Upstart Sailors Face Champion Igloos in West Playoff

For as long as there has been an SHL, the West has been a battle between two teams: the Anchorage Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves.  The teams have traded division titles since the beginning; last year, when the playoffs expanded to four teams, the Wolves won the regular-season title, only to be swept in the playoffs by the Igloos, who went on to win their second Vandy.

This year, for the first time, the Western playoffs include a representative that’s not one of those two teams.  The defending champion Igloos, by virtue of their usual second-half surge, made it to the postseason again, but the Wolves fell apart down the stretch and finished fourth.  Instead, the Seattle Sailors – a team that had never finished higher than fourth before – will be facing the Igloos in the Western playoff.

Vince Mango

“I think it’s a breath of fresh air for the league,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “The old Michigan-Anchorage storyline had gotten a little stale.  We’re here to shake things up.”

As Mango noted, the Sailors bring some fresh faces to the postseason (D Hans Mortensen is the only member of their roster with SHL playoff experience) and a dramatically different approach from the hard-hitting, slow-paced Wolves.  Seattle has always depended on its fast-paced, high-flying offense, led by the colorful and controversial Mango (whose 45 goals were good for fifth in the league).  The Sailors scored 227 goals in the regular season, the second-highest total in the league.

In past seasons, the Sailors’ high-octane offense had been let down by an indifferent defense and mediocre goaltending.  This season, though, coach Harold Engellund has improved the team’s commitment in its own end, and it’s paid dividends.  In addition, Seattle got a career year out of netminder Rocky Goldmire (24-14-1, 2.90 GAA, .915 save percentage).  It adds up to a defense that’s not outstanding, but is good enough to support their scoring attack.

“This season’s been like Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” said Engellund.  “For once, we’re not too hot or too cold; we’re just right.”

In the other corner, Anchorage brings the experience of three previous playoff trips, as well as a roster that’s dripping with talent.  The team that’s scored more goals than Seattle this year?  The Igloos, with 233.  They have a league-leading nine players who reached double figures in goals, starting with C Jake Frost with 49.

Unlike Seattle, though, the Igloos don’t rely solely on their offense.  Their 2.49 GAA placed them third in the league, and Ty Worthington (29-15-4, 2.45, .920) remains one of the league’s elite goalies.  Anchorage is brilliant on special teams, too; their 19.3% power-play percentage is third in the league, while their 88.4% penalty kill percentage was second only to Michigan.

Jerry Koons

“This may be the best team we’ve ever had,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “Which is kind of scary to say, but it’s true.  We’ve been in the spotlight before, and we’re not going to let it shake us.

Each team is down a defender.  Seattle’s Woody Fairwood (12 goals, 30 assists, +26 in the regular season) is expected to return at some point during the series; Anchorage’s Sebastian Pomfret (10 goals, 22 assists, +13) is not.

Both teams are also facing the end of an era.  The Sailors are leaving Seattle and moving to Portland after this season; the players have dedicated this season’s run to their fans in the Emerald City.  The Igloos aren’t going anywhere, but salary cap constraints mean that several key contributors likely won’t be able to return next season.  “If we’re going to have to break up this team,” Frost said, “I’d really like for us to go out on a high note.”

So what will prove decisive in this matchup?  Will it be Anchorage’s skill and experience, or Seattle’s confidence and enthusiasm?  Will the Sailors win one for the fans they’re leaving behind, or will the Igloos produce one last run for their veteran roster?  On paper, Anchorage is the favorite.  On the ice, though, anything can happen.

“I know we’re the underdog here, because they’re the champs and they’ve been good for a lot of years,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “But we’ve been proving the haters wrong all season, and we’re definitely ready to do it again.”

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Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead

The Seattle Sailors had a golden opportunity to seize the lead in the tumultuous Western division on Saturday.  With the Michigan Gray Wolves and Anchorage Igloos both suffering losses, the Sailors only needed a win over the struggling Washington Galaxy to claim sole possession of first place.

Through the game’s first two periods, Seattle appeared to be on a glide path to victory, claiming a 6-1 lead.  But then came a nightmarish third period in which the Sailors collapsed, lost their lead, and had to settle for a tie and a share of the lead with Michigan.  It felt like a golden opportunity wasted for the team in green.

“A game like this, it’s just a total shot in the gut,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “It’s just devastating.”

