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.

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