CHL Update: Spuds Stop Rhinos in 6 to Claim Title

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?”

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CHL Update: Rhinos to Defend Title Against Spuds

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.”

CHL Update: Playoff Picture Clicks Into Place

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Both divisions weren’t resolved until the final week, with the wide-open, topsy-turvy East going down to the very last day.  As usual, 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 defending champion Virginia Rhinos battled through a bumpy season.  Several of their key contributors from last season departed; Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett were called up by the parent Saskatchewan Shockers, while starting goalie Gus Parrish departed in free agency. The Rhinos suffered another blow when C Tanner Brooks, who was in the midst of a breakout season, was moved in a deadline trade.  But the Rhinos held on in the closely contested East (only seven points separated first place from last) and won their third straight division title.  As befits their just-above-.500 record, the Rhinos were in the middle of the pack this year on offense and GAA.  The secret to their success has been special team; both their power play (20.9% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.1%) were second-best in the league.  Virginia also did a good job staying out of the penalty boxes; their 585 PIMs were the CHL’s fewest.  Even though they just squeaked into the postseason, the Rhinos are eager to defend their title and confident that their past experience will serve them well.  “We do not get scared in the big situations,” said LW Yuri Laronov, whose 29 goals led the team.  “This has all happened for us before.”

The Cleveland Centurions didn’t secure a spot in the postseason until the last day of the regular season, when they beat the Oshawa Drive 2-1 to leapfrog the Canadian club into second place.  Like their parent club, the Michigan Gray Wolves, the Centurions are built around defense and goaltending.  Cleveland allowed only 21.8 shots per game, the fewest in the league by far, and 19-year-old Eugene Looney (19-15-1, 1.84 GAA, .914 save percentage) had a breakout season in net.  They’ve also got some punch on offense, with a trio of 20-goal scorers in LW Fendrick Scanlan, C Phoenix Cage, and RW Steve Brandon.  And like the Rhinos, they excel on special teams; their 24.8% power-play percentage led the league, while their 84% penalty kill percentage was fourth.  In the end, though, Cleveland wins when they can bang bodies, control the neutral zone, and slow the pace of the game.  “We don’t play pretty hockey,” admitted D Burton Cullidge.  “But guess what?  Life ain’t pretty either.  Ugly and effective beats pretty and soft every time.”

 

Western Division

The Omaha Ashcats were the only CHL team to punch their playoff ticket last week, completing a worst-to-first turnaround that they celebrated memorably with their “World’s Smallest Playoff Parade.”  The Ashcats are a strong team at both ends of the ice; they had the third-most goals in the league and finished fourth in GAA.  They have one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Brandon Lockwood (22 goals, 33 assists).  They don’t have any players on the offensive leaderboards, but they have a couple of quality scorers in RW Adriaen van der Veen (23 goals, 26 assists in 44 games) and LW Aaron Knorr (25 goals).  They have a pair of strong goalies in Bill Bates (22-8-2, 2.19 GAA, .920 save percentage) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (6-5-0, 2.16, .913).  Several of these players are likely to be called up to the parent Kansas City Smoke next season, so this season may have a bit of a last-dance quality for the squad.  “It’s been great for me watching this team grow up and grow together over the season,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “Now I want to see us take the next step and go all the way to the title.”

Like the Ashcats, the Idaho Spuds sailed through most of the year in comfortable playoff position.  They cooled off a bit toward the end of the season, though, and ultimately had to withstand a late charge from the defending division champion Minnesota Freeze in order to clinch their postseason spot.  The Spuds’ success has been built on a potent offense.  They scored 233 goals this season, far and away the most in the league; their +65 plus-minus rating is by far the league’s best.  They have three of the CHL’s top 10 goal scorers (D Brady Prussian with 31 – tied for the league lead, C Dale Wilcox with 29, and LW Terry Cresson with 28) and three of the top 10 assist leaders (Wilcox with a league-leading 51, RW Dylan Alizarin with 47, and Cresson with 37).  Idaho’s firewagon style meant that they gave up a lot of shots (30.9 per game, second-most in the CHL), but they got strong work from netminders Kelvin White (20-16-4, 2.44, .917) and Xavier St. Pierre (12-9-1, 3.28, .901).  They’re especially dangerous on their own ice: their 22-7-3 mark at Treasure Valley Arena was the league’s best home record.  If there’s a big hole in their game, it’s the penalty kill; their 78.5% kill rate was second-worst in the league, and they took 699 penalty minutes, which is the third-highest.  They come into the postseason on a cold streak, having lost 7 of their last 11 games.  Like the Ashcats, there’s a good chance that several of these players will be toiling for the parent Dakota Jackalopes next season.  Coach Gilbert McCoyne believes that the Spuds’ high-powered offense will be too much for Omaha to handle.  “We’re a well-oiled scoring machine,” said McCoyne.  “When we’re on, nothing can slow us down.  I think we’ll just run past [the Ashcats] and bury ‘em in an avalanche of goals.”

