Thursday, April 22, 2010

This is the End

This is my least favorite time of year. Yes, it's spring. And yes, the NHL playoffs are on. But our hockey season is over. Not only does it mean no more games, but it also means much more than that. The rink is now an indoor football field, the players have cleaned out their lockers (prompting the saddest picture I've ever taken, at right), and soon most of them will be heading home for the summer, not to return until October. But some of them won't return at all. The fluid nature of sports dictates that change is inevitable. Even the Championship team will make changes, so it follows that the lesser teams will have to make even more changes just to keep up and catch up. As the old saying goes, "If you're not moving forward, you're falling behind."
That means that when each of these guys says goodbye to me, it may be for the last time. He's leaving for the summer, but he may not be back. I get pretty close to these guys over the course of a season, and it's hard to think of the possibility of never seeing them again. Cleaning out the locker room just emphasizes that. They've packed up their personal belongings to take home with them, and I've packed up the gear to put away until next season. It also means that summer is here and it will be several months before we start up the new season. I try to look forward to next season, but last season is still so fresh in my memory that it's hard to let it go. Over the next couple of weeks, guys will start leaving to make their way back home. The real world awaits, with long-time girlfriends (or fiancees) and summer jobs. For now, however, we're left to ponder what went wrong last year and look forward to the possibilities of next year.
I should take a moment to acknowledge the Huntsville Havoc, who won the SPHL President's Cup, sweeping the Mississippi Surge in the finals, 3 games to none. Two of my former players were with the Havoc; Head Coach Randy Murphy and Defenseman Vladimir Hartinger both played for me with the New Mexico Scorpions. I'm happy for them, but it doesn't lessen the sting of our loss. I would also like to acknowledge a couple of my former players who are still playing in the Central Hockey League playoffs. Goaltender Miguel Beaudry of the Rapid City Rush and Defenseman Erik Adams of the Allen Americans played for me in New Mexico and Forward Scott Wray of the Rush played for me with the Lake Charles Ice Pirates. They begin their final series tomorrow night in Rapid City. Also, in the ECHL conference semifinals, Utah Grizzlies Goaltender Mike Morrison played for me with the ECHL Phoenix Roadrunners the year before I came to Columbus. And finally, in the "IHL" playoffs (just beginning), Port Huron Icehawks Defenseman Daniel Tetrault played for me in New Mexico. In the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, Manitoba Moose Forward Tom Maxwell played for me with the ECHL Phoenix Roadrunners. And in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Los Angeles Kings Defenseman Sean O'Donnell, Phoenix Coyotes Center Robert Lang, and Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma played for me with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. Good luck to all of them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

2010 SPHL Playoffs: Game 4 (post script)

*****Apologies to all who previously read this post to read only the first sentence declaring that our season is over. I accidentally published that post before finishing and then subsequently lost everything I had added to it before it posted. So, without further ado, here is Take 2.

Well, our season is over. It obviously didn't end the way we hoped it would. It came crashing down with a resounding Thud Friday night in Biloxi. In a game that really was closer than the final 6-2 score, the Cottonmouths playoff run came to an abrupt and unceremonious end. The shame of it is that in the process the career of Snakes Captain Craig Stahl also met its untimely conclusion. This was not the way he intended to close out his remarkable 12-year journey. He deserved better. While the Snakes were only down 2-1 entering the third period, they just didn't have enough left in the tank to keep the wolves at bay any longer (pun on Mississippi's former team nickname intended). The Surge exploded for 4 goals in the third and the rest, as they say, was history.

Not to make excuses, but maybe their minds were elsewhere (perhaps at the hospital with Sam Bowles). About midway through the second period, Bowles had suffered a gash on his head as a result of a flying elbow delivered by Surge defenseman Ryan Bartle. This type of cheap shot is pretty standard from Bartle (who delivered a similar elbow to Bowles in a game in Columbus earlier this season, triggering the infamous "School Day Brawl"), but the result this time was more severe. Bartle's hit stunned Bowles, who appeared to be unconscious before he hit the ice (he didn't move his arms or brace himself during the fall, like most players do when falling). His head bounced off the ice, causing a pressure cut on the back of his head (despite the helmet still being on at impact). Bartle was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct and would later receive a one-game suspension for the hit.

