It is arguably the most exciting play in sports. The penalty shot. Hockey’s version of the medieval joust. Mono e mono, two players squaring off with all eyes fixed on the participants. I have to agree it doesn’t get any better when it comes to sheer excitement.
Those feelings were enforced this past Friday in a contest between the Syracuse Crunch and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Leading 2-0 early in the third period, the Crunch were putting the pressure on the Penguin net. Goaltender Robbie Tallas attempted to cover the puck only to have to have it squirt thru his pads and end up lying untouched in the Penguin crease.
Syracuse forward Kent McDonell was one of the firsts to locate the loose rubber and was hauled down by Wilkes-Barre left wing Matt Murley before he could get a shot off. Murley’s take down didn’t go unnoticed by Referee Harry Dumas and either did his attempt to rid the crease of the loose puck. Dumas quickly pointed for a penalty shot after Murley covered the puck with his hand while it was still in the crease.
At that juncture, hysteria was set in motion. A few things added to the frenzy. One was the fact that this game was being played in front of the largest crowd to watch a game at the War Memorial this season, over 6,000 people. Secondly, because of the penalty originally whistled on Murley, explanations were in order for both benches, which delayed the action and allowed the crowd to build a great deal of momentum.
Throughout all of this, Mathieu Darche, the person selected by Head Coach Gary Agnew to take the shot, circled the ice. Any player on the ice at the time of the penalty call was eligible for the shot, but Agnew tabbed the leading scorer this season for Syracuse in Darche and left him with a few words of wisdom to diffuse a potentially nerve racking situation. “He just looked at me and said you’re supposed to be goal-scorer as a joke and I said all right. I like those pressure moments,” said a smiling Darche.
With the delay continuing, Darche calculated in his mind what move he was going to do and sought out Assistant Coach Ross Yates. It is well known on the Crunch, thanks to constant reminders from the far from modest Yates, that the former AHL MVP fancies himself a better than average goal scorer.
“I had in my mind what I wanted to do and I just went to Ross because we always joke around with Ross about him saying he is the best scorer in practice,” said Darche. “Actually in his career he did score a lot of goals and from the bench he sees every shot so I thought he might have seen something to help me.”
Satisfied with the fact that both he and Ross were on the same page, Darche headed to center ice only to find that the delay still ensued. He remained strong, as he would stick to his guns and just soak in the atmosphere.
“You start changing your mind and that is when you are going to freeze and you don’t know if you are going to shoot or what,” stated Darche. “That is why I set in my mind right away and it was actually fun with the crowd going. It was loud in the building and your adrenaline goes up.”
After a quick drink, Darche headed back to center ice. He responded to a couple of teammates giving him advice with a quick wink of the eye, letting them know he had it covered. Finally, after what were only three to four minutes, but seemed much longer, explanations were over and it was time.
With the crowd at a fever pitch, Darche collected the puck at center ice and headed to his right, which immediately sent a message to Penguin netminder Robbie Tallas. “He made a smart play at the very start,” said Tallas. “He is a left-handed shot and he went off to my right a little bit, which kind of forces me to stand-up.”
From there Darche would bear down on Tallas as he retreated to his crease. After a quick move to his backhand, Darche would pull the puck back to his left, forcing Tallas to slide that way which left an ever so small opening between the pads. “He did a good job of changing the angle,” said Tallas. “And that opened me up.”
At that point he would slide the puck five hole on Tallas, just eluding the blocker and stick of the Penguin netminder as it found the back of the net. Both players acknowledged that the hole created on Tallas was no where near a gaping one. “I was the hoping the hole was going to be bigger, but it went in,” said Darche. Tallas countered with “if you watch the replay there wasn’t much room there. I actually thought I might have had it.”
With the crowd erupting, Darche would circle his way back to the Crunch bench, all the while doing some impromptu windmills with his right arm a la Pete Townsend. The goal, Darche’s first ever penalty shot as a pro, second if you count college, would give the Crunch a 3-0 lead on the baby Pens, en route to a 3-1 win.
When asked about his history on penalty shots, Darche easily recounted his last one while in college, even though it was some three plus years ago. “I was successful on that one too. Right under the crossbar.”
Proof positive that the penalty shot is ultra exciting. Over three years later, a player who scores goals for a living, can even recount his last one just like it happened yesterday.