Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snakes on a roll

***I'd like to apologize for the lengthy delay in posting this latest blog. I know you're anxiously anticipating my latest words of wisdom, so I'm sorry to keep you waiting. But without any further ado, here it is. I hope you find it entertaining and/or interesting.

After starting the New Year with a 9-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pensacola Ice Flyers, things could only get better...and they did.

We hosted the new-look Augusta Riverhawks. The 'Hawks had been forced to make a few moves to fill out their roster after losing several key players to callups and injuries. Because of this, there were a lot of new faces wearing Riverhawks jerseys.

The Snakes had also added a new name to the roster...Tom Maldonado. Tom came here on the recommendation of the "Missouri Mafia" of Sam Bowles, Bret Tyler and Brett Hammond, as he was a teammate of theirs with the CHL's Missouri Mavericks. A lot of recruiting at this level of hockey is done via word of mouth, as evidenced by these guys and the "Canisius Connection" of Andrew Loewen, Peter MacDougall, and Dave Cianfrini. Since scouting at this level is almost nonexistent, coaches rely heavily on players using their connections to not only find players, but to judge how well they'll fit into the team. Team chemistry is as vital to a team's success as skill and effort, and with former teammates you already know that they can get along with some of your players. I've seen good players underperform because they didn't fit in well with their teammates, so it's important to know how well a player's character and personality will fit in with the rest of the team.

So, we know that Maldonado gets along well with several of our guys and fits in well with their style of play, and since word of mouth goes both ways, he knows that Columbus is a great place to play, with loyal, passionate fans and a good organization. So, welcome aboard, Tom!

The Snakes came out hitting and played pretty well in the first period, but there was no score until the Riverhawks netted a power-play goal at 16:41 of the period. Daryl Moore tied the game at 1-1 just 34 seconds later and that's where the score remained after one period. Maldonado took a nice bank-pass off the boards and fired home a one-timer from the point to give the Snakes a 2-1 lead. Lucas Labelle and Jordan Braid traded goals in the third and the Snakes were holding onto a 3-2 lead when it all came crashing down. While killing a 2-man disadvantage, the Riverhawks cleared the puck out of the zone and down the ice just as the first penalty was ending. Egor Mironov came out of the box behind the defense and had a clear line to the loose puck. Snakes goalie Andrew Loewen was all that stood between Mironov and the Snakes net. In a split-second decision, Andrew decided to charge the puck and try to beat Mironov to it so that he could clear it from danger. He hesitated just enough that Mironov beat him to the puck and managed to poke it just past Loewen's reach. Once he cleared Loewen's outstretched body, Mironov had an unobstructed lane to the Snakes goal for an easy tap-in to tie the game with just under 3 minutes left.

Some were quick to blame Loewzy for the misplay, but in reality it's a play he shouldn't have had to make. There's no way that puck should get behind our defense at the end of a 5-on-3 advantage like that. We were still up a man, and somebody should have been back to make sure the guy coming out of the box didn't beat us. That's why you'll hear goalies banging their sticks on the ice when a penalty is let the defense know that there's about to be a guy coming out behind them. One of them is supposed to drop back and cover the guy. In this case, nobody did. If Loewen stays in his net, it's a clean breakaway to one of their best players anyway. Loewzy did what most goalies would have done in the same situation. The only thing he might have done wrong was hesitating. If he takes half a second less to think about it and decide to go, he probably gets to the puck and clears it. But I guess we'll never know. As it stands, we're now in a tie game, heading for overtime.

The OT period could have gone either way, with big scoring chances at either end turned away by even bigger saves from each goalie. Either team could easily have scored 3 or 4 times in the extra frame. Then, just when it looked like we were headed for a shootout, one miscommunication turned into an odd-man rush and in the blink of an eye Branden Kosolofsky (of all people) buries the puck in the net with 7 seconds left in the overtime to claim the victory for the Riverhawks. What a heartbreaker! To come that close, and now with the new rules we don't even get a point for the effort, really hurts. I'm really not a big fan of that rule. It seems ridiculous that a team could play 65 minutes of hockey to a draw, then lose in a shootout and have nothing to show for it. But, I guess that's the way it goes...for this year, at least.

