Friday, April 13, 2012

The Home Stretch

Once we got past the holidays, and the calendar turned to 2012, the season began to fly by. We began on the road with a 2-game series in Louisiana. Lafayette is basically the only place in the league that's far enough away that we need to go there the day before the game. Everywhere else is basically a day trip for us. While I like the day trips (we start off at home and end up at home and get to sleep in our own beds), I kind of miss being on the road once in a while. This trip was a nice remedy for that.

We jumped out to a 3-1 lead on the strength of 2 goals by Andrew Krelove and one by Orrin Hergott. After that, things kind of went south. The Gators scored 4 unanswered goals (including a Robert Short hat-trick) to win the game 5-3. Not a good way to start the new year.

The next day's game was a matinee, rescheduled to avoid a conflict with the Saints' playoff game. After a good night's rest the boys went to work, opening a 2-0 lead on power-play goals by Jesse Cole and Tom Maldonado. The Gators' Tyler Lyon closed the gap to 2-1 and we went to the third period nursing a 1-goal lead. Andrew Krelove continued his hot weekend with yet another power-play goal. August Aiken answered for the Gators but they were unable to net the equalizer and the Snakes held on for a 3-2 lead.

After splitting the series in Louisiana, the Snakes decided to go streaking. We won the next game at home against Huntsville, then lost in OT in Augusta. Then we won 3 in a row, then lost 1, then won 2.

During one of these games, in Columbus against the Ice Gators at the end of January, I saw something remarkable. In the middle of a back-and-forth game, Josh Duplantis scored his second goal of the game to give the Gators a 3-2 lead. We hadn't been playing very well and needed some kind of spark. Will Barlow was on the bench and knew something needed to be done. He called out to Gators forward Kevin Beauregard, who was on the ice, "Hey, Beauregard, ya wanna go?" I still don't know why he chose Beauregard, other than the fact that he was on the ice and would be willing to fight Twirl, but he looked over and said "Sure". Barlow hopped the boards and took the place of our right winger. The puck dropped, the gloves dropped, and then this happened:

(Special thanks to Chris Icenhour at Icenhour productions for the video)

I really don't think Beauregard knew what he was getting himself into when he agreed to fight Twirl, but he got all he could handle, and then some. That's what I love about Barlow; he doesn't look, talk, or act like a tough guy but when the gloves come off he can tangle with the best of them. I think that's why other "tough guys" take him lightly. He doesn't look like a tough guy.  But he is. Just ask Kevin Beauregard, or Britt Ouellett, or any one of a number of tough customers that Will has handled during his time as a Cottonmouth.

The best thing about this fight was that it had the desired effect. It got the team fired up and we scored 2 goals in the third period to take a 4-3 lead. Unfortunately, Louisiana managed to score an extra-attacker power-play goal in the final minute of regulation to force overtime. Jordan Braid scored 1:59 into the OT period to secure the win, so it all turned out well in the end.

After that series we lost 2, then won 2, then lost another one before winning a season-high 5 straight (which included 2 against Augusta). We then won 5 of our next 7 games to set up the battle for 2nd place. We entered the last weekend of the season having won 9 of our last 12 games and in a virtual tie with Knoxville for 2nd. So, of course, we opened that weekend with a game in Knoxville, a place where wins were few and far-between in previous seasons. That wasn't the case this season, however. For whatever reason, we had good luck against the IceBears in general and specifically in Knoxville. We went into that game knowing that it was going to be the key to taking 2nd place. Whoever won would be alone in 2nd with each team playing the same 2 opponents over the last 2 nights of the season. Winning that game would put us in the driver's seat.

As expected, it was a tightly played game. After a scoreless first period, we scored 2 goals late in the second to take a 2-0 lead. We thought we were cruising. Then Knoxville showed why they've been the #2 team in the league for most of the season. The Bears came out flying in the third, scoring 2 quick goals to tie up what was essentially a playoff game. They put pressure on us and goalie Ian Vigier, but Vig slammed the door shut time and time again. The game remained tied 2-2 at the end of regulation and we went to Overtime to settle things. Of course. Why wouldn't it come down to Overtime of Game #54? Each team had a couple of shots in the OT period when the Snakes caught a break. A bad change for the IceBears led to a 2-on-1 break with Jordan Braid and Sam Bowles. To be accurate, it was more like a partial break for Braid with Bowles coming in late. The defenseman had an angle on Braider so he couldn't attack the net directly. We all expected him to take the shot with Sammy driving to the net looking for a potential rebound. He surprised us all by carrying the puck behind the net and curling back around the other side. The defenseman, now in a full-on panic, skated into the net and knocked the net off its moorings at about the same time the goalie did the same thing. They ended up in a heap in the crease as Braid centered the puck out to Sammy for an easy tap-in goal. Sammy leapt into the air, Braider in hot pursuit for the obligatory celebratory hug. He chased Sammy all the way down the ice to the opposite end. Sammy waved good-bye to the stunned crowd as our bench emptied and our whole team followed Sammy down to the door and right off the ice. Hannah and I quickly gathered up our stuff from the bench and left the ice as the stunned IceBears were arguing that the goal should not have counted because the net had been dislodged before the puck entered. We didn't hang around to give the ref a chance to change his mind.  I've never seen anything like it.

