I left the house at 1:30 yesterday afternoon, and pulled back into my driveway at exactly midnight. In between, I drove 300 miles and saw the Aeros beat the BSens 2-1 to take a 2-1 lead in the Calder Cup Finals.
It's an easy 150 mile drive from Rochester to Binghamton. You go east to Syracuse and then south to Bingo. Easy. It was a beautiful day (by which I mean lower heat and humidity than Tuesday) and it was clear so, good driving weather.
I got to Bingo about 3:45. Got in touch with the most awesome Ms. Conduct and we hung out and chatted about the team, the game, Brusty, etc.
We walked over to the arena about 5:45 so she could go to work and so I could take the air with the locals. My ticket was waiting for me at Will Call and they didn't open the doors until 6pm so I got a chance to observe the street party scene outside the building.
First, the building is East Berlin chic. A paean to poured cement and bunkers. It also appears to date back to the days of Marx and Engels. But, to the BSens and their fans, it's home.
The street party was pretty solid. They had all the hockey street party games like shooting street hockey balls at the goalie screen thingy - and the lady who was running that particular game had a pretty nice wrister - and the obligatory radio station booths/vans, as well as some food and drink. There were a bunch of young kids with flags, a bunch of older kids with vuvuzelas and a guy walking around with a 12-pack of Yuengling. Ms. Conduct thought she'd heard that it had started at 3pm, which is a bit of a head-scratcher (it was Wednesday, afterall). But, I guess that's just how they roll in Bingo.
I went in a few minutes after six. I was wearing a Wild white sweater and I was interested to see the reaction it brought. On my way in I got my first comment "Hey! Is that an Aeros jersey?" To which I replied "Nope, it's a Wild jersey." This seemed to mollify the gentleman. Not knowing where exactly my seat was, my plan was to locate it, then wander around the building for a while and try to engage the locals in discussion to gauge their temperament towards their team, the series and me as an enemy fan.
When I go to a game as an enemy fan, I go out of my way to be respectful. I will represent with my team's colors. I will cheer when my team does something well, but I will not be boorish about it, and I will not outwardly cheer AGAINST the home team. But obviously the home team fans aren't familiar with my rooting predilections.
I found my seat - and let me tell you, it was a doozy. I went on Ticketmaster 45 minutes after tickets went on sale for this game and paid the higher price ($27) for the best available single seat, but I don't know the building obviously. So color me surprised to find out that my seat was two rows up, about three seats off of dead center ice. Now, it was behind the benches and normally that's a bummer if you want to watch the game. But, when they built Lubyanka West, someone had the foresight to elevate the seats (sink the ice surface?) so that even though I was behind the benches I could easily see right over them. The only thing I couldn't see was play right along the boards on my side of the rink. A very minor inconvenience. Fantastic seat.
Then I went out and bought a beer and found a place to post up to look for locals with which to commune. The concourse at Die Nueue Wolfsschanze is pretty accomodating to those practicing fellowship. And the outside wall is all window which is kind of cool too. That wall is ringed by a heating system which makes for a handy ledge for one's beer.
The first person I interacted with was a police officer who, when I asked him if he thought I'd need him to escort me out of the building after the Aeros won, responded "You won't need to worry about that, son." It was pretty funny.
I spoke with a nice lady and her teenage daughter. They are season ticket holders and come to all the games and are just so excited for the Finals. When I asked them if I was going to get beaten up for being an enemy fan, they said "No, that doesn't happen here." LA Dodgers fans, they're not.
One guy in a suit walked by, sized me up in my Wild jersey and said (sotto voce) "Nice jersey." I'm guessing he was somehow associated with the Aeros.
Mostly my jersey garnered a lot of double-takes, then a combination of bewildered consternation and something that might have been disbelief. I mean, it's not actually an Aeros jersey, and I can't believe there are too many Wild fans in greater metropolitan Binghamton to start with.
