ABU DHABI // Back in Finland, where Janne Lehtosalo grew up, they lace ice skates on a boy's feet almost as soon he can walk.
Now 40 and still playing for fun with his friends, Lehtosalo thought he had pretty much witnessed all there was to see in a rink. Then he eyeballed an improbable, game-turning goal last night that reminded him otherwise.
"I have played hockey for 35 years," he said, "and never seen anything like that."
Teammate KC Finnegan practically fell into a fluky, momentum-changing goal in the middle of the second quarter as the Al Ain Vipers rallied for a 5-3 victory over the Dubai Mighty Camels in the first game of the Emirates Hockey League championship series at Zayed Sports City.
With the score tied, Finnegan had been sent to the penalty box for slashing, and as the final seconds of his two-minute benching expired, he stepped back onto the ice - just as a teammate fortuitously flicked the puck his direction from the opposite end of the ice.
Incredibly, there was nothing between Finnegan and Dubai goalie Matt Jones but ice crystals and cold air, and the burly American bore straight down on the net and cranked one in for a 3-2 lead against the defending league champions.
"Timing is everything," said Finnegan, who played at the US Military Academy at West Point in New York.
The whole team snapped to attention thereafter. The goal was part of a 3-0 run in the second period as the Vipers (14-6-1) took control and completely flipped the momentum that was lopsidedly in Dubai's favour over the opening 15 minutes. In terms Finnegan could understand, Al Ain goalie Michael Jabri-Pickett was repeatedly strafed early as Dubai kept the pressure, and the puck, at the offensive end of the ice.
Yet it all turned for good when Finnegan was given his get-out-of-jail card as Dubai's power play expired, then practically stepped on the puck upon leaving the penalty box and scored on an easy breakaway with 1:59 left in the second period.
"He [the official] opened the door," Finnegan said. "I think it caught the goalie off guard."
After a discussion between officials, the goal was allowed to stand. Before anybody could complain for Dubai, Lehtosalo camped in the crease and banged in another goal seconds later as Ai Ain took 4-2 lead into the second intermission.
Both Finnegan and Lehtosalo scored twice to put Dubai (11-6-2) in a tough spot with one day left in the season. Indeed, the EHL might be staging the first best-of-two series in organised hockey history.
Unplayable ice on Sunday at the scheduled tournament venue at the Dubai Mall forced a delay in the play-offs and a relocation to Zayed Sports City. Sunday's opener was the first in a three-game series, but was canceled when the Dubai rink's Zamboni machine broke. After two days of discussions, by mutual agreement, the series was pared to two games.
Here is where it could get potentially stressful: If the Mighty Camels win tonight in Dubai, the teams will play in a 20-minute "mini-game", as Dubai captain Ron Murphy put it. Before the Zamboni was finally repaired on Tuesday afternoon, it looked as though yesterday's game might be the only one played - a winner-take-all affair.
Al least with two games, and the potential tie-breaker to follow, it is more akin to the original play-off structure. No need for a one-and-done deal, which would have been a lousy way to end a season that began in October.
"It gives more validity to the play-offs," Murphy said, noting the season needed to conclude Wednesday, because many players on both teams had vacation plans already set for when the season ended. "Because anybody can win one game."
That was no slap at Al Ain, although there were plenty of sarcastic pleasantries exchanged during the game between the two rival teams. There was more verbal to and fro than there were momentum shifts. It even got chippy, as the lexicon goes, in a couple of spots.
"That seems to be Camel-Viper hockey," Finnegan said, smirking. "Everybody steps it up, and there was a lot of healthy banter out there."
Lehtosalo laughed when he heard Finnegan's characterisation of the rivalry, and did nothing to dispute it.
"It's always good with those guys," Lehtosalo said. "It's kind of love and hate. There is a lot of passion in the game."
With one game left, and a potential do-or-die extra session to follow that could decide the league title, that energy level is going nowhere but up.
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