SHL Quote of the Week (Week 12)

“This is the part of the season where your body really takes a pounding.  Every game feels like five games, and every check feels like getting hit by a car.  But you suck it up and keep going, because the playoffs are coming.”

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Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

2019 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the Eastern Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at New York’s Neon Sky Center, was announced today by coach Martin Delorme.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. This year’s Eastern Division voting was dominated by fans of the hosting Night and Alexander’s Pistols.  The teams are fierce rivals, and both fan bases reportedly engaged in ballot-stuffing efforts intended to get their heroes chosen to the starting lineup.  Hamilton’s fans won this one, voting their newly-married star to a starting slot in spite of what by Alexander’s lofty standards is a subpar first half.  He recorded only 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists), although his +10 rating speaks to the success the Pistols have had with him on the ice.  It’s Alexander’s third straight All-Star appearance and his second start.  “This is my chance to rise up,” said Alexander.

D: Dominic Sanchez, New York.  Sanchez has historically been among the SHL’s top offensive defenseman, which has earned him a starting spot each of the last two years.  Thanks to Night fans’ increase in voting, however, the 29-year-old became the top defensive vote-getter for the first time.  New York is having a strong season, and so is Sanchez: his 33 assists are fifth-best in the league, and his 41 points are good for fifth in the SHL.  He’s also sporting a +12 rating, one of the best among league blueliners.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  The Night-Pistols voting war was most intense at this position; Frye and New York’s Brock Manning were the two top vote-getters at any position.  Frye wound up winning the spot by less than 3,000 votes.  It’s his second straight start and third overall appearance.  As usual, he has the numbers to back it up: his 25 goals are second-most in the SHL, and his 43 points are the league’s third-highest total.  “The fans picked it right,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Calvin is the best center in this league, bar none.”

D: Reese Milton, Hershey. Milton is the only player not from the Pistols or Night to crack the starting lineup.  He has started every All-Star Game in SHL history, but this is the first time he has been outvoted by Sanchez.  Not only that, he only narrowly held off Hamilton’s Hercules Mulligan for second place.  Milton may have slipped a bit in the voting results, but he remains as strong as ever on the ice.  Only Sanchez has more points than Milton’s 40 among defensemen, and no blueliner in the SHL has more goals than Milton’s 15.

RW: Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York. Hard as it may be to believe, this is Nelson’s first All-Star appearance.  Granted, his cocky personality has never made him a favorite among fans outside the Big Apple, and his reputation as a selfish one-way player has never endeared him to opposing coaches.  However, Night fans have always loved their star; to them, his arrogance reads as confidence, and his defensive disinterest reads as a laser focus on scoring.  And he’s the best pure scorer in the league so far this season; his 30 goals are tops in the SHL by a healthy margin, and his +10 rating shows that those goals aren’t just empty calories.  “At last, the fans have learned to appreciate my greatness,” said Nelson.

 

Second Line

LW: Chase Winchester, New York.  Winchester may have lost to Alexander in fan voting, but there was no way that the SHL’s leading point man wasn’t going to get a spot on the East roster.  It’s the first time Winchester has gotten an All-Star nod.  He has a reputation as one of the league’s slickest passers, and the stats back it up.  His 46 assists this season are ten ahead of his nearest competitor, and his 54 points are ten ahead of Night teammate Nelson atop the league leaderboard.

D: Jack “Hercules” Mulligan, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rugged young defensive star has earned notice around the league both for his vicious checks and his surprising facility with the puck.  Among those who’ve noticed is Delorme, who chose Mulligan for his second All-Star trip.  “He is one I wish I had on my team,” the Quebec coach said.  “He is a wrecking ball on skates.”  The Pistols are great at controlling the puck when Mulligan is on the ice, as his +9 rating attests.  His 21 assists attest to the fact that he’s not at all lost on the offensive end.  And his 41 penalty minutes attest to the fact that he’s not a player to mess with.

