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.

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