Vulcanized Obstructions

Sudden death will kill you. Nobody ever wants to go out with no redemption. Especially not after I stand on my head for two hours trying to prevent six ounces of vulcanized rubber from landing me at the top of everyone’s shitlist. Overtime is when goalies sink or swim, a game of hot potato I’m usually watching from the bench.

Cliff just had to dislocate his knee. He didn’t even save the damn puck, letting in a second goal and putting the Vipers ahead by one before being carried away on a stretcher. I managed to keep them off the scoresheet for the rest of the game, and then of course Sullivan ties it up with a buzzer beater that brought us into extra minutes.

Lucky me, stood in front a net ready to be the scapegoat that shall launch a thousand shoulda, woulda, couldas if I let one in. The other side of the coin, emerging the hero, is as likely as it is not, but thinking too much about either is the easiest way to skew the odds against me.

Each moment after regulation feels like an hour. My fate is in my pads. Right off the opening draw they come at me with their scoring line. An ogre of a wingman, number 11, tries his umpteenth glove-side slapshot. The lingering sting after catching it tickles compared to the shame I’d feel going home the team chump.

I freeze the puck just as 11 gets within striking distance for a follow-up effort. Wally, our biggest defensemen, isn’t having any of it.

“Can’t hear the whistle with all that shit between your ears?” Walter had a way with language. “Just say the words. I can help ring’em out.”

“Next time,” the Viper snarled as he skated off the ice.

Were this my first season, I’d be foolish enough to think Wally had my back because we were teammates. The reality is guys like him are always ready to throw down over a sideways glance. It works out to the same effect either way.

Defensive-zone faceoffs are not to be taken lightly. The angles are manageable but bad bounces are probable. This time around the boys get it out quickly and start putting in work down in the Vipers’ corners after executing a successful dump and chase.

These little respites are the most dangerous. You try to prevent your mind from wandering, yet it always does. I have a terrible habit of looking for beautiful women in the stands. The hotter they are, the more likely their eyeballs are glued to a cellphone rather than the full-contact ice capades unfolding in front of them. Not a lot of talent in Boston, it would seem.

Play is brought to a halt after Sulli nearly ripped another one home. Instead it hit the crossbar and deflected into the stands. We win the ensuing faceoff and start cycling the puck, hoping to throw our opponents’ defense out of position.

“Feet! Feet!” I hear Wally yell from the other end of the ice. He’s trying to tell Igor that the puck is still between his legs after Iggy whiffed on a shot. It is too late.

The Vipers shoot up the ice for a three-on-two opportunity. Their tape-to-tape passes have me jutting back and forth like a spastic cat trying to track a laser pointer. Wally levels one of them with a hip check, though the move puts him a step behind on the rush.

I brace myself for the inevitable two-on-one opportunity that’s developing. Igor is dashing back to try and bail us out of the turnover he created but I doubt he’ll get here in time.

As the two remaining Vipers break into our zone I’m left with only one defender. He knows to focus his coverage on the open man, just like at practice, as I set up to obstruct the puck carrier’s shooting lane.

The Viper winds up for a shot and slyly dishes the puck to his line mate at the last second, letting loose a perfect saucer pass that lands right on the stick of the other forward.

With my supporting coverage blown, I have no choice but to assume this guy’s going to shoot. I dig the edge of my right skate into the ice and slide toward the opposite side of the net. I realize too late that this is the exact response they’re expecting. A final pass is imminent and I’ve left the other half of the goal completely exposed.

My autopilot kicks in. I throw myself back in the other direction, diving paddle first at a net so open you could park a golf cart in it. Instinct goes a long way when your reflexes have been honed to embrace the happy accidents brought about by desperation. The puck somehow glances off my stick and into the corner of the boards.

Igor finally catches up with the spinning black disk and begins skating it toward the neutral zone. He is out of breath, looking down at the puck, and has no idea number 11 is back on the ice, fixing to flatten our mediocre Russian centerman.

11’s check lands so hard it knocks the remaining wind out of Iggy. The guys on our bench start barking at the ref to call a penalty though the hit was deemed clean.

Walter thinks otherwise.

He skates up to the Viper’s behemoth enforcer and pushes him square in the chest. In the blink of an eye both of them have thrown their gloves down to the ice and proceed to hammer each other’s faces with bare fists. The referees interrupt the fight before either combatant yields. They both head off to the penalty box, knuckles bleeding and expletives blaring.

The remaining five minutes in the period play out with both teams too exhausted to try anything reckless enough to win the game. Overtimes tend to result in the most cautious of stalemates. As the buzzer sounds, I skate toward our bench to take a break before subjecting myself to yet another onslaught of do or die.

“Hell of a save there, Ari,” says Walt as we struggle to catch our breaths. “I thought we were goin’ home empty handed for sure.”

Coach must’ve overheard. “There’s no taking this series home. We win this thing here and now, boys. Stotlemire will make the saves,” he said with a nod in my direction, “but the second overtime best be the last. Go win this thing or don’t bother trying to catch the bus back to Philly.”