The Devil and her Sharks teammates had a pretty good run in our first round playoff run though it was stopped short and abruptly much to our dismay. We went in as underdogs being the 7th seed facing the 2nd, but were pretty confident in having played our opponents tough during the regular season with a loss, a tie and a win…in that order.
The second place finisher would naturally get home ice advantage, so we started last weekend with a game in “enemy” territory. In games past against this team we’d had some challenges with fair and equitable refereeing and I went into this series with some trepidation on this front. Before we played a single minute in this foreign rink, one of the officials commented to me,”I just want to let you know I like to call a fair game.” I thought it an odd statement at the time, but little did I know how it would foreshadow events to come. All I wanted for our playoffs was fairly officiated games decided by the two teams and I like to think I’m able to stay fairly objective when it comes to the conduct of my players.
In game one our side came out flying; taking it to the opponents buoyed by the knowledge they had a good chance to advance if they put in the work. We had far more scoring chances through the first half of the game and took a 1-0 lead halfway through the second period. Unfortunately, the home side scored with less than 10 seconds left in the second frame and the game would be decided in the third. The last period would see a trend of our goalie being poked at after the referee’s whistle was blown, which I disputed vehemently; disputes which fell on deaf ears. Instead, we found ourselves on the wrong end of penalty calls and shorthanded for a good part of the period. Admittedly, our side also let their combined foot off the gas. Long story short; the scoreboard read Home 3 – Visitors 1. Opportunity missed and game two quickly became a must win.
Game two would be in our barn and I did my best to convince the girls they had won two of the first three frames of the series. They agreed and were quietly determined to force a third game. Their steely determination was required as they would score the first and only goal of the game just 7 minutes into the first period. Two and a half periods is a painfully long time to have to hold on to a single goal lead. Partway through the second one of our players did have a glorious opportunity to extend out lead to two goals, but she didn’t realize how much time she had to convert a wraparound attempt and placed the puck under a sprawling goalie rather than in the more desirable empty net. Once the game was over and we were comfortable in our victory, we were able to poke a little fun at her miscue.
The series winner would need to be decided six days later (the night before last) back in “their” building. Again, our side got off to a roaring start with several scoring chances and the first goal of the game. A couple of bounces could have given us a two or three goal lead going into the 2nd period, but we’d settle for one and battle on; a struggle made tougher by inconsistent calls by my favourite man in stripes. I hate to sound like a whiner or sore loser, but it wasn’t the calls against us; rather the calls which weren’t made against our opponents for obvious infractions getting under our skin. Or one of our players getting reprimanded for “snowing” the opposing goalie when she clearly didn’t from anyone but the referee’s perspective. I could feel our side getting increasingly frustrated. Shortly thereafter the home team would erase their deficit then take the lead and we would enter the final frame behind by one on the scoreboard.
Not long into the third I can, with little to no bias say, all hell broke loose. Time both stood still and flew by from moment to moment. First our opponents dealt a crippling blow when a seemingly harmless shot from just inside the blue line found its way past our keeper. Then only moments later another rush ended with the puck in our net, our defeated goalie sprinted to the bench for refuge and just like that we faced relatively insurmountable odds. Yet, with 11 minutes still left to play I implored our side to not give up and they did not. That being said, our striped nemesis called a 4 minute penalty against one of ours for a phantom check to the head.
On the ensuing penalty kill, the Devil barrelled down the ice with an opposing defender who had at least 10 inches in height and 60 pounds in weight on her in hot pursuit of a puck shot into the corner. Arriving simultaneously, the larger player used her size to knock her diminutive foe to the ice. Relentless, the Devil flailed and grabbed the puck with her gloved hand. Two players from either team arrived in support and at some point the Devil’s original counterpart toppled onto the little Shark lying on the ice. Moments later we all noted the Devil to be in some distress as she hailed for a couple of teammates to help her get up off the ice on what appeared to be a wonky leg. She was half-laughing and half-sobbing as she reached the bench and emphatically described what had just happened (her exact words are censored here to protect the innocent, but suffice it to say the air was blue). Hockey momma immediately ushered her injured daughter and her injured leg off the ice for closer examination knowing she rarely in 12 years of hockey has gone down without good reason.
