Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Movember!

***Once again, I have fallen way behind in my blog, but I intend to get caught up soon. Here's my recap of the month of November. Watch for December in the coming days. As always, thanks for reading and your feedback is appreciated.

After the quick start, the Snakes went on a roller coaster ride. We started things off on Veterans Day in Memphissippi. After falling behind in the first minute of the game on a Rob Sich goal, the Snakes traded goals with Sich in the second period and entered the third period trailing 2-1.  The Snakes controlled the play in the third and finally managed to tie the game at 2 goals apiece on a power-play goal by John Sullivan late in the third.  This goal really energized our whole team. It looked like we would manage to steal another victory from the Riverkings on their home ice. The teams traded scoring opportunities in the overtime period and then something happened that I still can't believe. In what may be the worst call I've ever seen, the linesman whistled us for too many men on the ice. It wasn't even close. I was at the end of the bench where it happened, and there's no way this should have been a penalty. Levi was coming to the bench for a change as the play was coming towards our end.  Sammy hopped the boards to replace him, but not before Levi decided nobody was coming so he turned away from the bench to get back into the play. As soon as Sammy hit the ice he realized that Levi had turned away and Sammy turned to come back to the bench. As he turned, Sammy lost an edge and fell to the ice in front of our bench. Levi still hadn't crossed the blue line into our defensive zone when Sammy got back onto the bench. The linesman blew the play dead and called us for Too Many Men on the Ice, despite the fact that neither player was in any way involved with the play (the key criterion for a Too Many Men penalty). Since there were only 3 seconds left on the clock in the overtime period, Referee Jason Schulz assessed a penalty shot based on an SPHL rule regarding penalties incurred without sufficient time remaining. Mark Magnowski scored on the ensuing penalty shot and won the game for the Riverkings. To add insult to injury, we later found out that the SPHL doesn't even have that rule anymore, so the penalty shot wasn't even an automatic call as we had thought.  Regardless, it never should have been a penalty anyway under any definition of Too Many Men. It was a very frustrating way to lose a hockey game.

We didn't have time to dwell on the loss. We had to load the bus and head for Knoxville. We got into Knoxville at around 5am and dropped off the gear at the rink, then headed to the hotel to get some rest. We started off slowly in the game, weathering a barrage of shots in the first period. We actually got on the board first with a goal from Levi Lind. The IceBears responded with a goal of their own and the teams went into the first intermission tied at 1 goal apiece.

There was a scary moment in the early part of the second period. Snakes center Greg Beller, making his Cottonmouths debut, went in on the forecheck into the IceBears zone and the Bears D-Man tried to clear the puck out of the zone. The puck came up and caught Beller squarely on the jaw, sending him sprawling on the ice. Hannah hurried out to him and escorted him off the ice to begin treatment. There was a large pool of blood on the ice and a hush came over the crowd. There was a fairly long delay while crews tried to clean up the blood so that the game could continue. The whole place seemed to be in shock. Even after play resumed both sides seemed to be walking on eggshells for the first couple of minutes.

The roles were reversed in the second, with the Snakes holding a wide margin in shots and the Bears scoring first only to be answered by Snakes forward (and former IceBear) Derek Pallardy. The Snakes again held the shot advantage in the third, but fell behind on a goal by Emery Olauson early in the frame. It took a late power-play goal by Brett Hammond to tie the game and force overtime. But our luck in Knoxville remained consistent...a nothing play and a funny hop off the boards turned into a goal in the blink of an eye. The Ghosts of Knoxville had their way with us again. We have the worst luck in that building, from freak injuries to crazy bounces and fluky goals.

Once again, we didn't have time to feel sorry for ourselves about the loss. It was back on the bus and back to Columbus for another 4pm matinee against Fayetteville for all of us except for Beller and Hannah, who spent the night (and another couple of days) at the hospital in Knoxville. Luckily, Beller came out of surgery okay...although he would be out of action for quite a while.

