Team Story - Part VI, The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils
This is the sixth part of the guest blog series and team story by Alexander Rasputin. The story is fictional but based on the real in game events with his Vermilion Black Devils in Game World Buzzer where he took his team from LIHL to GHL in just 5 seasons. So please enjoy the sixth part of 'The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils'!
Haven't read the first parts yet? Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part I
The Fifth Circle
SEASON 5: SHL, 50-4-5-21, 3rd place
The offseason before the team’s SHL challenge is noticeably muted. The pressure is palpable. Despite Vermilion’s domination the previous 4 seasons, there is still an era of disbelief seeping through Rasputin’s seemingly undefeatable organization. So close to the first Five-Year-Plan goal, everything is magnified. Alexander locks himself in with the players often to speak in team-only sessions.
The level of turnover that was effective in previous seasons is no longer viable. A team with chemistry, willing to face battle for one another, is the only way to pass the SHL gauntlet, full of GHL-ready players from narrowly relegated teams, and young talent from around the world. Scouting the opposition, Vermilion staff is shocked at the quality their rivals possess. Western rival Blenheim Fighting Bobcats are backed by a world-class Russian goaltender, Juris Alenin, an eccentric with undeniable GHL-level talent who is well-known in Russian sport as a wild man and a crazy naturalist, disappearing for weeks into the Russian tundra during the off-season and found swimming in icy lakes more than inside human settlements. Warman Fighters are constructed from A-tier prospects playing together for years, an effective and cohesive unit that has had a chance to develop chemistry and hone their approach for some time. In the East, Timberwolves field a strong, offensive squad, while Becancour Kingsmen and Welsford Riders are all aiming for promotion. There is a feeling around the Black Devils club that this season is different from the rest.
Rasputin focuses on strong goaltending. With the talent available to other teams, winning through sheer offensive firepower is no longer guaranteed. The team will still fire at will, as usual - but the support at the other end needs to be strong. He splashes cash on the best available FA on the market - Danish goalkeeper Paul Moller. Moller has GHL pedigree and a stellar career record. The scout report warns of his lack of positioning fundamentals, but at every level, Moller has been able to mask that deficiency with some truly unreal ability in every other area. “He doesn’t even know where or what the net is”, complains Bure. But Muller flops around comfortably in pre-season, pitching 2 shutouts in 3 games.
Next, Alexander signs tough-as-a-bear veteran Russian defenceman Igor Stezhensky. Ex-military with a shady past, Stezhensky and Bure eye each other steely until the new signing puts out his hand, and thanks Bure for bringing him onto the team. When offered, Stezhensky does not accept the co-captain's armband until the current captain, Peloso, will take part in a traditional Spetsnaz exercise of two men sitting across from each other on a bench and trading punches until one taps out. The bout is televised. The two men hammer each other with blows for 15 minutes, but both are still up, bleeding and swearing profusely. Rasputin steps in and calls the match, offering the two a peace-shot of Stolichnaya. The two captains, Canadian and Russian, nod as they stagger up, having earned the respect of the team and each other. They will take the armband and provide the steel and instruction to Vermilion’s young core of offensively gifted players.
Finally, with Weichert still recovering, the Black Devils are first to the signature of talented Danish playmaker Ejnar Bruun, to split the creative load. Swedish veteran two-way forward Amandus Waldenstrom joins him on the Vermilion 2nd line. The team has a strong European lean, but with enough steel and strength to be feared. At the end of the FA period, Vermilion picks up Loke Hellstrom in a trade, a Swedish dman with an uncanny shooting ability and a cool name - as well as Isaac Miville Deschenes, a Canadian offensive d-man. These two will run the Vermilion powerplay. The squad looks tough-as-nails, a good mix of experience and youth, and equipped to play the high-octane hockey Black Devils fans are used to seeing. But the yet another round of turnover means the players have very little on-ice chemistry.
This will prove to be a problem.
