Saturday, January 6, 2007

Eagles blow 3-0 lead in discouraging 6-4 loss to Mooseheads

Last night at the Halifax Metro Centre was one to forget for our Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

The team built up a commanding 3-0 lead after 6:47 of play on goals by Paul McIlveen, James Sheppard (on a ridiculous individual effort), and Nick MacNeil (as he continues his march towards a 20 goal rookie year).

After that, however, the Eagles seemed to let up and fall asleep a bit, and matters weren't helped by some serious penalty troubles the team got itself into. By the end of the second period, Halifax had clawed its way back into the game and tied it 3-3, and they had Cape Breton on their heels.

Sheppard scored his second of the game on the powerplay early in the third period (giving him nine goals in his last five games, making him easily the hottest Eagle right now) to regain the lead for Cape Breton, but the wheels completely fell off in the final ten minutes. Goals by Andrew Bodnarchuk and Ryan Hillier on harmless-looking point shots that either went through crowds or were deflected put the Mooseheads ahead for the first time, and for good. An empty netter in the final seconds sealed the deal, and the comeback was complete in front of a raucous crowd of over 9400 Halifax Metro Centre fans.

The turning point in this game seemed to be a series of fights, mostly instigated by Cape Breton, shortly after the Eagles had built up their 3-0 lead. These fights were damaging to the Eagles for two reasons. #1, the fights sparked the Mooseheads and gave them some energy, after they had looked VERY lifeless in falling behind 3-0 in the first seven minutes of the game. #2, and perhaps more importantly, the Eagles lost two forwards (Scott Brannon and Brendon MacDonald) to game misconducts as a result of these fights. The consequence of this was that the team's forward lines were quite messed up for the rest of the game, as head coach Pascal Vincent never did seem to find the proper combinations to make up for the losses of those two players. The rest of the game, the forward lines the Eagles were throwing out there clearly lacked chemistry, and that lack of chemistry more than made up for the difference in raw talent between the Eagles and the Mooseheads.

In essence, those fights (perhaps unnecessary when the team was up 3-0) seemed to turn the game around for the Mooseheads last night.

Why were the Eagle players so eager to engage in these fights? The team has hardly fought all season. Perhaps it was a reaction to the previous game, when coach Vincent publicly punished defenceman Jason Swit for failing to fight Halifax's PJ Corsi after he had hit Brendon MacDonald from behind. It is quite possible that the players that fought for the Eagles last night overreacted to the message being sent, and fought when it was probably not a good idea to fight.

Fighting-related theories aside, the fact remains that the Mooseheads were simply the better team in the second and third periods, and that alone made the Screaming Eagles deserving of the loss last night. Late first period penalty problems (again resulting in part from a fight) did not help Cape Breton's cause either, as going on the penalty kill for so long killed the momentum the team had built up in mounting a 3-0 lead.

All in all, it is quite discouraging to once again manage to lose to a Halifax team much lower than us in the standings after defeating them so easily in the previous matchup of the home-and-home set. Sadly, this has been a trend all year in two-game sets between the two teams. Cape Breton wins one game easily, and then somehow manages to lose the other. It happened again this time around.

The most important thing now is how the team reacts to last night's loss, possibly the most frustrating and demoralizing to date this season. Cape Breton has to remember everything it has done right lately in going 10-1-1 in the twelve games prior to last night's result. Hard as it may be to forget a game like last night's, they simply have to put it behind themselves and move forward, as an important matchup with the Moncton Wildcats looms tonight. This matchup is made so important by the fact that the Wildcats actually passed Cape Breton in the East Division standings last night, by virtue of their 4-3 win over the St. John's Fog Devils.

Moncton is a team with average talent that is very scrappy, has great team chemistry, and is extremely well-coached. Cape Breton has defeated the Wildcats in both matchups so far this season, but neither of them was in the confines of the Moncton Coliseum, where the Cats have been so difficult to beat for the past three or four years.

Almost every team has a few demoralizing losses during the season. But the best teams find a way to bounce back. Let's see what our Eagles' team is made of tonight. Let's see how the players and coaching staff bounce back in the face of a stiff challenge from the Wildcats. It's about turning a negative into a positive. Last night's game was a negative, but embracing the challenge of showing a lot of character and rebounding could be a very rewarding positive.

That's all I'll say going into tonight's game.

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