The Russians"Well, think about this," I said. "Last year in January, you were playing 'A' in Texas, and tonight you're playing the Russians."
Eli 15.5 laughed.
The #6 team in the country is based in Colorado, and a good portion of their team is Russian, as is their coach. High level of skill, high level of skating ability.
And, as we would find out, a high level of sportsmanship as well. Eli said they were all nice kids, and they played very clean.
Eli's team has played well this year. They're #20 in the country, and at times, they've played like a Top Ten team. They rely on speed, and a very aggressive forecheck, and when it works, it's amazing to watch.
When his team doesn't skate all out, though, it's ugly. The structure of the system depends on speed, so without speed, there's less structure. Turnovers. Open shots.
When we play teams ranked this high, our biggest problem is puck possession. We just don't have the puck much, and if the other team has the puck in the zone long enough, bad things happen. Part of that is the skill level of the top teams, but the other part is that we seem a little intimidated at times.
I was quite surprised, then, when we came out like a tornado at the drop of the puck.
Within 5 minutes, we were up 2-0. Every kid was flying all over the ice, faster than I'd ever seen them skate before.
Then we started taking penalties.
I quickly realized that the other team only shot at one speed. Every kid, every shot, was a bomb.
Eli, though, was on.
There were power plays when we only cleared the zone once, or not at all, and he was getting moved around the crease more or less continuously, but he was giving them nowhere to shoot. Always square.
Then, on another power play, a kid skated around in open space until he found a screen, snapped a quick shot, and Eli never saw it. Goal.
Six minutes later, with seven seconds left in the period, on another power play, a kid launched an atomic slap shot from about fifteen feet. It hit the heel of Eli's glove, hard, popped out, and rolled across the goal line.
Still, though, no one slowed down. Both teams were flying up and down the ice. After the first period, shots were 14-13.
The second period was just as fast, and we scored early on to make it 3-2. Eli made a series of strong saves, and then we got a power play.
And gave up a breakaway. The kid shot a hard backhand at close range that Eli saved with his blocker, and while the puck was still in the air, the kid skated into it with his body and it went over Eli's shoulder.
There have been games where a break like this would have affected Eli. It's hard not to be affected by something like that, in a big game. So I watched him to see what he would do.
He took off his helmet, took a drink of water, and laughed.
On the other team's bench, every player was looking at him, watching him laugh. He had a big smile on his face.
Then, there were a lot of saves, from both goalies.
The third period started. Shot totals for both teams went into the thirties, then the forties. Eli saved one shot by diving across the crease and deflecting it with his head. He saved another by diving and doing I'm not even sure what.
Less than two minutes left, and we were attacking relentlessly. On a power play. All the momentum. And then the coach signaled for Eli to come to the bench.
That's when I remembered that we had to win this game to have any chance to advance in the tournament. A tie doesn't matter.
Extra attacker, puck pops out of the zone, empty netter.
We lose, 4-3.
"Sorry," I said, as he walked out of the locker room.
"We deserved to win that game," he said, downcast.
"I know. Everyone played great."
"Did you SEE us out there?" he said, smiling.
For once, I have video. The last five minutes of the first period (one goal and five saves) is missing, thanks to a parent who thought they were helping by turning off my phone. Oops.
He didn't control the puck as well as he usually does, but he battled. Hard.
You won't be able to see much unless you enlarge this to full-screen, because the puck is going so fast it's hard to see in a smaller window.