Life on the road during an 82-game NHL season is a grind to say the least. From October until April you’ll spend enough time at home just to pack that small carry-on bag to get out there all over again.
By the time the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs rolls around, road-weary NHLers have fallen into such a routine that it doesn’t seem to faze them. Now is the time for focus. As I write this, 14 NHL teams have already gone home for the year as 05-06 also ran’s. By the middle of next week, eight more teams will be hitting the links.
After Sean O’Donnell’s slap shot found its way through Miikka Kiprusoff’s five-hole last night, Saturday now becomes the biggest game of the season for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim with the series now tied 2-2. Win and Monday becomes a series-clinching opportunity. Lose, and well, you can deduce that scenario for yourself.
So now you’re along for the ride. So let’s go.
THURSDAY NIGHT – FRIDAY MORNING
Shot, score…fowl towels…commotion….Ducks win. Now get to the bus. Get on the plane. Get on another bus. Get your room key. Oh, man the sun’s coming up.
As ridiculous as that sounds – that is approximately what it felt like.
The Ducks departed Southern California just before midnight Pacific Time and arrived in Calgary at 4:15 a.m. Mountain Time on Friday morning. There is something about getting to your hotel room with a copy of the morning paper at your door that will always seem strange to me. Especially when the cover of that paper is showing you something you saw with your own two eyes nearly four hours ago.
Welcome to Calgary.
The Pengrowth Saddledome, originally built in 1983 as the Olympic Saddledome for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, has a strange potato chip roof that is not all that noticeable once you are inside. The seats are green and blue – which struck me as odd – and is known mainly as the ‘Dome to the locals.
At 2:10 p.m. inside the bowels of the ‘Dome, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle addresses the media before roughly three quarters of the team will take the ice. The coach talks about the contributions of Selanne and McDonald regardless of their stats so far, he talks about unsung heroes in the playoffs – most recently O’Donnell - and the coach talks about his starting goaltender for tomorrow night’s contest where no news is good news for the coach.
The one thing that seems very clear as we make our way inside the locker room and out to the ice for practice is that this is a very loose group. If you didn’t know better, you might think the Ducks had an early season tilt on the schedule tomorrow instead of a playoff game five. You sense it is a combination of solid veteran leadership and the influx of young players that gives the team its character.
Inside the Ducks locker room after practice O’Donnell talks about his OT winner with members of the media while Ruslan Salei gives him a good-natured ribbing. Ilya Bryzgalov looks at the television in the room for less than a second and notices a typo on TSN’s bottom line showing the San Jose-Nashville series knotted 2-2 (SJ has a 3-1 lead) – a goaltender’s eye. Equipment manager Mark O’Neil sharpens skates and some players fool with their sticks outside the locker room.
Visiting locker room facilities are never all that inviting in any rink. The space is small and all of the lockers are painted Flames red.
After practice, outside the rink, the temperature is a balmy 70 degrees and the sun is shining. A quick check of the weather finds that Calgary is a full five degrees warmer than Anaheim.
Calgary is a city of slightly more than 1 million people and oil is the money maker here. Calgarians love their hockey as many Ducks fans witnessed in games one and two and no doubt the ‘Dome will be rocking tomorrow.
Just 25 hours until the puck drops on game five!