It's tough to be in the locker room after any loss, but especially after a loss like this one. To come so close, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, can be very disheartening. Everybody tries to make sense of it...not to assign blame, but to understand why. Many guys will blame themselves. Loewen will blame himself for not getting to that loose puck. Another guy might blame himself for fanning on a shot with an open net. Somebody else will blame himself for not picking up his guy in the overtime. In truth, none of them are right, but only because all of them are right. Any one of those breaks for or against us could have swayed the outcome of the game. We win as a team and we lose as a team. If one guy has an off-night, it's up to the others to pick up the slack. If the offense fails to produce, the defense has to tighten up and limit the goals against. If the defense gives up too many chances, the goalie has to be able to shut the door. If the goalie doesn't have his "A" game on any given night, the offense has to come up big to compensate. We fell short tonight. Now, it's time to get ready for the next game. You have to be able to put any loss behind you, because the next game is right around the corner.

With that in mind, we turned the page to Saturday's game. We didn't have time to dwell on the loss to Augusta, because Pensacola was coming to town. The Ice Flyers are one of the top teams in the league, so we know we have to play our best to beat them. There's no room for mistakes against a team like this...any mistakes can and will end up in the back of your net.

Both teams came out strong. The Flyers managed 11 shots on goal to the Snakes' 10, but Peter MacDougall scored the only goal of the period and we took a 1-0 lead into the locker room. From there, the defense took control and limited Pensacola to only 11 shots over the last 2 periods. Ian Vigier shut the door and a goal by Sam Bowles in the second and one by Orrin Hergott in the third rounded out the scoring in a 3-0 final.

The next week we ran into another ice shortage in the Civic Center. Occasionally, in their quest to turn a profit, the Civic Center management schedules events in there. This may help pay the bills, but it kinda cramps our style. It's hard to work on your game when you can't practice during the week. I'll be really glad when the new building opens up. But until then, no practice ice means we're heading for Louisiana early. We've actually been pretty lucky with our travel schedule this year. We haven't spent many nights on the road and none of our road trips have been longer than 3 games (and most haven't even been THAT long). But, in this instance, we headed out a day early. We left Wednesday night at midnight, which is nice because it means we spent most of the trip sleeping. We arrived in Lafayette at about 7am local time and headed to a truck stop for breakfast at the Country Pride restaurant. After breakfast, we headed over to the Cajundome for the first time. Last year, the Gators played at the Blackham Coliseum, a run-down old rodeo barn and generally a miserable place for a hockey game. The Cajundome is a definite improvement. It's the place the old Ice Gators played in their ECHL heyday. So, basically, the Gators went from having the worst facility in the league to having arguably the best.

We got to the rink and unloaded our gear to get ready for practice. We were lucky, in that the Gators had a game that night but it was against Mississippi (who came in day-of-game because they're only about 3 hours away). Since they weren't coming in until the evening, we were able to use their locker room to skate in the morning. Once we finished practicing, we packed up our gear and moved it into a storage room until after the game that night. We then headed off to the hotel to check in and get settled. A bunch of us went to the game that night to watch the Gators play the Surge. The Surge stormed out to a big 4-0 lead, then held off a late rally by the Gators to come away with a 5-2 win.

After the game, we headed down to the locker rooms to wait for Mississippi to clear out so we could move our gear in and hang it to dry for the next day's morning skate. While we were there we got to chat with former Snake Ryan McCarthy. It was nice to catch up with Macker. He said he's enjoying playing in Mississippi (What's not to like? They've been hovering around 1st place for most of the season), but he misses his friends in Columbus. I told him we miss him, too.

At last, the Surge had cleared out and those of us who had attended the game moved our gear in and hung it up in the visitors' locker room to dry. We headed back to the hotel and were back in our rooms by 11pm (or midnight Eastern time, 24 hours after our trek had begun).

We headed down to the Cajundome for the morning skate, then headed back to the hotel for lunch. Most of the guys beelined it over to the Italian pizzeria down the street. Their pasta seems to be the favorite pre-game meal of our guys. I prefer the Cajun kitchen a little further down the road. I don't get many chances to have real Cajun food, so I like to take advantage when I can.

