I arrived at the rink a little early and watched a little bit of the game that was going on. It looked like a pretty high level men's league game. How high? One team had a coach. No joke, a legitimate coach who at one point stood on the boards to scream at the men's league referees. Yes, you read that correctly.
The game was a pretty spirited (albeit lopsided) affair, and after one player on the losing team turned and took a slapshot at an opposing defenseman, it looked like a brawl was going to break out. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and no harm was done (though the offending player was serenaded with taunts and curses on his way back to the bench).
Compared to that game, ours was going to look like a pillow fight.
Coach Steve was behind our bench for this last game, and gave us a rousing pregame speech that would make Kurt Russell jealous.
"You guys have beat them all season," he said. "So you gotta get 'em again tonight. All that matters is who wins the last one."
Not quite that stirring, of course.
Prior to that speech, I noticed the kid keeping score/time walking past me towards the exits as I was making my way to the bench. "Weird," I thought. "He must be going to the bathroom or something."
Except he never came back. As it turns out, we had no scorekeeper or clock manager, so we just...played. Plymouth Whalers Jersey was in one goal, and another guy from the clinic (who had never played goal before) volunteered to be the other goalie.
The refs decided that we'd switch goalies halfway through to make things fair. Each team had nine skaters, so we played with two forward lines and three rotating defensemen. This game was going to feature a LOT of skating.
Coach Steve told us to sync up with our usual linemates and get out there, so I skated on the right wing with Speedy at center and Joe on the left wing. The puck was dropped, and we were underway.
Our first shift was decent enough, as we made a bit of headway in the offensive zone but were unable to sneak anything past Plymouth Whalers. We were told to stay tight defensively, as our goalie was about as "new" to goaltending as one can be. We did pretty well on the first shift, and our teammates did a decent job on their first shift as well. It was a pretty even start to the game, with a lot of back-and-forth play.
I got going on our second shift. As one of my defensemen gathered the puck behind the net, I migrated towards the wall, waiting for a pass. The puck was sent around the boards, and I chipped it up and out, past the pinching defenseman. I raced after the puck and gathered it near the red line, then looked up to assess my options: they had a defenseman back, and a backchecker coming. I kept skating (and didn't fall!), decided I didn't have much to go on, and just sent the puck towards the middle of the ice. It ticked off of Speedy's stick and went into the corner. Odd man rush = failure.
As I got back to the bench, Coach Joe had some advice for me.
"When you get the puck, you stop skating and you start doin' this," he said, mimicking a back-and-forth stickhandling motion. "Once you stop, you give 'em a chance to catch up. Keep skating! KEEP SKATING!"
Point taken. As we sat on the bench, Team Gold managed to get in and sneak a snapshot past our sprawling goalie to take a 1-0 lead. Remarkably, we tied it up moments later when a wrister from the faceoff dot by White Helmet somehow snuck through Plymouth Whalers jersey. It was 1-1 four shifts into the game.
We changed lines after that goal, determined to keep momentum on our side. We managed to dump the puck in, and went in hard on the forecheck as we were told. I had a defenseman with the puck in my sights, and anticipated a clearing attempt up the wall. When that attempt came, I was ready for it, blocked it with my feet, and continued in after it. I got the puck by the goal line and sent it in front, hoping for a tip-in, but it was denied be a Gold defenseman.
The puck came back towards me, and I sent it around the end boards to Speedy, who sent it back to the point. The puck ended up getting turned over near the blue line, and Gold went the other way. I started back towards our end, half-heartedly at first, but then realized that the trailing Gold player had turned the rush into a 3-on-2, and was going to be wide open.
I skated as fast as I could to catch up. When I hit the red line, he was at the blue line. When I hit the blue line, he was in the high slot, where he slowed down. His teammate hit him with a perfect pass, and he was about to take a wide-open shot from about 15 feet out. With one last stride, I used every bit of my gangly (most accurate description of me ever) frame to reach out as far as I could, and as he was pulling back to take the shot, I lifted his stick and took the puck in two quick motions. As I peeled out of the slot with the puck, I head Coach Steve yelling "great play, great play!" and the Gold bench mixing "ohhhhhhhh!" with laughter at their teammate missing a golden (pun intended) scoring opportunity.
As I curled out of the slot, I chipped the puck up and out again, raced onto it again (it's quickly becoming my signature move), and went in on a sort-of odd-man rush; however, it was the end of our shift, so I threw it towards the net (it was stopped) and went off for a change.
Honestly, it was probably the best hockey play I made in the entire clinic. Call me Patrice Bergeron Jr., responsible in the defensive zone.