C: Alain Beauchesne, BostonBeauchesne was the top pick in this year’s draft, and he’s been every bit as good as the Badgers had hoped.  Delorme recognized his sterling performance by making him Boston’s lone All-Star.  Beauchesne follows in the footsteps of teammate Lix Darnholm, who made the Eastern squad as a rookie last season.  Boston may be struggling to perform on offense, but Beauchesne ranks among the league’s best.  The 21-year-old Montreal native is in the top 10 in the SHL with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists).

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  The 23-year-old Risch makes his All-Star debut sharing a defensive pairing with his Pistols teammate.  Like Mulligan, Risch is known around the league for his hard hits; also like Mulligan, he is better offensively than his reputation would suggest, notching 14 assists and a +6 rating so far on the season.  Risch and Mulligsn anchor a stout Hamilton defense that is allowing the second-fewest shots per game.  “He has the body of a lumberjack,” said Delorme.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  It’s somewhat surprising that Lafayette, Alexander’s close friend and linemate, hasn’t made the All-Star team before this year.  Hamilton’s enthusiastic fanbase couldn’t lift him to a starting spot ahead of Nelson, but Delorme deemed him worthy of a spot.  Like Winchester, he is an elite passer and facilitator; his 29 assists are good for fourth in the SHL.  The normally-reserved Lafayette was thrilled to receive the honor, and vowed a win for the East.  “I’m never gonna stop until I make ‘em drop and burn ‘em up and scatter the remains,”said Lafayette.

 

Third Line

LW: Walt Camernitz, QuebecDelorme picked only two of his own players to the Eastern roster; Camernitz was one of them.  The rugged 31-year-old winger is a favorite of Delorme’s, but it was his strong play that earned him his first All-Star trip.  Camernitz is in the top ten in the league in both points (38) and assists (24).  “Walt is the ideal player in my eyes,” said the Tigres coach.  “He is hard to knock down, and he always gets up again.”

D: Jean-Luc Aubin, Hershey.  Aubin is another first-time All-Star.  The veteran blueliner was something of a surprise selection, as his offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping (4 goals, 11 assists) and he is not known as a particularly rugged defender.  However, he does lead the Bliss in plus-minus rating, with a +13 so far on the season.

C: Eddie Costello, WashingtonCostello, who is the Galaxy’s lone representative in the game, makes his first-ever appearance as an All-Star.  In a disappointing year in the nation’s capital, Costello is certainly a worthy representative, leading the team in points (34) and assists (24).  However, the selection provoked controversy in New York, as Night fans were incensed that Manning didn’t make the team in spite of strong numbers (19 goals, 17 assists, +10 rating).  Delorme responded to the outrage in Gotham with exasperation.  “The rules are that every team must be represented,” said the coach.  “I did not make the rule; I only follow it.”

D: Laurie Workman, Quebec.  Workman joins Camernitz as the Tigres’ only representatives, both chosen by their coach.  It’s the second straight All-Star honor for the sophomore standout.  He’s tracking almost exactly with his performance from his rookie season, recording 18 points (5 goals, 12 assists) and a +7 rating in the first half of the 2019 season.  Delorme said that he might have chosen fellow top-pairing defender Richard McKinley as well, had the rising young star not missed 15 games with an injury.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart makes his third appearance in the midseason contest.  Unlike the last two years, Hart is the sole member of the Bliss’ “Love Line” to receive All-Star honors.  Hart’s 27 assists place him fifth in the league, and his 36 points are second-best on the Bliss, behind only fellow All-Star Milton.  “Being at the game without my brothers in arms is going to feel weird,” admitted Hart.  “But hey, it means I’ve got bragging rights over them.  Cool!”

 

Goalies

Jesse Clarkson, New York.  The fired-up voters in the host city managed to get one more of their own into the starting lineup, voting Clarkson into the starting slot ahead of Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen and Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen.  It’s the first time that Clarkson has been an All-Star, and he doesn’t only owe his spot to the fervor of New York fans.  He’s also having a career year, going 12-9-2 with a 2.62 GAA.  His .930 save percentage is tied for the SHL’s second-highest mark.  Thanks to Clarkson’s heroics in net, the Night are currently in line for a playoff position despite allowing a league-worst 38.75 shots per game.

