Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Christmas, break is over

After a whirlwind week, I find myself once again getting things together for another road trip. As we've done 3 of the last 4 weeks, we'll be leaving the Civic Center early to practice on the road. This time, it's Sesame Street and Elmo that are forcing us out of our home a day early. We'll be leaving at midnight Tuesday night to arrive in Fayetteville somewhere around 7am. We'll probably get on the ice at about 8am, skate until about 9:30, then head to breakfast while we wait to get into our rooms.

This whole last week has been a blur, despite us only playing 2 games. We hosted the Huntsville Havoc on Tuesday, December 22nd. They seem to be the team to beat this season, having lost only 4 games in regulation. They have a sizable lead in the standings, and we have yet to beat them this season (with the exception of one preseason game, with most of their big-name players sitting out). I don't think they're really that great a team, but they work hard and they're steady. They don't make many mistakes. And they have a very good goalie, as well. They've sure had our number this year.

We started off slow, but held them to only a power play goal through 2 periods, largely due to Ian Vigier's acrobatics in goal. Vigier stopped 18 of 19 shots in the first period. We came alive in the second and dominated the play, but only managed one goal to tie it at 1-1 going into the third period. We couldn't get things going for the first half of the third and gave up 3 straight goals to the Havoc. We dominated the play for the last few minutes, but couldn't find the back of the net until the last 2 minutes...too little, too late. The game ended in a 4-2 loss. That seems to be our bugaboo this season...we play 30 or 40 (or 50) minutes of good hockey but can't seem to sustain it for the entire 60 minutes. Sometimes we play well enough during the good times to hold on for the victory, but other times we don't. We let the other team get back into the game, rather than finishing them off. We seem to have no "killer instinct". That's something we need to figure out.
***We got some bittersweet news after the game. Goaltender Ian Vigier was getting called up to the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. He's only expected to be gone for about a week, which means he'll miss 4 Cottonmouths games. While it's a good opportunity for him, I kind of like having our 1-2 tandem with Vigier and Rycroft, and having a little insurance in case anything happens to one of them. During Vigier's absence, our old friend Barney Slayton will fill in as EBUG (Emergency Back-Up Goaltender). It's a role he's familiar with, having served in that capacity for a handful of games last season.

After the Huntsville game, we had a few days off before our next game in Knoxville on the 27th. Some players headed home to spend the holidays with their families, but a few stayed in town during the break. It was strange to have Christmas off...in my previous 2 years here we've played a game on Christmas day. We had optional practices on the 23rd and 24th, with a few guys participating each day. Wednesday, we had our team Christmas party at TK's. It was a very nice gathering. Wanda and Shelby really know how to throw a party. It was nice to forget about hockey for a couple of days and let off a little steam...maybe recharge the batteries a little bit.

***Part of our hockey family received a wonderful gift on Christmas Day. Craig and Michelle Stahl welcomed their second child and first daughter. Congratulations, Stahl family!!!

We were back at work on Saturday, taking the ice at 11:30 for practice to prepare for Sunday's game at Knoxville. I stayed after practice to pack up, since we would be leaving at 8:30 Sunday morning for a 5pm game.

We loaded the bus and left for Knoxville right on time and settled in for the ride. As usual, the TVs went right to the NHL network to catch up on the highlights from the previous night's games. Most of the guys retired to their bunks right away and went back to sleep. We arrived in Dalton, GA at about 11:15 and stopped for lunch. A few of the staff went to Five Guys for burgers (fantastic!), while some made the trek to Longhorn Steakhouse, Schlotzky's, or Subway. We boarded the bus and got back on the road at about 12:30pm. We arrived at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for the first time this season (I can't believe that we're on the verge of New Year's Eve and this is our first trip to Knoxville).

We played another pretty good game, holding a lead for much of it. Once again, we just couldn't seem to bury our chances and finish them off. The Ice Bears battled back and tied the game with a late goal, then went on to win the OT period. We got a point, but not the 2 points we should have had. Chad Rycroft took the loss, despite stopping 41 of 44 shots. He played a good game, and deserved the win. He stopped quite a few point blank shots, inlcuding breakaways to their 2 best players, Swider and Vitek. Once again, we played well enough to win. We just couldn't finish. It's becoming a recurring theme.