When the puck dropped for the start of the third period, the Sailors were appropriately confident.  They’d rocked Galaxy netminder Darrell Bondurant for a half-dozen goals already.  The primary question seemed to be whether they’d keep pushing to run up a signature win, or if they’d ease up and focus on grinding the clock.

Just 30 seconds into the period, Seattle RW Elliott Pepper was sent to the penalty box for elbowing.  Eight seconds into the ensuing power play, Galaxy winger Jefferson McNeely fired home a slapper on the short side.  No big deal; it was still a 6-2 game.

Three minutes later, though, Galaxy LW Casey Thurman scored on an odd-man rush to make it 6-3.  A bit of a nervous rumble passed through the crowd; was Washington going to make this a game?  Sailors star Vince Mango quickly calmed the fans’ nerves, marching down the ice from the following faceoff and beat Bondurant top shelf to make it 7-3.  Back to cruising time again.

But the plucky Galaxy refused to give up, and they slowly chipped away at Seattle’s lead.  At just past the seven-minute mark, C Harvey Bellmore deflected a shot over the blocker of Sailors goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to cut the deficit back to three.  Then just before the mid-point of the period, Sailors D Woody Fairwood coughed up the puck in the neutral zone.  Washington stormed down the ice, and C Tucker Barnhill – centering a line of SHL rookies – tucked it home between Ross’s legs.  Suddenly it was a 7-5 game, and the crowd became deeply uneasy.  So did the Sailors bench.

“We’d already taken the W in our heads, and suddenly it was a game again,” said Sailors C Napoleon Beasley.  “We knew we had to respond.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund called time out to calm his anxious team, but he appeared not to make any major strategic changes.  He did not remove Ross from the game, and he largely appeared to settle on playing defensive hockey and grinding the clock.

However, defensive hockey has never been Seattle’s strong suit.  And a couple minutes later, a failed clear by Mango turned into another Washington opportunity, and McNeely snuck one just inside the right post to make it a 7-6 contest.

The Sailors then made a belated bid to turn it back on and add to their lead, but couldn’t find the switch.  And with three minutes left in the game, the Galaxy’s rookie third line struck again.  Newly acquired RW Mickey Simpson went bar-down to tie it up and sink Century 21 Arena into a shell-shocked funk.

After the game, Engellund took a somewhat philosophical tack.  “Is this an embarrassing one?  Heck yes,” the coach said in his postgame press conference.  “If we miss the playoffs by a point, are we going to look back and regret this?  You bet.  But we can’t let ourselves dwell on this.  We’ve got to keep moving forward and play like we know how.”

Mango, meanwhile, seemed to shrug it off.  “This was one of those crazy fluke games, you know?” the Sailors star said.  “Like an asteroid strike.  It’s one in a million.  But it doesn’t wipe out all the great wins we’ve had this year.  Just forget it and go to the next one.”

Can the Sailors forget this loss, or will the memory haunt them?  Whether they can make their first-ever playoff trip in their last season in Seattle may depend on the answer.

Continue reading “Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead”

2019 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2019 SHL All-Star Game, as announced by coach Sam Castor, was as follows:

First Line

LW: Jerry Koons, AnchorageKoons receives his third All-Star selection, and was voted into the starting lineup for the second time, winning by about 10,000 votes over Seattle’s Rod Argent.  Last season, Koons won All-Star MVP honors after scoring a pair of goals in the West’s 9-2 rout.  The Igloos have been red-hot lately, and Koons has been a key driver of their surge.  He’s in the league’s top 10 in points (38) and assists (24).

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  There are apparently three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the election of the Wolves’ top defensive pairing to the All-Star Game.  Kronstein and teammate Max Madison will the West’s starting defensive pair for the third straight season.  For the second straight year, Kronstein received the most votes of any defenseman in the West.  The 26-year-old continues to be among the SHL’s best two-way blueliners; he’s among the league’s top 10 in assists with 26, and has a solid +11 rating to boot.  In addition, he retains his reputation as a heavy hitter and ferocious fighter when challenged.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  Like Kronstein and Madison, Frost has been a fixture in the starting lineup at every All-Star Game.  He cruised to victory once again this year, getting over 25,000 more votes than his nearest competitor.  As the Igloos have gotten stronger over the last month or so, Frost has as well.  The tall, cool center has always been among the league’s top scorers, and his 21 goals this season place him fourth in the league.  “I thought Frosty might be getting a little tired of never getting the All-Star break off,” quipped Castor, “but he seems to like it just fine.”