We had noticed that two of Gold's defensemen tended to do a lot of roaming, probably due to the fact that it's a clinic game and they wanted to score too. However, this led to better odd-man opportunities for us, and we took advantage early. After I saw Speedy collect a loose puck in our high slot, he flipped it to me at the blue line. I passed it back to him up the middle, then followed the play down the ice as he and Joe had a 2-on-1. Speedy sent it back to Joe as a backchecker got there, and, as I was trailing the play, I noticed the puck may come loose.
I don't know if Joe saw me, or if he just fumbled the puck, but it ended up sliding towards me in the slot. I took two strides and was on it, gathered it up, and took a shot. The puck managed to weave past two bodies in the slot and through the space between the goalie's right arm and chest. I had my second real goal of the clinic, and tied the game at 2.
This time, I took a few celebratory strides with my stick up in the air, but didn't want to be too happy because the goalie was new, and I'm not trying to show anybody up. But hey, I scored as many goals as Chris Kelly. And for a lot less money!
With the game tied at 2, things started to open up. We'd get an odd-man rush one way, fail, and then Gold would get one going back the other way. The whole game looked like something out of NHL13: not much defense, a lot of sliding around, and a lot of wide-open play.
On my next shift after my goal, Speedy gathered the puck at our blue line. I took off, seeing open ice and a potential 2-on-1. He tried to hit me with a pass before the far blue line, and it was a pretty good one; however, I tried to do two things at once (collect the puck and avoid the defenseman), and instead just fell and slid on my stomach like a penguin. The puck went harmlessly into the corner, and I banged my stick on the ice to show HOW MAD I was, when in reality I thought it was pretty funny.
I was down again, this time victimized by a small bump from the defenseman (or maybe a stick in the feet, who knows). I briefly wondered if there would be a penalty shot awarded, and if I'd get to skate in and do the triple deke in slow-motion, but none came, and on we went.
The back-and-forth play continued, and neither team was able to cash in. We had some chances, but weren't able to beat Gold's mobile defensemen, even when they left home to join the rush, Erik Karlsson-style.
Coach Joe had insisted that we shoot whenever we got a look, so we did. I took a shot that went wide and around the net. It was quickly gathered up by a defenseman, and he sent it waaaaay up ice.
You can guess what happened next. Yup. They managed to bat a rebound past Plymouth Whalers jersey, taking a fairly late 3-2 lead. Ouch.
Determined to make up for the error (read: my error), our line worked hard in the offensive zone. I carried the puck up in a 3-on-2, and, working against Gold's best defenseman, decided to take the puck wide. I managed to get around and a step behind him, and sent the puck towards the slot. It ticked off Speedy's stick and went wide. We got it out of the corner and sent it back in front, only to see it denied again.
As we headed to the bench, we were told there were about five minutes left. As it stood, my turnover led to what was the go-ahead goal. Yikes.
Thankfully, my Teal pals helped me out. After a wild net-mouth scramble, one that featured the New Guy lying flat on his back, spread out along the goal line, the puck worked its way into the net. The game was tied at 3, and I was off the hook.
Handel's got a sweet salad going there.
After the tying goal, we took the ice for what would be my last shift of the clinic.
I think you all know what happened next: "Milk Crates guy picks off a pass...slips past a defenseman, and he's in alone...dekes...SCOOOOOOORRRRRRESSSSSSSSSS! THE TEAL TEAMMMMM KNOCKS OUT TEAM GOLLLLLLLLLLLLLD!"
And then I woke up. What actually happened? A decent shift, a couple chances, and a lot of huffing and puffing. As Coach Joe called for a change, I felt a mixture of anger and melancholy: anger at not scoring the game-winner, and melancholy because the clinic was over.
As I sat on the bench, there was one last hairy moment: Gold's best defenseman managed to pick off a pass at the blue line, and in he went: breakaway from the red line in, with about 30 seconds left.
"Stay up, [Plymouth Whalers jersey], stay up!" implored Coach Joe from the bench.
As he had done many times, PWJ stoned the Gold skater, preserving the tie. The game ended shortly thereafter, and the two sides shook hands. Truthfully, it was the best-played game of the entire clinic, and clinic-wide improvement from Week 1 was pretty evident.
Skating towards the bench door, I remembered I had to try something: I had to stop.
So I skidded to a halt in front of the bench door, achieving the goal I'd set out for myself some 20+ weeks earlier.
As I walked past Coach Joe (he coached Gold last night), he told me I played a good game. We were all congratulating each other in the locker room on a game well-played, and talking about finding ice time in the coming weeks. More than a few people are planning on playing in the summer clinic, which starts in June, and I just may join them.
Until then, my Milk Crates days are done. I managed to score three goals (two times there was even a real live goalie!), fall down approximately 4,300 times, check a girl, get checked in the head, fall off the bench, and stop.
Not bad for 21 weeks of work.