I believe I’ve allowed myself nearly enough time to grieve what I deem to be the Sharks’ premature exit from their surprising Cinderella run. But it still stings when I consider we gave up 2-0 leads in two consecutive games; either one of which would have earned us the lofty title of division champions and secured us a spot in the league finals. I guess Don Cherry knows what he’s talking about when he says 2-0 is the worst score in hockey. One goal against puts the other team right back in the game, swinging momentum for a second and tying goal which opens the flood gates for a game winner. Doing it twice in a row is doubly dangerous, which is just what we did. In fact, taking an early 2-0 lead was our downfall on several occasions this season. For us I’m pretty sure it became something of a psychological barrier we’d need to battle as much as we did the physical competition on the other side of the face-off circle.
As always our two final games were not without their share of dramatics.
In game two we did not help ourselves from taking nine penalties vs. three doled out by the refs to our foes. Let’s just say our competition’s style of play involves getting under the skin of their opponents. In the final two periods of the second match they did that quite well. In fact, all three of the opposition’s goals were scored while we had someone sentenced to the sin bin. While I readily admit most of our penalties were well deserved, at least three were questionable; particularly based on precedents set earlier in the game by the refereeing tandem. One which irked me in particular was a boarding call which the ref explained to me was made because he didn’t actually see the infraction, but he heard it and saw the result which was an opposing player lying on the ice. Now in my way of thinking, if you don’t see the infraction there should be no penalty called whatsoever. But enough with what could be misconstrued as sour grapes (by readers like my father, in particular, who is quick to rightly point out the referees don’t let in the goals) – we gave up the lead and lost the game; not the officials. Reducing our time in the box would be a major theme discussed before the final confrontation.
While game two saw many calls go against us, game three included a number of questionable non-calls involving our players being knocked abruptly to the ice pre and post-whistle. My pleadings around these apparent infractions fell on def ref ears, or in one case, drew an unappreciated smirk from the man in stripes striding across the ice.
In this final game we took our 2-0 lead into the second period, but found ourselves deadlocked at 2-2 entering the third. During the Zamboni break between the second and third, there was definitely a sense of panic, which I tried to balance with the notion of only having to win a single period pointing out we had won several against this team to date. I also looked to lighten the mood by reminding the girls to have fun…that this moment was what it was all about and that a few weeks back we would have been very happy to have the opportunity to reach this point.
One incident worth noting came courtesy of the lone rival goaltender. This young lady had throughout the season displayed a flair for the dramatic whenever opponents neared her crease during a stoppage in play. On more than one occasion she would fling off a glove, toss her stick or once even her helmet. More often than not she would vehemently jabber at the refs for her protection. In this particular game in the third period and amidst a 2-2 tied score, one of our players was pulled down from behind on a partial breakaway (which did result in a penalty) and found herself sliding into the fragile keeper. What followed was a fifteen minute delay as the goaltender lay semi-motionless on the ice. Now, I don’t want to sound heartless or insensitive, but the collision was not of a particularly violent variety. I’m not saying the goalie wasn’t shaken or possibly hurt, but if that were the case, then she should have been removed from the game; problem being she was the lone netminder. And so, after a lengthy delay, she shook off her ill effects and the game resumed – our side with the man advantage and their side well rested to kill it off. To that point in the final frame we certainly had controlled the balance of the play. But alas, we missed this opportunity to capitalize on the chance afforded us.
Unfortunately, a power play goal for the other team would prove to be our death knell as our rivals put the proverbial nail in our coffin with just over five minutes left to play with a shot from the high slot that weaseled its way to the twine. Our charges would continue to battle to the end, but not find the back of the net with an overtime-forcing equalizer.
Post-game, post-series my assistant coach and I let the team know we were very proud of their efforts; having battled to a division final game three after limping through the regular season at the back of the pack. We always knew they had the potential for greatness and that is still the most frustrating part. Even though making it as far as we did was an impressive turnaround, I still believe we were the better team and should have won the series. And a good part of the blame for not being able to preserve 2-0 leads has to fall in the coach’s lap. So maybe I’m not quite done grieving and will spend a good part of the next week or so going over what we could have done differently in either of those two final games to coax our way through to victories.
However, the lamenting will have to end quickly as we have yet to battle through a Provincial Championship tournament to close out the year. The crafting of the tournament is a little questionable as some teams from populous regions have to jump through several hoops to qualify while others gain automatic entry if they’ve no suitable competition within their zone. That being said, a good representation of teams from the entire province, including many from our region will be present. Making it through to the top of this tourney will be no small feat. So we have a couple of weeks to prepare with some practice time and perhaps an exhibition game of two mixed in. I might suggest we start any exhibition games with at least the premise of a two-goal lead and perhaps on the penalty kill since it would seem this is where we need the most preparation.