D: “Mad Max” Madison, Michigan.  Last season, Madison nearly missed the All-Star Game with a lower-back injury, but recovered just in time to play in the game in front of his home crowd.  This season, Madison is in excellent health (although he missed a week early in the season with a nagging lower-body issue) and is ready to make his third straight All-Star start.  The son of an amateur boxer, Madison is renowned as one of the league’s meanest and most dangerous fighters.  But he’s not just a goon; he also handles the puck responsibly.  He’s recorded 16 points (4 goals, 12 assists) so far in the 2019 season.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  For the first time, all three members of the Igloos’ top line will be skating together in the All-Star Game.  The sweet-skating Swede makes his third All-Star appearance, and makes it to the starting lineup for the second time, beating Seattle’s Vince Mango by less than 800 votes.  Ericsson’s claim to fame is his ability to pass and set up scores by his linemates, and this season is no exception; his 36 assists make him #2 in the SHL in that category.  “I’m looking forward to these guys working their All-Star magic together,” said Castor.

 

Second Line

LW: Les Collins, Anchorage.  In a move that raised a few eyebrows around the league, Castor chose his own second-line player, Collins, instead of other top left wingers like Argent or Saskatchewan’s Troy Chamberlain.  It’s the first All-Star bid for Collins, and Castor pointed out that he is having a terrific contract year, putting up 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) and a +14 rating (among the SHL’s top ten).  He even spent some time on Anchorage’s top line, skating beside Frost and Ericsson.  “I think Les would a top-line guy for a lot of teams,” said Castor.  “He’s done it for us.  I’d put him against the best wingers out there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, SaskatchewanBarnes has become an All-Star regular; this is his third appearance.  The Shockers are in the thick of the playoff chase this season, and Barnes and teammate Chris Oflyng have combined to form perhaps the SHL’s most dynamic defensive pairing.  Barnes is tied for the team lead in assists with 20, and has added six goals into the bargain.  While Oflyng is an even more potent offensive force, Barnes is a lockdown defender, frustrating opponents’ zone entries and blocking shooting lanes again and again.  It’s no surprise that Barnes and Oflyng are tied for the team lead in plus-minus at +8.

C: Napoleon Beasley, SeattleEarlier in his career, Beasley was trapped on a weak Saskatchewan club, and constantly faced whispers that he only played because of his father Myron, who coached the team.  After signing with the Sailors in the offseason, Beasley is demonstrating that he is a thoroughly deserving star in his own right.  It’s a breakout season for Seattle, which would qualify for its first-ever playoff berth if the season ended today, and also for Beasley, who has put up 13 goals and 19 assists on the season so far.  It all adds up to Beasley’s first trip to the All-Star Game.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  Castor certainly wasn’t shy about selecting his own players to the team; he selected three Igloos to go along with the three already in the starting lineup.  “Hey, we are the defending division champs,” he noted.  The 24-year-old Pomfret signed a 4-year, $3.6 million extension in the offseason, and he’s living up to it so far.  He’s second among Anchorage blueliners with 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists), and his +13 rating is tied for the best among Igloos defensemen.

RW: Vince Mango, Seattle.  The high-scoring winger and reality television star makes his second All-Star appearance after winning a starting spot in 2018.  Mango has long been knocked for his poor defense and his love of flashy on-ice celebrations, but with the Sailors having their best year ever, their star is finally earning the grudging respect of old-time fans.  He still contributes primarily with his offense, as he’s in the SHL’s top ten for points (37) and goals (19).  But his assist total is up, and he’s more dialed in on defense than in years past.  He remains as colorful as ever, though; he promised that he’s working on a “special one-of-a-kind goal celebration” for the All-Star contest.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, DakotaAirston gets an All-Star nod for the second time; he was in the West’s starting lineup in 2017.  This year, he is the sole Jackalopes player to receive the honor, which is fitting given the dismal season they’ve had so far.  In spite of missing nearly three weeks with an upper-body injury, Airston has still managed to out up 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists), which places him one off the team lead.  As Dakota looks to cut payroll amid rumors of serious financial trouble, Airston is practically the only team star who’s not being shopped.