CHL Update: SHL’s a Family Affair for These Players

Does hockey run in the blood?  There are plenty of examples of family acts in NHL history: the Sutter brothers, Gordie Howe and his sons, Bobby and Brett Hull, and many others.  The SHL doesn’t have any of those… yet.  But there are three CHL players who are working hard and hoping to join their relatives in the big time.

Tanner Brooks

Arguably, Virginia Rhinos C Tanner Brooks is the closest of the three to making the leap.  The 22-year-old center has been in the CHL since 2017, and he has earned raves for his strong defensive plays.  The Rhinos’ parent club, the Saskatchewan Shockers, seriously considered making Brooks their third-line center out of training camp this year.  Instead, the Shockers kept him in the minors for another season to develop his offensive game further.

2019 has been a breakout year for Tanner; he’s among the CHL’s top scorers with 15 goals and 10 assists so far.  He seems to be on the verge of making the big time, either with Saskatchewan or as an attractive deadline trade piece.

When Tanner does reach the majors, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Washington Galaxy LW Charlie Brooks.  Charlie is seven years older than Tanner, and he serves as example and inspiration to his little brother.  “I wouldn’t be a hockey player today if it wasn’t for Charlie,” Tanner Brooks said.  “He taught me how to skate, and he let me tag along with him to the rink when I got older.  And he was always teaching me what he knew about the game.”

Charlie has followed Tanner’s career with great interest, and he’s excited to someday take the ice against (or with) his brother.  “I think Tanner will be a better player than me,” Charlie said.  “He’s taller and stronger, and he’s always been driven to succeed.  If he does, I’ll be proud as heck.”

Charlie and Tanner’s parents still live in their childhood home in the Toronto area, but they faithfully attend as many of both brothers’ games as possible each year.  “They always come to the same number of games for both of us, so they aren’t playing favorites,” said Tanner.  “When I’m playing in Oshawa or Charlie’s in Hamilton, they’re definitely there for those.  But they travel to see us too.  It’s really great.”

Felix Delorme

Hartford Harpoons RW Felix Delorme doesn’t have a brother in the SHL, but he has another family connection: his uncle is Quebec Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  Felix is only 20, and he was drafted by the Boston Badgers in 2018.  He’s off to a strong start this year (13 goals, 8 assists), but likely still a season or two away from his SHL debut.  But when he does, he knows he’ll have at least one fan, albeit behind the opposing bench.

Felix grew up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.  His father worked the second shift in a paper mill; due to his late hours, he had few opportunities to teach his son about the game.  Fortunately, Uncle Martin was able to step in and help.

Beginning at age 7, Felix began attending his uncle’s summer hockey camps in Montreal.  These sessions didn’t always go smoothly.  “Uncle Martin always talked about defense and fundamentals, and all I wanted to do was shoot,” Felix admitted.  But he did absorb a lot of key lessons about the game, lessons he practiced in the winter playing shinny with his friends.

Martin Delorme believes that his nephew will make the SHL someday.  “He was a strong-minded boy, and sometimes we clashed heads,” Martin said.  “But he was very determined and confident in himself.  Plus he has a great natural talent.  I know he will be a good player.”

