Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hello, Readers. I promised in my last blog (which, admittedly, was posted a couple days later than I had planned) to try and get caught up. Now that we're through the holiday week, I might actually be able to do just that.

In the holiday tradition of expressing thanks, I would like to thank all of those who have been reading my blog, and especially those who have given me feedback. If it weren't for you people reading it and enjoying it, there wouldn't be much point in writing it...and I've enjoyed writing it.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to once again thank all the guys that help me out at the rink. Flip, Barney, Shooter, Ryno, Tyler and Bubba make it possible for me to do the best job I can to take care of our guys. All of them have gone above and beyond the call of duty at some point, sometimes spending the night at the rink to meet an incoming team or help set up for a morning game (as Bubba did before the Kids' Day game this season). I consider myself very fortunate to have them here to help. Words can't possibly express how much I appreciate their efforts. Thanks, guys!

I'd also like to thank the Cottonmouths organization as a whole. I've worked for a lot of hockey organizations, but none has been to me as this one. Everybody gets along very well and is always willing to go out of their way to help each other out. I know it sounds cliche' to throw the word "family" around to describe people with whom you're not related, but it really does apply here. From the top to the bottom, everyone really is as close as family. And for those of us who are far from our native homes and our nuclear families, that really means a lot. Thanks to all of you.

Now that that's taken care of, we can dive right into the games from the Thanksgiving weekend. We kicked the weekend off by kicking the hell out of the Augusta Riverhawks. We owed them one after the way they treated us last week when we went there. Not only did they win the game, but they took a few liberties with our guys. They are a very yappy team. I'm surprised any of them can keep their mouthguards in when their lips are always flapping. They have several of the softest guys who talk the most crap I've ever heard. I hate guys like that. They chirp and chirp, but won't back it up. You try to fight them, but they just turtle. It's very frustrating.

But tonight was our night. Kyle Lundale opened the scoring with a couple of minutes left in a very evenly played first period, and the Snakes closed the frame with a 1-0 lead. For the second game in a row we came alive in the second, with Sammy scoring at about the midway point and Daryl Moore adding two late goals to give the Snakes a 4-0 lead. Greg Holt broke up the shutout in the last 2 minutes, but the game was already decided. It was one of the few total effort games we've had this season where everything seemed to be working as it should. We outplayed, outworked, outhit, outshot and (most importantly) outscored the Hawks. It was nice to get a win like that at home. And, to quote "Major League" Indians Manager Lou Brown, "We win one tomorrow...that's called a winning streak. It HAS happened before."

The next day we were back on the bus, heading for Knoxville. We've had bad luck in this barn in recent years (I think we've only won 2 games in Knoxville since I came to Columbus), but we won the last time we were here. We rolled into Knoxvegas feeling pretty good about ourselves. We were in for a tough game, though. The Ice Bears certainly weren't going to make it easy on us. But then, they never do. David Segal and Matt Kinnunen started things off with a bang, dropping the mitts and mixing it up off the opening faceoff. Kinner didn't do as well this time as he did the first time he fought Segal, but he did all right. Segal is a tough customer and Kinner held his own. After that, it was down to business. The Snakes got on the board just a couple of minutes into the game on a goal by Brent Clarke. Emery Olauson countered for the Bears a couple of minutes later. Each team had several good scoring opportunities, but the goalies were equal to the task and the score remained tied at one apiece after one.

The second period saw more of the same. After a few rushes back and forth, Bears Captain Mike Bulawka was awarded a penalty shot at 3:43 of the second. We were almost relieved that it was awarded to him. Not to take anything away from Bulawka, but there are a few guys on that team that we would be more afraid of in that situation. Vigier stood his ground and made the save, keeping the tie intact. Once again, the Snakes seized the momentum in the second and outshot and outchanced the Bears but again it was Olauson that found the back of the net late in the second. Ice Bears goalie Bryan Hince earned his paycheck, turning away 13 shots to preserve the Bears' lead going into the third.

Though Knoxville had the better of the chances in the third, Vigier held the fort so that Matt Kinnunen could tie the game for the Snakes. The teams continued to battle down to the wire when something unprecedented happened. Ice Bear Mike Bulawka was awarded another penalty shot with 7 seconds remaining in the third. I'm not sure I've ever seen a game in which 2 penalty shots were awarded...and I'm quite certain I've never seen 2 penalty shots awarded to the same player in the same game. I don't believe this has ever happened before. With the game on the line, Vigier once again closed the door and forced overtime.

