It is a wonderful thing to watch two wonderfully talented netminders perform wonderfully in a championship round of hockey. From the looks of things this June, both Michal Neuvirth and Cory Schneider are strong bets to enjoy long and prosperous NHL careers. If they do, this Calder Cup finals between them may be looked back upon as their respective launching pads toward elite status in the NHL.
More than 60 shots were fired on net between Hershey and Manitoba Sunday at Giant Center, and only three found the back of the net. Hershey 2, Manitoba 1, in a heart-stopper. At least one long-time veteran reporter of the American League judged it to be among the best playoff games he’s seen in the league.
The final stat sheet from Sunday’s game 4 shows that Manitoba fired 14 shots on Neuvirth and the Bears in a desperate attempt to overcome a 2-1, third period deficit, but those 14 shots — most of them coming in the final frame’s final 8 minutes — seemed like 40, especially when Chris Bourque took a cross checking penalty with 28.9 seconds left and Cory Schneider already on the Manitoba bench for an extra skater.
But standing in Manitoba’s way was Neuvirth.
For the second consecutive game in this Calder Cup finals, and for the second consecutive day this weekend, Neuvirth was the game’s first star. Deservedly so. He stopped 30 of the 31 shots he faced. And while he was brilliant from start to finish, he was most brilliant when the Bears most needed to him to be: when a desperate Manitoba club threw everything including the kitchen sink at him in the game’s final couple of minutes.
There were other heroes on this late summer afternoon for Hershey — Keith Aucoin, tallier of the game-winner foremost among them — but as Bears’ head coach Bob Woods likes to say, your best penalty killer, your best defender, has to be your goaltender. Neuvirth was, again, and because of it they arrive at game 5 back at Giant Center this coming Tuesday night with an opportunity to win their first Calder Cup on home ice in 29 years.
Any 2-1 loss in any championship finals is grotesquely painful for the defeated to endure, but Sunday’s may be too difficult for this Moose club to put behind them. A lesson in the importance of mental alertness, and how a fleeting moment’s mental lapse can potentially ruin a championship-contending season: at 1-1 in period three, two Moose defensemen — one on the ice sheet, this other, his replacement, on the players’ bench — failed to coordinate their respective exit and entry while their squad was already a man down. The result was a cataclysmic too many men on the ice infraction.
The ensuing 5-on-3 power play wasn’t a thing of beauty, but Keith Aucoin pounced on a lively rear-board rebound behind Schneider, slid the puck beneath the netminder’s pads and into the back of the cage, and unleashed ecstasy among 11,000 Bears’ faithful. In that same instant the Moose confronted a hockey team’s greatest torment: the sun setting on their season.
Afterward, Manitoba coach Scott Arniel seemed to acknowledge too much, by at least half, of the toll Sunday’s game had taken on his club. At least two of his skaters he said were injured seriously enough to require hospital examinations, while still others he said had been beaten up good by the battering ram Bears. Perhaps even more damaged was his club’s psyche — he said he didn’t want his team anywhere near a rink on Monday. Instead they’ll do whatever a visiting hockey club will do on the road in a small town during a day without working, and simply show up at the office Tuesday afternoon knowing that a pink slip on the season could be passed their way a few hours later.
There was no subtlety to Arniel’s outlook. His goaltender, already great, simply has to be greater come Tuesday, or they’re through.
In the home team’s dressing room the victorious netminder was asked by a blogger what he felt in those terrifyingly tense final moments, knowing his side was two short the number of skaters the fast-flying Moose were. Was he as calm on the inside as he appeared to be on the outside? He delivered a simple but powerful message.
“I kinda knew we were gonna do it. I got the feeling we were gonna win the hockey game. I believe in myself.”