in turn followed by multiple tequila shots.

“I mean, the place is called Jose Tequilas for a reason,” said RW Jeffrey Cassidy.  “We couldn’t go there and not sample some of what the restaurant is known for.  Not on our man Chisler’s birthday.”

Unsurprisingly, the birthday celebration quickly turned rowdy.  The restaurant features a roaming mariachi band; the players jumped up and began singing with the band, eventually borrowing the hats and instruments of some band members.

“What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm,” said Cassidy.  “And volume.”

The staff at Jose Tequilas patiently endured the player sing-along, and the mariachis reportedly enjoyed it, at least for a while.  But when the players began climbing on top of the bar to dance and trying to steal the luchador masks off of the wall, they were asked to leave.

Once outside the restaurant, the intoxicated players quickly realized they’d lost track of time, and that they were due at the arena in less than half an hour for that night’s game.  They wisely chose not to drive, taking an Uber to the arena instead.

The players hoped that the ride would give them a chance to sober up a bit.  This hope proved misplaced, as coach Jeffrey Marsh informed them as they weaved their way into the locker room.  D Zikmund Bruzek proceeded to make matters worse by vomiting all over the locker room floor.

“Look, I’m not going to say I never had a couple of pre-game belts in my time,” said Marsh.  “I’m not casting stones, believe me.  But these idiots could barely stand up.  If you’re gonna get bombed like that, save it for an off day.”

Unfortunately for Marsh, he couldn’t bench them all; he didn’t have enough players for that.  Marsh did sit the birthday boy, as he judged that backup netminder Eino Malmquist seemed slightly more sober than Chislic.  He also scratched Bruzek, claiming that the blueliner was suffering from a stomach bug, and Cassidy, who fell down several times during the pre-game skate.

Given the number of players either sidelined or feeling worse for wear, it was a moral victory when the Rhinos lost by a mere 2-1 score.

Marsh fined the revelers $1000 each for “failure to hold [their] liquor.”  The players promised not to repeat the scene anytime soon.

“I feel responsible, because the guys were trying to show me a good time for my birthday,” said Chislic.  “I feel bad about the whole thing.  Not as bad as I’m going to feel tomorrow, though, when the hangover hits.”