The new arrivals mesh comfortably with the “veteran” core of the team, as Ostrout, Bogolyubov, Moskalev, Venalainen, and Sanford are still in the squad, along with the WPD line. The mood is optimistic, Vermilion Park is now near capacity, and the town boasts hotels, chains, and a modern experience for casual and serious fans. The season opens with a massive hard rock performance by Shinedown officially premiering “Devil” as the official Vermilion club anthem. Rasputin is lukewarm on Shinedown - they are no Behemoth - but the song is heavy enough for the general public. As the theme blares and he watches from the press box in his customary aviators and leather coat, the opening lines are announced to thousands of screaming fans:
Peloso - Weichert - Danielsson Bruun - Adams - Waldenstrom Aboussafy - Moser - Venediktov Sanford - Levet - Ostrout
Miville-Deschenes - Stezhensky Hellstrom - Yakovlev Arnaud - Malepart
After a strong start, the opponent on Game 11 is Nipawin, a team Black Devils fans will get used to seeing. Vermilion comes out with the usual swagger and lethality, and quickly gains a 2-1 lead, Peloso scoring twice, one a rocket from the Ovi spot, and cleaning up a rebound in front. The fans are losing their minds, and The Chasm is rocking.
But the momentum shifts quickly. Unlike the lower leagues, the teams in the SHL know what the prize is, and even wounded boxers can hit back quickly. Nipawin gets a goal back immediately, and its constant pressure takes a toll on the Vermilion offence. Centerman Adams misplaces a breakout pass, which is intercepted - and Vermilion defenceman Hellstrom is forced to bring down a Thunderhawks forward on a clear breakaway. The referees rule a penalty shot, and after the ensuing goal, Hellstrom is ejected from the game for making throat cutting gestures at the officials. A suspension is almost certain, and the crowd raises the roof with boos and profanity. The Thunderhawks score on the ensuing powerplay and ice the game in the final minute to win 5-2. Despite a dominant 3rd period, the Devils can’t rise to the occasion and Peloso smashes his stick into the glass as Stezhensky, ever the calm presence, critically watches the players file off the ice.
Hellstrom sits for 10 games, and Vermilion drops the next two with performances that are good, but not quite good enough to take the W. The team is clearly unsettled, and this time, Rasputin isn’t getting a response from asking his players to channel their anger into goals. If anything, the team seems fragile and too emotional, collapsing under the pressure of needing to win. Bure coldly watches as another lead slips away, but Rasputin stubbornly refuses to change the lines or the team’s approach. Black Devils lose 4-1 to rival Groundbirch and are now on a 0-3 streak and losing ground in the title race in their first, critical, SHL season.
Again, the town of Vermilion comes to the rescue. The next morning, the players get a phone call. They are expected at the academy arena, Solar Stars Park, in 60 minutes, full gear. As the squad arrives, they see Bure and Rasputin, geared up in white and gold, already on the ice, in front of 25 equally suited up academy prospects. A massive pile of body, arm, and leg weights lies at centre ice. Silently, Alexander points at the weights with his stick.
“The series is best-of-5. Full games, 15 minute break in between. Get your s* on, decorate yourselves with the weights like a goddamn Xmas tree, and form your lines. You are coaching yourselves today.”
20 extra kilos of weight is manageable for the kind of athletes playing for the Black Devils, and the team easily takes the first game from the academy, 5-1. The pace is frenetic, and as the game winds down, the players are tired but in good spirits. Moskalev is throwing good-natured insults toward the academy squad, and the players feel comfortable. If this is their punishment, so be it. But Rasputin smirks and changes his lines, and 15 minutes later the fresher, faster academy graduates have the professional squad pinned in their zone, absorbing check after check, shot after shot. The team responds well - the skill level of the Vermilion top 6 is elite, and even at half speed, they are deadly. Peloso and Weichert lead the charge, and the professional squad takes the 2nd match 3-2. This time the break goes by faster, the jokes are fewer, and the Black Devils concede breakaway after breakaway in the first period of the third game. Bure is tireless, cutting through the defence again and again, testing the resolve of his players. Rasputin is no amateur himself, breaking in down the wing and smashing shot after shot at the net. The two motivate the prospect team, and they win a close game 3-1. The tide turns.
Skating on Bure’s line for Game 4 is 16 year old Austrian teenager Sandro Koch, here on a tryout with a handful of other prospects eligible for next year’s GHL draft. After the Black Devils score first, he sets up 3 out of the next 6 goals, and the prospect squad takes the fourth game 6-3. Rasputin and Koch exchange a couple of words after the game, then Rasputin and Bure. There is frustrated yelling from the Black Devils locker room. Rasputin smiles and waits. Vermilion comes out enraged, but noticeably adapts their game to their opponents, playing with more finesse, less physicality, and exploiting the inexperience in the prospect squad. It’s tight, but the Black Devils take the final game 6-4, and with it, a 3-2 series win. The exhausted players file off the ice as Bure salutes the prospects. Rasputin is pleased.
