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Long Beach wins WSHL Western Division, falls in league semifinals

 

Lindholm-crop

It wasn’t the perfect ending, but after the best season in franchise history, there is still much to celebrate for the Long Beach Bombers.

After piling up 39 regular season wins – which included a 23-2-1 run from the start of 2016 – the Bombers captured their first Western States Hockey League Western Division championship by dispatching the two-time defending division champs from Fresno before knocking off the league’s top-ranked team, the Valencia Flyers.

Winning the west propelled the Bombers into the Pacific Conference finals against the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, winners of four of the last five Thorne Cup league championships. Faced with the tough task of three straight games on the road against a perennial powerhouse, the Bombers fell 2-0 and 3-2 in overtime, ending the season five wins short of a championship.

Bombers coach-GM Chris White said while coming up short was disappointing, he’s happy with what his squad accomplished.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said White on winning the division title. “We had a vision for this year of what we wanted to do with the roster, and to see it come to fruition by being able to beat a team like Fresno and then go on the road and beat the team with the best record in the league, it’s a good feeling.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, and now we know we can do it, we know what it takes to do it, and going forward it’s a huge hurdle that we’ve leaped over.”

After outscoring Fresno 13-2 and winning two games on home ice to start the postseason, the Bombers went on the road to face Valencia, who won 45 games this season, six of which came at the expense of Long Beach – seven if you count the preseason.

“We were confident because we had added some guys at the deadline since we saw them last and we knew we had the depth,” said White. “But we knew it was going to be low-scoring, and we didn’t have the matchup advantage of home ice. That series, even though it was only two games, felt really long. Every matchup and shift was huge, but the biggest turning point for us was we got hot on special teams at the right time of the year and guys bought in and did the job.”

A 2-0 win coupled with a win in overtime against Valencia led to the series against Idaho, which the Bombers dropped by an identical margin, but White says his team could just have easily prevailed on the road with a break or two at key points of the series.

“There are positives to take out of the loss,” said White. “We outshot them in Game 1 with an opportunity to tie the game late in the third period, and in the second game, we lost in overtime on a shot that a defenseman just kind of threw on net. It’s a tough way to watch the season end, but our guys are going to be able to take something out of that because you’ve got to imagine a team like Idaho has done that. It’s no coincidence that they are always deep in the playoffs, winning games in overtime.

“Those guys are comfortable and confident in that situation and I think that next year, we will be a lot more comfortable in that situation based on the experience we earned this year.”

The Bombers have steadily increased their win total each of the last five seasons, from 16 wins in 2011-12 to 39 this year. The bar will be set high again next year with 18 players armed with playoff experience eligible to return from this year’s team, and White is already eagerly looking to next season with a club that appears well-stocked to make a championship run.

“Next year, we can return all these guys, but what we’ve got to focus on is consistency over a seven-month schedule,” said White. “You think back to a couple of losses we had, including six times to Valencia this year, and if you pick up a couple of wins in those games, we might have home-ice advantage over Idaho and they’re coming to us.

“We’ve now got a core group that can pick up where we left off and with that group, we should be considered the favorite in the league.”

Markus Lindholm helped lead Long Beach to a WSHL Western Division title with nine points in six playoff games. Photo/Mark Mauno

— John B. Spigott