Now we're getting ready to get back on the bus, heading into the new year with 3 games in 3 nights in 3 different states. Hopefully we can start the new year on the right foot. Let's go ahead and make that our New Year's resolution. We'll see you soon. Go Snakes!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays

Well, here we are on the doorstep of the Christmas holiday. For the first time since I came here we don't have a game on Christmas Day, which is nice. We have a game tomorrow night, December 22nd, then we're sort of off for 3 days (we have optional ice on the 23rd and 24th) before returning to practice on the 26th (that's Boxing Day, for you north-of-the-border dwellers). Then we jump on the bus bright and early on the 27th to head for Knoxville for a 5pm game, which is only fair considering that they've had to come here on Christmas Day for the last 2 years.
So, that's the week ahead. Now for the past 2 weeks. When I last blogged, we were in Fayetteville a day early because we had no practice ice in Columbus. We played the Fireantz on Friday night (Dec. 3rd), winning 3-2. The game really wasn't as close as that until the very end. We dominated the game and were cruising to a 2-0 win until the last 2 minutes. After getting caught with a tired line out on the ice after an icing call, we were unable to clear the zone after the ensuing faceoff and Fayetteville kept pressure on us until they finally found the back of the net with under a minute and a half remaining. That's the worst feeling when you have a nice comfortable 2-goal lead and they score to cut it to one. All of a sudden any little bounce or any little mistake can tie the game. Anything can happen in a goal-mouth scramble, and your nice comfortable cruise to victory suddenly feels like you're walking on pins and needles. You've given them momentum (which can be an invaluable weapon), and you've hamstrung yourself. It's hard to describe what goes through your mind at moments like this. Your grip gets a little tighter on the stick, your heart beats just a little bit faster, your breath hangs in your throat...you're right on the verge of panic. You try to fight the feeling, but there's no stopping it. Well that's where we were on this night. We were mad because we let Vigier down on his shutout bid (he has yet to record one this season, but probably has deserved 2 or 3), but more than that we were terrified of losing the lead. Well aware that one tiny mistake can make the difference in the game at this point, your only thought is not to be the guy that makes that mistake. And that's how they get you.

But not on this night. Luckily, after the Antz pulled their goalie for the extra attacker, Jeff Martens got the puck with a clear lane and he fired it down the ice into the empty net, giving us a 2-goal lead once again. It's a good thing, too. With under a minute left the Antz threw the puck at the net and got a weird deflection on a seemingly harmless play. Before anybody knew what was happening, the puck was in the back of the net. We fought off one last surge and held on for a 3-2 victory. It wasn't pretty, but we'll take it.

After the game, we returned to Columbus with no practice ice for the next few days. After a few gym days for the players, we packed up and headed to Huntsville a day early, as we had to Fayetteville the previous week. We were to play there on Thursday, but went up on Wednesday to practice on their ice. Again, it's not an ideal situation, but sometimes you just have to play the cards that are dealt to you. We got into the Von Braun Center in the midst of massive construction. A cloud of concrete dust hung in the air (which was also saturated with diesel fumes) during our practice. We battled through the haze and had a pretty decent practice before retiring to the hotel for the evening. There wasn't much to do at the hotel, so we pretty much just took it easy, which is probably a good thing.

We got up for the morning skate on Thursday rested and ready to go. We knew this was a big game, against the top team in the league. We got in a nice light skate, then headed back to the hotel for a team lunch. We had what I believe was our first shoe-check of the season, which is always a good icebreaker. The boys seemed pretty loose and relaxed.

The boys started arriving around 4:30pm. That's the thing about having the hotel right across the street...while it's convenient for me to be able to walk back to the rink instead of cabbing it, it also means that the players can come over whenever they feel like it. I don't really like that. When they have to ride the bus I have a good idea when they're going to walk through the door, so I know how much time I have to finish setting up. When they can come over on their own, I have to plan on being ready earlier, which kind of throws my whole routine off. I don't like it when guys show up and the room's not set up yet. It's like letting them see the man behind the curtain. When all goes as planned, the players walk in and the room is just magically ready to go...jerseys neatly hung, equipment stalls straightened, laundry passed out (See the picture from my last blog. That's what I want them to see when they walk in the room). I don't like when they walk in and catch me still doing it. It's not really a big deal, but I like for them to see it all set up and ready when they walk in.

