Thursday, April 23, 2009

Day One-Hundred Two: Game Five

Time for a little lunchtime blogging, friends!

Dave-O and I headed out to The Yo last night for game five of the AHL Western Division Semifinals between the #3 Houston Aeros and the #2 Peoria Rivermen. The best-of-seven series was all tied up at two games apiece with games six AND seven slated to be played in Peoria over the weekend. If e'er was a must-win game for the Aeros in this series, it was game five.

I won't go blow-for-blow through the game here; I'm not a sports writer and I don't particularly want to be one. I'm plenty content being a fan. (Incidentally, it's sad to me that legit sports writers aren't allowed to cheer for the team they cover. I mean, I understand it, but I'd be majorly bummed) And as a fan, I have this to say about Game Five:

This is the game that you go to all the other games hoping to see.

This is not to take anything away from game three on Saturday. That game was fantastic. This game, however, was why we love sports.

Things could not have been tighter. Things could not have been more tense from the first puck-drop till the final buzzer. Both teams knew what was on the line, and neither was willing to give an inch. Halfway through the game, the score was still 0-0. The refs were also calling a pretty tight game, too, so there were plenty of good scoring opportunities. Lots of great saves. Lots of hits thrown. Tons of "SO FREAKING CLOSE!" moments. Nevertheless, it was fairly obvious even to the casual observer that Peoria was the better team through the first half of the game. They were outshooting Houston by more than a two-to-one margin and getting more breakaways, more odd-man rushes, more of just about everything. Their penalty kill was better than our power play. So it seemed only natural when they got the first goal.

The goal sucked the life out of the Toyota Center crowd, and it came with just a couple of minutes left in the second period, so it was a long, frustrating intermission. After all, the team scoring first had won all four games so far this series, and our boys were just not looking that good. Even another Mitch Love fight couldn't put much life into this squad.

The Rivermen (whose logo looks like a mildly ticked off Popeye, for the record) kept up the pressure as the third started and scored again, now leading 2-0 in the final period. Well, that just about did it. The way they were playing, the way we were paying, the way the series had gone thus far, and the way both teams played in the final month of the season said that was it, game over, and there was no way we were going to go in their barn and win two straight to win the series. I'm generally an optimist when it comes to the home team, and while I didn't say it out loud, I had started to resign myself to the reality that this was the last time I'd see this Aeros team. The offseason would start this weekend, and half these players would be gone next year. Which is the way it goes, of course, but it's still kind of sad every year when it happens, whether you missed the playoffs or won the Cup. The clock ticked down. Two-zip with ten minutes left. With nine minutes. With eight. Seven. A family of four a few rows in front of us stood up and left.

Then, the lucky break that serves as just enough to spark whatever hope a fan could have left with the season on the line and a recent NHL all-star in the opposing team's net: A two-minute delay-of-game penalty on the road team.

Delay-of-game is one of the lamest penalties in hockey. It occurs when a player shoots the puck over the glass without it deflecting first off another player's stick or the glass itself. It's a dumb penalty, and it hurt the Aeros the other night in game three, but this time it worked in our favor. This is why I'm okay with dumb penalties and poor officiating: sooner or later, it always evens out.

On the Aeros' eighth powerplay of the game (0-for-7 for the game so far, but forty percent successful going into the game), a puck finally found its way past Manny Legace and into the Peoria net, and a sudden rush of life filled the lower bowl of The Yo. Four minutes to play, and we weren't quite dead yet. Not much time, but apparently enough. Less than two minutes later, Justin Falk (Mr. Zero-goals, three-assists all season) fired a shot from the blue line at Legace, and Robbie Earl (Mr. I-Don't-Generally-Do-Smart-Things-When-I-Get-The-Puck) whacked at a rebound that hit Legace, trickled over his shoulder, bounced once, and wobbled its way past the goal line.

Tie game, kids.

The place went nuts. Dave and I went nuts. The family of four returned to their seats, and the father's friends (who were sitting nearby) tried to convince him to leave again, laughing.

For the first time in about an hour and a half, the game was fun again. The Yo was rocking the last two minutes of the third, and when the buzzer sounded, sending the game into overtime, the home team received a standing ovation as they headed to the locker room.

Awesome thing about hockey playoffs: when the game is tied, you keep playing as long as it takes until somebody scores, and the first goal wins. Full fifteen-minute intermission, full twenty-minute period (or until someone scores), and if it's still tied after that, we take another full intermission and do it again. I've seen playoff games (on TV) go up to five overtimes (basically, a double-header of hockey) before being decided. Every shot suddenly becomes the potential game-winner, every save worth a million bucks. There's nothing in sports quite like it. And we were going overtime.

And overtime wasn't pretty, either. We took a penalty pretty early in. It was kind of a weak call, but not inconsistent with what they'd been calling all night, I guess. Down four men against five, we get whistled for ANOTHER penalty. Ruh-roh, George! Suddenly, in overtime of game five of a tied series with the rest of the games on the road, we were killing a FULL STINKING MINUTE of FIVE-ON-THREE! *flashbacks to last Saturday night* Well somehow, our boys get it done, and kill off the additional minute afterward, but it's still several minutes before we can start consistently getting pressure on the Peoria goal (which is now aaaaaallll the way on the other side of the ice for Dave and I). And wouldn't you know it, once we do start getting things going down there, Peoria is forced to take a penalty to stop us! Imagine that!

Here we are then, already ten minutes into overtime, trying to convert a powerplay. And just barely missing, more than once. Then, TWEET!!

That's right, the referee then updated his Twitter.

No, actually he called a second Peoria penalty, and suddenly the shoe is on the other foot (though our 5-on-3 only lasts 15 seconds). We don't score on the 5-on-3, but as so often happens in these overtime games...well here, I've immortalized the moment in Awesome Haiku Format:

Sudden-death OT.
Why is Legace so sad?
Noreau just beat him.

A shot from the blue line on the powerplay blasts over the glove of Mr. Incredible in the Peoria net, and just like that, down 2-0 with four to go becomes 3-2 overtime win and a 3-2 series advantage.

The Houston bench emptied in about half a second. The crowd, though small, went ballistic. Noreau was mobbed by teammates. Dave and I hugged. It was an AWESOME moment. Our ECHL goalie, our third-stringer, had out-dueled Mr. Legace for the third time despite facing far more shots, and this team which has faced nothing but long odds all year long pulled another one out and lives to fight another day.

Yes, we've still got to win one more, and it'll have to come in Peoria. But we've won there before. You could see stunned dejection on the Rivermen as they skated solemnly across the ice to their tunnel. "How did that happen?" their vacant stares seemed to say. Quote from the post-game story in the Peoria paper were priceless. Now we've got two chances to win one game. Which will be tough, but it's a heck of a lot easier than having to win two straight on the road.

And you know, we could still lose the next two and be done for the year. But if this was goodbye for the 2008-09 Aeros and I, this was a much fonder farewell than I thought I was getting with five minutes left in the third.

So, bravo Aeros, stick taps. Best of luck in Peoria, hope to see you back here against those nasty, overrated Admirals in a couple of weeks!

Aeros 3, Peoria 2 ot (Houston leads 3-2)
Rangers 2, Caps 1 (New York leads 3-1...WOW!)
Flames 6, Blackhawks 4 (Series tied 2-2)
Bruins 4, Canadians 1 (Boston sweeps, 4-0)