Last week saw the Devil’s team play two exhibition games against what will be nearby regular season rivals. While these early season games are scheduled and played to gauge where each team is at relative to the competition, there is also an opportunity to set a tone for the season to come so ideally you’d like to be able to put your best skate forward. Of course, some might argue it’s better to play your cards close to the vest; saving your A game for later in the year when it really matters…presumably the team will improve with time to practice and “gel”…and sure the other teams will only get better as well depending on coaching, personalities and a whole slew of other factors.
In these two particular games, with the teams being as geographically close as they are and the lack of boundaries in girls hockey, we end up playing against very familiar players who have been previous foes or in some cases even teammates. So there is some added emotion to contend with, which can be a good or bad thing. Pre-game I tried to spin the emotion in the right direction, pointing out the importance of setting a tone and trying to use the competitive relationships as positive motivation.
Game one would present the first such challenge as my starting goaltender would be facing the hometown team who released her in their tryouts a few months back. We welcomed her to our team; readying ourselves to circle these head-to-head matches on our calendar. We were hopeful of a good showing based on our opening tournament results and a few good practices since. Indeed, the girls did start with a flurry in the first period, taking a quick 1-0 lead. However, this would be the only goal they would score while the visitors would tally three of their own in the second frame. For whatever reason, we became a bunch of individuals rather than a team of passers, which did not serve us well. Plays we designed were neglected or forgotten. At the break for a flood between the 2nd and 3rd, I would exhort my charges to pick up the pace in the final stanza, which they would. However, the teamwork we saw the weekend prior did not return; thereby meaning a return to the drawing board would be required in the practices leading up to Game Two.
Following a couple of aforementioned practices, where passing and teamwork were the focal points we entered game two against an even bigger rival; both for the girls and yours truly. Again, for the girls because of close geographic proximity and prior run-ins. I had at least one of my players tell me she was feeling physically ill at the prospect of playing against a couple of the girls on the other team. This game would even have some extra meaning for me because this particular squad includes one player I unfortunately had to release (a move which was not taken well by her parents) and a couple of other players who would not even try out for my team (in their own home town) based on experiences from seasons’ past, which have been detailed here previously and do not need to be rehashed. Suffice it to say, personalities, perceptions and perplexity came into play, as they so often do in minor hockey.
We did expect a tougher challenge going into this game and expressed the same to the team before they hit the ice. Our foes quickly proved to be a well-coached bunch (with an ex-NHLer at the helm) moving the puck well in our zone. They would take an early 2-0 lead though our side skated and passed the puck much better than they had in their previous match. We would get one goal back, which seemed to shift momentum back in our favour.
Then the hockey gods provided a little extra drama as the Devil was hauled down by a defender following an excellent backhand pass which had set her off on a breakaway. We all watched as the head referee crossed her arms above her head signalling a penalty shot. The Devil would need to get the puck past a former teammate who now tended goal for the other side. She came down the ice with speed, looped to the left and then back to the right stretching the goalie from one post to the other. The Devil valiantly tried to lift a backhand shot up over the keeper’s padded left leg to no avail.
A couple of minutes later a little more drama ensued as a scrum broke out in front of the rival net. A few misguided punches would banish one of ours and one of theirs to the penalty box with our side getting and extra two minutes for the indiscretion. We would retire to the dressing room still down 2-1 with the 3rd period and a brief penalty kill situation ahead of us. Unfortunately, a well designed three-pass play on the opening face off in the third would end with the puck being deposited neatly behind our netminder; a crushing blow to be sure. We had done very well to compete with this team for two periods, but penalties and frustration would lead to a 5-1 final deficit…not indicative of the overall effort. The game ended with one of our forwards hammering a foe into the boards; a move met with unwelcome cheers from our bench. Post game, I did my best to downplay the score, assured the girls the effort was to be applauded and reminded them Respect is to be one of our Guiding Principles; thereby discouraging their cheers for the late game body check.
We’ve a couple more practices and an exhibition game this weekend before we start the season for real. While these three games don’t “count”, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in or around our team or I’m sure those we’re playing who thinks they don’t matter.