"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Buzzards Riding Big Mo
Jason Cohen ITC Staff Writer

El Paso, TX - As if being down 2-0 in the CHL Southern Conference Finals wasn't bad enough, Austin Ice Bats coach Brent Hughes now gets to ask himself the worst possible question at the worst possible time. Who’s my goalie?

Even worse, he doesn't know the answer.

The Buzzards took Game 2 from Austin Saturday, 5-2, a score that might have gone the other way if not for the guys who wear the masks. El Paso's Jeff Levy stopped 43 shots. Austin's Bryan McMullen turned back one.

The Buzzards got a power-play tally from Kory Baker on the first shot of the game at 1:52, while Jeremy Van Parys scored on El Paso's third attempt, at 14:56. That came one minute and twenty-seven seconds after Bats center Kelly Smart had made it 1-1.

Both Baker and Van Parys had too much time to work. John Hanson took advantage of out-of-position penalty-killer Bobby Brown to set up Baker on a shot from the left boards. Van Parys picked up a loose puck and blasted it from just inside the blue line.

But the shots were stoppable, and McMullen knew it. He skated to the bench at 14:56, patted back-up Dan McIntyre on the head and retreated to the penalty box (no, he wasn't punishing himself - the visitor's bench at El Paso County Coliseum is space-challenged).

"I couldn't stop a thing out there," a despondent McMullen said after the game. "I've been feeling like it was my first time on skates the last few days. I just thought the team would be better off with 'Mac' in net. I really can't explain it - if I knew [what the problem was] I'd correct it, believe me. It's a terrible time for this to happen, but we're not out of it. We're down two, but we're going home for three. A few days practice and hopefully I'll step out of it."

Whether he gets a chance to step out of it in an actual game environment is the question Hughes will ponder. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "Their goalie is outplaying our goalie, that's pretty much the bottom line. Our guys worked their you know what's off all night long. We worked hard enough to get two goals but gave up two real squeakers early in the game.

"Hopefully the tide will turn," he continued. "I don't think there's any question that our team can win some hockey games, we've just been getting off to some bad starts. Against San Antonio we got good starts, and good goaltending. In this series, we haven't scored on our power play and we haven't had goaltending."

The Bats were 0-for-5 on the power play tonight, getting decent pressure, but no red lights. McIntyre did his part to keep the team alive, and didn't waste time doing it either - Cory Waring's shorthanded breakaway attempt and Derrel Upton's follow-up were the first two shots he faced.

But in the second period, Austin gave up another early score. Rhett Dudley's tally at 0:47, a textbook play off an offensive zone face-off, stood up as the winner. It was the same sort of goal Austin routinely allowed to Bossier-Shreveport's defensemen in last year's playoffs - lose the draw outright, then everyone gets held up around the circle so the point man is not only uncovered, but the guy who could be covering him is helping set the screen.

Darryl McArthur made it 3-2 with a top-shelf point drive of his own less than a minute later. From there, the Bats were dominant - but not as dominant as Levy, who received the usual complement of help in the form of cleared-out rebounds and timely poke-checks. Levy has now stopped 78 of 81 shots in the series.

"I really think Austin controlled the middle part of the hockey game," Buzzards coach Trent Eigner said. "Jeff was the difference. He's as low maintenance a hockey player as a coach could have. He's got absolutely no ego and enjoys playing the game. It's easy to rally around a guy like that. When your teammates have a lot of confidence in you and enjoy working hard for you, everybody benefits.".

Levy's playoff performance is particularly impressive given that he sat out the middle of the season after back surgery. "But he's fresh mentally and physically," Eigner pointed out. "Most goalies are looking at their 40th or 45th start, while Jeff is right around 35."

Waring put the game away early in the third period, finishing a 2-on-1 begun by Aaron Phillips to make it 4-2.

"Our guys have been tremendously opportunistic," Eigner said. "We got outchanced tonight, but when you get quality chances and convert them, that' s all a team could ask for."

Mike Rees added an empty-netter for El Paso's final goal.

Now Austin must hope the cocktail of desperation and friendly confines will help them turn their play around. Meanwhile, the Buzzards are happy to hit the road, and know better than to think a 2-0 lead means anything – just look at Memphis-Bossier-Shreveport in the Northern Conference.

"The fans are going crazy, but the enthusiasm is tempered in the locker room," Eigner said. "The guys know that two wins don't make a series. We're going to have to play exceptional hockey to beat Austin at home, but you can only do what you can do. Our approach isn't going to change from how it's been the last two months. We needed to win a lot of games just to put ourselves in this position, and at this point in the season everything is a wash. The next three just happen to take place in Austin."

That's assuming there are three.

NOTE: Game 3 is Wednesday, April 10, with Game 4 on Friday and a possible Game 5 Saturday. El Paso fans interested in traveling to Austin for the weekend should contact Weni Gutierrez at the Buzzards office about a chartered bus. The team needs to fill a certain amount of seats for the trip to happen. The phone number is (915) 533-7825.

Jason Cohen began his reporting for the book Zamboni Rodeo (www.zambonirodeo.com) during El Paso's 1997 playoff win over the Ice Bats.

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