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October 26, 2012
The Blue Line
Fright Night In Bingo: A Lockout Tale

by Matthew Coller

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With the score 5-0 just 6:35 into the second period, it seemed like this was going to be a nothing game. That is, until what happened next…

With the National Hockey League locked out, we have been forced to go to lengths we'd never imagined to fulfill our need to enjoy hockey. Some folks watch KHL games on grainy internet feeds. Some, in a bit of a masochistic way, watch replays of past Stanley Cup playoffs on the NHL Network. And some reach out to the North American minor leagues like the AHL, ECHL, CHL, and so on. Ultimately, we know it isn't the same, but some hockey is better than no hockey.

During a work stoppage, we go through similar stages of separation as someone who has been recently dumped. First, we think it will be fine. "They'll get a deal done, they won't kill the Golden Goose," we say foolishly. Then, we get angry. "Screw them, we'll never go back!" Then there's sadness. Then pleading. And finally acceptance.

Nobody ever thinks they'll take a trip to Binghamton, New York to watch hockey. In fact, nobody ever thinks they will go to Binghamton, New York for anything. Ever. But on October 20, I had reached the point of acceptance. The latest round of negotiations had gone down the tubes, and whether true or not, it had never felt more like we should hunker down for losing an entire season and start looking for alternatives.

Time to get familiar with the BSens.

***

Binghamton is the perfect city to visit during a lockout. It looks like it should be the set for a zombie movie. Like 50 years ago, it was hit with some virus that turned half the population into flesh-eaters and most of the rest escaped from this tiny metropolis in the woods to real cities. What's left behind is a rotting, boarded-up relic with just enough non-flesh-eating people to support a few minor league teams. But even the day-walkers have a look on their face like something terrible happened there. In fact, some Twilight Zone episodes start to make more sense when you learn that Rod Serling was born there.

It was all made more beautifully creepy by the October weather and dead leaves. So by the time we walked into the concrete arena—which in all of its 4,000-seat glory is unfit for a Division III team—there was already a feeling that something kooky might occur. The blue seats were made for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the press box was just two tables at the top of the stands and the video board was two flat squares in each corner covered in black construction paper with a projector. The benches were so small, the backup goalie had no place. Each netminder had to stand near the tunnel to the locker room. (Assuming there were locker rooms).

In the concourse, if you can even call it that, the "team store" was just some racks of T-shirts set up in the largest part of the hallway. And it was "cash only." There may or may not have been ushers. When we relocated to a completely empty section behind the BSens' net, not a soul was there to ask if we were in the right spot. Maybe the ushers left 50 years ago, too. In the gold rush of modern minor league arenas, someone had seen Binghamton and decided to keep on driving.

Before the puck drop, the public address announcer asked for a moment of silence for "all the Senators fans who passed away in the offseason." Ones that were eaten by zombies, no doubt. Then, mercifully, it was time to play hockey.

The Senators have a pretty talented team. Their goaltender Robin Lehner is a true NHL talent and he was on his game. The BSens' opponents, the Syracuse Crunch, got off to a pretty ugly start. The Crunch are made up with much of the same roster that won the Calder Cup last season in Norfolk, but they sure weren't playing like it, in large part because of their backup netminder Riku Helenius's shaky play.

At 7:25, the Senators' Mike Hoffman scored on the power play. Less than two minutes later, Pat Cannone scored his first of the year to put the Sens up 2-0. The Crunch were moving the puck well and getting chances, but Lehner shut down every opportunity. So nothing unexpected. Until about three minutes after the second goal.

At 12:06, defenseman Mark Borowiecki boarded a Crunch player behind the Sens' net. The player went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury and things got testy. Borowiecki got five minutes for the boarding major and five for fighting. It didn't seem that unusual at the time, but it was the first bit of gasoline dripped onto a game that would eventually turn into an all-out ball of flames.

Less than three minutes into the second period, 46 penalty minutes had been assessed between the 2:00 and 2:51 mark. Mostly fighting and roughing, along with one game misconduct. Also, two more Senators goals had been scored and Grant's at 2:51 had led to the second brawl after a late check by the Crunch.