I headed back to the rink after lunch to set up for the game. I had an unusually large number of skates to sharpen before the game. The ice is usually pretty soft down in the South, especially in a humid climate like Louisiana, so guys usually don't need their edges quite as sharp. Today, however, was another story. I sharpened 10 pairs of skates in the afternoon, along with 2 pairs in the morning. That's 2/3 of the team, which is a lot more than I usually have to do in one day.

The guys came out flying on their freshly sharpened skates, outshooting the Gators by a 13-8 margin. Unfortunately, only Daryl Moore could solve Gators goalie Archie Henderson. The Snakes could only muster 3 shots on goal in the second period (to the Gators' 11), but 2 of those shots (off the stick of Sam Bowles) eluded Henderson. The Gators netted 3 goals in the frame to tie the game at the intermission.

Jason Hill scored his second goal of the game early in the third and it started to feel like deja' vu all over again. It would have been easy for the guys to hang their heads and wait for the inevitable collapse at this point, but they battled back to tie the game on a goal from Jordan Braid, then notched a power-play marker from Bret Tyler to retake the lead. After that, it was all about Ian Vigier shutting the door. The Gators managed 13 shots in the third, but Hill's tally was the only one to get by Ian.

After the game, we boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel. I know that I've touted the virtues of the day trips, but there's something to be said for back-to-back games in the same city. It's nice to have a road game where you don't have to pack up and load the bus and head out of town right after the be able to hang up the gear, hand over the laundry to the home Equipment Manager, and go to the hotel. Of course, it's even nicer when you don't have a game the next day and can go out and actually enjoy the city you're in, but that's another story. In this case, we went back to the hotel to get some rest for the next day's morning skate.

I headed down to the lobby the next morning for the continental breakfast. I think this hotel has the second best continental breakfast in the league (Mississippi gets the edge because they have an omelet bar). I finished my food and waited for my ride to the rink. I like to go in early to make sure the room is set up and ready to go when the guys get there. It's easier than trying to pass out laundry and practice jerseys while the guys are milling around the crowded locker room. Plus, getting there early allows me time to sharpen skates so that they're ready to go when the guys arrive. I like to be done with everything so that when the guys show up I'm available in case they need anything, rather than having to scramble to get it all done in time.

The guys finished the morning skate and we headed back to the hotel. The routine doesn't change much when you're on the road (I guess that's why they call it a "routine"). Morning skate, pre-game meal, pre-game nap, bus to the arena, team meeting, warmups, game. In between there are multitudes of personal rituals...some are just force of habit and getting into a comfort zone, but some are very superstitious (and some are downright weird). In any case, it's funny to see the guys go through them. You can almost set your watch by some of them.

We opened the scoring the same way we had closed out the scoring the night before...with a power play goal by Bret Tyler. This would be the only goal of the first period. Matt Kinnunen made it 2-0 midway through the second period. Ice Gators Captain Shawn McNeil beat Andrew Loewen on a penalty shot awarded after he was taken down on a breakaway. That was all the scoring in the second period, despite the Gators holding a 15-7 shot advantage. There was no scoring in the third until Orrin Hergott dented the twine at 12:09 into the frame. The 3-1 score held up until the Gators pulled their goalie for the last couple of minutes. Beau McLaughlin scored with the extra attacker, but his goal was bookended by two empty-netters for the Snakes for a final score of 5-2. Sweeping a series on the road makes the long bus ride home much more fun.

The next weekend we hosted the Fayetteville Fireantz and Louisiana Ice Gators. We were still riding the high of our 3-game winning streak. Friday night the boys came out flying, unleashing a barrage of 18 shots on goal in the first period (to just 8 Fireantz shots). Rookies Jordan Braid, Mitch Wall and Matt Kinnunen beat Fireantz goalie Travis Yonkman for a 3-0 lead after one period. Orrin Hergott and Antz forward Nathaniel Brooks traded goals in the second period, and we entered the third with a 4-1 lead. Defense took a break in the third as the teams combined to score 5 goals in a 7-minute span (3 for the Snakes and 2 for the Fireantz for a final score of 7-3).