Movember jerseys
We got back to Columbus early on Sunday (around 4am) and dropped the gear at the Civic Center before sending the players home to get some rest. I started working on laundry and getting things ready for the game later that day. We were set to debut our special "Movember" jerseys (see pic at right) for the first of 3 games during the month of November. For those of you who aren't familiar, Moustache November or "Movember" is a campaign to raise awareness of men's health issues (including prostate cancer). Most of the players on the team and several members of the staff (myself included) signed up on the Movember web site to raise money for cancer research. As part of the program, we all grew mustaches for the month of November to show our support and draw attention to the campaign.  After wearing the special jerseys for 3 home games during the month we were to auction them off with the proceeds going to benefit men's health issues.

Both teams were rounding out 3 games in 3 nights, so both came out rather tentatively at the start. Each side only managed 8 shots on goal in the first period, with Chris Rebernik starting off the scoring for the Fireantz, and Jesse Cole answering about 30 seconds later. Levi Lind added a late goal to give the Snakes a 2-1 advantage. Andrew Willock scored for the Antz in the second, sandwiched between goals by Andrew Krelove (his first as a pro) and Bret Tyler. Rebernik scored 10 seconds into the third to close the gap to 4-3, but Scorin' Orrin closed out the scoring midway through the period for a 5-3 final score. The Snakes salvaged the weekend with a much-needed win (and 4 out of 6 possible points) and earned a day off.

We began the next weekend at home against the Huntsville Havoc. We dominated most of the game, but Havoc goalie Mark Sibbald held us to one goal in regulation and overtime. The game wasn't decided until sudden-death in the shootout when Levi Lind scored the game winner with the Snakes' 6th attempt.

We started off the game slowly the next night against Pensacola (a recurring theme lately) and the Ice Flyers capitalized with 2 goals in the first 2:35 of the game. We tried to claw our way back into the game but couldn't manage to tie it up (despite a 2-to-1 margin in shots) and we lost the game 3-2.

We had a quick turnaround into the next week with a rare Tuesday game against the Knoxville Ice Bears.  For a change, this time we were the team that got off to the quick start. Snakes Defenseman David Cianfrini scored just 45 seconds into the game to give us an early lead. After the goal, I was surprised to have one of the guys toss me the game puck (This usually occurs when a player scores his first professional goal, as we keep the puck to give the player as a souvenir). Knowing that Cheech had played here nearly all of last season, I couldn't imagine that he hadn't scored a goal before. I held onto the puck anyway, then used my smart phone to look up his stats between periods. I was shocked to find out that it was indeed his first goal as a professional. Congratulations, Cheech! Sam Bowles added a goal later in the period for a 2-0 lead after one period. Jeremy Klaver scored a power-play goal for the Ice Bears in the early part of the second period, answered by Sam Bowles and Mitch Wall midway through the frame. The Snakes took a 4-1 lead into the third period and apparently decided that that was enough because we only took 2 shots the rest of the way. The Ice Bears managed 8 shots but Ian Vigier only let one of those get past him to preserve the 4-2 victory for the Cottonmouths.

After the Thanksgiving holiday (and a practice on Thanksgiving day) we hosted the Huntsville Havoc on Friday night. After a back and forth first period (and despite a second period in which they were outshot 13-9) the Snakes took a 2-0 lead in the second on the strength of a power-play goal by Tom Maldonado and a short-handed goal by Bret Tyler. Stuart Stefan and Shaun Arvai countered in the third to force overtime. Then Andrew Krelove capped off the win 2 minutes into the overtime score Snakes defensemen 3 - Havoc 2.

After the game we got back on the bus to head for Lafayette, Louisiana to play the Ice Gators. We arrived early in the morning, dropped off our gear at the Cajundome, then headed to the hotel to get some sleep. Tyler and I cabbed it down to the rink early to set up. I hate the new locker room they put us in at the Cajundome this season. It's actually the old UL Ragin' Cajuns basketball locker room. It's actually a nice room, but it's very small (intended for 10-12 basketball players, not 18 hockey players with full gear). Apparently, the Cajuns decided that they needed a bigger room, so they booted the Ice Gators out of their room, forcing the Gators to move into the former visitors' room. The only room left was the Cajuns' old room. So tiny. There are lockers in the room, but they're tiny little basketball lockers, intended to hang each players street clothes and uniform. Even if we give 2 of those lockers to a player, it's a tight squeeze to hang all of their gear. And that's only enough lockers for 7 or 8 players. It leaves the rest of the team sitting on chairs against a bare wall with no hooks or anything on which to hang gear. This means that most guys are laying their stuff out on the floor or draping it over the back of their chair. It's not very conducive to drying out the gear (a big factor in a humid climate) and it's basically impossible to organize the room in any sort of neat-looking way. It's an equipment manager's nightmare. If you look at the locker room picture above you can see how neat and orderly everything looks. This room in Louisiana is the opposite of that.

