Must Win Thrillers
The last three games, in the last three nights, all must-wins for the Devil and the Boy, have provided as much drama for the players, coaches and especially we spectators in the stands as nearly the whole year combined. Ya just gotta love playoff hockey.
Two nights ago the Devil and her mates played their latest game against their closest rivals, having already lost the first game in a best-out-of three series which will determine who gets to go on to play in the provincial championships. The girls played what could best be described as a bend-but-don’t-break game that saw them score the first and only goal half-way through the second period. Our goalie, not unlike other games this year, “stood on her head”; pushing away several good scoring chances from the other side. On one shot in particular that had its sights on the bottom stick side of the net, she instinctively threw out her right leg, just barely getting her toe in the way of the oncoming puck. On the bench for this game, I watched a great deal of it behind splayed fingers, as did many of the onlookers in the stands I’m sure. But in the end the girls prevailed, sending the series to a game three back at the same foreign rink in exactly one week’s time.
Cut to last night, where the Boy’s team turned the drama up a few notches. I almost don’t know where to start describing this third game of a six point series, which had our team facing elimination with a loss. To start, the team would be dressing only ten out of 15 skaters as they dealt with two season-ending injuries, one two-game suspension from earlier in the series, one player on a family vacation in Florida and one competing in the provincial high school cross-country skiing championships. One of the ten dressed skaters had injured his wrist lifting weights in gym class earlier in the day and the other had injured his shoulder in the previous match. The player with the injured shoulder would only sit on the bench as an emergency backup should someone be needed to serve a ten minute misconduct penalty (crafty little coaching move, indeed). The team was shorthanded to say the least.
But it gets worse. The hockey gods seemed to be frowning. One on the nine players who was capable of skating realized just before the game started that he had a broken skate. He was lucky to be able to borrow a pair from a team coming off the ice from a previous game. So we started the game with a hodge podge of forwards and defencemen. The opponents, with a full bench, no doubt salivated at their prospects for a win.
The Boy and his rag-tag side had other ideas. They came out aggressive right off the hop. The Boy was able to split the D on a rush in the first couple of minutes. He was hauled down, crashing into the net with the puck in tow. At first, we in the crowd thought we witnessed a quick goal, but instead the ref called a tripping penalty; giving the Boys their first powerplay opportunity. They would not score early, but would dominate play for much of the game. As the other team scrambled, their goalie and defence were forced to knock the net off its moorings on at least four occasions. On the last of these, the Boy threw the puck into a dislodged net – another goal disallowed, but the Boy and his mates mock-celebrated to let the visitors know they were going to keep coming.
Then the break came as the home team was fighting off a penalty. The Boy pressured an opposing defenceman into turning over the puck. He scooted in behind him and broke towards the goalie with the startled defenceman in hot pursuit. He was able to throw the puck up an over the goalie’s left shoulder to establish a one-goal lead. Now the challenge would be squarely on the nine, exhausted skaters for the remainder of the second and the entire third period. Hockey mom did her part, by ordering in a round of energy drinks to boost the psychological, if not, the physical spirits of the young warriors.
With all the adversity they’d faced to this point, what else could possibly go wrong? How about another broken skate at the start of the third period; this time on the foot of a different defenceman. The only option, it seemed, was on the foot of the tenth penalty emergency player. His skate was subsequently transferred to where is was needed more. The newly equipped defencemen was able to rejoin the team after a quick “pit stop”.
The final event in this multi-act play was a collision between the Boy and an opposing player in the corner of the rink. The Boy went down in a heap. The trainer was summoned to do a quick assessment; before calling on a couple of other players to pick the Boy up and escort him back to the bench, reportedly with a fair stream of drool running out of his cage. All the while, the crowd looked on as both teams got something of a rest prior to finishing the last half of the final frame. The Boy would shake off the hit and return a couple of shifts later.
Scoring chances would be exchanged in the dying minutes. The Boy’s goaltender came up big on more than one occasion. The good guys held on to their painfully slim margin for the victory. Victorious, nine players and a backup goalie poured onto the ice to celebrate. Another must-win game four is tomorrow night; back in the bad guys’ playground.
Finally, cut to tonight and the last of three consecutive critical games. This time the Devil’s team was taking on the first-place squad from the regular season who had already won game one 2-0 at home. A first-place squad who only lost 4 out of 22 regular season games. The home side certainly had their work cut out for them. But they’ve proven in the past that they can play against strong opponents. And play they did. They battled hard the entire contest. Without looking at the stats, I would guess that they were outshot; our goalie shone again in behind her embattled crew.
As in the past two evenings, the game would be decided by a single goal coming on a seemingly harmless shot by the Devil towards the end of the second period, followed by a scramble for the puck in front of the goalie. One of the Devil’s line-mates was able to poke the puck past, through, over and/or under the sprawling goalie. It was difficult to determine how exactly the puck found its way into the net, but that’s where it ended up; delivering an early death knell to the visitors. Once again, the home team would fight tooth and nail to preserve a win and to play another day. Another victory huddle would form around the winning tender. This series will end, one way or another, this coming weekend. Both teams now know it’s anybody’s game.
There you have it. Three identical 1-0 decisions in three nights have sprouted a few more gray hairs on my aging noggin. These kids and their teams may have very well knocked a couple of days off my life expectancy. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. The post-game jubilation I’ve witnessed on the ice is worth every chewed fingernail. The high-fives and fist-bumps I see other parents exchanging tells the same story. We’re all proud of the efforts our players are putting in; particularly when their backs have been against the wall. Keep it up all ye young hockey soldiers. We’re gonna keep cheering you on as best we can.