Playoff Tales – Falling a Bit Behind While Charging Forward
The Boy and the Devil’s teams are both well into their playoff schedules taking my better half and I wildly off in all directions. Including a trip to the drug store to pick up bleach for da Boy’s playoff hair; an annual tradition on most teams the kids have been on. Other boys have gone the mohawk or mullet route all in the name of good fun and team spirit. The girls, for their part, have gone with strips of blue in their locks.
The Boy’s team unfortunately made a relatively quick departure from the provincial championship round; though they put up a valiant effort going out in four games. They fell behind a good, if not overly cocky team, in the first round; a function of finishing lower in the regular season standings than they probably should have. They battled through two initial losses staving off a sweep, but found themselves relegated to what’s pejoratively known as “The Toilet Bowl” or regional playoffs.
At the Midget level, there are several players who may be participating in their final year of hockey so for some the games at this level may be the last of the competitive hockey careers. Some may move on to play college, university or Junior level, but others may not have the talent or interest to carry on. This fact brings an extra level of challenge to playing any team you face where you have players looking to go out in a blaze of glory. Couple that with dangerously high levels of teenage male testosterone and you have a potentially explosive cocktail on ice.
Such was the case in the Boy’s most recent series against a rival to the North. On paper, the boys faced a squad they should have been able to handle quite easily. However, a two game scoring drought, some questionable refereeing and a hot goalie actually saw the good guys facing elimination. The lads would battle back pushing a normally five game series to a sixth match, which is when it all got a little ugly. On the scoreboard, the Boys were able to open up a 4-1 lead heading into the third period of the deciding game. With the contest and series out of reach for the other side, a parade to the penalty box commenced. The losing side’s reserves dwindled down to just a couple of players as one by one they were ushered off the ice after an extra jab of the stick, elbow to the head or wild swinging left arm – not exactly what you would call hockey or good sportsmanship. The game would end unceremoniously with one of their players exiting the penalty box only to make a bee-line towards one of our defencemen. Sensing the oncoming wrath, our player braced and knocked his assailant to the ice. Said assailant jumped up looking for another victim which happened to be the goaltender standing innocently nearby as the buzzer sounded to end the game. The now crazed combatant flung himself at our keeper in a flurry of fists which fell meekly on the netminder’s well padded blocker and gloved hands. Seeing the attack, another of our players strode in to provide assistance. The skirmish was really much ado about nothing. Meanwhile, another sour opponent, who had been a chippy player all series, took it upon himself to rush at our players’ bench as the clock ticked down to zero – another classless move. The referees were somewhat able to restore order. Handshakes were exchanged with a few remaining and thankfully more civilized players from the defeated side. One such player actually commented to my hockey-wife/trainer that his teammates were “psycho”. She told him she was sorry he and a couple of others had to be part of that. On to series two for what should be something less akin to the WWE.
Unfortunately, as I write this the Boy’s are already down two games to none in their next series, facing elimination in game three. This is a particularly interesting round from the Boy’s perspective as one of his best friends, a former school and teammate from when we lived in another town, plays defence for the opposing squad. His friend has been a visible agressor who’s gained no fans on our side. Both games so far have been much more pleasurable to watch versus the previous gong show; though the outcomes have not been favorable with 3-0 and 4-3 losses. In both contests, our lads have actually seemed to be the more skilled side or at least have had more scoring opportunities. That being said, they’ve been consistently knocked around by an aggressive group of opposing competitors; with the Boy’s buddy leading the charge. Our guys will certainly need to make the most of their opportunities and push back a little more in their next game if they hope to advance.
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Meanwhile, the playoff story so far on the girls’ side has been wild and unpredictable; so not all that different from what we’ve experienced all season. My troupe of young ladies are actually in two playoff series for two different regions at the same time. One is for their regular league championship while the other is a playdown to see who will represent our region in the provincial championships in April. Having posted a meek, albeit misleading, regular season record of 3-11-8 they are decided underdogs in both series.
By finishing in last place on the league side, the girls would draw daunting task of having to play the number one team in the division. As it turns out this same number one team had a scintillating record of 18-1-3. In a best out of three scenario, we would have to beat our first round counterparts twice as many times as they’d been beaten all year. That being said, we had competed with this and so many other teams that a ray a hope shone through in a short series scenario. One of their coaches did us a bit of a favour as he was overheard telling his players that the only reason they had been able to come back and beat us in a previous match was because we were “just a last place team.” A slight like that was not lost on me. I quickly related the same comment to our players hoping it would incite and enrage them to new heights of competitiveness. Unfortunately, the erstwhile ray of hope was fleeting and my incitation seemed to fall on deaf ears to say the least when we opened the round with a 7-0 loss. It was only 3-0 heading into the third period, but then the wheels completely fell off and the rout was on. Not the best of ways to start or build momentum. Now the chore became larger as the two games we needed to win became of the consecutive variety.