Saturday's game started much the same way (after some opening-faceoff fireworks between Peter MacDougall and Gators forward Jason Hill)...with the Snakes dominating play and outshooting their opponent by a wide margin (18-9). The difference is that tonight's victim was Gators goalie Scott Darling and he only allowed one goal (to Orrin Hergott, which was countered by Ryan Howarth). Despite the one-sided action, the game was tied at one after one period. Kyle Lundale started off the second with an early goal, but it was countered 32 seconds later by CJ Tozzo. MacDougall and Jesse Cole added goals later in the period and we went into the third with a 4-2 lead. Shawn McNeil scored midway through the third and Jesse Cole countered a couple of minutes later. Matt Kinnunen added an empty-netter (after a couple of near-misses by other Snakes) to close out the scoring at 6-3.

So, the Snakes rebounded from their worst loss of the season and a heartbreaking OT loss by rattling off 5 straight victories (our longest winning streak of the season). Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can start climbing to the top (Wow, that's deep. I should write that down. Oh, wait...I just did. Nevermind.). In any case, that's how we started the new year. Hopefully, it's a sign that we've turned a corner and are ready to start playing up to our potential more consistently. But, we'll see.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The month of December was a busy one for the Cottonmouths...and a streaky one.

We started off the month by dropping back-to-back road games at Pensacola and Augusta.

The Pensacola game was a heartbreaker. Despite being outshot for 2 periods (by a wide margin), the Snakes were down only 2-1 thanks to a great effort by goalie Andrew Loewen. He kept the game close and we battled back in the 3rd to tie the game at 4 with just over a minute left in regulation, forcing overtime. Just 23 seconds into the overtime period Orrin Hergott took a tripping penalty while battling for a loose puck with Ice Flyers forward Matt Whitehead, resulting in a rare overtime power play. Whitehead buried a one-timer from the slot for the win.

The Augusta game was a weird one. We were outshot in the first period, but scored the only goal in the frame. We outshot the Hawks in each of the last 2 periods, but they scored the rest of the goals for a final score of 3-1. The whole team was in a kind of funk all night. We just never really got going. The loss pushed our losing streak to 3 games.

The following week was fairly easy. We started off the weekend with another visit to Pensacola. During the pre-game introductions I witnessed one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life. The Ice Flyers' mascot, Maverick, was being introduced to the crowd and came tearing out onto the ice with all the lights out and spotlights weaving their way around the ice for dramatic effect. He launched into a hot lap around the rink. As he approached the center of the rink, I noticed that he was coming dangerously close to the carpet that had been rolled out to the center faceoff circle for the ceremonial puck drop. In what seemed to be slow motion, I began to extrapolate his trajectory in relation to the carpet and determined that he had taken a bad angle. I had just enough time to form the words "Oh, no!" in my head before he hit the carpet. His skates stopped cold, but the rest of him continued on its original path. He caught about 8 feet of air before hitting the freshly resurfaced ice and then careening on all fours into the boards right in front of our bench. As the linesmen helped him up, I noticed that his big bird head had spun around 180 degrees. The linesmen helped him pick up his flying helmet and goggles and spin his head back around and send him on his way. I was doubled over with laughter. And I'm pleased to report that Maverick was completely unhurt...except for a slightly bruised ego.

The game itself turned into a laugher as well, although it didn't start out that way. Goals by Chris Wilson and Tanner Shultz put the Ice Flyers up 2-0 in the first half of the first period. Daryl Moore answered to make it 2-1 going into the first intermission. Then it was time for the Jesse Cole Show. After complaining about nausea and bringing a plastic bag onto the bench in case he needed to puke, Colesy came out and scored a natural hat-trick in the second (the only 3 goals of the period) to give the Snakes a 4-2 lead after 2 periods. Daryl Moore and Chris Wilson traded goals in the third, then Andrew Loewen shut the door on the Flyers. Cole closed out the scoring with an ampty-netter (his 4th goal of the night) for a 6-3 final. Maybe Colesy should get sick more often.

