I don’t want to take any undue credit, but I’m happy to report the Sharks winless streak ended right after my last post about chasing an elusive first W. Based on the way the girls had been practicing and for that matter playing to this point, a win was bound to come. But until you get the first one, particularly when it’s been a while, you’re never quite sure when it will.
This past weekend we travelled an hour and a half down the road to compete in our second tourney of the year. Applefest 2013 guaranteed us four round robin games, with the top four out of seven teams going on to play semi-final and hopefully championship final games. A little quick online research helped us get a sense of our competition and revealed what looked to be three strong opponents in games 1, 3 and 4 and one presumably lesser foe in game 2.
So we knew we had a challenge right out of the gate. Pre-game I tried to position the entire tournament as an opportunity to set a new winning precedent for the rest of the year. The squad had proved to this point they could “skate” with any team, but had yet to translate their effort into wins. I told them in order to win they would need to do a couple of things – play like a team, which meant passing the puck more and committing to a forecheck we’d been working on over the last few weeks in order to create more scoring opportunities. To their credit, they did both and entered the 3rd period with a less than comfortable 1-0 lead. They would extend this to a 2-0 gap just 20 seconds into the final frame. The other side would manage to put one past our keeper a couple of minutes later to raise our combined blood pressure. Moments later a shot from the point would sail towards our net and then be deflected over the right shoulder of our defenceless goalie. Luckily, the hockey gods and an observant head referee noted the deflection came from a high stick. Our 2-1 lead was preserved and maintained until the final buzzer rang. The proverbial monkey was off our back. The previously elusive W was behind us. With a weaker side (who we watched lose their first match 6-1 to the home team), scheduled for game two later that evening, things were certainly looking up for the Sharks.
The game two pre-game speech was relatively simple. Take your effort from game one and bring it up a notch. This should be plenty to advance the tournament record to 2-0. Of course, things are never as simple as we’d like or often expect them to be. Instead, the team we watched lose 6-1 earlier in the day brought their game up a notch and our side inexplicably dialled their back a few. While the play and scoring chances skewed slightly in the Sharks favour, the 1-0 score on the clock when the game ended did not. With a 1-1 record, the team had now put itself in a bit more of a precarious situation as much stronger foes were on tap the next day.
The next day started would start unusually early for a Midget team with the first puck scheduled to hit the ice at 8am. My fellow hockey parents and I thought we were done with waking up at 5:30am for hockey several years ago. To make matters worse, our fourth and final game would start 13 hours later at 9pm. However, this was simply another challenge we would have to deal with if we wanted to advance to the semi-finals on Day 3. Challenge one would be getting past the team we thought would be our stiffest competition. Though it was a bit of a fib, I told our charges we were in a must-win situation. I wanted them to bring everything they had in order to give them their best chance to win. And I believe it worked as we watched a night and day transformation of the team was saw drop a 1-0 decision a mere 12 hours ago.
Even with this improved effort our side entered the third period down 2-1 on the scoresheet, but still had a positive result in their sites. Unfortunately, the hockey gods had other plans. A little over 5 minutes into the 15 minute 3rd period, a puck shot harmlessly behind our net and just above the boards, caught a stanchion and ricocheted directly out in front to a fortunately positioned opponent, who in turn quickly buried the errant rubber disk into the mesh behind our goaler. Our sides effort had not diminished, but their spirits after falling behind 2 goals with only 10 minutes left to play certainly did. Having taken a must-win attitude myself as the game wore on, I decided to pull our goaltender with just over 1 minute left in the game so see if an extra attacker could pull us within a goal. This tactic unfortunately resulted in an empty net goal against making the score 4-1. Insult to injury came with only 7 seconds left on the clock as our now decidedly dejected troops allowed an unchallenged shot from in close, which rang off a post for a 5th goal. Post-game my consolation speech revolved around the fact that we gave our opponents all they could handle for two periods. I honestly told the girls the 5-1 final was not an accurate measure of the game they had played. That being said, I could now definitively tell them game four was a MUST-WIN. Adding to our early morning drama was the realization that our netminder had re-injured her knee at some point during the contest. She was in considerable pain as a couple of fathers escorted her out of the arena – a scene no one wants to watch. See y’all in 11 hours to fight for our tourney lives against the host team.