Despite the challenges, we made the room look as neat as possible - passing out the laundry, game socks, and game jerseys to each player's pile of gear. I set up the sharpener and began sharpening skates for the players who needed it. By the time the players arrived, Tyler and I had done everything we could to ensure that the guys would be ready for the game.

Unfortunately, they weren't ready. We started slowly once again (getting outshot 9-4) and left the first period trailing by a score of 1-0. The Snakes reversed the shooting trend (14-10) and managed to score 2 goals in the second period, but the Gators managed 3 of their own in between. The game was hard-fought and gritty, with several Snakes players getting cut by sticks to the face. Peter MacDougall had his nose broken by an errant stick. None of them resulted in penalties; only blood. Neither team scored in the third (nor took many shots at 5-5), and the Gators skated away with a 4-2 victory.

Again, we boarded the bus and headed to Memphissippi for a 3pm game on Sunday. We arrived at the DeSoto Civic Center at around 6:30 in the morning. We dropped the gear and the players headed to the hotel. Tyler and I stayed at the rink to get set up and get ready for the game. The laundry facilities in the DCC are in the visitors' locker room, so it was easy and convenient to do our own laundry. We set up the glove dryer and fans in the room to help dry the gear and rotated players gear on and off the glove dryers. Once the game socks were washed and dried I sorted through them to see if any needed to be sewn. I had to sew a couple of pairs, then paired them up and passed them out. In the meantime, the underwear went into the dryers. While it was spinning, I set about the task of replacing MacDougall's visor with a full-face shield to protect his broken nose. I got it finished, got the underwear passed out, hung the game jerseys, then started on skates. The guys showed up around 1pm and started getting ready for the game.

Both sides came out hard in the first period, with the Snakes holding a 13-12 advantage in shots. Both goalies weathered the storm, only allowing one goal each. Peter MacDougall, still feeling the effects of a high stick from the night before, took a hard check into the boards and injured his shoulder. He left the game and didn't return. After Scorin' Orrin Hergott gave the Snakes a lead 2 minutes into the second period, the floodgates opened for the Riverkings and they exploded for 4 unanswered goals. They dominated the play, outshooting us 15-7 in the period. The boys came back out in the third and answered the bell, with Tom Maldonado scoring just a minute into the period. Despite outshooting them 16-6 in the frame we just couldn't manage to come from behind. Mike Tuomi scored an unassisted shorthanded goal at 13:02 to complete the hat trick (and take the wind out of our sails). Jordan Braid scored his second of the game at 16:05, but it was too little too late. The Riverkings held on for a 6-4 victory.  It was a tough way to end November, but we were still above .500 on the season and sitting in 3rd place.

We're not quite where we want to be, but we're in good position to make a move.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

And we're off!

Practice is always more fun when you're winning.
Well, the season is underway.  As I write this, your Cottonmouths have a 3-1-1 record.  I'm fairly certain that this is the best record we've had after 5 games in my 5 seasons in Columbus.   In the past, we've had a tendency to start off slowly and I've always attributed that to the high turnover rate associated with lower-minor league hockey.  It's hard to teach systems to a bunch of new players with the few days of practice in training camp.  Yes, other teams do it year after year.  But maybe Jerome's system is just a little more complex than those of some other coaches.  I think once the players get it figured out to the point where it comes naturally to them and each guy knows where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do, then it's just a matter of fine-tuning little details here and there as needed.  I maintain that that's why we've always finished strong.  Once the system becomes second nature it's just a matter of character and chemistry...and Jerome gets good character guys.  With us returning most of last year's roster this season, Jerome didn't have to spend as much time teaching.  He could focus on the new guys and the older guys could help out when one of the new guys was unsure of what to do.  We have a good core of players from last year and a few key additions should help round out the roster.