I went back to my seat for the warmup. I was seated next to a guy and his kid to my left and a lady and her friends to my right (they were on the aisle). Warm ups were warm uppy. I am not savvy enough to derive much of anything from warm ups. I did notice that #18 Z. Smith for Bingo was only interested in skating over or right on the center red line, hairy-eyeballing any Aeros player by whom he passed. Normally that's behavior indicating a desire to incite disagreement between himself and members of the opposite team. So he does that a few times, then went down to stretch his Gaboriks - about a foot inside the center line, looking towards the Aeros side pretty much the whole time, and then bee lined off the ice as soon as they opened the doors to signal the end of warm ups. Ms. Conduct noticed that he leads his team in PIM. More on Z. Smith later.*
Surprisingly the biggest chirp I got all night was from the lady's friend to my right. She and her husband are STHs and she was the hardest to read in terms of "I hate you. No, just kidding. Yeah, I do. But not really." when she found out I was there in support of the Aeros. Her husband kept looking at me and sort of grinning and shaking his head like I had just farted in church or something. This is not to say I felt threatened or that they were actually hostile to me. Just, more serious about their preference that I not be there than others I had encountered.
The pre-game was loud and whipped the crowd into a proper frenzy. The building looks like it seats up to around 5,000 or so, and it was, for all intents and purposes, full. And all those excited people making all those excited people noises - bouncing off all that poured concrete and iron...it was plenty loud. The building had been retro-fitted once video screens became inescapable, which is to say, they crammed them in to basically the only place they could which is opposite corners of the rink where there was basically a huge, concrete support structure built into the original design. But they served their purpose and the obligatory "how we got here/awesome moments of awesomeness" montage helped get the faithful all geeked up.
They lowered the mascot, Max, to the ice via a rope and pulley rig to the delight of the people on the other side of the ice from me initially. By the time we could see him on our side (after he was far enough below the scoreboard) it basically looked like they'd lynched him. In fact, Ms. Conduct and I both tweeted to that effect within moments of each other, which I thought was pretty funny.
Apparently Binghamton has a latin vein running through its history because the national anthem was performed by three trumpeters, in the mariachi style. El himno nacional! At least one guy in the audience offered up a "What?" when they announced who was to play the anthem. And not in the "can I get a what, what!" manner, either.
Man, but Terry Koharski looks like his old man.
The game started amid a mighty din from the assembled.
Then the Aeros scored.
Din doused. NiNY standing and applauding - which did not endear me to the locals.
As Bryan Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness (and neighborhood watch) fame remarked, I was the only Aeros/Wild fan in obvious attendance. Literally. But I got away with standing and clapping the goal. No yelling or pointing at scoreboards. Then I sat down again and the vacuum that was left behind wasn't too bad.
The BSens looked nervous. Passes missing, pucks rolling off sticks, going for big hits and missing as often as not (at least early, they connected on some solid hits as the period went on). And, credit where it's due, the Aeros were not looking nervous at all. The Aeros were doing such a good job on the forecheck and in the offensive zone in general that, by the time the BSens were able to clear it out, they had to go for a change which meant they were attacking with one or maybe two players max. So - not a lot of sustained pressure offensively at all. The Aeros were making quick work of clearing their own zone. This would be true for the majority of the game.
The Aeros just outworked the BSens, in all three zones. The locals were going on about a 1-3-1 trap, which I chose not to debate with them, but the effect was the same. Again, I think the BSens needing to change lines instead of pursue the breakout was a big part of that, and that obviously stems from the job the Aeros were doing in the offensive zone. But that all gets back to working hard. The Aeros won a majority of the little battles, keeping plays alive, breaking up attempted breakouts, tipping passes and shots out of harm's way. Just good, hard-working hockey. If the Wild played that hard - win or lose - they would be a much more entertaining team.
The arena commisar either couldn't figure out how to turn off the green lights behind the net or didn't want to during the first period. They figured it out for the second and third periods.
The Aeros fairly dominated the second period. Outshooting the BSens 11-5, and if the BSens had any legit scoring chances in the period they only had one. The Aeros scored again, and again I rose and applauded. This time I drew a more aggressive reaction. A couple "SIT YOUR ASS DOWN!"s and a "SIT THE FUCK DOWN!"
During the second intermission, a gentleman came down to my seat and asked if I was from Houston. He had tickets to games 4 and 5 that he couldn't use and would have liked to have sold them to me if I'd come all that way and was in need of a stub. This was definitely representative of the reaction I got from Bingo fans. Good-humored, sporting, kindly.
Remember I said the weather was nice? Well there's a difference between "January nice" and "June nice" from a hockey perspective, and specifically from an ice-making perspective. They did two promos on the ice during the second intermission which obviously meant the ice had less time to freeze after being cleaned. Which meant the ice was still wet when the players came back out. Which meant the ice stayed wet for the duration of the 3rd period. I realize sponsors may be hard to come by, so a team like the BSens needs to take care of those it has. But the ice was a factor in the third. Pucks bouncing, or slowing as they hit the standing water, then rolling and bouncing late as the BSens mounted their comeback attempt.