The Surge was leading in the game 1-0 at the time of the Bartle penalty. The Snakes tied the score on the ensuing 3-minute penalty (5-minute major minus 2-minute minor to McCarthy for going after Bartle), but were unable to sustain any real pressure and left the second period trailing 2-1 after a late goal by Tim Velemirovich.

The Surge came out hard in the third and the Snakes seemed a little flat. Steve Weidlich and Velemirovich scored early in the frame for the Surge, putting the Snakes back on their heels. Orrin Hergott connected on the power play midway through the third to draw the Cottonmouths back to within 2 goals (In an ironic twist, the Snakes' normally lethargic power play connected twice while the #1-ranked Surge power play went 0 for 8). Then Surge forward Chris Greene went to work, scoring two remarkable goals a minute and a half apart. On two separate plays, Greene batted a puck out of mid-air into the Snakes goal after a centering pass was broken up by a defender. They were both very difficult plays, demonstrating excellent hand-eye coordination. The second of those made the score 6-2 and drove the final nails into the Snakes' coffin.

It was a very somber dressing room after the game. Sammy was still at the hospital getting x-rays and a CT scan, and information about his condition was sketchy, at best. Coupled with that there was the realization that many of these guys have played their last game together...and in some cases their last game, period. We just kind of sat in the dressing room for about an hour and soaked it all in. Then, finally, guys slowly began to get undressed, showered, and packed and loaded. We boarded the bus for the longest 5-hour bus ride most of us could remember. Our spirits were bouyed, however, by the return of Sammy. He could have ridden home with his Father (who had driven to Biloxi to watch the game), but Sammy was adamant about wanting to ride the bus home with his teammates. We got home and hung the gear (a blues show at the Civic Center Saturday forced us to hang our gear in the clubhouse at Golden Park), then headed home to begin the off-season. It's going to be a long Summer.

Friday, April 9, 2010

2010 SPHL Playoffs: Game 3 (post script)

Last night the Snakes were in the middle of a heck of a playoff game...until the referee decided to leave his mark on the game. With about nine minutes remaining in regulation and the score tied at 2, Geoffrey Miller handed the #1 ranked power play a 2-man advantage. Matt Zultek scored on the ensuing power play and thus the game was changed. Nick Klaren added an insurance goal 2 minutes later to make the final score 4-2.

I think they snuck the fourth goal past Snakes goalie Ian Vigier because he was still in shock about the third goal. He had made about 30 saves, some of them incredible, up to that point and then the Zultek shot was one of those that few goalies would have stopped. I think that after standing on his head for 2 1/2 periods, giving up that goal deflated his spirit a little bit. I can't blame him for that...I know it deflated mine. The boys had killed off 1:44 of a 5-on-3 advantage to the best power play in the league, only to see the Surge score with 16 seconds remaining.

After that, the Surge held the fort and the Snakes were unable to close the gap. It was a tough game to lose. To be that close and have the game slip away like that is never easy, but especially not in the playoffs. Every little play is so important. One bounce, one call, one break going your way can change the whole complexion of the game. That is why playoff hockey is the most exciting sport in the world...and the most nerve-wracking.

After the game, we had a quick meal (thanks to the Snakes Booster Club), then packed and loaded the bus for the trip to Biloxi. We got on the road fairly quickly and made good time along the way (thanks to Tex, the Snakes' bus driver), actually beating the Surge back to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum (even with the Surge getting a head start). We hung the gear and headed to the hotel to get some rest.

We got up and had a nice team meal at the hotel, and now the boys are back to resting up and getting ready for the game tonight. I'm heading down to the rink soon to finish setting up the locker room and sharpen some skates. Come on, boys! We need this one tonight!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

2010 SPHL Playoffs: Game 2 (post script)

Wow!!! What a game!!! I've been in hockey for 15 years now, and that is one of the most exciting games I've ever been a part of. The Surge nearly stole one from us, but Daryl Moore tied it up with 12 seconds left in regulation. The overtime period was almost non-stop action, flying from end to end at a breakneck pace. Each team had multiple scoring chances and each goalie made several key saves to keep the game alive. Snakes rookie sensation Levi Lind ignited the celebration with 58 seconds left in the overtime period with a shot that hit the post, then banked in off the back of Surge goalie Bill Zaniboni.