Columbus registered the only 3 shots of the overtime period, but couldn't get one past Hince. Sam Bowles and Orrin Hergott scored in the shootout to outweigh Chris Bratina with the Bears' lone shootout goal, securing the victory for the Snakes. Hergott gets credited with the game-winning goal because his shootout goal was the deciding factor, but he couldn't have done it without Bowles...or Vigier, for that matter.

Three in a row! Another big win for the Snakes. That sure makes the bus ride home seem a lot shorter. We get back to the Snakepit and drop off the gear and the guys head home to get some rest before yet another big game...this one against the Mississippi Surge.

We've had trouble with the Surge all season (and most of last season). They're a good team, to be sure, but I don't think they're as good as we've made them look at times. They started quickly, scoring just a minute into the game. The Snakes came alive and played the Surge pretty even for the rest of the period, with the teams exchanging goals midway through the frame.

There was a bizarre incident early in the second period. Orrin Hergott was given a fighting major, even though he never dropped his gloves. He collided with Surge forward Jason Beeman as they were both going after a loose puck. Beeman gave Orrin an elbow, and Orrin responded with a gloved punch. Beeman took exception and jumped Orrin, who was caught completely by surprise. Beeman had the gloves off, pummeling Orrin as he covered up. Somehow, the referee saw this as a fair fight and gave Orrin and Beeman coincidental fighting majors. That's odd, considering Orrin never dropped his gloves or stick and never threw a punch except for the one he threw with his gloves still on. This "fight" seemed to ignite the Snakes. Sam Bowles tied the game at 2 on a power play just a couple of minutes later. But the momentum didn't last. Jeff Grant scored on a power play a few minutes later to regain the lead for good. Beeman added a goal late in the third and Matt Zultek added an empty-net goal to close out the scoring with a final score of 5-2. The streak was over. But it was fun while it lasted.

That closed out our holiday week. The winning streak was fun, but as the saying goes you're only as good as your last game. And we ended the weekend with a loss. So we had to carry that with us into the next weekend.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Snakes wreak Havoc

I know, I know. I'm a couple of weeks behind. Well, I'm going to try and play a little catch up. Here goes.

After splitting the home-and-home series with Mississippi, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Although Mississippi isn't quite as good as they were last year, they're still one of the better teams in the league. To be able to notch a win against them is a sign that things are looking up...or so we thought.

After another short practice week (to accomodate the Jason Aldean concert), we boarded the bus Friday afternoon for our first trip to Augusta. I was looking forward to it, having never been there before. I had heard very little about the James Brown Arena, and none of it was flattering. Upon our arrival, I thought that I might have been misinformed. It didn't look much different from any other aging hockey arena. It could use a face-lift, but didn't look terrible. We made our way inside and found our way to the visiting locker room. I began looking for the rest of it. It's a tiny, tiny room. It's basically a walk-in closet. There is another, even smaller room adjoining that was set up as a training room, with a little entryway that became the Coach's office. My equipment room was the hallway outside (not an uncommon setup in the minor leagues). We made do the best we could and set about the task of getting ready to play the game. I put out gum, stick wax and pledge (to clean the visors) for the guys, then set up the sharpener and got to work. Ordinarily, I like to have all my sharpening done beforehand on a trip like this, but a couple of guys neglected to put their numbers on the board so they had to ask me to sharpen them here.

As I was doing the skates, a couple of the linesmen (whose room is right next to ours) asked me to sharpen their skates as well. So my day just got a little busier. It's generally considered the home team's responsibility to take care of the officials, but since I was right there and the home team was on the other side of the arena, they asked me instead. It's only a minor inconvenience, and I don't mind helping them out. One of the guys asked for a 1/2" hollow (pretty standard), and I said that wasn't a problem because the wheel was already set up to do that. The other guy asked for a 9/16" hollow (which is kind of a pain, because the marks on the diamond quill only register 8ths of an inch, so to do 16ths of an inch you have to estimate halfway between two lines). I was a little put off that he asked for that hollow when I just mentioned that it was easier to do 1/2" (that extra 1/16" is fairly negligible). As soon as he disappeared down the hall, I went ahead and did both pairs of skates at the same 1/2" hollow. They both thanked me for the great sharpening.

We came out flat and never seemed to really get going, only managing 11 shots on goal in the first two periods. Somehow we managed to hang onto a 1-1 tie heading into the third. The Riverhawks came alive in the third, unleashing a 3-goal barrage to take control of the game. A late goal by Jesse Cole was offset by an empty-net goal for a final score of 5-2.