Anyway, the guys showed up and went into their usual routines. This varies from player to player but may include grabbing a cup of coffee, reading the press notes, going to the training room for treatment, listening to their ipod, stickhandling out on the ice, kicking a soccer ball around to loosen up...any number of things. Whatever it takes each guy to get into the right frame of mind to play the game. Each guy has his routine and sticks to it like sap to a tree. I don't want to say that hockey players are superstitious, but most guys are fanatical about their pre-game routine.

We went out and played one of our best games of the year and after 65 minutes of hockey we were tied 1-1. We went to the shootout and it just wasn't Vigier's night. He got beaten by all 4 shots he faced and we lost the shootout 4-2 (for a final score of 2-1 SO). I felt so bad for Ian. I think he really felt like he had let his team down and he took it pretty hard. The truth is he played well to get us to the shootout. If you think about it, we played the best team in the league dead-even for 65 minutes of hockey. We didn't get the win, but at least we got a point for the shootout loss.

We came back home after the game and prepared to meet the Knoxville Ice Bears at the Civic Center on Friday and Saturday nights. We had an optional practice in the morning, then the boys went home to rest up for the game. We came out hard and built up a 3-1 lead. Knoxville battled back and tied the game midway through the third, but Tim Green netted the game-winner with about 2 and 1/2 minutes remaining to seal the win.

Saturday night the teams battled back and forth exchanging goals and leads all the way through. With the clock winding down below the 2 minute mark, Frank Furdero (who had been strangely quiet the whole game) took matters into his own hands. He scored the tying goal with just over a minute left, then stunned the crowd with the overtime winner. He skated to center ice and struck a pose, and I'm a little upset that somebody didn't grab him and pummel him on the spot. That's a bush-league, hot dog move, and he shouldn't be doing that. Maybe in front of the home crowd, but not in our barn. I hope our boys remember that when we see them again. We owe him one, in my opinion.

Anyway, while we're a little disappointed that we gave up the late lead on Saturday, all in all it was a pretty good weekend. We took 4 out of 6 points, and moved up in the standings from 5th place to 3rd. It wasn't a great weekend, but a good one.

After the weekend (and a much-needed day off), we were actually able to get back into a normal routine. With practice ice available Monday through Wednesday, we set ourselves to the task of preparing for our next game Saturday at Pensacola. We boarded the bus at 12:30pm Saturday and headed for the beach. I love the day trips like this one. First of all, we travel lighter because I don't need to bring a lot of the extra stuff I would for a longer trip. Aside from that, most of my work is done before we leave, so once we load up the bus I'm on the R.E.W. list (Ride, Eat, Watch***). I can relax on the bus, watch a movie (this trip it was "The Hangover"), listen to my ipod...just chill. We got off the bus, unloaded and got ready for the game.

The Snakes took the lead late in the first period, then the Ice Flyers answered early in the second. We just couldn't seem to get things going. After the tying goal, we seemed to be playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. We stopped hitting and the Flyers started swarming all over us. We were really back on our heels for most of the second period and most of the third. The Flyers exploded with 3 goals in less than 4 minutes, and it started to look ugly. The boys didn't quit and we battled back with a 3-goal outburst of our own, tying the game with the extra attacker on the ice for Vigier. We tied the game with less than 7 seconds remaining.

Each team could have won the overtime 5 or 6 times over. Both goalies stood on their heads to keep the game alive. Vigier made some unbelievable acrobatic saves to keep us in the game. After a scoreless overtime period, it was time for another shootout. It came down to the last shooter, but they got the best of us. Still, we got a point that we all realize we didn't deserve. Sometimes that's just how it goes. Lord knows we've lost a few that we should have won. Maybe this was just Karma paying us back for one that they owe us. In any case, we'll take the point. We are now 3-0-3 in our last 6 games, for 9 out of a possible 12 points. Again, it's not bad but it's also not great.

Now it's time to see what Santa has in store for us this week. Happy Holidays everybody! Go Snakes!

