Three on Two

by Stan Lee Werlin

Deep in the third period the ACE line is half-way through its shift and the crowd is unsettled, cranked with nervous tension. Behind his net Alex “Ass” Alessandroni
stops on a dime, a sudden cascade of white ice shavings flying off his skates into
the deadened boards.

The countless pockmarks from skates, sticks, headgear and collisions with heavily padded knees and elbows are barely visible to the crowd stand-ing at their seats and screaming for a goal to tie the game and send it into over-time. The season is nearing an end and the team is on the edge of a third straight year missing the playoffs.  They need to run the table: pull out this game, take the next two, hope the team ahead of them in the standings stumbles and drops a game.

The zealous hometown fans are frustrated, weary, and their raucous catcalls let the players know it even as they root the team on.

Alessandroni is good at tuning everything out. He knows the ice as well as he knows his own body, the distance to each of the two blue-lines, the time it takes to cross the huge neutral zone face-off circle when unimpeded, the angles of approach to the opposing goal-tender 180 feet away at the far end of the rink.

Taking in the positioning of his teammates in their traditional uniforms of yellow-
jacket gold with black accents and the opponents in their hated red and white, his mind instantly calculates the probable geometry of the play setting up in front of him and the fluid ways it is most likely to change depending on what he does and how the players on the ice react. For Alessandroni that kind of vision is mostly instinct. It’s a rare talent, a precious gift that causes others to marvel, and he knows it.

He senses immediately that the other team’s defensemen are cautious, backing into a protective posture. They’re good at holding late game leads. The line they’re up against, though, the center and both wings, they’re aggressive forecheckers known to pressure an attacking team starting out of their own end of the ice to try to force a costly turn-over.

Maybe Alessandroni can induce an error from them. He digs the puck off the netting at the back of the cage where it has come to rest and settles it flat on the ice, caressed in the barely curved blade of his meticulously taped stick. He tapes it only at the heel and in the center of the blade, a superstition he’s followed ever since his first goal in the NHL. His linemates Kevin Cavanaugh and Buzz Evans swoop in from each side of the rink, criss-crossing in front of their goalie to build up their speed. The repetitive sound of their skates cutting into the ice is like the cadence of scythes mowing down a field of hay only faster, much much faster.

It is somehow both graceful and soothing, entirely unlike the violent, chaotic game they play. They both look back at Alessandroni, ready to receive a breakout pass that will start the attack.

**********

Vickie Alessandroni cups her hands under her chin and tilts her face upward in a mega-phone pose. “Let’s go boys!” she yells, “Go! Go! Go! Get up ice!” Next to her, Cassie Evans is fussing with her cell phone camera, ready to take video when the action nears. Cavanaugh’s latest girlfriend Izzy is seated a row behind them, a few seats to their left. The players’ wives and girlfriends and guests are sitting together in the cushiony loge seats at center ice for this game, not high off the ice in the team’s plush suite with the boringly buttoned-down executives staring at computer screens filled with spread-sheets offering mind-numbing advanced hockey analytics:

Corsi, Fenwick, WOWY and more, a slew of elaborate player statistics and sophisticated quantitative performance assessments that would hypnotize even the most rabid of fans.

No, they simply like to be close to their men, on top of the whirlwind action, watching the harsh crunch of bodies colliding as the players chase the puck and deliver bruising body checks and hack at each other with their sticks just softly enough not to draw a penalty. The brief grimaces of pain the women glimpse behind the players’ protective face visors don’t unnerve them so much as energize them. It’s a tough game and their men have to be able to stand up to it, don’t they? The stats don’t measure grit.

Cassie leans toward Vicky and has to shout in her ear to be heard over the rapidly increasing cheers of the crowd. “You think Izzy knows about Casanova?” she asks, nodding her head backward slightly in Izzy’s direction.

Vicky doesn’t know if Cassie uses Cavanaugh’s nickname innocently or to get under her skin. It evokes images of last summer she wants to suppress, and for some reason right now it irritates her.

“What? His fun-loving rep? Sure she does. How could she not?” Vicky pauses. “Oh. You mean about Kevin and you?” she rasps out. “What could she know, unless he told her?” They exchange a lingering private look.

Cassie arches her eyebrows at Vicky. “Not only me,” she replies with a crooked grin.

**********

Alessandroni feints once in each direction before carrying the puck from behind the net and straight up ice directly in front of his goalie. His defensemen settle in safely behind him, prepared to jump into the play if an offensive opening materializes.

His outlet pass goes to Cavanaugh on the left wing midway to their own blue line, a crisp tape to tape laser that Cavanaugh gathers in and cradles easily, the sound on his stick a loud rifle report audible throughout the stadium.

His wings are among the fastest skaters in the league, quicker than their counterparts. He’s counting on them to out-skate the opponents shadowing them and gain the inside position driving through center ice.

Casanova, he thinks, carry it up a few strides and then give it back to me. Their eyes meet for just an instant in a silent exchange that confirms what will happen next.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans have played together for three years as the team’s top line. They know each other’s moves so well that at their best their positioning and passing is as smooth as precision choreography, almost balletic.