D: Bastien Chouinard, Kansas CityThe 20-year-old rookie blueliner made the cut as one of the Smoke’s two All-Star representatives.  Although Boston’s Alain Beauchesne is the consensus Rookie of the Year favorite, Chouinard may give him a run for his money.  The young Quebecois D-man is putting up surprising offensive numbers (5 goals, 19 assists) to back up a give-no-quarter defensive style that has him tied for second in the NHL in penalty minutes, with 60.  “Defensemen are a pretty rough bunch, but that guy’s legitimately scary,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner of Chouinard.  “If I had to go down a dark alley at midnight, I’d want him next to me.”

C: Elliott Rafferty, Saskatchewan.  Many league insiders thought Rafferty’s teammate Lars Karlsson would get this spot, but Castor instead tapped Rafferty to make his All-Star debut.  Karlsson has the big contract and the superior pedigree, but Rafferty’s got the better numbers this season.  He leads the Shockers with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists), and he’s one of only three forwards on Saskatchewan with a positive plus-minus (+3).  Rafferty’s breakout performance earned him Player of the Week honors a couple weeks before the break; that might have influenced Castor’s thinking.

D: Woody Fairwood, Seattle.  Amid a crowded field of strong two-way defensemen, Castor made a somewhat unexpected pick in tapping the 23-year-old Fairwood as another first-time All-Star.  Prior to this season, Fairwood was perhaps best known around the league for the time he sat on the opposing goalie and flung the puck into the net by hand.  But this year, he’s earning notice for his high caliber of play.  In the first half, he produced 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists).  Even more impressive, his +19 rating is second-best in the league.  “Good things happen when Woody’s on the ice,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.  “That’s all there is to it.”

RW: Zachary Merula, Kansas City.  Yet another All-Star newcomer, the 23-year-old Merula joins teammate Chouinard on the bottom line.  Merula had an impressive rookie season, and he looks to be on track to eclipse that performance in his sophomore year.  He is KC’s second highest point-scorer with 28 (13 goals, 15 assists).  And he doesn’t shy away from rough play, either, as his 45 penalty minutes will attest.

 

Goalies

Dirk “The Bear” Lindquist, Michigan.  Who else?  The lusciously-bearded Lundquist regularly tops the list of SHL goaltenders, both in terms of statistics and fan support.  Even though Michigan has slipped a bit after a dominant start, Lundquist remains the king of the Western crease, having almost twice as many votes as his nearest competitor.  As usual, he leads the league in wins (with 16) and in save percentage (.942).  His 1.64 goals-against average is second only to his rarely-used backup, Art Cowan.

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  In each of the past two years, Worthington has been Lundquist’s backup on the Western squad.  Castor decided to keep the tradition going for 2019, despite considerable support for Seattle’s Rocky Goldmire, who is having a career season.  Unlike many of his Igloos teammates, who started slow and then get hot, Worthington has been strong throughout the first half.  He is tied with Hershey’s Brandon Colt for second-most goaltender wins, with 14.  His 2.38 GAA placed his among the league’s top five.

Fairwood Gives Sailors A Hand, Gets In Trouble

On Sunday, the Saskatchewan Shockers and Seattle Sailors faced off in a virtual must-win situation for both squads’ flickering playoff hopes.  As a result, the game unfolded with a fierce intensity, as both teams did whatever they could to snag a victory.  As it turned out, one Sailors player went a bit too far over the line in helping his team score a key goal.

From the opening puck drop, the game moved at a breakneck pace, a style for which Seattle is well-suited.  But the Shockers hung tough, trading goals with the Sailors throughout the contest.

“It was almost like an All-Star Game, defense optional,” said Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.

By the middle of the third period, the score stood 5-5.  At that point, the offensive flow seemed to dry up.  Both teams had chances to go ahead, but pinged shots off of posts or pushed them just wide.

With less than two minutes left in the game, the puck got lost in a scrum in front of the Shockers’ goal, as a mass of players struggled for control.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the puck wound up in the back of the net.  The goal horn blasted as the Sailors celebrated.  But Shockers netminder Zeke Zagurski protested vigorously that he’d been interfered with, prompting the referees took a close look at the replay.

At first, it was almost impossible to see what had happened, given the mass of humanity in and in front of the crease.  But eventually, matters became clear.

Woody Fairwood

Zagurski appeared to see the puck in the middle of the scrum and dove to cover it up, but missed.  Sailors D Woody Fairwood, seeing an opportunity, sat on top of Zagurski and pinned him to the ice.  With the Shockers goalie helpless, Fairwood spotted the puck, scooped it up, and flipped it into the net by hand.