I was concerned by the time the final round robin game rolled around our players would be less than fresh having sat around at a hotel or in a local mall trying to kill 11 hours. A 9pm game for girls (and coaches for that matter) who woke up a 5:30 was far from ideal. Yet, I implored our side, reminding them of how well they played earlier in the day. I reiterated the MUST-WIN message and let them know not all hope was lost. In fact, because we knew the scores of those who were battling for the last playoff spot, we also knew we were actually in a win-and-get-in scenario. Our opponents on the other hand, were pretty much already advancing on the strength of their results in their first three games. Before the opening face off I get one more chance to talk to the players on the ice. As I tried to deliver this serious invocation someone actually asked the question “Who farted?” and tone of this game was somewhat set. Despite the gravity of the situation, I was encouraged to see our players relatively unfazed. The first two periods were fought tooth and nail deadlocking our squads in a scoreless tie. With the Zamboni preparing a fresh sheet of ice four our final push to the playoff round, we retreated to our dressing room where we encountered a surprisingly upbeat, loose and I dare say confident group of players. Even better I noted 17 girls who were having a lot of fun. I and the coaching staff hoped this bode well for the final frame. The third period continued to be a tight affair with each side exchanging its share of chances. Then with just under 4:30 left the good guys struck paydirt first as a rebound was banged home from in close. The stands erupted behind us and I may have given the trainer aka Hockey Momma a double high five or two. Our jubilation was short-lived as other side fought back to square the score at ones only two minutes later. With a tie not really being an option if we wanted to advance, I would need to pull our goalie for a second straight game, hoping against hope for a better result. And the better result (the desperately desired result) occurred with only 46 seconds left on the clock as another garbage goal was notched in our favour, thereby cueing renewed jubilation. The final 46 seemed much longer, but expired and signalled what we thought was a berth in the next day’s festivities.
As it turned out, we would have to wait nearly another full hour to hear the verdict we were waiting for. The girls did indeed earn a berth in the semi-finals and a rematch with the team they lost 5-1 to in their 8am match. An opportunity to get to the championship game by exacting some measure of revenge and proving the earlier lopsided score was unfounded. Though we all knew this would be a difficult proposition at best.
I kept the pre-game banter short and simple again. Through a dozen games now, I believe the players have come to recognize what they need to do in order to compete and give themselves the best chance to win. Skate, commit to an aggressive forecheck, unselfishly pass the puck and crash the net (or get into the kitchen as one assistant has become fond of saying) looking for rebounds and dirty goals. To their credit and as they’d done in the two previous games, the girls came out skating and battling. Unfortunately, one such battle resulted in a 4 minute penalty about 5 minutes in. The opponents were able to capitalize on their man advantage and took a 1-0 lead into the second period. Over the next 15 minutes, the Sharks would register several good scoring chances, all of which were turned away by an able goaltender. Before the second period ended the bad guys would find the back of our net again. During the intermission, I reminded the girls they had scored two goals in the 3rd period of the previous game and they could do so again. However, a relentless opponent scoring 2 minutes into the 3rd was a likely death knell to our hopes of reaching the final stage of the tourney. We tried to buoy the team’s spirits and implored them to not give up. And while they did not, their team game effectively went away as desperation kicked in. One final goal would be scored (not by us I’m afraid) ending our tournament on a somewhat sour note. Perhaps a small consolation lies in having worn down our semi-final foes who went on to lose the championship game to the host team who we defeated to reach the semis. Again proving hockey is an unpredictable game (like we need more evidence).
At the risk of sounding cliched, this tourney was a great learning experience for the team. I admitted to them the team we lost to twice is, at this early point in the season, a better team. However, I hope they also realize the level at which they were and are able to compete. Overall on the weekend, they played more good than bad hockey – did more positive than negative things. Furthermore, they secured two previously unattained Ws. We can and should use this realization as inspiration to get more Ws. Of course, it partially rests on me and us to ensure “can and should” becomes “will and do”; all the while striving for the same level of fun I saw on and off the ice in Game 3. I’m open to any and all suggestions on that front.