Or do we?, Alessandroni thinks as he charges forward. His mind flickers to his wife for a fraction of a second. He knows she’s at center ice, her eyes focused sharply on the play. Casanova, buddy, do I really know your every move, or have you put something over on me? He senses even before he sees Cavanaugh’s stick move that the puck is about to come back to him in a saucer pass through the air a few inches above the ice surface, the rhythm of the play uninterrupted. Concentrate, Alex, he thinks to himself.

**********

“Nothing ever happened Cass!” Vicky whisper-shouts over the crowd noise.

“Bullshit”, Cassie mouths back. “Does Ass know?”

Vicky is rueful. What’s the point in continuing her half-hearted deceit any longer? She as much as admitted it to Cassie months ago. She’s a trusted friend. They each know most of the other’s secrets. “He suspects. He asked me outright just before the first game this year. Of course I denied it. ‘I have to skate with this guy all season, Vick’, he said. I don’t think he believed me. There was this look in his eyes like he was pleading.

I just couldn’t tell him. It was so dumb to do it. I don’t know…that lopsided Kevin smile, the way he tilts his hips at you, maybe all that booze at the beach. Over before the season started.”

“I know,” Cassie said. She turns around to contemplate Izzy who’s waving her arms wildly and shouting “Whoo! Kevin! Skate! Don’t go downsides!”

“He’s sure not bonin’ her because she’s a student of the game, is he?” Cassie laughs. “She’s cute, though. Tight body. I give it a month with him.” Eyes back on the ice. “Here they come.”

**********

Cavanaugh steals a glance at the scoreboard overhead to catch the digital clock count-ing down the remaining game time. More than enough to regroup and get their goalie to the bench for a sixth skater if the play gets broken up. He gauges the distance between the opposing center and Alessandroni and then sends the puck back to him with a soft airborne pass calculated to tempt the opponent into trying to intercept it but keep the puck safely out of reach. They’ve done this a thousand times in practice. As soon as the opponent sees that Cavanaugh will back-pass he takes the bait, drops to a knee and whips his stick down flat on the ice, arcing it toward the puck with a quick sweep check to try to knock the puck off path and away from Alessandroni.

It doesn’t work. Just like that, the puck is back on Alessandroni’s stick and the opposing center is scrambling to get to his feet.  Now fifteen feet behind Alessandroni, he’s lost all skating momentum. He and the crowd and Alessandroni all know he won’t recover to get back into the play. It was exactly the mistake they needed.

In an instant,  a genuine 3-on-2 break looks possible.

Alessandroni is now alone, crossing his own blue line with the puck. Cavanaugh and Evans each accelerate past the opposing wingers, shrugging off their harmless stick checks, establishing the position they need.

A second later, the ACE line is in a classic 3-on-2 formation, Alessandroni at the top
of the triangle, Cavanaugh and Evans bear-ing down on the defensemen skating back-ward toward their own goalie and staying low to the ice in strong athletic posture, ready to dart in any direction.

Yvan Therrieu, their colorful French-Canadian coach, has schooled them for this brilliantly. They’ve watched films of the old Montreal Canadiens teams of the 60’s executing perfect 3-on-2s over and over, seemingly scoring at will. There was
never a team better at this part of the game in the entire history of the National
Hockey League, getting over the blue line, wings tying up the defensemen as they
drove to the net, the drop pass to the wide open center iceman barreling down
the slot and closing in to shoot. Now it’s do or die time. They’ve got to produce.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans are skating hard through the neutral zone
at center ice past the player benches as the crowd sees the 3-on-2 develop.

Their second line center Gord Tkachuck shouts encouragement from the bench
as Cavanaugh flies past him on the left wing. “You guys get this one, we’ll get the
game-winner!” The women are invisible in the stands as the play rushes by in a
blur, Izzy jumping up and down with a non-stop “Yah! Yah! Go Kev Go!”, Cassie
taking video, Vicky intent on watching the angles and projecting the way the play
will shape up in the next two make-it-or-break-it seconds.

All three linemates hear the unmistakable full-throated call from Coach Therrieu that marks so many offensive rushes every game: “Vite! Vite!” Quickly, quickly! “Vite! Vite!” Evans knows the play; he’ll get the puck from Alessandroni just as he reaches the
opponents’ blue line.

Everything has to be executed at top speed.

The whole season is riding on the ACE line now. For reasons Evans can’t begin to fathom his mind flashes on their public persona. He’s the quiet one with the low key personality. He hates the spotlight and gives perfunctory, predictable athlete interviews. Skate hard, focus, keep to the game plan, stay positive, they’re a good team but if we play up to our capability we can beat them…Ass is the one who wants the glory, the credit for being a great playmaker, the adoration for scoring flashy high-light reel goals.

Ass the arrogant. He’s chasing the big contract when he becomes a free agent after
the season ends. Chances are high he’ll sign with another team: it’ll be the end of the ACE line.

Casanova is, well…Casanova. Sleeps with the groupies. Takes whatever comes
from flirting with teammates’ women. Flamboyant personality. Gives great stream
of consciousness interviews sitting at his locker after games, interviews that Ass
watches with a mixture of admiration and dark brooding jealousy. The same Ass
who right on cue just head-faked left and fired a perfect pass to Evans flying down
the right wing.

