The last week of the Sharks’ exhibition season provided three quite different games along with a wealth of learning and teaching opportunities.
Game one this week, a rematch of our first game together as a team which ended in a 1-1 tie, was also the first time we would ice our entire team since having lost a few players to suspensions and injuries. It seems the older the players get, the more likely they are to fall prey to such mishaps; that coupled with renewed vigorous attention to body, and particularly, head contact rules by the officials. I applaud the new focus, but also understand there will be some growing pains. If the first couple of weeks is any indication, penalties will likely be a core theme this season. For our part, the coaching staff will prescribe aggressive, smart play. In the rematch, we stressed the importance of setting a tone for the game early. That message seemed to ring true as we would watch the girls storm out to a 5-0 lead…in the first period. Up to that point our previous high score for an entire game was four goals. The other team was obviously reeling. I actually advised one of our players to not cheer too emphatically to open the second period to which my assistant coach prophetically objected. And then it happened. Our team suddenly and quite unfortunately came to realize we had a five-goal lead; a dangerous realization to be sure. Knowledge led to complacency. As we entered the dressing room between the second and third periods we realized the momentum had changed in a now 5-1 contest. I exhorted the girls to pick up the pace in the third. I asked them if they were familiar with the term “put the pedal to the floor” to which their was a resounding “No!” So much for that anecdote. I gotta keep reminding myself to consider my audience. Two minutes into the third our opponents netted their second marker and their confidence grew. In another flash of the clock the lead was cut to 5-3. We all had an uh-oh moment. Thankfully that was as close as the competition would come. Our side woke up just in time to finish the game. Lesson One – Don’t get complacent.
In the next two games we were back to being shorthanded as we were informed by the league’s governing body that our suspended players (whom we assumed had duly served their suspensions through our recent exhibition games) were still under suspension as they are not allowed to serve their penalties during exhibition games. The unfortunate and somewhat unjust part of the story is that they are also not allowed to play in exhibition games while they are suspended. In my way of thinking a league sanctioned game is a league sanctioned game and a one-game suspension should not become a three or four gamer because of exhibition games, but that is a matter for another time.
Our game two opponent would be our closest rival – a team I think we all suspected we should be able to beat. However, from the first drop of the puck the game didn’t feel right. Our players seemed a little off – a step behind. Of particular concern, was an inability or, more correctly, a lack of interest in passing the puck. After each shift, instructions were doled out to keep their heads up and look for the open player – basic tactics which had made them successful in other games to this point. Yet, despite our reinforcement of the facts, the passes would not come. We watched several players try to carry the black disc through or around multiple defenders, which generally doesn’t work. Even Mr. Gretzky couldn’t win a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles all by himself. He needed someone to pass it to. We swallowed a bitter 3-1 loss and conveyed a stern message to the troops after the game. Selfish play would not be tolerated and would certainly not lead us to many victories. Lesson Two – Hockey is a team game.
Later that day we would enter game three with the hope that lesson two was still fresh in the players’ minds. We did note a renewed vigor in their pre-game warm up – a seeming re-dedication to acting like a team on a mission. The pre-game skate was likewise brisk as was the energy off the first face-off. Right away we saw a different team from what we witnessed only a few hours earlier. Heads were up and passes were plentiful. Everyone was looking to move the puck; a positive trend indeed. Our first of two goals was marked by a tic-tac-toe progression from defence to forward to forward and in. Lesson Three – Learn from your previous short-comings. It’s heartening to watch lessons being learned by this team early on.
The only blemish on an otherwise solid win (and 2-0 shutout to boot) was the loss of yet one more teammate to a questionable hit-from-behind penalty, which again carries with it a one-game suspension. We all agreed that I’m going to develop something of a reputation for producing “dirty” players. Yet, I can honestly argue that only one of the suspensions levied thus far was a clear-cut suspendable offense. Then again, there will, without, be more of these and we will deal with them as they come.
The Sharks have a few practices in line now to prepare for the regular season, set to begin in a couple of weeks. We’ll take what we’ve learned about our strengths and weaknesses thus far to build our team for the future; one that we hope holds on-ice success, off-ice camaraderie and fun. That’s the primary underlying lesson in all of this – enjoy playing the game for better or worse.