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From the Broadcast Booth: A Comeback to Remember

Written by Michael Keeley, voice of the Austin Bruins

Last season, while broadcasting a game in Flint, Michigan as the voice of the Keystone Ice Miners, a bat visited the arena, delaying the start of the 2nd period. It was then that I remarked “you stick around sports long enough you’ll see it all.” I’ve been on this earth for 24 years and 10 months and have only been broadcasting hockey since 2009, but every so often, something happens that reminds me of how true that statement really is. Saturday night’s game between the Austin Bruins and Aberdeen Wings was just another notch in the proverbial belt.

After winning the first six head to head battles with Aberdeen, including two at Odde Ice Center in South Dakota, it looked like the Wings were going to be a punching bag for the Bruins. Then, in a trip to Aberdeen on February 19th and 20th, the Wings pulled off a sweep, jumping out to 3-0 leads each night – blowing that lead the first night (but winning in OT) and holding on for a 4-1 win on night two. Just over a month later, as the Bruins returned to Odde, deja vu began, with the Wings going up 2-0 on Friday, the Bruins coming back, and Aberdeen going on to win. Then, Saturday. Aberdeen went up 1-0. Then 2-0. Then 3-0. Then 4-0.

Before going any further, it is important to state how important this game was for the Bruins. They had dropped three in a row, had only four wins since Feb 5th, and were perilously close to having just a one-point edge on a playoff spot heading into the final two weekends of the regular season. Making this comeback even less likely still, was the fact that the Bruins were in a serious goal scoring slump – averaging less than two goals a game over their last eight. A 4-0 hole felt like a bottomless pit.

You had to wonder “what do you do?” if you’re Kyle Grabowski in that spot. He had called his timeout and made a goaltending change after the third goal, and yet Aberdeen had added to their lead. The one saving grace? There were still over six minutes remaining in the first period and as I said on the broadcast “there’s a lot of time to come back.” Whether or not I actually believed they could come back was irrelevant. The Bruins believed they could.

When I had asked Kyle earlier in the week about what the Bruins needed to do to break out of their scoring slump, he mentioned “going to the dirty areas” more – meaning primarily: the front of the net. When Griff Slightam unleashed his shot from the left point with just over five minutes left in the first, Glibert Gabor and Justin Misiak were both there. Misiak tipped it past Wings goaltender Gavin Paczosa and it was 4-1. There’s always something about getting that first one. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that you CAN score. Just over two minutes later, from just about the same spot as Slightam’s shot, John Pesek pulls the trigger. Replace Gabor and Misiak with Forfar and Kennedy – and you’ve got a recipe for goal #2. Suddenly, the lead was cut in half. The bottomless pit now had dirt in it. And the Bruins were building a ladder.

As intermission hit and I updated the Twitterverse on the happenings of the first period, I thought about how much of a difference those two goals made on the general feeling of the game. I talk all the time about momentum, and my belief that it is the most powerful force in sports. Put yourself in the collective head of each team. If you’re the Wings, you’re remembering the 3-0 lead you blew a month ago to these guys and the 2-0 advantage you let slip away last night. If you’re the Bruins, you’re staring at a two goal deficit with 40 minutes to go, instead of a 4-0 blanking with every bounce going against you.

Lo and behold, the Bruins score just 17 seconds into the second period. Captain Jade Miller, who broke out of a goal scoring funk of his own the night before, made it 27 on the season, and now you had to like the Bruins’ chances almost more than the Wings chances. How is that possible? Less than seven minutes (of game time) ago, Aberdeen went up 4-0. One of my favorite stat-geek websites, FanGraphs.com, generates win probability charts for Major League Baseball Games. In games with wild swings of momentum, they tend to look like cardiograms. If I were to create a chart of this game, I’d have to put the Aberdeen win probability over 90% when they went up 4-0. At 4-3, there’s no way it was much higher than 50%. But what about 5-3?

This story wouldn’t be as great without a rift in the rally and Bruins-menace Matt Pulver threw a wrench into the comeback machine at 3:35 of the period. It’s not always when you score goals either, but how you score them. Pulver was skating down to the left wing corner, trying to center a pass to a teammate hopefully crashing the net. The puck caromed off Robbie Goor and in behind him for a goal that could only be topped in its bizarreness (it’s a word, I googled it) by Jared Pike’s wide-shot-off-the-end-boards-then-off-the-goalie move back in mid-November up in Bismarck. Surely a goal of that nature was going to debilitate this team, I thought. I thought wrong.

In fairness to my mind, the Wings seemed to control the immediate minutes following Pulver’s strange goal. But then, Ethan Stewart took a tripping penalty. The Austin power play had gotten off to a tremendous start on Thursday, in the first of the Bruins’ “3 in 3,” when Jacob Paganelli scored a goal ten seconds into their first man-advantage at Richfield. They went 0-for-5 the rest of the night and then 0-2 Friday. They had one chance in the first on this night and didn’t score. When Jade Miller got a step on the defenseman up the left wing, you could see his eyes light up. When he slipped a pass to Gilbert Gabor at the left faceoff circle, the lamp lit up, too. That was the end of the night for Paczosa, bringing Peter Thome into the Wings net and completing the rare double goalie swap. We were at 5-4 and it was officially time to make the claim that “it was anyone’s game.”  After being down 4-0, how could you complain with that if you were a Bruin?

