in football, baseball, soccer, basketball and almost every other team sport you can name, you put your absolutely best on the field or pitch or court, and they battle their opponents' best for supremacy. some, like baseball, build the entire drama from one-on-one battles. (pitcher vs batter). others, like basketball, sprinkle in a little roll with their picks, and it becomes a "team" effort on that sense, but you can never get away from the star player with the ball in their hands. (or the bat, or what have you).
in ice hockey, despite what the marketing not-so-geniuses at the nhl and versus are trying to sell us with sid-the-kid and ay-oh, the overwhelming majority of the game, with the possible exceptions of the goaltenders, to which we will get to in a moment, is played with your best players ON THE BENCH. that's right. on the bench. skating being as draining a physical activity as it is, a human body can barely manage over a minute of full-out exertion before it simply stops working. the lactic acid in the muscles builds to where they simply won't go anymore. and the skater has to return to the bench to recover, while his teammates skate in his place. (forgive the sexism in the pronouns, but, at its best, ice hockey is still a man's game, and there's no two ways about that).
recovery time being what it is, and the exertion necessary to compete for a full sixty minutes, (or almost 85, as the case may be, but, as i said about the goaltenders, we will get to that in a minute), there are actually a minimum of three full sets of players necessary to rotate to manage a game, and usually FOUR. that's right, for entire stretches of an ice hockey game, the fourth best players at any one position (be patient for the goalies, i promise we'll get there) are necessarily carrying their team on the ice, to win or lose. in fact, unlike any other team sport, ice hockey requires that the team succeed or fail upon the efforts of the least player on the bench. there is nothing like it.
so it is, last night, that the buffalo sabres and the boston bruins went through two overtime periods (and not those wuss regular-season 5 minute 4-on-4 overtimes, either, but the real thing--20 minute periods with the zamboni-cleared ice and everything) to decide who was going to win the game. each team's best player (vanek for the sabres, savard for the bruins) was in the press box watching in street clothes from injuries sustained on the ice in previous contests. each teams "farm" system was tested, (buffalo's latest call-up assisted on their first goal), and on the slightest of margins, or, perhaps, the preponderance of complete team heart and soul, the boston bruins found the back of the net once more than did buffalo.
one of the best hockey games i have ever had the privilege to see.
the irony of the effort was that it was the two goaltenders that made it so. the only players to stand on the ice for the entire game, (it's such an old saying that it'd be impossible to know who said it first--"they shouldn't call the game hockey, they should call it goalie"), tuukka rask and ryan miller put on a twin display of netminding as has rarely been seen in the history of the sport. each laid out at a full length dive back across the nets to knock aside sure goals. each turned away so many glittering chances (breakaways, tips, point blank shots, etc. etc. etc.) that it made you realize that only a brilliant skating play would ever have the chance to finish things...
and there is was. michael ryder, cast out of montreal, otherwise (wrongly) believed as ice hockey mecca and eden combined, and silent for so much of the regular season, striding with purpose and feint through the buffalo defense to where he could wheel back and survey the entire sheet of ice... the buffalo defense so surely clamped down upon every boston skater going to the net.... except the one...
miro satan, (that's his name, i would not make this up), 36 year old slovak who had six times led the buffalo sabres in scoring, but who was not even offered a contract or a chance to try out with the club after the lockout in '05, was skating to the center of the ice well in front of miller, and received one of those team-game passes that make you want to cry for how perfect it is, and did of which only so few people are capable, and declined to take that seemingly necessary shot. everyone in the garden rose to see him shoot, and he did not. everyone in sabre white and blue and yellow strode out to meet him to try to throw their bodies in front of the shot he would not take, and when he pulled the puck back and continued to glide across the front of goal, it was like the red sea parting, and we all could finally see what miroslav obviously always knew he would see--the wide gaping maw of ryan miller's nets, wide open and unguarded, because ryan miller did what he always does, and moves out to where he can't miss blocking the shot... the shot that miro satan, for all his teammates and for all the marbles, would not take.
and then miro simply glided to where he could slide the puck easily into the hole right there in the heart of all buffalo fandom, and the deed was finally done.
the bruins mobbed miro and michael, but we all knew what we had seen. we had seen two individuals take over a team game, and make it special.
two U's, two K's, tuukka.
watching ay-oh's shots on the replays while he was kicking the crap out of the perennially over-rated and over-hyped montreal canadians, you realize that nobody, not even sid-the-kid, shoots 'em like that. so hard. so fast. so blinding in their speed and accuracy that you can only conclude and believe that nobody can stop them... except one man.
tuukka and the 18th, 17th, 16th, 15th and 14th-best players on the bruins roster are, if they can possibly earn it, going to stand on the ice (you heard it here first--montreal and buffalo are DONE, and pittsburgh sure as shootin' ain't all that) and we're going to (if there are truly any hockey gods) see the irresistible force meet the immovable object in the supreme team sport anywhere, anytime, anyhow.
ice hockey rules.