Before game two I did what I could to buoy the team’s spirits; letting them know I had not yet seen a plump lady enter the building as yet. This series was hardly over. Their fate was in their hands. Only they could reverse their fortunes. The coaching staff had every confidence they could because that was what needed to be said. The second match started with a decidedly negative tone as one of our opponents managed to dipsy-do her way around all five of our players on the ice, depositing the puck in the back of the net with only a few ticks off the clock. Not at all the start we wanted. However, I stuck to my shift-by-shift mantra, imploring our players to keep fighting. And fight they did, eventually tying the game at 1s heading into the third period. With unwavering effort and dogged determination the home side would take and hold a 2-1 lead to tie the series at one game apiece. To say the visiting team was crestfallen would be a significant understatement. As mentioned, this represented only the second league loss they had endured to this point.
Handing the league leaders only their second loss would have one of two effects. A truly elite team would come back harder than ever or a team with a questionable foundation might not be able to bounce back. We naturally hoped for the latter. I decided to try to use the the other coach’s words against him again; only this time I would put marker to paper and hang a poster in our dressing room as a constant reminder of the opponents misguided opinion of our charges’ abilities. In my pre-game attempt at psychological warfare I told the team I had two words for the enemy coach “BULL SHIT” as I scribed a giant B and S over the dastardly quote. The theatrics were perhaps a bit much for tender young ears (or who am I kidding when it comes to 13 and 14 year olds these days?) but I believe I succeeded in at least grabbing their attention. I also made a half-pledge to tape the offending poster to the other team’s door following a win for our side. A promise I knew I might regret should we have the success we desired.
The game was a back and forth affair with our side striking first with what I’ve come to call a beautiful, ugly, garbage goal; of which our ladies have become adept at scoring. In girls hockey putting the puck on the net and then driving hard after it is never a bad strategy. We would hold the lead through the first two periods, reconvening in the dressing room for a final chat before the final 15 minutes. I untaped two corners of the poster to indicate we were halfway to the promised land. The next quarter hour seemed like an eternity. To begin with, we played a good part of it with at least one player in the penalty box. The game would be tied with about six minutes left; an opportunity for our players to fold up their tents, lose momentum and cede victory to the first placers. However, their demeanor on the bench remained resolute. They simply talked about turning the match back in their favour. Then with only four minutes left a 2-on-1 advantage ended with one of our forwards sending a lazer shot over the outstretched glove of the opposing goalie. The bench erupted along with the parents in the visitors perched in the stands above. The final challenge between us and a huge upset was a lopsided 5-on-3 penalty kill for 90 seconds of the final two minutes of the game. Our carousel of three players somehow hung on amidst a frantic onslaught by the desperate home team. The final buzzer mercifully sounded. The visitors bench re-erupted. Our underdogs’ incredible comeback was complete. Hockey’s David took down Goliath. Post game handshakes were marked with a distinct dichotomy of ear-to-ear grins and streaming tears. The mood in our dressing room was unsurprisingly euphoric. I, of course, was exhorted to honour my pledge to give the poster a new home; however, I was able to convince them otherwise in the interest of good sportsmanship. Instead, the poster was signed by each player to become a banner for future series. It will be hung in every dressing room along the journey moving forward.
Moving forward, as mentioned, also includes our Provincial qualifying series. After a 3-0 win yesterday, the Sharks have moved into a two game lead in a best out of five series. Perhaps most importantly was the shutout recorded by one of our two goaltenders who has been challenged both physically and mentally of late as she has dropped a few games in a row including the 7-0 decision in our other series. In her defence, the team has not played particularly well in front of her. My concern has been what appears to be a bit of a vicious circle. 3-0 last night was just what the hockey doctor ordered.
Next up is round two of league playoffs where we’ll look to ride the crest of a now four-game winning streak. Yes, one more win than we were able to secure through the entire regular season. That fact is not lost on me by any stretch. But like we said at the start, the playoffs represent a whole new season where inadequacies of the past can quickly become faint memories in the bright light of present success. Onwards and upwards we go with plenty of hockey still to play. BELIEF, which the girls now seem to have in abundance, can surely take them a long way. So I will keep preaching that important B word, combined with the occasional S, when and where necessary.