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a mild upset, Delorme passed over his own goalie, Tiktuunen, and instead gave Koskinen his second All-Star nod.  The two Finnish-born netminders have very similar statistics thus far in 2019.  By coincidence, Koskinen has the same 12-9-2 record that Clarkson does; however, he has a superior 2.21 GAA, third-lowest in the league.  His .925 save percentage ranks fourth in the SHL.  According to Delorme, Tiktuunen was not offended by the snub.  “He told me that he preferred the vacation,” the coach noted.

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.

Strong Showing for Tigres at SHL Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueThe SHL’s third annual awards banquet had a definite theme.  Several of the awards went to members of the Quebec Tigres, who went from finishing in last place in 2017 to coming within a game of winning their first-ever SHL title.  “The Tigres went on a remarkable journey this season,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “It’s great to see that journey recognized with these very well-deserved honors.”  As always, the awards were voted on by SHL players, coaches, and media.

The 2018 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Walt Camernitz, Quebec Tigres

Camernitz signed with Quebec as a free agent this season, landing a five-year, $20 million deal.  The Tigres hoped that Camernitz would provide a spark for their stagnant offense, and he provided it in spades.  He wound up recording 31 goals and 74 points, both good enough to place him in the league’s top 10.  In addition to his stellar performance, he elevated his teammates’ games; linemates Stephane Mirac and Mikhail Ilyushin both had career seasons beside him.

“When you are a big-name free agent, there is a great weight on you to perform,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “Walt took that very seriously, and he gave us everything we could have hoped for.  I am most grateful for him.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Hamilton C Calvin Frye, Anchorage C Jake Frost, and Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.

Coach of the Year: Martin Delorme, Quebec Tigres

This season has been a sweet vindication for Delorme, who walked away from a Michigan team on the cusp of championship contention in order to help his hometown team get off the ground.  In only the third season of the Tigres’ existence, Delorme guided the club to the Finals and nearly to the Vandy.

“Coach Delorme has kept us together and focused on playing our best,” said Mirac.  “He doesn’t accept excuses.  But he’s also a good man to play for, and we know that he is solid behind us all the way.

Delorme beat out Hamilton’s Keith Shields. Michigan’s Ron Wright, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to win the honor.


Rookie of the Year: 
LW Lix Darnholm, Boston Badgers

Darnholm was universally regarded as the best pure scorer in the draft, so it came as little surprise when the expansion Badgers chose the 19-year-old Swede as their franchise centerpiece with the top puck.  Although Boston had a rough debut season, Darnholm delivered on his considerable promise, scoring nearly a quarter of the Badgers’ total goals.  He led all rookies in goals with 29 and in points with 60.

“Lix is a joy to watch on the ice,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.  “He’s a fluid skater and a sharp passer, and he has a remarkably heavy shot for a guy who’s as skinny as he is.  And he’s got a sense of the game a lot beyond his years.  I’ve guzzled a lot of Maalox coaching this team, but not because of Lix.”

Darnholm withstood a surprisingly strong challenge from Kansas City C Darien Picard to win the votes.  Also receiving consideration were Quebec D Laurie Workman, Kansas City RW Zachary Merula, and Washington G Darrell Bondurant.

Sharp Shooter Award and Commissioner’s Trophy: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

The Sharp Shooter Award and the Commissioner’s Trophy are the two awards that are not given out as the result of a vote.  The Sharp Shooter Award is given to the player who finished with the highest goal total, while the Commissioner’s Trophy is bestowed on the player with the most points.  This season, for the first time ever, both awards went to the same player: McNeely, who was a shining star in a difficult season for the Galaxy. For the second straight year, Hamilton’s Steven Alexander was the runner-up for the Sharp Shooter award, finishing with one goal fewer than McNeely’s 57.

Meanwhile, the Washington winder finished the year one shy of the century mark in points, adding 42 assists to his league-leading goal total.  That gave him a comfortable eight-point margin over Hamilton’s Claude Lafayette.

