The 5th season of the Federal Hockey League has come to a close and the hometown Danbury Whalers are in the playoffs once again. One of the inaugural FHL teams the Whalers have now made the playoffs every season, and have made it to the finals all but their first season. In the 2012-2013 season the Whalers would capture the Commissioner’s Cup by defeating the Dayton Demonz. This year they look to get back to the Promised Land but they face a tough challenge. Danbury stumbled into the playoffs, losing 7 of their last 10 games to give them a 27-21-6 record, good for 4th place. Because of the struggles of the 5th place Berkshire Battalion the Whalers were able to secure a playoff spot.
This year the Whalers were led by forward Brett Liscomb who had 17 goals and 65 assists in just 51 games played. He is joined by Tim Richter, a Naugatuck CT native in his 2nd year with the team who tallied 66 points this season. Another key piece offensively for the Whalers is Russian born Ilya Solarev, a former 9th round draft pick of Tampa Bay in the 2001 entry draft. Solarev played professionally in Russia from 2008-2013, but was banned after failing a drug test for performance enhancing substances, but his 60 points helped the Whalers to their playoff berth.
Defensively Danbury is led by Steve Brown from Spring Lake North Carolina, whose 6’3” 230 pound frame is tough for opponents to deal with. Behind Steve is franchise goalie Mike Brown, a 5th round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2003 entry draft, who helped propel the Whalers to their 2013 championship, earning honors as the playoff MVP.
The challenge for the Whalers, despite a potent roster, is the Watertown Wolves. The top team in the FHL ended the season with a 37-13-3 record, with one game left to play against the Battalion. The Wolves clinched the first place berth in a 4-1 win over the Whalers on Friday March 6th. The Wolves have the top goalie and scorer in the league along with head coach Brent Clarke who earned the FHL’s coach of the year award, sharing the honor with Berkshire coach Darin Lane. The Whalers are trying not to repeat their early exit from the playoffs in their first season, and under 4th year head coach Phil Esposito (no relation to the Boston Bruins great) they have their work cut out for them.
In watching the Whalers during the final stretch of the season they certainly did not look like a team ready for the playoffs. Struggles offensively would frustrate the team and seemed to affect the quality of goaltending as well. Net-minders Brown and his backup Kevin Hoy seemed unsure on good nights and downright uncomfortable on bad evenings. If the Whalers want to have playoff success they will have to elevate their game to the level they achieved earlier in the season, especially against a Watertown team which has been destined for first place since the start of the season.
The playoffs kick off in Danbury on Friday March 13th at the Danbury Ice Arena. The 3 game series features the first game in Danbury and two games back in Watertown NY.