The next game is away against top 5 West team Flying Legends. A 6-4 win, with 1G 3A from Weichert and 9 points from the “God” line is a noticeable improvement from the previous games. Two more wins follow, then five, and soon the Black Devils’ are streaking at 11 games, and the team is 1st in the East standings. Depth arrives via trades, but this time Rasputin keeps his valuable 1st round pick. Rotating in on Weichert’s wing is playmaker Bruun, who will finish the season leading the team with 33 goals. The good form continues into the final stretch, with the Black Devils, Kingsmen, and Castaways chasing the division-leading Timberwolves.
With just over 20 games to go and only 4 points between Vermilion and West Chicago, there is a home and away series with the Riders to navigate. Vermilion took the previous game 5-1, and there should be nothing to worry about. But the Devils come out flat, not clinical, and end the day with a 5-3 loss despite doubling up the Riders with shots. This is a precursor of things to come. Vermilion G Moller has a poor game, never feeling comfortable - but he will have another chance in two days. The team files off the ice 7 points back, but with plenty of track still to go.
The next morning, troubling reports arrive. Moller is nowhere to be found, absent from morning practice and MIA. Players report seeing him dazed the previous night, the look of a man whose mind is far away. Rasputin quickly organizes a search party and brings in team doctors. Did Moller get a concussion the previous game? The medical team answers in the negative. But who knows, concussions are easy to miss and affect everyone differently.
Players and professionals scour the city for their missing teammate. His cellphone is off. Bure raises troubling concerns of organized crime activity by competitors. He points out the questionable nature of Warman GM Wick Schozen, known for his elaborate and barely-legal antics to derail other teams, and matching Rasputin for foul language and drinking volume. Rasputin flies to meet Wick alone with two bottles of rum. Warman media reports the two carousing around the edge of the town, causing thousands of dollars in property damage and leaving equivalent sums of cash behind. Three hours later Rasputin returns satisfied of Wick's innocence in the matter. But the clock is ticking, and going shot for shot with other GMs to find out the truth is not an effective solution.
Pulling on his military experience, Stezhensky and team experts psychologically profile Moller, identify his frequented places, and investigate all of them. As time ticks and evening falls, the team comes across an isolated, old farmhouse in the prairies outside Vermilion. Inside, huddled in a blanket and in a near-catatonic state, is the Vermilion starting goaltender. Turning his blank gaze onto his captain, he whispers “I should have had that shot”.
The next game is tomorrow, and Rasputin has Bure make a mental health announcement to the team and brings in a team psychologist. In a closed-door session with Rasputin and Moller, the psychologist recommends the goaltender sits for 3-4 games to regain his mental equilibrium. But Moller wants to play. Rasputin knows what it’s like to not have an opportunity to redeem yourself in front of your teammates, so he stands behind his player. Moller will start the crucial 2nd half of the home-and-away against Welsford Riders.
The game does not start well. Moller immediately concedes, but reorients himself and makes several key saves to keep a sluggish Vermilion in it. At 2-1, Weichert juggles the puck at the blueline, a hurricane of black and gold, spins around two forecheckers, and snipes the top corner past the shocked Riders goaltender to make it 2-2. The game begins to turn and the Black Devils come in waves at their opponents. Waldenstrom cleans up on the doorstep during a high-pressure powerplay to make it 3-2, then Peloso takes the puck to the net through the Welsford defence - throwing the puck between the defencemen and bursting through with his patented power move. 4-2 Devils, and the Welsford arena is silent. True to their playstyle, Vermilion keeps pushing to close out the game in the 3rd, but, on a harmless board play, a Riders forward is alone in front and buries the rebound to get the Riders back into it. Moller, despite being left out to dry by his defence, looks distraught.