As training camp wound down, we hit a minor bump in the road.  Forward Sam Bowles had an MRI done on his knee, which had been bothering him since he hurt it during off-season workouts, and it was determined that he needed surgery.  As luck would have it, we had just picked up a new player, Derek Pallardy, whose presence allowed us to sit Sammy out for the first week of the season to rehab his injury.  Pally fit right in, scoring the Snakes' first goal of the season just over a minute into the home opener.  Despite the early start, we lost the game 4-3 against a hat-trick from Pensacola forward Jason Chong.  I was really hoping that Dave Cianfrini would lay a big hit on Jason just so that our fans could hear Cheech and Chong mentioned in the same sentence.  While that never happened, we certainly got to hear the name Chong mentioned more than we would have liked.  You might say he made our home opener go "Up In Smoke".

The next night, the Cottonmouths had a 3-2 lead entering the third, but Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn's second goal of the game tied it at 3-3 and eventually forced overtime and the ensuing shootout.  None of the Snakes managed to dent the twine behind Surge Goalie Kiefer Smiley and Shawn Skelly got credit for the game-winner in the shootout.

The next week presented another dilemma for Jerome.  With Sam Bowles due to return to the lineup, somebody else would have to go to make room on the roster.  Once again, there were several players on the bubble.  The final decision came down to Daryl Moore.  He wasn't playing badly, but Jerome felt that he wasn't playing better than other, younger players.  So Moore was out and Bowles was back in, with still one more decision to be made the next week upon Jesse Cole's return.

The following weekend saw the Ice Flyers return for a rematch of opening night.  This time we were hoping for a better result.  Scorin' Orrin gave us a lead with a short-handed goal in the first period.  After Mike Carter tied the game at 1-1 in the second, Brett Hammond gave the Snakes a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal in the third.  Dan Buccella scored later in the period to force overtime and it looked like we were going to repeat opening night.  This time, however, John Sullivan scored just 47 seconds into the extra frame to give the Snakes our first win of the season.

After starting off 1-1-1 at home, we took our show on the road.  We rolled into Memphis (actually Southaven, Mississippi) for our first game at the DeSoto Civic Center against the newest SPHL team, the Mississippi Riverkings.  We were all looking forward to this game because during the off-season former Snakes defenseman Kyle Lundale was picked up by the Riverkings in the expansion draft.  This would be the first time any of us has seen him since he left Columbus.

I ran into Lundy in the hall before the game.  He's still the same old Lundy.  He said he misses Columbus but likes it in Mississippi.  I can't blame him.  It's a cool city (I love Beale Street) and they have a really good facility.  Plus, he can go visit Graceland any time he wants.  And the BBQ there is world-renowned.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but it seemed as though they started the game without us.  We were there...we just didn't seem to be involved in what was happening around us.  Midway through the first period, the Riverkings won a faceoff in our defensive zone back to Lundale, who threw a wrister towards the net.  It must have gone through a screen, because it wasn't a very hard shot but somehow found its way past Vigier and into the net.  It seems like that's always the way it goes...the former Snakes always seem to come back to bite us in the end (pun intended).  Just 25 seconds later another D-zone faceoff was lost back to the Riverkings defenseman who again threw the puck into the net.  When you see one goal like that it's not a big deal...but when you see 2 of them back-to-back you kind of get that "Oh, no" feeling.  Then about a minute and a half later we took a penalty and the 'Kings scored a power-play goal just 10 seconds later, for a total of 3 goals in a 2-minute span. We were all kind of shell-shocked.  We managed to make it through the first period without further damage, holding on by the skin of our teeth. I walked past the locker room just as Jerome was reading the riot act to the boys.  I was glad I wasn't in there.

Whatever he said worked because we came out looking like a completely different team in the second.  We still only managed 7 shots on goal (compared to 4 in the first period) but 2 of those found their way to the back of the net.  Goals by Jordan Braid and Mitch Wall sent us to the locker room down by only one goal at the end of 2 periods.

We continued to chip away in the third period, with Sully tying the game midway through the frame.  Levi Lind's goal at the 18:35 mark of the third completed the comeback.  I would say it was our best game of the season, except for the first period.  So, really, it was the best 2 periods we had played all season.  Yeah, that's it.