The Snakes dominated the game early, setting the pace with their physical play for the second game in a row. They managed to maintain the physical play through the first, despite a Surge goal just 50 seconds into the game. The pace was slowed down by a series of Snakes penalties, putting the #1 ranked Surge power play to work. The Snakes killed off the first period power plays, even managing to net a short-handed goal on a great effort from Sam Bowles.

The second period saw just one goal and one penalty...both credited to the Surge's Thomas Boudreau. The Surge controlled most of the play, logging 17 shots on goal to the Snakes' 9, but Snakes goalie Ian Vigier held the fort and maintained a 3-2 lead after 2 periods.

The Surge power play came to life in the 3rd period, scoring 2 goals on 4 opportunities (the only 4 power plays assessed in the 3rd period). This gave the Surge their first lead in the game. The Snakes generated numerous opportunities to score before Moore's goal tied it with 12 seconds remaining.

The teams traded opportunities in the overtime period, with numerous scoring chances for each team. Both goalies came up big several times to keep the game alive. Finally, with 2:21 remaining, former Snake Daryl Moor took a boarding penalty and gave the Snakes the only power play opportunity of the OT period. This opened the door for Levi Lind's seeing-eye goal to tie the series at one game apiece.

This game was a huge win for us. It gave us some much-needed confidence and I think it took a little wind out of the Surge's sails. I still think they're pretty cocky, but probably not feeling bulletproof like they were entering this series. They know they're in for a fight now. Next up, another week of practice (really 3 full days of practice after Easter Sunday off) to get ready for Games 3 and 4 (and Game 5, if necessary). If it goes the distance, it'll be 3 games in 3 nights. But basically we're now in a best-of-three series for a trip to the finals. I can't wait 'til Thursday!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2010 SPHL Playoffs: Game 2

So, last night didn't go as we had planned...or hoped. We didn't really play that badly, despite the 5-2 score. I think some of the guys were just a little nervous and played that way. We seemed to be just a bit off on our passes. Also, we let up on the physical play. We were dominant early in the game, but eventually we stopped hitting consistently and allowed them room to skate. That plays right into their hands. If we're going to be successful, we have to be physical throughout the game (not just in spurts).
On the plus side, we didn't allow a goal on 5 Mississippi power plays and managed 2 power play goals of our own (although we did give up a short-handed goal). Both of those stats could be key for the rest of this series.

Both teams rode the bus overnight to Columbus, getting in early this morning. That could also be a key factor to tonight's game, considering the early start time. We got in about an hour and a half before the Surge did, and our guys got to sleep in their own beds last night. Let's hope the rest gives us an advantage tonight. If not, I've got a secret weapon (pictured above).

Friday, April 2, 2010

2010 SPHL Playoffs: Game 1

So, we're here in Biloxi to face the #1 Mississippi Surge in the SPHL Playoffs. Game 1 is tonight at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum. We're pretty well rested, having made the trip here yesterday after practice. We left Columbus just after 1pm EDT, and arrived at the rink just after 5pm CDT. We unloaded and unpacked and headed to the hotel. Then we had a nice team dinner at Salute, an Italian restaurant right next to the hotel.

The boys are in pretty good spirits and I really think we're as ready as we can be for this series. The last 4 days were probably the best 4 practices we've had all season...certainly the best series of 4 practices in a row. We've had video sessions and gone over the game plan and I think we've done everything we can to get ready for this series.

I know most people around the league probably don't give us much of a chance, but I really like what I see out of this team right now. I've thought all season long that we are a better team than our record shows. Now it's time to prove it. The last 56 games don't matter anymore. Only what happens from here on out matters.

The Surge have a good team, clearly. But their whole game is built around their power play, and in the playoffs there usually aren't that many power plays handed out. We just have to stay disciplined. If anybody has a chance to beat them, I think it's us. I've seen what this team is capable of and when we play our game we're just about unbeatable. The only question is whether the boys will play up to their potential. I guess we'll find out tonight. It's going to be a good series. Go Snakes!