In the next 5 minutes, he is beat once again, by another harmless floater from the point. Bure calls a timeout to reorient the team, but despite sustained Vermilion pressure, they cannot break through. Time after time, crisp passing plays break open the Welsford defence, but first Weichert whiffs on a breakaway, then Bruun puts the puck just wide, the goaltender on the ground and out of the play. An ominous chill descends on the arena, an air of inevitability. Moller stands in the way of a Riders shot, misses with his glove, and the puck deflects just wide off his shoulder. He takes another in the mask. With 7 minutes to go, a slapshot from the point by a Riders defenceman is deflected in front, and the puck finds its way behind the stunned Vermilion goaltender. 5-4 Riders. This is how the game ends. A 9 point gap between the Black Devils and Timberwolves with just over 10 games shrinks the chances of another 1st place finish.
In the dressing room, the atmosphere is abysmally low. Teammates come by Moller’s bench one by one, showing their support for the beleaguered goaltender. He doesn’t speak. Rasputin comes in, puts his arm around Moller and has a few words. The players know what’s coming. Antonsson will start the next game for Vermillion and becomes the de facto starting goaltender of the team.
With the turmoil behind them, the team plays freer, looser. They take 3 of the next 5 games and 12 of the next 17, but it is not enough. To add insult to injury, the team loses yet another game to the Riders late in the season, 2-1. Yet West Chicago is unstoppable, and the 9 lost points mean that, despite their excellent performances, the Black Devils finish 3rd - their first year without a title. A 3rd place finish, however, still means playoff hockey - and it still means promotion to the GHL, as per the Five-Year Plan, is within reach.
In the first round, the Devils play Groundbirch Purple Eagles, a mediocre Eastern opponent. The city of Vermilion embraces their first playoffs, with banners and jerseys filling the streets. NHL stars are seen at The Chasm, with Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov, good friends of Bure and Rasputin, rumoured to be interested in a stake in the team. They draw a massive crowd. “Vermilion will not be suck this year” states Ovechkin to gathered reporters, winking.
The arena is upgraded with goal songs for each player, a new lighting package, and the goal horn adjusted to a demonic laughter accompanied by rock music. The fans will hear a lot of this sound in the first round.
After winning the first, “what is defending” game by a score of 7-5, backed by duelling hat tricks from Venediktov and Bruun, and some magnificent powerplay magic by Hellstrom, smashing in two bullet slapshots, and assisting 2 more, the Devils score 17 total goals over a 3-game sweep of their opponents. Angry at the end of the season, stinging from a first trophyless year and knowing what’s at stake, the Black Devils don’t ease up through the entire series, burying the Purple Eagles under an avalanche of rubber and grinding their players into the hospital-white boards that soon take up a reddish hue. Forgoing a game of extreme finesse in favour of North/South speed, firepower, and physicality, the team looks unstoppable and Vermilion the city is rocking.
But, the second round schedule is revealed - and fittingly, dramatically, Vermillion must now go through Welsford Riders, the nemesis of all nemeses, to achieve Rasputin’s goal of 5 promotions in 5 seasons.
The first game of the second round is at home, at The Chasm. The mood is tinged with apprehension, but the success of the previous round, and the desire for revenge against the Riders overrides all fears and anxieties. The Vermilion players are fired up. Practices are testosterone-fueled, and the compete level is through the roof.
Rasputin gathers the team near a makeshift altar within one of the nets, offerings to the Slavic god of war Veles strewn around redly on the white sheet of ice. The players know that this is the final battle of the war. Old injuries, mental strength, physical ability - all are about to be tested to the limit. He looks carefully around the squad of men assembled before him, searching for any signs of faltering, for any signs of crumbling under the pressure. He knows that, no matter their strength of spirit, players are human, and some need different approaches than others.
What he sees looking back at him are stoic, focused faces of men ready to go to war. Rasputin focuses a little more on the Vermilion goaltender Moller. After sitting for the end of the season and the first round of the playoffs, he is eager for his chance. And Alexander, trusting his work for most of the season, trusting his ability to recover from his earlier breakdown, will give it to him.
Moller will be the starting goaltender for the series against Welsford. “Devil” blares from the arena speakers, an avalanche of gold and black covering the inside of the arena. The Vermillion player gather together for a Slavic war chant, the Russian version of the Icelandic thunderclap, implemented by Rasputin, a huge football fan, earlier in the season. Adrenaline pumping, the players line up as Moller slams his stick to the ice.