As for the goal, here is the rule that Referee Stephen Thomson applied (from the SPHL rule book downloaded from

63.6 Awarded Goal - In the event that the goal post is displaced, either deliberately or accidentally, by a defending player or goalkeeper, prior to the puck crossing the goal
line between the normal position of the goalposts, the Referee may award a goal.
In order to award a goal in this situation, the goal post must have been displaced by the actions of a defending player or goalkeeper, the puck must have been
shot (or the player must be in the act of shooting) at the goal prior to the goal post
being displaced, and it must be determined that the puck would have entered the net
between the normal position of the goal posts

That being said, I'm pretty sure the IceBears are still arguing that call somewhere. But the win put us 2 points ahead of Knoxville, each with 2 games remaining (against the same 2 teams, Fayetteville and Augusta).

After that game, you would have thought we stole something (and Bears fans would agree). We packed and loaded and got out of Dodge. We headed up the road to Fayetteville for a game against the Fireantz, while the IceBears prepared to head to Augusta for a game the next day. We had the leg up that we wanted in the battle for 2nd place, but we still had 2 games to play. You would think we wouldn't have to worry about the last-placed team, but sometimes those are the most dangerous teams to play down the stretch. With nothing to play for themselves those teams can play the spoiler role with no pressure on themselves. Sometimes those teams can surprise you and really do some damage.

This was not one of those times. After dropping the gear at the arena and going to the hotel for a good rest, the boys showed up and administered a beating to the hapless Fireantz. The Snakes led 3-0 before the game was eight minutes old and never looked back. It was 6-0 seven minutes into the 2nd. Josh McQuade finally got the Antz on the board at 15:29 of the 2nd period. Each team scored a pair of goals in the 3rd for a final score of 8-3. The Snakes' power-play (the best in the SPHL) scored an unprecedented 6 power-play goals. No, that is not a typo. 6 power-play goals.

Knoxville managed to win their game in Augusta, so everything would come down to the last day of the season (as I had been saying for 2 weeks). Knoxville returned home to face Fayetteville and we hosted Augusta (in what would also be the deciding game in our season series with them and the battle for the Peach Cup). Heading into the last game we led by 2 points, so we just needed to get 1 point (or have Knoxville lose) to clinch the #2 seed in the playoffs.

The only problem with that scenario was that we had to play the #1 team in the league while Knoxville played the last-place team in the league. We knew we couldn't count on any help from Fayetteville, so we would just have to take matters into our own hands. That was the good thing about our situation. Going into a game knowing that we just have to take care of our own business-then it doesn't matter what the other team does-was somewhat comforting.

And take care of our own business we did. "Scorin'" Orrin Hergott got the Cottonmouths on the board with a power-play goal just 5:36 into the game. Mitch Wall made it 2-0 about eight minutes later, and the Snakes never looked back. By the time we went into the locker room for the 1st intermission, we already knew that Knoxville was (somehow) losing at home to Fayetteville. What we didn't know was that we already had the goals we needed to clinch 2nd place.

Levi Lind got a quick goal in the first minute of the 2nd period, which was answered by Augusta's Ed Snetsinger at 2:30 of the period. Dave Cianfrini drove the final nail into Augusta's coffin with a short-handed goal at the 5:31 mark of the 3rd. This led to the entire Snakes bench erupting into fits of laughter. If we could pick the one guy we would most like to have on a breakaway, Cheech would not be that guy. When the guys play juice-boy at the end of practice (shootout game where the last guy to score has to get Gatorade for all of the other guys who play) Cheech doesn't always "win", but he's usually in until the later rounds. He's definitely not our most gifted scorer on the breakaway. When he came out of the penalty box and took the stretch pass there was a brief moment of excitement ("all right...we've got a breakaway") followed immediately by the sudden crash to earth when we realized who it was ("oh,'s Cheech"). Cheech walked in on Riverhawks goalie Jon Olthuis, made a move like he knew what he was doing, and scored on Olthuis. I think he was as surprised as anybody that he scored. It was a great moment.

When the dust settled we were the #2 seed in the SPHL playoffs, meaning that we would have home-ice advantage against anybody we played except for Augusta. Not only that, but we finished the regular season on a 3-game winning streak. It's nice to have a little momentum going into the playoffs. We would have to wait almost an hour after our game to find out that we would play Louisiana in the first round. We had a mixed reaction to the news that we would play Louisiana-we knew they were a beatable team, but we didn't have a great record against them. Due to building-availability issues we would play the first game at the Cajundome, the home of the Ice Gators. This meant that games 2 and 3 would be back at the Snake Pit. I liked the sound of that. This was already shaping up to be an exciting matchup. I couldn't wait for the playoffs to start.  This was going to be fun.

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