Monday, October 23, 2017

1998-99 Regular Season

The 1998-99 PHL regular season got off to an unusual start, as six teams opened the season abroad. On opening night the Chicago Shamrocks and Toronto Racers played the first of a home-and-home series against each other in Moscow. It was the first time ever that the league played regular season games in Europe and it was a big success, as over 16,000 fans turned out to see the games. Just prior to the second game, Vladimir Gaganov took the opportunity to announce his retirement at season’s end. Gaganov was given a standing ovation after the game from the Russian fans. Two weeks into the season, Montreal and New York faced off in Stockholm, Sweden. 14,000 fans packed into the arena as the Royale defeated the Civics in both games. In December, Los Angeles and Minnesota completed the Europe Series in Prague, where the teams split the home-and-home and Minnesota’s Pavel Vana treated his hometown to a two-goal performance in the second game. Overall, the games in Europe were considered a big success, immediately leading to fan speculation about possible expansion overseas. Darryl Byrd quickly dismissed the rumours, saying it was more likely the league would continue to send teams over for a series each year then actually add franchises in Europe.

As his final season continued, Vladimir Gaganov inched closer and closer to two important milestones. On December 9, Gaganov became the third player in PHL history to scored 800 goals. Then, just three weeks later, he scored point number 1812 to pass Stuart Holly for third place on the all-time scoring list and confirm his status as the greatest European player in the league’s history.

The regular season belonged to the reigning Lewis Cup Champions, as the Minnesota Lumberjacks took first place overall with 112 points, as the only team in the league to win 50 games. Jason Crowley and Pavel Vana finished 1st and 2nd in league scoring, marking the first time ever that teammates took the top two spots. After an underachieving year in ’97-98, the Kansas City Twisters won the Central Division with 101 points as Brett Delaney enjoyed a 93-point season. Despite Gaganov’s successful fairwell season, Chicago slid to fourth, their lowest finish since 1992.

For the first time in their brief history, the Dallas Desperadoes looked like a playoff contender throughout the year. AJ Vernon had a breakout season with 36 goals while Alexei Rolonov finished third in Whyte Trophy voting in only his third season. The Desperadoes were engaged in a tight race with the Vancouver Bighorns throughout the final weeks of the regular season. Dallas held the final playoff spot until an 8-game winning streak for the Bighorns put them in eighth place. After winning their final game of the season in Denver, Dallas only needed a Vancouver loss. The Bighorns trailed Los Angeles until the third period, when Tory Partridge tied the game. Early in overtime, Andrei Yegorov scored to send Vancouver back to the post-season and eliminate the Desperadoes from playoff contention. It was a disappointing end for what was a breakout season in Dallas, but the Desperadoes remained optimistic about their future. “As disappointing as this is, we made some huge steps as a franchise, next year, the playoffs will be our goal” said GM Ross Becker.

In the East, the Philadelphia Redshirts were celebrating a century of hockey. On opening night, several Redshirt legends were honoured in a pre-game ceremony including Gil Parsons, David Zimmer, Gary Johnson, Tom Lapin, and Ben Jenkins, the oldest living player from the team’s history. The Redshirts also wore three retro jerseys throughout the season from different periods of the teams’ history and held special “Vintage Nights” were all the food prices reflected those of the era being celebrated. “I think the fans really enjoyed the five cent beers in 1940s night” said team president Bob Wells Jr. The Redshirts’ performance on the ice was solid throughout the year. Jared Baxter led the team in scoring while Jonathan Stafford’s veteran leadership also came with 67 points as Philly took second place in the Atlantic.

 In Montreal, the talented Royale were enjoying a strong year when in late November, New Orleans forward Chad McLean attacked Vincent Ducharme with a vicious cross-check to the face. Ducharme suffered a fractured cheekbone and missed only two games, returning with a full-facemask, but head coach and GM Don Shelburne had seen enough. Tired of seeing Ducharme targeted night after night, Shelburne made a trade with St. Louis, acquiring 6’6”, 246 lb tough guy Ryan McCarthy to act as Ducharme’s “bodyguard”. In McCarthy’s first game with the Royale, he immediately dropped the gloves with Washington defenseman Dwayne Ingram, sending a clear message to the league that Montreal would not be pushed around. No longer having to look over his shoulder all the time, Ducharme won the Cleveland Cup as the league’s top scorer and the Royale took first place in the Eastern Conference, just barely edging out Washington and New York. The Toronto Racers, despite losing some talent to the new salary cap, still managed a fourth-place finish as Joe Murdock proved his incredible rookie season was no fluke, leading the team in scoring once again with 91 points.

Heading towards the end of the regular season, the Eastern Conference once again saw one of the tightest playoff races ever. Long Island, Detroit, Miami, and Carolina all battled for the eighth and final spot with Quebec also emerging as a dark horse as the season drew to a close. Carolina, bogged down by injuries all year, was the first to fall out of the race with two tough road losses in early April. Miami held the final position with the Concordes and Mustangs in close pursuit. The Stingrays needed only a win in their final game against Washington to clinch the spot, but lost in a heartbreaker as the Generals, involved in a race of their own for first place, won with just six minutes left. Now the Rays needed help form two teams as Detroit faced Cleveland and Long Island faced Boston. If Detroit won, their record would be identical to Miami’s but they would get in as they had swept the season series. The Mustangs fought hard to come back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the Cosmos, before receiving the devastating news that Long Island had beaten the Bulldogs, clinching the final playoff position. As the heartbroken Mustangs prepared for overtime, head coach Cliff Lyle spoke up. “We still need to win this game, for our fans and for each other” said Lyle. Eric Thorn was the hero for Detroit, scoring with 20 seconds remaining in overtime to end the season with a win. Meanwhile, the Concordes were ecstatic to be returning to the post-season for the first time in five years. Their chances were slim facing the powerful Royale in the first round, but the team was just proud to be back. “This is the best moment of my career!” said star forward Ryan Shelton, who had yet to play in a playoff game. “I’m just excited to finally play some playoff hockey.”

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