The first minutes of the game are frenetic. Waldenstrom opens the scoring off the rush, finishing a lethal Vermilion attack. Peloso slams home another after 13 minutes, taking the puck and a Riders defenceman into the net. But, as before, the Riders answer quickly. Two goals are scored on a 5-on-3 powerplay, as the fired-up Vermilion players get into penalty trouble. A third comes soon after, as Hellstrom gets caught up ice on a Vermilion rush. The puck deflects off the crossbar off of a Vermilion shot, and Riders are 3 on 1 on the resulting rush. The trio makes no mistake, and Moller is picking the puck out of his net. In the third, despite Vermilion pressure, it is the same old story. The team can’t finish their chances. With the goaltender pulled, the Riders once again break out 3 on 1, and ice the game with a 4th goal. Vermilion keeps pushing until the end, getting a goal back off of a Yakovlev slapper, but it is, as before, not enough. The game ends 4-3 in favour of Welsford. Vermilion are two losses away from failure.
Rasputin says the right things in the postgame interview. “We are still in this. We need to keep pushing. We need to play our game.” But it is his last statement which is key to the players - “I love this team. No matter what happens in this series and with my goals - they have shown themselves to be real men, real professionals, brilliant sportsmen. I came into this with the team as a tool to achieve my goal, but I am coming out of this with true appreciation of this squad. We will go forward, together, no matter how this ends.”
The players, for the first time, feel the pressure of the Five Year Plan lift. Rasputin cancels practice and throws the team a massive Russian dinner. Vodka and conversation flows freely, and the players, for the first time in this headlong sprint, feel relaxed.
Next game, they respond. Playing away at Welsford, the Devils play a game that is much more loose, relying on chemistry, skill, and controlling, rather than responding to, the flow of the game. The result speaks for itself. Total domination and a responsible defensive effort result in a 3-0 shutout win for Moller, who plays brilliantly, making several incredible saves with his trademark chaotic style. The series goes back to Vermilion tied 1-1.
But the relaxed attitude is not without cost. Game 3 is at home, and the Black Devils are sloppy. Despite Stezhensky barking orders all over the ice, the forwards are trying to pull moves that are too fancy, losing the puck in their skates, and the defencemen are lax in backchecking. The physical play has suffered, and the team is overpassing when they should be driving to the net. Bure is incensed, losing his voice screaming, and looking like he is about to suit up and go onto the ice himself. Vermilion quickly falls behind 0-3 to a focused, driven Welsford team, and despite a late-game push, the previous pattern repeats itself. Final score: 6-2 Riders, with Vermilion outshot 42-26 and outhit 18-10. “Sympathy for the Devils” read the Vermilion newspapers.
“We must do better. And we will.” Stezhensky speaks for the players. “We will win this series.”
Coming back to a hostile arena with Welsford knowing they can close out the series at home is tough, the toughest scenario the Black Devils have faced. The team is quiet on the flight, quiet on the bus ride, quiet in the pre-game skate. Unlikely heroes step up. Ostrout and Yakovlev, young players, come around to every Vermilion teammate, speak with them, motivate them. They lead the team in a pre-game chant, remind them of who they are and what’s at stake. And then they step up on the ice. Ostrout delivers a masterclass with 2 goals, 7 hits, and Yakovlev is a +3 as the Black Devils again defy the odds, rediscover their form led by the bottom half of their lineup, and edge the Riders 3-2 in Welsford.
The decisive Game 5 is at home, at the Chasm. The furor has now reached indescribable levels. The city of Vermilion closes for game day. Aside from outdoor viewing parties, the streets are empty. “Give the Devils their due” say massive banners and flags across the city. The players do their best not to crumble under the weight of expectation, knowing that days like this are what define careers, lifetimes. 13,000 people fill the arena, with at least that many more on the streets. The atmosphere is raucous, primal. The media coverage reaches national levels and celebrities and NHL players are taking notice.
Ovechkin, always quotable, is a guest analyst for the SHL playoffs. “It is biggest party since we win the Cup. Of course, Washington is best city! But Vermilion is pretty good. Everybody jumping up and down... Lots of vodka, too.”
Rasputin calls the team together pre-game. He quotes the great Sir Alex Ferguson: “The experience of defeat, and the manner in which one reacts to it, is an essential part of what makes a winner” he enunciates. “You have drained the life out of your opponents. You have taken them to the edge. Exorcise the demons - become devils yourselves. This is not about skill, not about structure. This is a pure test of wills. Make them blink first.”