***R.E.W. was paraphrased from Barney Slayton.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the road again **Warning: It's a long one!**

With apologies to Willie Nelson, I usually CAN wait to get on the road again. We were just in Fayetteville last weekend, and now here we are again...and a day early, to boot. We played here last Friday night, bookended by home games on Thursday and Saturday. Coupled with two 7-hour bus rides to and from Fayetteville in between, that made for a long weekend. Sunday couldn't come quickly enough for me, and I spent most of the day trying to catch up on my sleep. Now, here we are again. We left at midnight last night (Wednesday night) and got to the arena just before 7am. We practiced from about 8-9:30am, then went to breakfast while we waited for our hotel rooms to be readied for our (early) arrival. We got to the hotel at around 11:30am and got checked in and made our way upstairs. Several guys made plans to go to the movie theater down the street, while some made their way to the mall near the IHOP where we stopped. We usually don't get much free time in opposing cities; we usually just go to the rink and the hotel, then back to the rink. It's nice when you have an opportunity like that to just hang out and relax for a little while. I myself spent the majority of the afternoon in my room trying to follow up on some orders (and checking in on my Facebook). I still may check out a movie (either at the theater or in my room), but other than that there's not much going on here.

I should apologize for the lack of posts here recently (just in case anybody's actually reading this). We've had a busy schedule recently and I just haven't made time to post on here like I originally intended. Let me catch you up:

We went on our first road trip of the season to Huntsville and Pensacola on the 6th and 7th of November. We came out sluggish in Huntsville and dug ourselves a hole. We battled back and made a game of it but ultimately fell short, losing to the Havoc 4-2. After the game, we boarded the bus and headed for Pensacola, arriving there at around 5am. We dropped the gear off and headed to the hotel to get some much needed rest, having spent 10 of the previous 16 hours on the bus. The sticks came alive on Saturday night and the Snakes cruised to a 7-4 victory. We built up a 6-1 lead, then held on through a 3-goal onslaught before icing the game with and empty netter in the closing seconds. I've got to hand it to the Ice Flyers; they never gave up and put up quite a fight in the end.

Before the game, we had the chance to visit with former Cottonmouth Lorne Misita. He's one of the guys that got squeezed out by the veteran rule last season after a 5-year tenure with the team. He's a good player and I'm sure that letting him go was a very tough decision for Jerome. It's one of those times that I'm glad I'm not the Head Coach.

Our practice schedule the following week was a little off-kilter because of events in the Civic Center, and we found ourselves leaving a day early for Mississippi because we had no practice ice. We left early on the morning of November 12th and arrived at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum just as the Fayetteville Fireantz were loading up the bus to leave. They were already in town to play the Surge that night, so we ended up dressing for practice in an open hallway, amid a couple dozen busy construction workers trying desperately to get the place ready for the game that night. We waited around for nearly an hour while a crew worked on the center-ice scoreboard, then finally got on and had our practice. It was a beautiful, balmy Gulf Coast day and most of the guys were in shorts and t-shirts for this trip. After practice, we loaded the gear back onto the trailer and headed for the hotel. We checked in and the guys scattered like dust in the wind. Some, no doubt, headed for the casinos. Many headed for the beach (right across the street from the hotel). Some of us hung out in the hotel until dinnertime.

After dinner, a bunch of us made our way back to the arena for the game. It's not often we get to sit in the stands and enjoy a game as spectators. It's a nice change of pace. We got to see our old friend, "Dynamite" Daryl Moor, suit up against the Fireantz. In typical Moorsy fashion, he had a pretty good game. He recorded an assist in the second period, and later managed to slash a Fayetteville player in the back of the legs and punch the goalie in the head without getting called for either infraction. Classic Moorsy. I miss that guy. After the game, we waited for the Fireantz to clear out of the visitors' locker room so we could move our stuff in. We set up for the next morning, then cabbed it back to the hotel.

The next morning, the usual gameday routine was in effect. I headed down to the rink early to set up and finish sharpening skates, then the bus followed along later with the players. We took to the ice in our customary 11am-noon visitors' time slot, had a light skate and then loaded up for the ride back to the hotel and our team lunch. After lunch, I packed my bag and caught a cab back to the rink to get ready for the game. We played a decent game, and Vigier played a pretty good game (stopping 34 of 35 shots), but we lost the game 1-0 on a power play goal by Matt Zultek (who leads the league in that category). The offense got their chances, but just couldn't connect on them (being foiled by former Snake Ryan Senft). It's a tough way to lose a game.