We were one tick under the half-way point of the game when the ensuing faceoff was dropped at center ice, and the Bruins had already matched their highest goal output in a game for the month of March. Although Miller and Gabor had been steady most of the season, getting those two in the goal column seemed like a long time coming. Miha Zajc didn’t want to hear it. It had been 18 games for the Slovenian center. He didn’t get his first until November 20th – and that was an empty netter. He got his second a few weeks later, but the well had run dry again.  Zajc was cruising through the slot when John Pesek let a shot go from the middle of the point area. It looked as if Pesek wanted to pass to his defense partner, but the Bruins were completing a line change, so he stepped to the center of the ice and let it fly. With his stick just below the crossbar, Zajc got a piece of it and was the proud owner of the game-tying goal. 5-5 with 7:29 to play in the 2nd. Nothing short of incredible.

At this point, as a play-by-play announcer, you don’t know where to start. You’re caught between being a fan and a broadcaster. You take a deep breath (with your mic level turned down), write down the official scoring of the goal, and get back to the action. Is a 5-5 game more fun to call then a 4-0 game? I don’t think that requires an answer. It probably doesn’t even require the question.

So, we move along to the late stages of the second period and begin to mentally prepare for what will be a tie game going into the third period. I could give the whole monologue about momentum again, but it’s all out in the open at this point. Just being 20 minutes away from gaining a valuable point in the standings was solace enough for the Bruins after the way the game began, right? Wrong again.

With 45 seconds left on the clock, Jacob Paganelli, Evan Cholak, and Travis Kothenbeutel work a nice forecheck down inside the Wings end. When Paganelli – typically a “pass-first” player, gets the puck on his tape, he realizes neither of his line mates are in a good scoring position. But he is. One bar-down snipe (as they say in hockey circles) later, and the Bruins are on the right side of the probability line. Austin: 6, Aberdeen: 5, jaws everywhere: the floor. I make a joke about being committed to a mental hospital if I had told you that the Bruins would be leading after two periods when the score was 4-0. I meant it. The Odde Ice Center is part of the Aberdeen fair grounds and I’m just waiting for one of those prized hogs to come falling through the rafters.

I’ve watched enough hockey to know that games like this usually don’t just glide along through a scoreless third period, so I make a note that the Bruins have to keep their foot on the gas pedal. On cue, the Wings come out quickly in the 3rd and hit a crossbar before things finally settle down. Less than five minutes in, the Bruins get another power play and cash in to make it 7-5. It was nice to see Austin Rueschhoff find the back of the net after being a healthy scratch in recent games. His presence on the power play seemed to inject some life back into the unit, which was now a solid 2-for-4 on the night. I couldn’t believe the Bruins had a two goal lead. It had been three games since they led in any game, and all of the last four trips to Aberdeen had started in more-or-less the same fashion. But now, they were out of the bottomless pit, and filling it with dirt.

The Bruins seemed to be determined to hang on to old “Mo” (Mo Mentum) and grinded through the rest of the game without too many scares. They killed of a few penalties near the end, but Aberdeen never even had a chance to pull Thome for an extra attacker. When Zach Kennedy tied the puck up in the corner to wind the final seconds off the clock, I swear a saw a grand piano being lifted from the Bruins bench as they jumped onto the ice. The magic number was four points, the win probability 100%, and the Bruins celebrated on top of a completely filled dirt hole that looked a lot like Robbie Goor’s goal crease.

As I packed up my equipment and got ready for the six-hour bus ride home that would now feel much shorter, my thoughts drifted to the Aberdeen Wings locker room, where big-picture, this loss cut much deeper than what the ecstasy of the Bruins win was worth. They fell back out of a playoff spot and dropped a significant five points behind the Bruins, with four games remaining. In sports we must always remember that for there to be moments of elation for one team, there is always despair for another. It is often said that those low points make the highs worth it, but that is hard to remember when you’re on one of those low swings – a place that the Bruins have been a lot over the last few months. I couldn’t help but admire the positivity of Wings head coach Francis Anzalone as he addressed the crowd prior to the postgame jersey auction. His upbeat message about using their tough loss as a learning experience and “getting right back at it on Monday,” was refreshing to hear as I headed down the stairs from the press box and toward a raucous Bruins locker room. I’m not sure I could’ve been so resilient.

They say a two goal lead is the worst lead in hockey. I’ve heard the same said about a three goal lead, which seems ironic considering the former statement. I can’t say I’ve heard anyone say it about a four goal lead. In perfect alignment with my opening statement to this blog entry, Kyle Grabowski told me he had never coached a game quite like that one. He may never again. In the grand scheme of things, that night in Aberdeen will be a mere blip – albeit a potentially crucial blip – on the radar of a 60 game 2015-16 season of Bruins hockey, but it really is so much more. For when the Wings and Bruins play again on April 8th and 9th at Riverside Arena to finish the regular season, both teams will know: no lead is safe.