The next night we were back home against the Huntsville Havoc. Somebody should have told us the game started at 7:30...we came out completely flat and limped out of the first period down 3-0. We managed to claw our way back with 2 goals in the third, but couldn't get the equalizer and lost 3-2.

We began the following weekend the way we had ended the previous weekend...with a home loss to Huntsville. The difference was that both teams started late this time. Our 7:30 game time was pushed back because Huntsville's bus broke down halfway to Columbus. By the time a replacement bus had picked them up, there was no way they were getting to town on time. It's no fun to get all your work done and get ready to go, then have to sit and twiddle your thumbs waiting for the other team to show up. They didn't get there until almost 9pm. After a quick warmup period (without the customary intermission afterward) the teams lined up and started the game about 2 hours late. Matt Kinnunen got the Snakes on the board with a power play goal 9:07 into the first period. Jordan Braid added another PP goal at 8:15 of the second. Stephen Margeson got the Havoc onto the board at 14:09, and Shaun Arvai tied the game at 2-2 three minutes later. Havoc goalie Mark Sibbald shut the door on the Snakes in the third and Margeson scored the game winner 16:29 into the third period. Ray Ortiz added an empty-netter to close out the scoring in a 4-2 Havoc win.

The next day we were off on a road trip, but first we had to clear out our locker room for the Disney show coming into the Civic Center. We had to have everything cleared out by 9am so they could clean and set the rooms, which meant that Tyler McCrea and myself had to pull an all-nighter. We did the usual post-game cleanup and put away routine, and I did my usual post-game laundry routine, but in addition I had to get the game jerseys and socks ready to pack, sharpen skates for the next day's game, and pack away all our extra stuff in the training room, in addition to trying to rotate the gloves and skates onto the glove dryer to try and dry them before morning. I managed to get about a one-hour nap in between loads of laundry, and we just managed to get the laundry, jerseys and socks passed out and the bags packed by the 9am deadline so we could load up the trailer for the road trip. On the plus side, I now had all my work done and had little more to do than wait for the bus to leave.

Daryl Moore scored the game's first goal 14:21 into a lackluster first period (for both squads). The announcer was still calling out the goal and assists when Branden Kosolofsky scored to tie the game at the 14:45 mark, and he was still announcing that goal when Neil Graham made it 2-1 twenty seconds later. Matt Auffrey notched a goal at 5:16 of the second to close out the scoring. The Snakes never mounted a significant threat after Moore's goal, only managing 26 total shots in the game.

After the Augusta game we got back on the bus and headed North to Fayetteville. We arrived at around 3am, unloaded and hung the gear at the Crown Coliseum, then headed to the hotel to get some sleep. I was exhausted. I had had about 3 hours of sleep in the last 2 nights, and I was in need of some catch-up. Hey...I need my beauty rest! I hit the rack and probably fell asleep at around 4am, with an 11am alarm so that I could meet Fireantz Equipment Manager Frank "Rizzo" Jury, an old friend, for lunch. I got up, showered and packed to head down to the rink. Rizzo picked me up and we stopped at Jersey Mike's to pick up lunch on the way to the rink. We had our lunch and swapped stories and soon it was time to start setting up the room for the game.

There's an old adage in sports..."Anything you say can and will be used against you". Okay, so I borrowed that from the Miranda rights speech, but it still applies. You never want to say anything about the team you're about to play that might give them extra motivation to beat you. This is why professional teams instruct players in what not to say in interviews. The last thing you want is to have one of your quotes in the paper stuck up on the other team's bulletin board. One example of this would be a statement such as "They are the worst team in the league." Tommy Stewart broke this cardinal rule when he intimated that the Columbus Cottonmouths were the worst team in the SPHL. The Snakes didn't take too kindly to this insult and took to the ice in ill humour. To put it another way, the boys had a bit of a snarl on. I like that. We play better when we play a little bit mean.

