The old adage has seldom held truer..."It's not as bad as it looks". We lost 2 of our 3 games this weekend, but we could have-no, strike that-SHOULD have won 2 out of 3.
Our first game of the week was the dreaded school day game. It's not dreaded because of the kids (4,000 or so screaming kids make for a great atmosphere for the players), but rather because of the 10am start time. Hockey players are creatures of habit (most athletes are, really), so a 10am game plays havoc with their game-day routine. At 10am on a game-day hockey players are usually taking the ice for their morning skate, a light skate just to get the legs moving and get the lactic acid out. This is followed by a mid-day meal, and usually an afternoon nap or just some quiet relaxation to get physically and mentally ready for the game. To simulate this timetable for a 10am start, players would have to have a skate at about 1am, followed by a pre-game meal at about 3am (maybe at Waffle House?). Instead, guys are waking up at 6am, having a light breakfast, then heading off to the rink to arrive at 8am. It throws the whole day off kilter (although it IS nice to be off in the mid-afternoon).
Many of you will remember our school-day slugfest from last season (I'm sure the kids haven't forgotten). Historically, those day games tend to end up in bloodbaths. Hockey players tend to be grumpy when you disturb their routine. Well, this year was the exception. Aside from a first period fight between Snakes defenseman Brody Malek and Fireantz defenseman Dan McNeill there wasn't much in the way of fisticuffs. The game wasn't even really that physical. The Snakes outskated, outshot and generally outplayed the Fireantz in the first, putting 20 shots on goal to the Antz' 4, but left the first period with a 2-2 tie thanks to a pair of goals from Orrin Hergott and Sam Bowles. Hergott and Bowles scored in the second period also, sandwiched around a goal by the Fireantz' Rob Sich, and entered the 3rd period with a 4-3 lead. The Snakes spent the 3rd period trying to sit on their one-goal lead and almost managed to do so...until the last 1:01 of regulation. Sich found the back of the net in the 58th minute to tie the game and send it into overtime. He then set up Chris Leveille for the Game Winner with 1.2 seconds left on the clock (in truth, I looked up after the puck went in and there was 2 seconds and change left on the clock...not that that matters).
This game hurt because it was one that we should have won. They didn't throw anything at us that we didn't prepare for. All the damage they did came from the usual suspects...their top line of Sich, Leveille and Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn. When one of your keys to the game is to concentrate on stopping the top line, letting them score 5 goals is not acceptable. The bottom line is we had them down, then let them up off the mat. We didn't have the killer instinct. We played the whole 3rd period to protect a one-goal lead. You can't do that. You have to keep playing the way you did when you built up the lead. As soon as you back off to try and protect a lead, you give the other team time and space to keep coming at you, which is exactly what they did. It's frustrating when that happens.
After the morning game, we prepared for a game Friday night in Huntsville. We skated at home in the morning, then boarded the bus to head Northwest. In the past we've left earlier, then stopped for lunch in Pelham on the way. We usually arrived very early and had a couple of hours to sit around and twiddle our thumbs before the game. This trip we timed it out better and arrived right around 5:30 for a 7:30 game, which basically gave us time to set up and play the game. I usually prefer it that way, but this time with us skating before we left I didn't have time to sharpen skates before we left so I had to scramble to get them done after we arrived. It did keep me busy though, so I can't complain.
We didn't play a particularly bad game in Huntsville...we just didn't play a particularly good game. We only gave up two goals, one by Mike Carter in the first and one by Ray Ortiz in the third. The Carter goal was just a spectacular end-to-end rush. He picked up the puck in his own zone and proceeded to walk around our whole team. I actually think he beat at least one guy twice. The Ortiz goal was the definition of a garbage goal...he tried to make a pass to the front of our net and I think it hit the defender in the shoulder and deflected past Vigier. But, even though it's entirely possible to win games in this league giving up only two goals, it's not possible to win games in any league if you don't score any goals. We didn't have many scoring chances, and didn't even have many shots. We were outshot 15-8 in the first period, 10-3 in the second (3 shots? 3 shots?!?), and 11-9 in the third. True, we were playing the best team in the league, but you can't score goals if you're generating that few offensive opportunities.
After Friday's game we headed for Knoxville, in desperate need of a win. The Knoxville Civic Coliseum is not a good place to go in search of a win. They're hard to come by if you're the visiting team. In my three plus seasons in Columbus, we've won exactly one game in Knoxville each season. That's right...three previous seasons with Columbus, three wins in Knoxville. But luckily we caught Knoxville at the right time. They had just lost their last 2 games against the Augusta Riverhawks, so either they were ripe for defeat or they would be pissed off about the 2 losses and take their anger out on us. Either way, this one had the potential to get ugly.
It started to look that way immediately. Off the opening faceoff, Knoxville's David Segal squared off against Snakes forward Matt Kinnunen. Young Matt held his own against a tough opponent, and both skaters watched the next 5 minutes from the box. Less than 3 minutes later, Cody Straker took an Ice Bear into the boards. Bears forward Mike Bulawka took exception and squared off against Straker. The pair dropped their gloves, but no punches were thrown. They were each whistled for Roughing, in addition to Straker's Boarding penalty. When the dust settled, the Snakes got down to playing some pretty good hockey. They outshot, outskated and outhit the Bears and controlled the play for the majority of the period. Bears goalie Andrew Gallant managed to keep his finger in the dyke until the final 8 seconds of the first period, when Jesse Cole finally lit the lamp on a Snakes power play.
Mitch Wall scored on another power play 1:37 into the second period for his first professional goal. Bears Captain Mike Bulawka cut the lead in half midway through the period when he banged home a rebound off a faceoff in the Snakes defensive zone. Sam Bowles put the Snakes back ahead by two at 13:47, then assisted on Mitch Wall's second goal 25 seconds later.
Gallant was replaced at the start of the third period by backup Brian Hince. The Bears battled hard to cut the lead but were turned back by the Snakes defense and goalie Ian Vigier. Matt Kinnunen scored the only goal of the period and the Snakes held on for a 5-1 win. It was a huge monkey off our backs to finally put one in the win column on the road, and to do it in that building just made it that much sweeter. It certainly made the bus ride home a lot more fun.