I wasn't really impressed by the Riverhawks. I know it sounds weird to say that after they beat us so handily, but they really don't bring much to the table except that they work hard. On this night we were less impressive, so their hard work was enough to beat us.

We rode the bus back home for a game the next night against Huntsville. Saturday's game was the middle game in a triple-header. The Civic Center was hosting a weekend of hockey, featuring the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Alabama hockey teams in what was billed as a "College Hockey Clash". Our game was sandwiched between the Alabama/Clemson game at 2pm (I must admit I was rooting for Alabama because of their uniforms, which are almost exactly like my hometown Phoenix Coyotes' jerseys) and the 8pm Georgia/Georgia Tech game. Our 5pm start time was earlier than our usual 7:30pm start, which meant a short turnaround after our arrival from Augusta.

To complicate matters further, we had to set up the locker rooms for the "College Hockey Clash". Instead of our usual one visiting team, we now had 5 visiting teams to set up for. Since there are not enough rooms to accomodate this many teams, we had to do a bit of juggling to take care of everybody. We started off with Alabama in the old NBDL locker room and Clemson in locker room 2 (which is normally used by the visiting team, but for this game they were limited to locker room 1). Then, after their game, both teams moved their gear into adjacent storage rooms to free up the dressing rooms for Georgia and Georgia Tech. Then, after our game, we moved Alabama into locker room 4 (which is normally half of our dressing room) and Clemson into locker room 1 for their games on Sunday. In addition to our regular setup, we had to make sure that each team had water and Gatorade in their rooms for their games and water on their benches. This meant a lot of extra work for Hannah (who usually takes care of that for us and for the visitors) and for Barney, Tyler and Bubba (who put in a ton of extra effort to make things go smoothly for everybody involved).

Thanks in large part to their efforts, the weekend went off smoothly and by all accounts the event was a rousing success. Tyler even got to make his debut as Mike Vee's color commentator for the radio broadcast of Sunday's second game of the day, which matched up Alabama and Georgia. Tyler got a chance to combine his knowledge of hockey and his gift for gab into a possible career path. Who knows? Maybe one day he'll be broadcasting Atlanta Thrashers games. Then I'll be able to say I heard him broadcast his first game back in the day. We'll see.

The marquee matchup of the weekend was the Cottonmouths' game against the Huntsville Havoc. Everything else aside, this game was huge for us. The Havoc are the defending champs and early front-runners in the league again this season, and we've been struggling to get on some kind of a roll. We haven't won consecutive games all season, but we've shown signs of brilliance at times. Our biggest problem is that we've been inconsistent all season. It's the one thing that we've done consistently. We knew we would need our best effort to beat the Havoc.

Fortunately, that's exactly what we gave them. We played a good, hard, physical game. We outshot the Havoc (a seeming rarity for us) and matched them stride for stride the entire game. Do I sound like the Herb Brooks speech from Miracle? Tonight, we skate with them...we stay with them...and we shut them down, because we CAN! That's pretty much how it went. And no, I'm not comparing our victory to the Miracle on ice of 1980. This win was huge, but not that huge.

We came out hard and dominated the game early...every aspect of it. We outhit them. We outskated them. We outshot them (to the tune of a 14-7 margin). We outworked them. Matt Kinnunen's hard work paid off when he scored 5:25 into the game with an extra attacker on a delayed penalty. This gave us something we've rarely seen this season...an early lead. We maintained the dominant play throughout the period and headed into the second with a 1-0 lead.

The second period, which has been our Achilles' heel all season, saw our strong play continue. We got outshot 11-8, but limited their good scoring chances (and when they did get chances, Vigier was there to shut the door). Jesse Cole scored a power play goal 13:33 into the frame to add to our lead, but Huntsville forward Stephen Margeson offset that with a goal of his own at 17:44, pulling the Havoc back to within one goal.

The teams parried and thrusted their way through the third, managing several quality scoring chances for each side despite a 9-8 shot count in favor of the Snakes. Both goalies stood strong and kept the period scoreless until Cole added an empty-netter with 2 seconds remaining for a 3-1 final score. It was an atypically low-scoring affair, but an exciting game nonetheless. Were it not for the goalies, this game could easily have ended 6-5 for either team.

It's always nice to end your week with a win. It's even better when you end the week with a win at home. And few things are better than ending the week with a hard-earned win at home against the best team in the league. Let's hope this is a sign of things to come.