Afterwards, we boarded the bus and headed for the place we'd all been dreading: Lafayette, Louisiana. Now, this is nothing against the state of Louisiana or the city of Lafayette. Having lived about an hour away from there for 3 years I have a strong affinity for the area. I actually attended numerous Ice Gators games in the Cajundome when they played in the ECHL. The only problem is that this team doesn't play in the Cajundome. They play in a crappy old rodeo barn a couple blocks up the road. I had heard the horror stories about this building and the visiting locker room facilities, and while they were certainly bad, they weren't as bad as I had built them up to be in my mind. I actually had to laugh when I saw the place. It reminds me of some of the old barns in the old WPHL (Western Professional Hockey League). I remember pulling into places like Waco and Abilene and El Paso and San Angelo and just dreading being in there. Those places were miserable. This place made me nostalgic for those days.

We dropped the gear, laid it out to dry as much as possible and headed to the hotel to catch a few Zs before heading back for the morning skate. We slogged through the morning skate, then the guys headed back to the hotel to rest up for the game. I went with the Gators' Equipment Manager, Frank "Rizzo" Jury, to grab some lunch and run a few errands. We hit up the Olive Garden for lunch, then went to a laundromat to do our laundry. There are almost no laundry facilities in the Blackham Coliseum, so whenever Rizzo has a visiting team in town he has to come here to get their laundry done. I've known Rizzo for about 14 years, so this was a nice chance to spend some time with him and catch up on some old stories. It was not the way I would normally spend my afternoon on a gameday, but it was kind of fun.

Rizzo got me and our laundry back to the arena and I began to set up for the game. There wasn't much I could do with this locker room (or should I say "these locker rooms"), but I made do the best I could. The guys showed up and went to work, but again we fell short by a goal...losing 2-1 to the Gators. This made the long bus ride back home even longer, and we all knew it would be a tough week of practice ahead.

Lousiana came to visit us the following week and we made up for lost time, beating them 4-1 on Friday night. Saturday, the Huntsville Havoc paid us a visit and came up with a 5-2 win. I really hate losing to those guys. They're so smug and cocky. It's really annoying. They have a good team, but I don't think they're nearly as good as they seem to think they are. Unfortunately, we haven't played a full 60 minutes either time we've faced them this season. The first meeting, in Huntsville, we started off slow and couldn't dig out of a hole. This time, we pretty much outplayed them for the first 50 minutes or so, then took a 2-minute nap and a 2-2 tie turned into a 5-2 loss.

Last weekend, the Snakes busted out the whoopin' sticks and shot down the Ice Flyers by a score of 8-1, thus spoiling the return of Lorne Misita to Columbus. It was another one of those games where we wished we could save a few goals for the next game. Especially given the fact that through Thursday's game Fayetteville's Guy St. Vincent had run his shutout streak to 126 minutes and change. We thought we might need all the goals we could get against them on Friday. As it turns out, we could have used a couple more. We managed to score 4 goals on Vinny, but allowed Rob Sich to score a hat-trick to lead the Fireantz to a 6-4 victory. Saturday it was back to the Snakepit for another reunion, this time with Daryl Moor, Ryan Senft and the Mississippi Surge. The Snakes built up a 4-0 lead and appeared to be cruising to another big win, but the Surge battled back to force a shootout (as they had done the previous night in Pensacola). "Scorin" Orrin Hergott iced the victory for the Cottonmouths in the shootout, but the blown lead raised some concerns over our killer instinct. When you've got a 4-goal lead against a team, you have to put that game away. You can't let a team up off the mat like that. Basically, we gave the Surge a point. That should never happen.

And now, here we are on the road again. Once again, we had to leave early because we had no ice available in the Civic Center. So, we bussed up here this morning for practice, then pre-game skate tomorrow and prepare to play the game. After the game, we'll head back home with no practice ice for the next few days. That means I should be able to get a couple of days off. Yay for me. But first, I'm hoping to get 2 points at the Crown Coliseum tomorrow night.

But then...that's not just me.