The Tournament: Part TwoLike I said yesterday, I was just hoping the team would go 2-2 in this tournament, and looking at the schedule, even that might be tough. Eli 14.1s team would be playing against four teams from some of the best programs in the state, all with far more ice time than his team gets.
Which is why I was so surprised when his team won the first game 4-1.
In the first five minutes of the game, a lob shot bounced off his goalie pants and a kid scored off the rebound, but otherwise, Eli was good. He was giving up more rebounds than usual, and a few pucks popped out of his glove, but he did a good of squaring up in front of those rebounds and not letting them become goals.
20 shots, 19 saves.
Around him, his team was terrific. Skating hard, passing, hitting--it was so much more than I expected or even hoped for. Big smiles all around.
Game two was later Saturday afternoon, and it was a tale of three different games. For the first period and a half, his team was dominated. Eli had only let in one goal--on a deflection where the shooter's stick was clearly above the crossbar, but the referees missed it--but the flow of play was definitely against us, and it looked like it was going to be a long, long game.
Then his team took over.
From the middle of the second period to the middle of the third, the flow of the game completely reversed. Suddenly, his team was up 3-1 and completely in control.
For the last seven minutes of the game, though, it reversed again. The other team scored on a deflection off one of Eli's teammates sticks (the shot was going wide until it was deflected), and then they scored again to tie the game.
Eli had two things in his favor going into the shootout. One, he's had ex-college players shoot on him so much that he's seen a ton of different dekes and moves. Two, he'd watched a shootout the other team had been in earlier in the day, so he'd seen some of their moves.
It was a quick shootout. Eli stopped all three of the shots he faced, and we scored once. Game over.
He played better in this game. Fewer rebounds, better control in front. He gave up 3 goals on 21 shots, but two of those were on deflections where he had no chance. And he'd made some terrific saves.
Then he gave his first post-game interview. This tournament's atmosphere was so jacked up that they did post-game interviews.
"This is crazy," he said after he came out of the locker room. "We may have a chance to win this tournament. What is happening here?" He laughed.
He slept 11 hours Saturday night, then woke up ready to go.
The third game was against the team who I thought was best in the division. Big and fast, they were scary, and we had a tough time keeping up.
Eli was getting better every game, though, and in this game, he was terrific. His team was outshot 34-16, but it was 3-3 and went to a shootout.
Even better, this was the other team in the shootout he'd watched the day before. Again, he'd seen everyone's moves.
It was a carbon copy of the first shootout. He stopped all three shots he faced, his teammates scored once.
The problem after this game was that we only had about two hours before he needed to be back at the rink for the fourth game, so we couldn't go back to the hotel so he could rest.
He was tired. It was a tough, tough game, and playing every game (as a goalie) can be exhausting.
"I really want to go back to the hotel, but we don't have time," he said. We were sitting in a restaurant eating some of the best pizza I've ever had (well, I was eating pizza, anyway).
"Okay, let's check Google Maps," I said, looking at my phone. "Is there a La-Z-Boy store near here?"
Eli burst out laughing. "You're kidding, right?" he asked.
"One hundred percent serious," I said. "I'll find a salesperson and ask them about recliners, and you can take a nap in one."
"Oh my God," Gloria said.
We couldn't find a La-Z-Boy store, but we did find a Mattress Firm.
"I can't do this," Gloria said, both dismayed and laughing at the same time, so she went to a nearby Target.
There were two salespersons in the store, and I wound up with a woman who was the manager. She was super knowledgeable and very courteous, which was good, because boy, I had a lot of questions. We discussed mattress technology of the last three decades, handling the heat issue with the latest foam mattresses, mattress maintenance, competition from direct distributors, how mattress pricing works...
You get the idea.
I also shopped for a new mattress--legitimate, because ours is almost fifteen years old--amidst the wide-ranging mattress Chautauqua.
I think it was all okay, though, because she was a mattress nerd, and I think we both enjoyed the conversation.
Eli found a mattress with massage technology in the far, far back corner of the store, and he relaxed and snoozed happily for about half an hour.
"I don't know if that will help," I said as we left the store, "but if this was a movie, it would for sure."
This fourth game was a semifinal, but it was against the team that they'd beaten in the second game.
This was a different game, though, and not in a good way.
The first three games had been ultra-clean, very well-played, and this game was the opposite. In the first period, Eli's team had 20+ penalty minutes. At one point, the other team had a 5-on-3, scored, and STILL had a 5-on-3. That's how bad it was.
In the first half of the first period, a puck took a weird bounce off Eli's stick. Goal. He had a puck covered, then the other team poked it out and scored. Goal.
The referee said he'd tried to blow his whistle, but it hadn't worked. Hmm.
Then he was screened and never saw the third goal.
I thought his legs were dead, but he didn't look dead. He just couldn't catch a break.
This was the kind of game in the past where he was likely to crack, a game where everything was going wrong and he couldn't get back on top of it.
At the end of the first period, though--incredibly--it was 3-3. In spite of playing shorthanded for the entire period, the score was still tied.
One of Eli's teammates skated up to him in the middle of the second period, the score still tied 3-3, and Eli told him "We need one more goal and we win. I'm not letting anything else in."
The final was 7-3, and somehow, they were in the finals.
That would be a good story, except Eli had a good friend on the other team (who used to live in Austin) who hurt his shoulder during the game. It was a borderline hit, at best, and Eli felt terrible that he was hurt.
Eli came out from the locker room, and I told him I was waiting to check on his friend, so he went to the car to put up his gear.
I waited outside the locker room, and when his friend came out, it was clear that he was distressed and really in pain. I hugged him and I could see that he was fighting back tears. "Let me carry your bag," I said.
"No, I got it," he said. He was blinking hard.
"C'mon," I said. "Let me help." He nodded and dropped the bag. Just then, Eli walked back up.
"Hey, I'm going to help Danny with his bag, then I'll be ready to go," I said.
"No," Eli said. "I'll carry his bag." He put his arm around his friend, then picked up his bag and we all walked together toward the parking lot.
TOMORROW: The Finals.