“Obviously, this is a team sport, and we really want to win things as a team,” said McNeely.  “But this was a good season for me personally, and I’m glad that I’ll be able to take some positive memories away from the year.  I’d rather have a Vandy on the mantle, sure, but this is a good consolation prize.”


Goalie of the Year: 
Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec Tigres

This award was a bit of a surprise, as it was the first time that Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist didn’t take home the trophy.  In 2018, Lundquist had a bit of a down season by his usual standards, but still remained among the league’s elite, going 38-12-4 with a 1.69 GAA and a .934 save percentage.  But some combination of the Tigres’ surprising season and a desire to reward a fresh face led the voters to select Tiktuunen instead, in a close vote.

Tiktuunen had a very strong campaign, and played a key role in Quebec’s success.  On the season, Tiktuunen went 31-20-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .930 save percentage.  The Finnish-born netminder gained a reputation around the league for his stoic, cold-blooded demeanor and his ability to avoid getting rattled in difficult situations.

“Riki’s so cool and calm that he helps keep the rest of us calm,” said teammate Richard McKinley.  “He’s like a security blanket, because you know he’s going to take care of business no matter what happens.”

Defenseman of the Year: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan Gray Wolves

This is the second straight year that a Wolves player won this honor; Kronstein’s teammate Max Madison captured the award last season.  Kronstein is not as pugilistically inclined as Madison, who is infamous for dropping the gloves at the slightest provocation.  However, Kronstein is just as capable a defender as his counterpart on Michigan’s top pairing, leading the league in blocked shots and among the top five in takeaways.

In addition to his defensive excellence, Kronstein is a strong contributor in the offensive end.  His 59 points were the second-most among SHL blueliners in 2018, and his 18 goals and +34 rating led all defensemen.  “Fritz is an amazingly dynamic young player,” said coach Ron Wright.  “He’s a strong physical presence, but he’s also surprisingly fast, and he’s an excellent scorer and passer.  He’s the total package.”

Kronstein emerged victorious out of a crowded field that included 2016 winner Raymond Smyth of Hamilton, along with Dakota’s Matt Cherner, Hershey’s Reese Milton, and New York rookie Donald Duckworth.

 

Tigres Looking Up After Finals Loss

The SHL Finals were a wild ride for the Quebec Tigres.  They dropped the first three games, including wo at home, and appeared to be on their way to a sweep at the hands of the Anchorage Igloos’ postseason bulldozer.  Then they won the next three games, a dramatic momentum swing that had the fans at Centre Citadelle dreaming of a title.  Then, in a back-and-forth Game 7, Quebec came up just short.

In the locker room after the final game, the Tigres’ mood was slightly disappointed, but still positive.  After all, this trip to the Finals – on the heels of their first-ever season with an above-.500 record – marks them as a team on the rise in an Eastern Division that seems up for grabs.

“We didn’t get the ultimate prize,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “but we proved that we belong.  We proved that we can play at the highest level.  That gives us a ton of confidence heading into next season.”

Although Quebec had home-ice advantage in the Finals, having finished with one more point than Anchorage in the regular season, the Tigres were widely considered the underdogs.  The Igloos were making their third trip to the Finals in the last four seasons, and they’d just finished sweeping the mighty Michigan Gray Wolves in the Western playoff.

“Everyone was sure that we didn’t stand a chance against a talented veteran club like [the Igloos],” said D Ward Jones.  “They thought we were fun and scrappy, but basically a fluke.  We showed them that we weren’t.”

Martin Delorme

The outcome of the season was a vindication for Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who walked away from a strong Michigan squad to become the first coach of his home-province team.  The Wolves went on to win the Vandy without him the following season, while Quebec languished in the basement.  As recently as last season, when Delorme was feuding with his star player and attracting unwelcome attention for his personal foibles, it seemed as though the coach might have made a fatal mistake.

Now, though, Delorme is being hailed as a local hero.  “When I was a boy, I dreamed of starring for the Canadiens, to be the next Guy Lafleur,” said Delorme.  “Too bad I was not that good.  But now I am living my dream in a different way.”

