***image1***In a matter of just three days, the KMC Eagles had taken their hockey team further than it had been in its entire 13-year existence.
The Eagles overpowered four teams en route to their first ever birth in this February’s U.S. Air Forces in Europe Ice Hockey Championship game, where the Eagles’ magical run was finally thwarted by the Geilenkirchen Flyers, as they fell by a final score of 2-0.
The Flyers, a Canadian forces team known for their stifling defense, used the neutral-zone trap to keep the Eagles forwards from getting enough quality scoring chances.
“We were one decent scoring opportunity away from getting back in the game, but the Canadians made defense their top priority the entire 60 minutes and didn’t hesitate to get physical whenever we got near their net,” said Eagle president-player Todd Poynter.
The idea behind the Flyer’s “trap” game plan is to sit back on defense and wait for the Eagles to make a mistake. The Eagles didn’t make many while fighting the trap, but their biggest mistake may have been when they allowed a Flyer forward to roam near their goal crease in the second period.
Eagle netminder Gabriel Kinney was a huge reason why his team was able to keep the game close. The keeper only allowed one goal through the first two periods, but it was enough for the Canadians to continue staying back on defense and filling in any gaps that the Eagles forwards might try and sneak through.
“For most of the game, Kinney stood on his head for us, making a lot of big saves. But when the Flyers finally broke through, it was the turning point of the game,” said Eagle coach Thomas Duggan. “It was nothing pretty; they simply took advantage of an open man in front of our net.”
The Eagles attempted to do the same, but each time an Eagle player ventured into the Flyer crease, they were met with the lumber of a Flyer cross-check.
“If we had any players standing in front of their goal, they were rapidly dealt with,” said Duggan. “The Canadians played smart, defensive, physical hockey the entire game.”
The Eagles threw everything they had at the Canadian defense, hoping they could break through the trap and get resident sniper Chris Mitchell an open look at the Flyer netminder. But Mitchell, who finished as the tourney’s leading scorer with five goals, was met by a wall of Canadian defenders each time he crossed the blue line.
“We even tried cutting down to our fastest two lines for the third period,” said the coach. “We couldn’t get our transition game working because the Flyers always had plenty of guys back at the neutral ice to stop it. So I decided that two lines of our faster skaters might be able to beat them one-on-one by skating the puck through the neutral ice on their own.”
It was a tough call for the coach because it meant benching forward Joel Burkhard, who had already netted two goals in a single game earlier in the tournament but was having trouble finding his legs against the Canadians.
Even utilizing the speed of the top two lines proved ineffective against the Canadians, who got their revenge against the Eagles, the team that ousted them from the previous year’s tournament.
“(The team) just didn’t have the conditioning of the Flyers,” said Kris Uber, an Eagle forward. “If we had more gas in our tank, the story would be different.”
“We got some huge efforts from our guys in that game and all through the tournament,” said Duggan. “But we were just a lucky bounce or two away from the win.”
After playing deeper into the playoffs than ever before, the Eagles plan on using next year’s tournament to make history again, this time with their first championship.
(Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Duggan contributed to this story)