The axe fell once again the following week.  With Jesse Cole due to return we cut Morgan James to make room on the roster.  I felt bad about this one.  Morgan was a good kid (and my roommate, briefly).  He just wasn't ready to play at this level.  He was brought here for his toughness...and he brought plenty of that.  We just couldn't afford to keep a guy who wasn't going to play a regular shift.  Although this is considered a developmental league, with only 56 games we don't have a lot of time to carry players who aren't likely to contribute much.  Jerome helped find him a place to play in the Federal League, which is the best thing for him.  He needs ice time to work on improving his game, and he wasn't likely to get that here.  Still, I'll miss the big lug.  Take care and good luck, roomie!

After a full week of practice (for some reason, the SPHL saw fit to give us both Friday and Saturday off, but schedule us to play a game at home on Sunday afternoon) we met the Fayetteville Fireantz for the first time with their new coach, Sean Gillam.  Like us, the Antz had won 2 games, but one of those wins came against the league-leading Augusta Riverhawks.  With both teams on a bit of a roll, this was shaping up to be a marquee matchup.

As is often the case, the actual game didn't live up to the hype.  The most noteworthy thing about this game was that it was the first time we saw the 2-referee system.  I understand the logic...if one referee is awful then 2 must be horrendous (just kidding, guys).  The Snakes jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Jordan Braid and Sam Bowles.  Brett Needham got the Fireantz on the board early in the second period to trim the deficit to 2-1, but Jordan Braid scored again 2 1/2 minutes later to close out the scoring.  There were some fireworks in the middle of the second period.  Dave Cianfrini tried to put a check on a Fireantz player, who sidestepped the check.  Cheech tried to stretch out his body to complete the hit but only managed to get the guy with his leg.  The result was a leg-on-leg hit that sent the Fireantz player flying.  Brett Needham took exception and came to his teammate's defense, instigating a fight.  Cheech held his own against a tough competitor and they both went to the box.  Mitch Wall fought the Antz' Kyle McNeil 2 minutes later.  The rest of the game was fairly uneventful as the Snakes cruised to a 3-1 victory.

After 3 weeks of play and 5 games, the Snakes are 3-1-1 and in 3rd place in the league.  It's the best 5-game start since I've been here and I hope it continues.  It's going to be a tough road, but I like our chances. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Snakes Training Camp - Post Script

Early game action in Knoxville
Hey there.  It's me again. Better late than never, I guess.  When I last posted, we were heading into our preseason games against Knoxville.  As I expected, I was too busy and/or too tired to sit down and write a blog during the progress of the weekend.  What I did not expect, however, was to come down with some sort of bug that just knocked me right on my butt.  It hit me during the day on Sunday, but it kind of snuck up on me.  I was feeling kind of run down, but I just attributed it to being tired from the weekend's games.  After our practice on Sunday, as I was waiting for laundry to finish, I started alternating between shivering chills and burning sweat.  I finally got enough done to be able to call it a day and headed for home and a much-needed rest.  My apologies to the Snakes Booster Club for having to skip their meet the team event on Sunday.  I really needed to get home and get to bed.

Without any further ado, let's talk about the weekend.  The game on Thursday night was the kind of game that many people think is boring.  Those people are wrong.  Most people seem to like scoring in hockey, so they hate to see a game go to overtime with no score.  To some people it's like watching soccer, which is to say it's like watching cement harden.  But if you look beyond the final score of 1-0, it was actually a great game.  One of the most exciting games I ever saw was a game that my New Mexico Scorpions won by a score of 1-0 in Overtime.  Though there was only one goal scored, there were plenty of scoring chances matched by great saves and/or defensive plays.  I wouldn't quite put Thursday night's game on that same level, but I think it was a more exciting game than lots of people would appreciate.  For most people, it may have seemed like evidence that last year's light scoring team was back.  In fact, Knoxville's goalie just had a really good game.  Snakes goalies Ian Vigier and Andrew Loewen split the game and the shutout after Jordan Braid buried a scoring chance early in the Overtime period.  A raucous crowd at the Columbus Ice Rink shook the building in celebration.

After the game, it was time to prepare for our first road trip.  I always hate the first road trip.  I'm always sure I'm going to forget something.  This being a day trip, there wasn't much that needed to be brought so that made things easier.  Still, I worried the whole way there that I had forgotten something.  In the end, everything went off without a hitch.