Things were getting ugly at 4-0, but when the original instigator Borowiecki scored to make it 5-0, there was little doubt where this game was headed. But even the most veteran hockey fan could not have predicted what happened next…

***

Nathan Lawson has always been a pretty mediocre goalie. In relative terms, of course. But his 10 games in the NHL with the Islanders in 2010-11 are still talked about like the darkest of the dark ages for Isles fans. He gave up more than four goals per game and couldn't break a .900 save percentage in the days where a .910 is almost a given, like getting 100 points for just writing your name on the SAT.

Lawson spent last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, where he was an average AHL goaltender. This year, he started in Elmira in the ECHL. For whatever reason, he was called upon to back up Lehner on this night, a job that generally includes one task: enjoying the show.

It certainly looked like that would be the extent of his gig. The first 16 shots Lehner faced, he turned away. Some of which brought the crowd of just over 3,000 to its feet. The skilled Crunch roster, which featured last year's AHL MVP forward Cory Conacher, was more than frustrated. They were downright baffled at how to beat the NHL-caliber netminder.

After the fifth goal, there was no coming back on Lehner. He'd stopped 16 of 16 and the only reason for hanging around was just to see if he got the shutout.

Then, like the zombies had broken through the giant glass windows of the concrete structure, it all went wrong.

After a save, someone grabbed Lehner's mask and ripped it off his head in the midst of a scrum.

The goalie lost it. He started swinging his arms wildly at anyone in blue, with no regard for who had yanked the mask.

Suddenly, a gasp.

Helenius had made his way to the Sens' blue line, mask off and fists up. Lehner obliged, and unmercifully pummeled Helenius.

The Sens' goalie was ejected. The referees handed out 35 more minutes worth of penalties and Lawson took over in net.

Fifty-nine seconds later, the first shot against Lawson went in the net. Less than two minutes later, the second shot against Lawson went in the net. Sens' lead to 5-2.

***

Football has the kneel down. Soccer has faking injuries. Basketball has fouling. Hockey doesn't have a way to cheat the clock. Down 5-2 with the Sens playing like the living dead, the Crunch's biggest foe was the clock.

1:51: A Senators penalty. Guess who? Borowiecki.

At this point, the BSens were wishing there was a kneel down. They weren't back on their heels, they were flat on their back watching the Crunch run them over.

Maybe it was the 90s punk, maybe it was the Will Farrell impersonator PA announcer, maybe it was just dumb luck, but somehow Binghamton was able to kill off the penalty.

3:01: Crunch penalty.

This was the Senators' chance. Score a goal here and we can all go home. But a funny thing happened when Lehner beat the crap out of Helenius: the struggling Crunch goalie left the game, making way for Dustin Tokarski. Several terrific saves later and the teams returned to 5-on-5.

Sometimes, a penalty kill can act like a sling shot. For the Crunch, it was like first gear in a slow acceleration. The shots came pouring down on Lawson. The puck never left the Senators' end. Like a death by a thousand cuts, knowing one would eventually hit an artery.

And it did. At 6:57, highly-rated Lightning prospect Brett Connolly slammed a rebound in to cut the deficit to two.

11:39: More cuts. Another gash. Ondrej Palat this time, to make it 5-4.

Just as it looked like it might come down to an empty net, at 16:18 J.T. Wyman tied the game at five.

***

Some had shocked faces. Some were swearing. Some just sat in their seat smiling in amazement.

Three minutes into overtime, Syracuse's Richard Panik completed the five-goal comeback, slamming the puck by Lawson and finishing off the Senators.

Lehner stood near the locker room entrance watching in disbelief.

The Syracuse paper called it a "Panik Attack." The Binghamton paper acted like nothing big had happened.

As we drove on the curling highway over downtown—the only road back to civilization—we looked down on the sad city of Binghamton..We reflected on the goalie fight, the brawls, and the night of the blown five-goal lead.

We remembered that the lockout had brought us here, and we hoped we'd never have to come again.

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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The Blue Line (10/02)
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The Blue Line (11/19)
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