CINCINNATI – Center ice. Guess that’s as good a place to lay this wreath as any.
Center ice, first period circling the drain in Game 6 of the ECHL Eastern Conference semifinals, and here he came: Cincinnati forward Wade Megan, bearing the puck and a funeral notice.
The puck he picked up down on the Cyclones’ logo, after which it became surgically attached to his stick. He swerved hard around Komets left wing Mike Embach’s poke check and sailed into the attacking zone, and then he shuffled the puck through the feet of defenseman Matt Maione, and then it was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
The puck rocketed off his blade. It chimed the far pipe. It banked behind Ben Meisner and into the net.
And right there, you could start reading the eulogy for these Komets, as the red light glared and the Cyclones went up a couple of goals on their way to a series-clinching 4-1 victory. It wasn’t over yet – how could it be against a Komets team that, all series long, didn’t consider the battle joined until it was down two goals? – but you could see the end coming, even if it wasn’t as yet fully formed.
Just wasn’t good enough, Komets coach Gary Graham said when it was done, pronouncing the benediction.
Too little, too late, agreed team captain Kaleigh Schrock, in a visitor’s locker room strewn with equipment bags and thousand-yard stares.
Schrock stirred now, made eye contact.
For whatever reason this team couldn’t get a jump in the first period all series, he went on. When you’re playing a team like Cincinnati, that’s a recipe for disaster.
And so, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And so a long and sometimes strange season going dark for a hockey team that spent two months and change getting its legs to work, then hit its stride in a way only the dizziest optimist could have foreseen.
It’s been a pretty neat journey we’ve been on here for a while, going back really since the first of the year, Graham said. And in a blink of an eye, it’s gone. So it’s tough.
Especially when you go out the way they did, on their feet.
Outshot 16-5 in the first, down 3-0 two minutes into the second, they kept the pressure on thereafter, throwing 24 pucks across the last two periods at the peerless Rob Madore in the Cyclones’ net, finally getting one behind him with 6:37 to play.
And yet it wasn’t enough. Not on this night, and not against that goalie and that team.
The hard reality is, Cincinnati was simply the better team in this series, and not necessarily because Madore was filthy between the pipes and the Cyclones’ roster bristled with nine players on NHL contracts. All of that mattered, but not as much as the fact that they simply made more plays when they had to make them – Megan’s restaurant-quality gem in the first period being only one of many examples.
So, they were better. Not by a lot, mind you. Not always. But enough.
In the end, after three overtime games and four one-goal games, Madore simply made goals disappear one too many times, and the Komets helped out with a power play search planes couldn’t locate. Throw in a tendency to take entire periods off, and that was that.
They learned and we didn’t, is how Schrock put it. You have to tip your hat to Cincinnati. They were the better team.
It hurts to say that, it really does, but it’s the truth.
Just not the only truth.