Well, not everything.  We stopped for lunch in Dalton, Georgia at our usual spot.  It's a good spot because there are several lunch options for the guys to choose from.  After lunch we pulled away and got back on the highway.  Just a few miles down the road, however, Tex could tell something wasn't right.  Suddenly, the bus started overheating.  He pulled over at the next exit (which luckily had a truck stop) and shut the bus down.  When he opened up the engine compartment, he was sprayed with hot water and anti-freeze from the radiator.  After seeing to the burns on his arm, he was able to get assistance from the mechanic at the truck stop and fix what needed to be fixed.  It took a while, but we finally got it running again and in good order so we could get back on the road.  We were looking good timewise before the mishap, but by the time we got rolling again we were scrambling for time.  To paraphrase Jerry Reed we had a long way to go and a short time to get there, but Tex got us there in the nick of time.  We hurriedly unloaded the bus (with help from the IceBears locker room staff and helpers) and got ready to go out for warmups, which started about 15 minutes after we got there.  After the warmup we settled back into the normal gameday routine and the game started without further incident.

Pre-season game 2 in Knoxville was very different from the previous night's pitching duel in Columbus.  For starters, the Knoxville lineup looked very different.  Mark Van Vliet, who had coached the IceBears on Thursday night, was in the lineup on Friday along with Kevin Swider, Emery Olausson and most of the more recognizable IceBears.  The Snakes team looked the same as it had on Thursday night, but something was different...they brought their scoring sticks with them.  Matty Kinnunen notched a couple of goals in the first period as the goals came early and often in a 7-4 victory for the Snakes.  As expected, Swider had a hand in most of the IceBears' scoring.  He scored a couple and assisted on another, but it wasn't enough.  The Snakes filled the IceBears' net in a game we pretty much dominated from beginning to end.  I hope we see a lot more of this type of game this season.  From a spectator's perspective, it was fun to watch.  For the second night in a row, I let Tyler McCrea work the bench and I watched from rinkside.  We claimed our victory and boarded the bus and headed for home.  We had an off day ahead of us, but Jerome had some tough decisions to make.

There were several players "on the bubble".  There were 7 defensemen battling for 6 spots, and 12 forwards vying for 10 spots.  Goaltending was pretty well set, with 2 goalies to fill 2 spots.  In the end, Jerome released Brody Malek on defense and Matt Kinnunen up front.  I must admit I was surprised by the decision on Kinnunen.  I expected Brody to be the odd man out on defense, although he looked better in camp than he did at the end of last season.  The competition on D was just too tough.  As good as he looked, Brody was the 7th man on the depth chart.  With Kinnunen, I thought there were a couple of guys who would go before him.  Kinner was a solid, hard-working player who was willing to do whatever was asked of him and brought a lot of energy to the team. I'm sure Jerome had his reasons for releasing Kinner (he doesn't take these kinds of decisions lightly), but I'm at a loss. What made it tough was that we had one guy in camp who didn't play in either of the pre-season games.  He had a minor injury that hampered him for a few days in practice and it was decided that it was best not to push it in the exhibition games.  It's kind of hard to cut a guy knowing that he didn't have the opportunity to show you what he could really do because he was limited by an injury. At the same time, however, it's hard to KEEP a guy who didn't have a chance to show you what he could do in a game situation. It's even harder to keep such a guy at the expense of somebody who played for you the season before and did show you what he brought to the table.  In the end, Jerome felt he had seen enough of the guy to make that decision. I know that there are lots of factors to consider when putting a roster together.  In addition to the obvious on-ice performance you have to consider veteran status, visa status, salary, compatibility...and probably a dozen other things that I've forgotten about. That's why it's sometimes easy to look at it from the outside and wonder what Coach is thinking when he signs certain players and releases others. I've second-guessed him a couple of times myself. But in the final analysis I think he makes the decision that's best for the team, even if I don't always see it right away.

So, with Malek and Kinnunen out, and Jesse Cole out injured until November 6th, here's what our opening night roster should look like:

Hammond    Bowles    Sullivan
Hergott    Lind    Braid
Moore  MacDougall   Wall

Barlow    Tyler
Cianfrini   Kessler
Maldonado  Krelove

Loewen  Vigier

Or something like that.  Stay tuned...