The Devil and her Shark teammates turned a corner at their home tournament this past weekend treating we, the coaching staff, and their biggest fans, their parents, to four of the best hockey games they’ve played all year culminating in an all-important victory in the Championship game.
They started the tourney by shattering their scoring woes with a five-goal performance. Which they desperately needed because as quickly as they scored a goal they would turn around and give one up – except for after the last one. The odd thing is we seem to have found a favorite venue as this five net-bulging outburst occurred on the same ice where they last scored a full handful of goals.
Game two presented its own challenges in that our teenage, beauty-sleep craving girls were presented with the first pre-8am ice time they’d seen in a couple of years. Early morning games are generally reserved for the younger kids, but in tournaments you never know what schedule you might get. On the way to the rink, the Devil complained, “I feel like a Timbit,” referring to the four and five year old minor hockey players across Canada who are graciously sponsored by the country’s largest coffee shop chain. In the pre-game warm up our troops looked anything but ready to play. I implored them to get focused when they gathered at the bench for final instructions. And then, at the drop of the puck to start the game it was like a switch was turned on. They would only win game two by a score of 1-0, but they were full measure for the effort. For a second game in a row, they played as a solid collective rather than a loosely connected group of individuals. They looked for and called for passes. They supported each other at both ends of the ice. Our manager helping out of the bench commented, “We’re starting to see a real team come together.”
Going into game three we were pretty confident we had a playoff spot secured, however a decisive win could propel the team directly into the Final. I certainly let them all know that in case there should be any question as to the level of effort required. And so, in the third game they did not disappoint, in a dominant 3-1 win, which could have easily been more lopsided with a few more accurate shots. With the victory we did gain direct entry to the Championship game; awaiting an opponent from a semi-final match between the second and third place squads.
As it turned out we would play our game two opponent again. From my perpective this was not a preferred scenario as it’s generally difficult to beat a team twice in a row. I knew we had only beaten them 1-0 in our first meeting and they would come out looking for revenge. Before the final match I reminded our charges how they felt after finishing second in a tournament only a couple of weekends previous. In trying to raise their emotion level in the dressing room before the game, I was surprised by a muted reaction. They were either quietly focused or unsure of the task at hand. My bench staff also felt an uneasiness at the mood in the room. We all hoped for the former mindset. As in game two, we were pleased to watch as the initial puck drop acted as a virtual ON switch. The Sharks came out hard; dominating the play for the first half of the game. The first goal of the contest came on a breakaway capped by a pretty, patient deke move past a helpless, flailing goalie.
The slim one-goal lead would stand until about five minutes left in the third period when our opponents buried a rebound to make it 1-1. We did fall back on our heels for the back half of the second and a good part of the third period. Many teams would have folded up their tents at that point with momentum potentially headed in the other direction. Yet, our girls re-focused their efforts and re-dominated play; finding a way to take a 2-1 lead with just over a minute left in the game. Of course the story couldn’t just end there as the slim 2-1 lead was put in peril by a tripping penalty taken in our defensive zone with only 50 seconds left. A quick timeout was taken to again refocus the troops; to remind them to play smart and get the puck out of our end at all costs. With the opposing goaltender on the bench, we faced a shorthanded four on six situation. Continuing to battle, our four were able to clear the zone as requested, ultimately depositing the puck in the empty net at the other end of the ice. To put icing on the proverbial cake, the ensuing face-off saw our winger streak forward with the puck and fire a laser shot top shelf where Grandma keeps the peanut butter. The final 4-1 score did not do the much closer game justice.
Our jubilant girls streamed onto the ice for the traditional mauling of the goalie followed by a quick presentation to our Captain and Assistants and then finally a series of photos of the victors.
Now we’ll look to carry the momentum of this victory into our next string of regular season games as we look to make our way out of the league’s basement. This weekend again proved that when we play aggressive, smart hockey as a team we can compete with any team at our level. A good part of the battle in any sport is gaining the confidence in yourself and your teammates to do whatever is required to win. It feels like our ladies took some big steps in that direction with some shiny gold medals and a much deserved Championship banner to show for it.