Delorme lauded his club for a valiant effort, and believes this run could be the building block for future greatness.  “This series was the greatest test we have ever faced, and we showed our courage and strength,” said Delorme.  “I do not expect this to be a one-year thing.  We can learn our lessons from this experience and become even stronger.”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 5

QUEBEC TIGRES 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

When the Anchorage Igloos won the first three games of this championship series, the pundits were all but ready to hand them the Vandy.  Maybe the Quebec Tigres would win one to avoid the embarrassment of a sweep, but that was all.  Surely, Quebec couldn’t win back-to-back games in the hostile confines of Arctic Circle Arena, much less the four straight they’d need to win the series.

But after today’s 4-2 win in Game 5, the Tigres now have the back-to-back road wins they needed.  And after they scored three goals in the third period to secure a come-from-behind win, the momentum is firmly in Quebec’s corner.  Mind you, they haven’t won yet.  They still need to win two more.  But after a game that seemed virtually tailor-made to sow doubt in the minds of the Igloos, a miracle comeback no longer seems like an impossibility.

“Seems like Anchorage might have been taking this win for granted,” said LW Stellan Fisker.  “But we never gave up on ourselves, and we aren’t going to.”

As for the Igloos, there was a definite undercurrent of unease in the locker room after the game.  “We definitely felt like this was one we could have had,” said C Jake Frost.

Similar to Game 4, the first couple of periods were a little on the slow side, as the Tigres used their defense to set the pace.  And just like Game 4, the visitors got on the board first, with RW Stephane Mirac getting on the board just 20 seconds in on a shot that banked in off the left post.  Unlike in Game 4, Anchorage struck back and re-took the lead.  RW Ben Summers tied it up on a power-play goal eight minutes in, and C Harvey Bellmore put the Igloos ahead with a redirect that found the upper left corner of the net with six minutes left in the period.

As the teams headed to the locker room after the first intermission with the Igloos up 2-1, the crowd seemed cheerful and confident of victory.  Forty more minutes, and their heroes would be circling the ice showing off their latest trophy.  Perhaps the boys in blue allowed themselves to entertain the same fantasies.

After a scoreless second period, the Igloos found themselves a mere 20 minutes away from the title.  The crowd’s cheering became more intense, and the fans began serenading some of the players by name.  “We might have gotten ahead of ourselves a bit,” admitted Frost.

Neither the Igloos nor their fans were ready for what happened in the third period, but it’s likely to be seared in their minds for a long time to come.  49 seconds into the period, Fisker fired a low line drive that deflected off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s stick, bounced off his arm, and went into the net.  “That was a soft one,” admitted Worthington.  “I should have stopped it.”

After that, Tigres LW Walt Camernitz stole the show.  Quebec made a splash in the offseason by signing the ex-Washington winger to a five-year, $20 million deal.  Camernitz proved to be a worthwhile investment, jump-starting their moribund offense and turning the Tigres from a promising young club into a contender.  It was only fitting that he would provide the winning goals in the biggest game of their season so far.

At 7:15 into the third, during the tail end of a power play, Camernitz fired a severe-angle shot that somehow eluded Worthington and found the twice, giving Quebec its first lead of the period.  Just over three minutes later, C Mikhail Ilyushin fed him a pass in the left faceoff circle, and he thundered a slapper that Worthington never seemed to see to make it a 4-2 game.

“Walt is worth every penny we paid him,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “He has brought us scoring, defense, and leadership all in one package.”

The Tigres weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  They had to kill off an extended 5-on-3 situation in the latter half of the third; Frost nearly scored on the two-man advantage, but his shot rang off the post.  But that was as close as the Igloos would come to scoring.  By the time the final siren sounded, the crowd sat stunned and virtually silent, denied the celebration they were sure was coming.

Anchorage coach Sam Castor cautioned against panic.  “We still just have to win one of these in order to get the title,” the coach said.  “But we’ll need to play a sharper, more disciplined game than we saw out there tonight.  We’re close, but we haven’t won anything yet.  We need to remember that.”

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