“I don’t believe in fate” he adds, walking over and shaking the hand of every player, hugging some, exchanging meaningful nods with others. “Except for today.”
“Coming in there is like going through the arse-end of Satan” quips an unnamed SHL GM. “And they always pulled some stunt to make you feel on edge, like you didn’t belong. Like you had walked into a cult gathering or an orgy or something. It definitely affected gameplay.”
Vermilion Park, colloquially, and after this season - officially, known as The Chasm, is indeed a unique hockey arena. To enter, crowds are led through a fractured valley of a long hall, decorated with various occult scenes and eye-bending architecture. Sound booms, then disappears in a myriad of strange reflections. Lighting is equally eccentric, red and uneven, and fog is occasionally launched at visitors like at some kind of carnival fair. Some - many, criticize this as tacky and playing for shock value, but the atmosphere undoubtedly makes itself known.
“I think it’s cool as hell - literally”, says Rogath the Sad, a local Black Devils fan and black metal musician. *“When I slither into The Chasm, I feel like I am entering an eldritch world of dark wonder and occult truths. It really helps distance myself from reality. I’ve even written a song about it, want to hear?” *
This uniqueness is even more apparent during these playoffs. A formal complaint is lodged by the Welsford Riders to the league. The visitor entrance is long and twisting, and Welsford must walk the gauntlet of what Rasputin, tongue-in-cheek, calls the Halls of Reflection. A long domed corridor with walls and ceilings entirely covered by LCD screens, it can be used to advertise, display various information, or even project calming images of night skies and nature for a 360 degree experience. For the past two days, though, prior to the decisive Game 5, it rolls Vermilion’s every goal against the Riders, every Welsford mistake, on a continuous loop. For the entirety of this long walk, the opposing team must endure a morale-sapping assault on their spirit, set to demonic laughter.
The league rejects the complaint as trivial, warns Rasputin about unsportsmanlike behaviour, and Alexander gives a rare interview praising the opponent before the game. “They have the makeup of champions. They battered us all season. Welsford is our first true rival, and no matter what happens here today, that is forever part of our lore. Hats off to (Welsford GM) Nicolas Wiggins - if he keeps this up, they will have a bright future.”
“But we are going to win this game”, he adds emphatically.
It is a cold autumn night in Vermilion. 13,000 people in the arena, as many in the streets, are holding their breath as the Canadian national anthem is performed and the puck drops for the final, nationally televised, game of the SHL playoffs. After an initial cautious 5 minutes, the game opens up with a monstrous hit by Stezhensky on a Riders forward entering the zone. The crowd salutes the Vermilion captain but the referees fairly sit him in the box for charging. As they have done throughout the series, the Riders capitalize on the ensuing powerplay. 1-0. But the hit has energized Vermilion, and they are laying opposing players out all over the ice. One more such hit, by Waldenstrom this time, frees a Welsford defenceman of the puck and Bruun picks it up, breaking away toward the goaltender. He fakes left, then right, running out of space, but the goaltender reads it well and gives him nothing. In a stroke of brilliance, Bruun accelerates past him and wraps the puck around from the other side, the surprised goalie failing to recover in time. The crowd roars and the Devils keep coming. Another massive hit by Hellstrom takes two Welsford players into the boards, Weichert recovers the puck and sends a blind backhand pass into the slot, where Danielsson is waiting with a simple tap-in. It is 2-1 Vermilion.
But to the credit of the Riders, they are prepared to go blow for blow with the Black Devils machine. A takeaway in the neutral zone, and three crisp passes later, a one-timer sits inside the Vermilion net. Then, after a period of sustained Devils pressure, the Riders quiet the home support when a casual dump-in handcuffs Moller, and the Welsford forechecker places the puck into the empty net. The score after 40 minutes is 3-2 Welsford. Rasputin quickly gathers his team as they file off the ice. His message is simple. There is nothing he can say that the players don’t already know. He has faith in them, and he trusts them to motivate themselves.
Alexander and Bure stay on the bench as the Vermilion players go into the locker room.
The situation worsens in the third. Just 3 minutes in, another powerplay for Welsford. The Vermilion Achilles heel this season has been their PK, and it is no different this time, as a collapse of bodies near the net results in a heavy deflection of a Riders point-shot, and, as before, Moller is picking the puck out of his net. 4-2 Riders. Rasputin is grim, but he and Bure walk around the bench calmly, telling the players they have confidence in them. Stezhensky and Peloso do the same, as captains, and it is the former who channels it into reality, as, with 7 minutes left and Vermilion outshooting Welsford 40-33, he snipes a bullet through a defenceman’s legs and past the Riders goaltender. 4-3.