The teams traded goals in the first period, but not much else was going on. The action picked up in the second, however. After the Antz took a 2-goal lead early in the second, Jerome had some choice words for the boys. It seemed to fire them up as they came out banging. Then at the 7:01 mark, all hell broke loose. Snakes defenseman Jeff MacPhee started things off with a huge open-ice check on Antz forward Jason Hill. The Antz took exception to the hit, which left Hill sprawled on the ice momentarily. As the whistle blew to stop play, Anthony Perdicaro put a hit on MacPhee in front of the Antz bench. This afforded several Antz players the chance to take a shot at Mac. After Phil Sbrocchi took a whack at him, Lundale took a whack at Sbrocchi. Sbrocchi followed Lundale to the Snakes' bench and pinned him against the boards from behind. In the process of extricating himself, Lundy caught Sbrocchi with an elbow to the schnozola, drawing blood and the ire of Sbrocchi. The two defensemen squared off and dropped the gloves. There were no linesmen to break them up because they were already separating MacPhee and Perdicaro, who were already tangling at center ice. Then somewhere in the middle of all the chaos, Matt Kinnunen got into a fight with Jason Hill, who was suddenly feeling better, apparently. When the dust settled, 5 players were headed for an early shower. Kinnunen, Lundale, Hill and Sbrocchi got the gate for engaging in secondary altercations, and MacPhee got a match penalty for a head-butt during his fight with Perdicaro. In the middle of all this, Jerome and Fireantz coach Tommy Stewart exchanged pleasantries. Apparently Tommy thought that Jerome had sent MacPhee out to try and injure one of the Fireantz, and Jerome expressed his derision at Tommy's accusations.

The net result of all of this, apart from some extra ice time for everybody, was that the Snakes were all fired up now. The boys took control of the game, putting more shots on goal and more bodies into the boards. Jordan Braid scored at 13:11 to cut the lead down to one. Brett Hammond tied the game at 6:54 of the third period. After Nathaniel Brooks put the Antz back on top, Hammond tied the game once again at 11:54. Two minutes later, Sam Bowles scored the eventual game-winner. Andrew Loewen held the fort for the last 6 minutes to seal the win.

Heading into the holiday week, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. The comeback win in Fayetteville had given us confidence and shown that we could battle back from an early deficit...not to mention proving that we could score more than 1 goal in a game.

We carried that with us into the next game against Augusta, jumping out to a 5-0 lead (with goals from 5 different Snakes) after 2 periods. This is the kind of balanced scoring we've been looking for all season. We've known all along that we don't have a big-name goal-scorer. What we've been hoping for is to have the ability to get goals from anywhere, from the first line to the third line to the defense. Unfortunately, our goal-scoring has been spotty, at best. But a night like this one gives me hope that things might come together the way we planned after all. We'll see.

Brent Clarke scored the Snakes 6th goal in the third period (from 6 different scorers), sandwiched between two Augusta goals, for a 6-2 final score. We were able to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas morning on the heels of back-to-back wins. On Christmas day, we were back on the ice in the afternoon for an optional practice to help get ready for our game the next day. The SPHL schedule-makers, in their impotent wisdom, chose to give us a 4pm game in Fayetteville (a 7-hour bus ride away) on December 26th, or Boxing Day, as it's called by our Canadian neighbors (a reference to throwing away boxes and boxing up gifts to return, not fighting in a ring).

This was one of those trips that we had all been dreading since our travel plans were announced. Not only were we travelling on the day after Christmas, but a 4pm start time and 7-hour bus ride dictated that we would need to leave at about 6am to arrive in Fayetteville by about 2pm (with an hour to eat on the way). But we were additionally blessed with a rare Georgia White Christmas. A nice snowfall on Christmas day meant we would likely see ice and slush on the roads for a good portion of the trip. Because of this, we pushed our departure time up to 5:30am. Wonderful! What a great way to start the day...get up, head to the rink, pack the gear, load the bus and get on board. Needless to say, most of the guys headed straight for their bunks. The roads were pretty bad in Northern Georgia, and at one point we were slowed down to about 40 miles an hour, but Tex got us through. We stopped just outside of Augusta for lunch (Breakfast? Brunch? Whatever), but about the only place we could find open was a Cracker Barrel. It wasn't ideal, but it would have to do (Don't get me wrong...I love the Barrel. But it's probably not the best food for athletes on a gameday.). We got in without too much of a delay and ate and got back on the road. We pulled into the parking lot at the Crown Coliseum almost at 2pm on the dot (Great job, Tex!) and quickly unloaded and got out of the cold. Once inside, it was business as usual as we prepared for the rematch.