The Aeros took an early penalty (the refs did a good job of letting them play enough to keep the intensity up, I felt) and the BSens scored on the PP. From that point on, the tide steadily turned in favor of Bingo. They pressed and they pressed and they pressed. They didn't get a lot of chances, per se, until the last few minutes. But you could see the momentum shifting inexorably in their favor.
The last minute of play was crazy. The BSens pulled the goalie and created several primo scoring chances, most of which ended with mad goal-mouth scrambles. Credit to Koharski who was in position bang-on behind the net every time. Also credit to Koharski for showing great conviction when signaling "no-goal" in a couple of those instances. That conviction helped keep the fans from rioting - and they got fairly close by the end of the game.
Unfortunately "fairly close" did not mean they all took the final outcome (a 2-1 Aeros win) well. As the game ended and the Aeros met near the boards in the circle to Hackett's right to celebrate, some fans took to throwing beverages and other trash onto the ice. I saw several drinks spilling as they hit the ice - some very close to, if not on, Aeros players and the refs - and it was a disappointing and embarrassing finish by a group that had been, to that point, loudly and enthusiastically but still appropriately behind their team. OBVIOUSLY this was a very small sample of those in attendance and I really do not want to paint BSens fans in general in a negative light.
Nonetheless, because of that reaction I chose to stay in the seating area for a few minutes before heading out into the concourse to leave. I didn't want to present a "target of opportunity" to any ill-mannered (and, likely, well-lubricated) fans bent on further demonstrating their frustration and airing their grievances. This proved to be a prescient move when I learned that there had been an altercation involving fisticuffs in the concourse. I managed to escape unharmed.
Got to my car, back on the road, home by midnight.
It was my first look at Hackett in goal, and he was obviously very good. One thing that I noticed is that, remember he's a devout butterfly goalie, he does not direct rebounds off his pads at all. He just kicks them out. And that meant he left some rebounds that, had the Aeros not been so good at keeping the slot clear, and/or the BSens done a better job of supporting the puck in the offensive zone, might have caused some trouble. I would imagine that will be something they will work on with him as he progresses - it has to be among the finer aspects of playing goalie at the professional level. But otherwise, very calm and composed in the net. Swallowing long shots in his stomach with no rebounds. Not going down too soon. Reading the play well, tracking well.
I was impressed with Patrick O'Sullivan. He created chances, had a nose for the puck, was responsible defensively, was physical....all good things.
I had trouble noticing Casey Wellman. And one of the few times I did notice him, he was circling away from a check, at the expense of gaining the offensive zone. So, not a favorable impression.
Gillies was less-engaged physically than I wanted him to be. If the book on him reads something akin to "2nd or 3rd line power forward" then I honestly didn't see that last night.
Prosser and Scandella and Spurgeon were strong in front of their own net, and on the blue line when attacking. The Aeros broke out well (possibly aided by the late-arriving BSens coming onto the ice after a change) all night and, like I said, they cleared the zone with efficiency.
Peters had an on-going battle with the linesmen about faceoff protocol which resulted in him getting tossed as a matter of course by the end of the game. At some point you have to grant the point so that maybe you can stay on the dot for one of those faceoffs, guy.
Ortmeyer had a strong game. Earl was more physical than I thought he'd be. He was more of a perimeter/high slot player in the offensive zone that I thought he'd be too.
*Zach Smith is a bit of a fan favorite, no doubt aided by his surly demeanor. But he is also a pretty good little player. They have him on for key faceoffs, particularly in the offensive zone. He's the kind of player you could see in the NHL playing an Alex Burrows role and, frankly, probably playing it pretty well.
The difference in the game was that the Aeros dictated the terms of engagement for the majority of the game. Bingo barely had time to set up in the offensive zone for the first two and a half periods, much less create any kind of sustained attack. The Aeros were faster, stronger on and off the puck and not intimidated by the BSens physicality.
I can't imagine the BSens being able to play more physically - without getting into penalty trouble - so I would think this would portend good things for the Aeros for the balance of the series.
All in all, it was a great time and a fun experience.
My thanks to Ms. Conduct for the company, the BSens fans who were very cordial to me, the Aeros for a great performance and my wife for green-lighting my trip!