The Sharks inspired play continued last week as our two playoff series both came to happy endings. Of course, none of our three games to close these two rounds out were without their tense moments. In fact, one ended with us on the wrong side of a 5-3 score. But even in that game, the young ladies displayed a resilience which has become their calling card of late. A resilience which has landed this team squarely on a collision course with the most unlikely, but also most poetically just of foes.
In Game Four of the Provincial Playdowns they entered the third period down 3-1. A tie or win would be enough for them to move on to the Finals. That deficit would be extended to 4-1 only a couple of minutes into the final frame. Yet the talk on the bench was not defeatist. My players were talking about how they would stage a comeback; and come back they did. Within a couple of minutes and after some furious pressure they cut the lead to 4-2. A minute or two at the most later they scored another and I let them know they were never out of any game. I was fairly certain even down 4-3 this game would go our way. Then unfortunately one of our forwards ran headlong into a defenceman leaving an opposing player with the puck all alone in the slot. She flung a shot under our shocked keeper and the momentum we’d established was gone. The loss would force a particularly unwanted, but necessary fifth match. Our girls were still in the driver’s seat, but some faint hope had undoubtedly been injected into the other side – hope we all knew needed to be quashed in short order. However, game five also introduced one more challenge in the form of a casualty. One of our other defenceman, on a seemingly innocent battle for the puck against the boards had her hand stretched awkwardly backwards resulting in what so far has been determined to be two painfully broken bones. Suffice it to say, we will be without her services for the foreseeable future. For better or worse, her loss has become a rallying cry to be loudly echoed until the end of our playoff run.
And so we entered Game Five, again knowing, though never saying, a tie would be sufficient to move on. The moment you start playing for a tie and not a victory you put your team perilously close to allowing a loss. Our opponent played like a much more desperate group through the first two periods. We had to rely on our goaltender to make a few important saves to keep the game at a 1-1 deadlock heading into the final frame. What I particularly didn’t like was a negative vibe seemingly coming over our bench. Forwards were blaming defencemen for missed assignments in our end. The Devil expressed her displeasure at me for a shortened shift (an error on my part I will readily admit), which went over with me like a lead balloon. This was not an ideal time for dissension in the ranks. Between the second and third periods I let the team know it. They needed to get back to the positive team game which had brought them to the brink of a Provincial championship berth. Several players acknowledged my assertion; promising a renewed focus for the final fifteen minutes. While it wasn’t pretty, there was a marked determination by our forces to end the game and the series. The referees had decided to put away their whistles for the most part prompting some slightly aggressive maneuvering by both camps. Players were pinned hard up against the boards or knocked down in front of the net. The Devil and one of her line-mates actually decided to gang up a little on one specific old nemesis they’ve been up against for the past couple of seasons; a player for whom they will readily admit they harbour a degree of ill will. This same young lady, a fierce competitor in her own right, would air her displeasure with me in the post-game handshakes to which I giggled a little inside. Our keeper would need to backstop a few dangerous enemy volleys to seal a settled-for 1-1 tie. The draw was enough to end this series and hopefully enough to propel us through another the following day in our league semi-final.
The next day’s critical series-ending game would find me making a less than enjoyable decision to sit one goaltender in favour of another. I, by my own standard, have tried to commit to providing equal ice time for both of my goalies. I’ve said time and again that I am coaching development hockey, which by definition means everyone gets a fair opportunity to play. In my mind, a goalie sitting on the bench is not developing. So I argued with myself for a day or so over the merits of starting one netminder or the other. I knew which one would give our team the best chance to win as well as which one would be the popular choice among my parent group. I even thought I knew which goalie would prefer to start in this pressure-packed contest. Yet, I felt something of an obligation to stand by my principles; otherwise putting future decisions at risk of the precedent I was setting. With more hockey to play after winning our two series, we are guarateed more “very important” games to be sure in which at some point I will have to play my other goaltender. I worried about how much decision to sit her might affect her already shaken confidence moving forward. Maybe I need to work on convincing this team they will win no matter who’s in goal. Taking everything into consideration I believe I decided in the best interest of the team to go with my stronger goalie — this time around. By doing so, I reasoned there was better potential for everyone to play more games in the long run.
Our second elimination match in two days would be against a team which found itself still shorthanded after icing a shortened bench all season and now having lost two players to injury. Our 14 skaters were tasked with tiring out their depleted 10. The coaching staff and I were pleased to note more of a spark than we had seen the day before. The Sharks did as we asked by keeping the bulk of the play in the other team’s zone with a tenacious forecheck backed by a solid defensive wall. There were a couple of odd-man rushes following momentary breakdowns, but our forwards skated back into our zone hard with support and our goalie continued to keep the puck away from the mesh behind her. We carried a 1-0 lead successfully into and through the third period; which included an empty opposing goal for a six on five player man advantage for the last three minutes. Three minutes of stress I and a few white knuckled on-lookers could definitely have done without.
The Cinderellaic (now there’s a word you don’t see every day, if ever) light at the end of our league semi-final tunnel is a very familiar rival squad. A team we’ve gone back and forth with in league and tournament play. A group with two would be evil sisters who chose to turn down an opportunity to part of our fairy tale family way back before this fabled season started along with a third who was unceremoniously cut by yours truly to complete this now unholy hockey triumvirate . It somehow seems fitting that we’ve come all this way through 30 odd games, albeit via very different paths, to meet again in what is sure to be a storied battle for the minor hockey ages (I’m allowed a little poetically licensed hyperbole here, no?). I hope my hard-working cast of characters are up for the test as I know I’m most assuredly motivated to motivate them. I’ll even don some Fairy Godcoach wings and a pair of sparkly glass slippers if need be.