Usually, when you have a bunch of fights against a team and then play them again a few days later, there's an expectation that the animosity will carry over from the previous game. This almost never happens, but still that feeling of anticipation is there. Today is no different. We expect a bloodbath, but it never comes. In fact, there weren't very many penalties (and only one fight, between Sbrocchi and Mitch Wall).

Instead, there was a game that was basically 2 halves. The first half was dominated by the Fireantz (after an early goal by Jesse Cole at 1:11 of the first), but once again Andrew Loewen kept us close. At the midway point, the Fireantz held a 2-1 lead. The Snakes came to life in the second half of the 2nd period and took a 3-2 lead on goals by Matt Kinnunen and Jeff MacPhee. Jesse Cole again started things early, scoring a power-play goal just 50 seconds into the third. Fireantz forward Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn scored to close the gap halfway through the third, but the Snakes played some good team defense to limit their chances to a few and their goals to zero over the last 10 minutes. It seems we finally figured out that their whole offense revolves around the breakaway pass. They like to sneak a guy away from the pack behind the defense and hit him with that long stretch pass to send him on a breakaway. Time and time again they tried it, and time and time again the Snakes were there to stifle it. It was a thing of beauty to watch and you could see that the Antz forwards were getting more and more frustrated as the game wore on. We held on for a 4-3 victory and boarded the bus for home. Our longest week of the year was just beginning.

We got back to Columbus at about 3am, with the Louisiana Ice Gators arriving from Mississippi shortly after us. Normally we wouldn't practice on a day where we had bussed overnight to get back home after a game, but with our next game hot on Monday's heels, we had to get on the ice. We had a 1pm practice, immediately preceded by the Ice Gators (who arrived in Columbus without their new coach, who met them in Columbus). Both teams had a short practice to get ready for the next day's game.

The Gators took the ice for Tuesday night's game with their new coach behind the bench for the first time. He obviously didn't have a lot of time to prepare them. He didn't have any time to work on systems, or even determine which players work best together. They seemed to want to do well for their new coach, but just didn't have much direction and just weren't able to end their now 11-game losing streak. The Snakes won the game 3-1, in large part due to the 3-point effort of Daryl Moore (2G, 1A). Ian Vigier stopped 28 of 29 shots for the win.

After another abbreviated practice day, the Snakes boarded the bus again and headed down the road to Pensacola. The Ice Flyers took a lead in the first 2 minutes of the first period, then added to it in the first 2 minutes of the second. The Snakes tied the score with 2 late goals in the second, but Brett Liscomb and Erik Stoyanovich restored the Flyers' 2-goal lead in the third. Sam Bowles closed the gap late in the third, but the Snakes fell on the short end of a 4-3 final, snapping a season-high 5-game winning streak.

On New Year's Eve, the Snakes returned home to face the Gators once again. Despite having a couple of games under their belt with their new coach, the Gators still couldn't muster much consistent pressure on the Snakes, who strolled to a 3-0 win (their first shutout of the season and Ian Vigier's first in 2+ seasons).

On New Year's Day, the Snakes seemed to be showing the effects of the long week. The Flyers stormed out to a 5-0 lead after 1 period, an 8-0 lead after 2, and withstood our 1-goal comeback for a 9-1 victory. We just didn't have anything left in the tank for that final game of the week, and it showed. Pensacola dominated every aspect of the game, from beginning to end. The only consolation in a 9-1 loss is that it still only counts as one loss in the standings.

In an attempt to take something positive from such a horrible game, at least we managed to win 6 of our last 8 games, including a 4-game winning streak. We got through our longest, most difficult stretch of the season with a 4-2 record and could look forward to getting back some key injured players heading into the new year. All in all, things are looking up. I just hope we can keep it going.