Martin and Felix text regularly, and they speak via video chat when their schedules allow.  Felix fills his uncle in on his latest progress; Martin gives his nephew tips and suggests SHL players to watch.  “I hope we can still do this even when we are on enemy teams,” Felix said.

Davis McNeely

Both Tanner Brooks and Felix Delorme are in different organizations then their SHL relatives.  So far, there is only one SHL-CHL family pairing where both members are in the same system.  RW Jefferson McNeely is a star for the Washington Galaxy.  And his younger brother, D Davis McNeely, plays for the Galaxy’s CHL affiliate, the Baltimore Blue Crabs.

Unlike Brooks and Delorme, the 20-year-old McNeely is not considered a top prospect.  Since signing with the Galaxy in 2017, he has generally been relegated to Baltimore’s bottom pairing, and this year he has only 1 assist in 21 games (albeit with a +4 rating).

For Davis, the family connection brings pain as well as pleasure.  “Everyone seems to think I only got signed because of Jeff,” said Davis.  “I get heckled about it in other cities. ‘Your brother’s better than you!’ and stuff like that.  Even here, when I’m slumping, people say, ‘They can’t get rid of him because, well, you know.’  Sometimes I want to go to another team, just so I can prove I deserve to be here.”

Jefferson McNeely vigorously denies that he asked the Galaxy to sign his younger brother.  “Davis is his own man, always has been,” said Jefferson.  “The Galaxy scouted him and signed him all on their own.  I’m glad they did, because he’s a good player.  But this idea that I ‘made’ the team sign him is just silly.  I don’t have that kind of pull, anyway.”

Davis’ case may be an extreme example, but all three can’t help but he overshadowed by their big-league relatives.  For now, Tanner Brooks is still “Charlie’s brother,” and Felix Delorme is still “Martin’s nephew.”  But all three of them eagerly await their shot at the SHL spotlight, and the chance to make a name for themselves.

CHL Update: Rhinos Coach Shares Postgame Poetry

Virginia Rhinos coach Jeffrey Marsh has a well-earned reputation as something of a flake.  Despite the fact that he has guided his team to back-to-back division titles and a CHL championship, Marsh is best known for his off-kilter sense of humor.  People around the league still talk about the nonsensical press conference he gave after a blowout loss last season.  This year, another big loss inspired another kooky Marsh postgame appearance.

On Saturday, Marsh’s Rhinos were pummeled 6-2 by the Omaha Ashcats.  After the game, Marsh stood in front of the usual gaggle of reporters and took a different tack.  “Look, I know you guys probably have lots of questions,” the coach began.  “But instead of answering them, I have a statement that represents my feelings about the game, and should answer any questions you might have.”

Jeffrey Marsh

Marsh then proceeded to read, word for word, the 1956 poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.  The poem, which was reportedly inspired by a Ginsberg drug trip, laments the destruction of the Beat Generation by war, government, and capitalism.

After he finished the poem, there was a brief awkward silence.  Marsh then briskly said, “Everybody all set, then?  Good.  You can quote me on all of that.”  He then walked away, leaving a confused room in his wake.

Last year’s performance, in which Marsh replied to questions with a bizarre mishmash of song lyrics and nonsense phrases, prompted concern that he was suffering a mental breakdown or a substance abuse problem.  This time, reporters recognized it as a stunt and wrote about it accordingly.

“Last night’s 6-2 Rhinos loss was so bad that coach Jeffrey Marsh didn’t want to talk about it,” began one story.  “Instead, Marsh tried taking reporters to school, standing up and reciting a poem most of us haven’t thought about since college.”

“Possibly the highlight of last night’s shellacking was Marsh’s postgame poetry reading,” read another.  “He wasn’t wearing a beret and a black turtleneck, but he might as well have been.”

Just as he did last year, Marsh chalked up his performance to postgame frustration.  “I mean, it was a terrible game and we got killed. What is there to say?” he said.  “Most of the time, I’m willing to play the game and give you all the boring clichés you expect, but once a year, I just can’t handle it.  It’s all right if I snap once a year, right?”

The coach added another defense of his postgame antics: “Besides, ‘Howl’ is a great poem, and everyone should read it!  I’m doing my part to enhance our cultural literacy.”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Rhinos Coach Shares Postgame Poetry”

CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title

The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business.  The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship.  But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.