The game continued and not moments later on another pursuit, this time into our corner, one of our defenders was dangerously tripped just before she reached the boards, crashing feet first. Another of our players rushed in to avenge her and whistles blew frantically. Our defender was barely able to rise, but made her way back to our bench where she immediately slumped down crying inconsolably. The next several moments were a blur as I was informed my newly injured player was being given a penalty. My frustration admittedly reached a fever pitch and I blew up letting my striped nemesis know what I thought of his judgment. I was livid. To be clear, I refrained from cursing, but my imploration was countered by instruction to leave the bench immediately. I received first official ejection from a game. Even now, I feel I was justified in defending my player who I felt then and still feel now was wrongly accused.
As I left the bench, I turned to remind my remaining players to hold their emotions better than I had mine. At that point, with approximately 7 mins left in the game and a series victory out of reach I just wanted the game to end quickly and without further incident. I would restlessly watch the rest of the game from just outside the arena. My wish was unfortunately not granted by the Hockey Gods. Minutes after my exit, our now least favourite official continued with his antics in deciding to accuse another of our players of phantom “snowing” of the goalie, only this time going a step further and assessing a penalty. What happened next I in no way condone, but can almost understand. The accused player in the heat of the moment swung her stick at the ref, striking him in the leg. She was naturally tossed from the game and now faces a severe sanction for her actions. Again, she made an egregious error and will have to face the consequences, however, I firmly believe the referee had some culpability in how the events of this period unfolded. This is the only platform I have to dispute so I’m doing so at the risk of this coming across as another disillusioned hockey parent. One more goal would be scored by the home side before the game mercifully came to an end. It was hard to believe you could pack so much drama and misfortune into a single period – a bitter loss after the effort put forth by our side throughout the series.
Post game the bulk of our players had to stand and wait outside our dressing room as the Devil’s injured leg had been assessed just inside the door and an ambulance had been called. The whole situation was a little surreal. I was still seeing red, but held my tongue as I wished the victorious coach and his team good luck in the next round. I did my best to console and prop up the spirits of my players who only an hour earlier were full of energy and high hopes. I think we all felt more than a little robbed. Players were eventually allowed in to change out of their gear one by one; each leaving in decidedly sombre moods. The Devil was eventually wheeled out on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance and our next stop was the hospital for x-rays on her wounded limb. Trainer Momma was pretty sure it was broken. A few hours later her unofficial diagnosis was confirmed. The Devil’s hockey season would end prematurely and the team would be down at least three players moving forward (oh, did I not mention our backup goalie came limping off the ice from this game with a re-injured knee). The defender who I had been ejected for would be touch and go with a foot she had trouble putting weight on. And, of course, the story does not end there as our now depleted team would need to bounce back a mere 24 hours later to face the top team in our league to start a round robin series to decide qualifiers for our provincial championships; a daunting task with a full and confident squad.
Fast forward roughly 20 hours to a new rink and our new opponents, a strong team against which we’d yet to register a win in four tries at 0-3-1. I with a game suspension and three of our players (including the Devil sporting a fancy new air cast) would watch from the stands while one other was away on a humanitarian trip. Our remaining eight forwards, four defenders and lone goalie would need to put forth a monumental effort to pull off the upset. We (or at least I) cheered emphatically as they were able to get halfway through the first and partway through the second period before giving up the first goal of the game. Undeterred, our side countered just over a minute later with a goal of their own. The final period was intense with our foes getting multiple scoring chances which were turned away one after the other by a stalwart goaler who’d obviously erased the previous game from her conscience. The match ended in a 1-1 tie, but felt much more like a victory in light of the circumstances.
One game had left our players bruised, but certainly not beaten. There are three more games in our double round robin playoff which resumes tomorrow night. I will be doing my best to remind this resilient, scrappy group just how well they have played in the face of adversity. And as always, I welcome a little support and some icy justice from the Hockey Gods who were surely resting or focused elsewhere the day before last. Excuse me if I sound bitter. It’s only cuz I am. I won’t lie…that one is probably gonna sting for a while.