Referee Darren St. James announced that the goal had been disallowed, and gave Fairwood a minor penalty for goaltender interference.  (After the game, St. James indicated that he wanted to give Fairwood an additional penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, but that his fellow referees disagreed.)

“I’m going to do whatever I can in that situation to get us a W,” said Fairwood after the game.  “Was it too far?  Well, I got caught, so yeah.  But you can’t blame me for trying.”

“It was obviously the right call,” said Shockers interim coach Caleb Ponder.  “You’re not allowed to sit on the goalie, and you’re not allowed to grab the puck and throw it in the net.  I don’t know what [Fairwood] was thinking.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, couldn’t suppress a smile when discussing the play.  “Yeah, okay, Woody shouldn’t have done it,” said Engellund.  “But honestly, I kind of like that hustle in a young player.  It’s do-or-die time for us, and Woody’s giving it the good fight.  The league isn’t going to give him a good-conduct medal for that, but if you’re going to win, you need to push it right up to the line.  And if you go a little over, that’s fine by me.”

Fortunately for Fairwood and the Sailors, they weathered the late penalty, and LW George Lane scored in overtime to give Seattle a 6-5 win.  Fairwood earned a beer shower from his teammates for the play.

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “Woody’s definitely trying!”

Continue reading “Fairwood Gives Sailors A Hand, Gets In Trouble”

Galaxy Trade for Sailors D Gallagher

The Washington Galaxy are in a great position as they look to capture their third straight division title.  They’ve gone undefeated since the All-Star break, and they just passed Hershey to take the lead in the East.  It would have been easy to imagine them making no moves at the deadline, not wanting to mess with a good thing.  Instead, though, the Galaxy made a small but smart move, bolstering their defensive corps by grabbing D Stan “Animal” Gallagher from the Seattle Sailors in exchange for minor-league D Woody Fairwood.

Stan Gallagher

The pickup of Gallagher should stabilize Washington’s third defensive pairing, which has been a season-long conundrum.  The position opposite Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom has a revolving door, as the Galaxy have rotated between veteran Bill Corbett, young banger Jurgen Braun, and rookie Graham Bellinger.  All three have done credibly, but none of them has played well enough to seize the job full-time.

The 27-year-old Gallagher should provide Hogaboom with a strong running partner.  He scored 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists) with Seattle, playing largely on their top pairing.  He earned his “Animal” nickname for the fierce enthusiasm he puts into his skating and checking, which will make him a good fit beside the pugnacious Hogaboom.

“Did we need to make this deal?  Probably not,” admitted Galaxy GM Garnet “Ace” Adams.  “But does this deal make us a stronger team than we were yesterday?  Oh yeah.  The Animal’s got a well-earned reputation around this league, and putting him and Boomer on the ice together should unleash some havoc.  Graham will have the opportunity to go down to the minors and play every day, which should help him develop.  And Corbs and Brauny will get opportunities to contribute off the bench, where we know we can count on them.”

In the run-up to the deadline, it was rumored that Washington was pursuing a bigger deal.  The Saskatchewan Shockers were reportedly dangling D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, and Hershey was said to be in hot pursuit of them.  It was speculated that the Galaxy were also after Oflyng, if only to block the Bliss from getting him.  But Adams said that Washington wasn’t making a serious attempt to land the Shockers blueliner.

“You never say never in this job,” said Adams.  “But we figured Oflyng was going to be too rich for our blood, and frankly, we didn’t need an upgrade like that.  We just wanted a solid vet for the third pairing, and we got him.”  As it turned out, Hershey wasn’t able to meet Saskatchewan’s demands for Oflyng either; they might have turned to Gallagher as a fallback option, but Washington beat them to it.

Woody Fairwood

For Seattle, the 21-year-old Fairwood may not match Gallagher in the character department, but he should provide similar production.  Fairwood had been playing with Washington’s minor-league club in Baltimore, where he notched 50 points (9 goals, 41 assists) and a +7 rating.  He was tied for the team lead in both categories

“I knew I was probably going to have a hard time making my way up to DC,” said Fairwood.  “It was a good organization and I’ll miss my friends there, but to get a shot at some real minutes at the major-league level, that’s exciting for me.”