“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox.  “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away.  We were all hungry for revenge.”

Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied.  They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep.  Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.

“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”

Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium.  The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation.  The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history.  Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win.  “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.

The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2.  They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win,  Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort.  “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh.  “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”

With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28.  Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph.  Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period.  In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury.  But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.

The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series.  “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors.  Onward and upward!”

Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship.  “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there.  We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title”

CHL Update: Rhinos, Freeze Advance to Finals

The first round of the CHL playoffs mirrored the first round of the SHL playoffs in a number of ways.  One series ended in a sweep, with the victor headed to the finals for the second straight season, trying to avenge last year’s shocking loss.  The other series went the distance, with both teams holding serve on home ice; the winner is making their first-ever trip to the championship round.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos felt as though they should have won the title last season, even though they were upended by Utah in 5 games in last season’s final.  “I think we all had the belief that the better team lost last time,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “We are on a mission of revenge.”

The Rhinos played with purpose and passion in the division playoff, dispatching the Oshawa Drive in three straight.  Despite the fact that Virginia thrived on scoring this season, they relied on stout defense to succeed in this playoff; they shut out the Drive in each of the first two games. They won Game 1 by a 4-0 margin, with C Tanner Brooks getting a short-handed goal to open the scoring and LW Yuri Laronov recording a power-play tally to end it.  The Rhinos eked out a 1-0 victory in Game 2, with RW “Real” Hank Diehl scoring the lone goal on a deflection early in the second period.  Goalie Gus Parrish was at the top of his game, turning aside 22 shots in the first game and 19 shots in the second.  In Game 3, with the series moving north of the border, Virginia opened up a 3-0 lead before D Ingolf Gudmundsen finally recorded the Drive’s first goal of the series late in the second period.  Oshawa LW Norris “Beaver” Young struck on the power play two minutes into the third period to close the gap to one, but they couldn’t muster the tying tally as the Rhinos completed the clean sweep.

“Everyone in this locker room is focused on one thing: winning the Howard Trophy,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “If we have to go over, under, around, or through our opponents to make it happen, that’s what we’re going to do.  We’re like Andy Dufresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ climbing through that sewer pipe on our way to freedom.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Freeze had a bumpier road than the Rhinos did, as the Colorado Springs Zoomies pushed the series to the limit.  But like their parent club, the Anchorage Igloos, the Freeze survived and will advance to the Finals.

Game 1 was a back-and-forth affair, with the Freeze and Zoomies trading goals, and it ultimately went into overtime.  D Julian Staples ultimately nailed the game-winner six minutes into the extra session to give Minnesota a 4-3 win.  Game 2 was another close contest; Zoomies RW Joel Hagendosh got a short-handed goal midway through the third, and the game wound up in overtime once again.  One extra period wasn’t enough this time, but C Mason Alpine ended it a minute into the second OT with a slapper from the point that lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 victory.  Back home for Game 3, Colorado Springs kicked their offense into high-gear, rallying from a two-goal deficit to snatch a 6-4 win that staved off elimination.  In Game 4, the Zoomies made the most of the man advantage, scoring all three of their goals on the power play.  Even though the Freeze outshot them 39-23, Colorado Springs goalie Sonny Kashiuk stood on his head, making 38 saves in a 3-1 win.  In the winner-take-all Game 5, Minnesota again dominated on offense, outshooting the Zoomies 35-17.  But even though the Freeze scored four goals in a wide-open second period, the Zoomies hung tough, ultimately coming up short by a 5-4 score.

The Igloos sent their minor-league club a congratulatory video, with Anchorage players calling on their minor-league counterparts to help the organization capture both championship.  “We’re going to prove that we’re the best team right now,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We’re hoping you guys can go out and prove that we’re going to win the future too.”

Although Minnesota finished the regular season 11 points ahead of Virginia, most observers expect a closely-fought battle in the Finals.  The Rhinos will be looking to win the title they felt they were robbed of last year, while the Freeze will be looking to make their parent club proud.  The series begins Sunday at Northwoods Auditorium in Duluth.