The Riders attempt to ice the game with another goal, but whatever happened in the Vermilion locker room in the 2nd intermission has calmed the team. They are playing surgical, precise hockey, defensively sound, all risk calculated - different from the passionate but disorganized start to this game. Again and again, the Devils intercept the puck in the middle of the ice, where the Riders have had success due to the lax Vermilion zone coverage. Retaining possession, Vermilion d-men patiently recycle the puck and wait for an opportunity, as the crowd performs the thunderclap chant, and frustration clearly begins to affect the Riders, alone in a hostile building. The moment comes with less than 3 minutes remaining in the 3rd. Hellstrom and Miville-Deschenes exchange cross-ice passes, after which the Swedish defenceman hits a streaking Weichert, who spins around a Riders player and sends the puck to the point, where the veteran Waldenstrom hammers it in off the crossbar. 4-4 with 1:57 remaining. The decibel level from the crowd is ludicrous as the Black Devils calmly skate to center ice, barely celebrating. They know their work is not yet done.
The last two minutes fail to result in a goal, and this game is going to overtime.
Just as unnervingly, the Vermilion squad stays on the ice during the entire break, barely exchanging words, simply waiting for their opponents to get into position. Rasputin and Bure are likewise stone-faced, watching. The crowd also goes quiet, and the atmosphere is eerie. As the puck is dropped, the Riders throw everything they have at the Vermilion defence, trying to put away the game. And they almost do.
A drop pass finds the Devils defenceman out of position, and the resulting rising slapshot just catches the edge of Moller’s blocker, deflecting off the outside of the bar and out. An audible sigh escapes 13,000 lips as the puck is recovered by Yakovlev behind the net 2:35 into the overtime period. Circling slowly, he leaves it for a streaking Weichert as the announcer leads the crowd into yet another thunderclap. Weichert, as he has done all season, picks up speed around the outside as Welsford changes lines. Nothing is heard in the arena except the powerful rhythmic claps, like the sound of one massive heartbeat of a giant living organism. A Riders forward forechecks, and Weichert drops the puck to a gaining Peloso, then moves into the slot as the Canadian forward powers behind the Welsford net, pushing aside his man. “HUU” echoes in the stadium.
Peloso weaves into the corner, leaving the puck for Yakovlev, who has joined the play, evading a check from a Riders defenceman. The thunderclaps grow in intensity and speed. Yakovlev twists away from his checker, fakes a pass to the point to commit the oncoming defenceman, looks up, and throws the puck cross-ice to Weichert at the right circle. The rubber disc moves slowly, as if underwater. Receiving the puck in space, already moving, Weichert takes two strides forward, eye to eye with the readying goaltender, half a step ahead of the flailing stick of a Riders defenceman. The thunderclap is deafening. The German centre winds up, freezing the goaltender, maintaining eye contact - and sends a no-look cross-crease pass to the left. Throwing bodies aside, an off-the-rails freight train coming from the left point, Peloso reaches the puck and connects.
For a second, all is quiet - until a cinematic roar shakes the stadium and doesn’t stop, making even the goal siren inaudible. Releasing all the emotion they’ve held in check, the Vermilion players throw off their gear and pile on to one another, Rasputin shaking the hand of the Riders GM, and diving in on top of the gold and black pile. The Russian manager roars at the crowd and they respond, ecstatic. Stoic Stezhensky sheds tears, Weichert and Peloso are hitting each other on the back like they are choking, demonic laughter echoes in the stadium, and in the middle of the celebration, Bure and a few players disengage to console the dejected Riders. In overtime, after a blow-for-blow, evenly matched battle, the Black Devils exorcise their own demons and beat the Welsford Riders to win their SHL playoff series, 3 games to 2.
Rasputin's impossible Five-Year Plan is a reality - 5 seasons, 5 promotions - and the Vermilion Black Devils, against all odds, are going to the GHL.
That was the sixth part of 'The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils' by Alexender Rasputin. The story continues next week so stay tuned!
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part I
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part II
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part III
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part IV
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part V
- Team Story - The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils, Part VI