**********

It was Evans who took Coach Therrieu aside months earlier as soon as he heard it from Cassie. He still isn’t sure he should have done it. In some ways it felt like a betrayal of confidence, a soiled revelation. How do you balance that personal uneasiness against the needs of the team, the delicacy of human relationships, the huge sums they get paid to selflessly give their all and become professional scoring machines once they take the ice?

“Are you sure, Cass?” he had asked before seeking out the coach. “From Vicky herself? You’re not just maybe reading too much into harmless flirtation? Vicky can be a real cock-teaser.”

“Casanova told me,” she answered. “Not Vicky. Bragged about it, really. ‘Screwed Ass’s wife at that beach party in June’, he said, ‘Again last month before she said no more. Buzz and I do the heavy work, Ass hogs the puck and gets the glory. Vicky, she’s just payback. He deserves it’. His exact words. So I asked her about it. ‘He’s got a great body’, was all she would say.”

“Why would he boast about it to you? Tryin’ to make you jealous, lookin’ for another
go-round maybe?”

“Buzz, c’mon. Casanova and me, sure, we had our good times before you came along. That’s a thing of the past now, dead and buried, and he knows it. But he still likes to
take me aside once in a while like I’m his confidante, tell me he’s still in play, let me
know what I’m missin’. Great player but can’t help himself. Still just a kid chasin’ tail.
His cross to bear, not yours.”

“No, Cass. On that you’re wrong. We’re all in it. We are definitely all in it.”

Coach Therrieu’s office door is closed when Alessandroni wanders past and spots Casanova in the office with him, shoulders sagging under the weight of a harsh tongue-lashing. “We need you guys to be together in every way this year on the ice and off, n’est-ce pas? You understand? Team chemistry above all! If I have to break up your line there’ll be hell to pay! You want to move in on the girlfriends, that’s your business Casanova. But the wives are off limits. Laissez les femmes seules! Laissez les femmes! Is that clear enough?”

By the time Cavanaugh opens the door and steps out, Ass is gone, pondering what he overheard. There’s a deep scowl on his face that twists the fading rows of stitches on his chin and cheeks into an ugly mask.

**********

Alessandroni’s pass to Evans is another flawless laser timed exquisitely, catching
Evans in stride just as he reaches the offensive blue line. On the left wing, Cavanaugh jukes sideways and drags his rear skate along the blue paint to ensure he does not precede Evans into the zone. The puck has to cross the line completely before any attacking player has entered the offensive zone or the play will be ruled offside and whistled to a stop, and it does. They’ve nailed it.

The geometry of the 3-on-2 is now like a moving human isosceles triangle closing in on the net. Evans’s drop pass to the trailing Alessandroni just inside the blue line is a well-executed thing of beauty that has the fans already rising from their seats. Alessandroni picks up the puck and cruises unimpeded straight down the center of the attacking zone toward the opposing net. His counterpart nine or ten feet behind him backchecks futilely trying to throw him off stride, flailing at Alessandroni with his stick, catching only air. The opponents’ defensemen are helpless, prevented from driving into the slot and closing it off by Cavanaugh and Evans’s dominating size and muscular inside positioning.

The GM, the off-ice coaches, the scouts are all watching from the team’s suite
high above the ice in their state of the art stadium, all concrete and padded comfort,
vast and sterile, nothing like the original arenas and their stiff wooden seats. Those places had personality: Boston Garden with its first and second balconies practically hanging over the ice surface; Chicago Stadium with its analog penalty timers and the throbbing of its impossibly loud pipe organ; the venerated Montreal Forum where the fans attended games in suit and tie. They also had drifting clouds of smoke, obstructed view seats, wretched air conditioning, dim lighting, garbled sound, and sometimes, late in the season, when the playoffs were underway, fog on the ice.

The new generation of execs expects to be pampered: multiple TV feeds, video replay, gourmet food service, in-suite kitchen and bathroom facilities. Welcome to the high tech, high finance worldof contemporary professional sports.

None of that matters right now. They’ve shared the coach’s concern about the fragile chemistry of the ACE line all year. Mostly, the line has held together well. Game in and game out, made strong aggressive plays. Performed better than last season. Leads
the team in scoring. Solid defensively.  The dark undercurrent of difficulties between Alessandroni and Cavanaugh hasn’t surfaced in public. There’s been no media or press speculation. The locker room scuffle early in the season when Evans separated Ass and Casanova was intense but brief. It stayed private, no harm done.

The players refused to talk about it. Still, there’s been a persistent low wattage negative vibe, elusive, nothing anyone chose to put a finger on, just something percolating under the surface that has remained there for months. There’s never been a thought of breaking up the line, let alone a more extreme consideration like trading one of
the players. And now, here it is playing out on the ice below them, the last chance
to keep the season alive,a few seconds squarely in the hands of the ACE line.

Cavanaugh bangs his stick twice on the ice, hard and insistent, the signal he’s open
and wants the puck. Alessandroni has to decide instantly – thread it in to Cavanaugh
for a possible tip-in past the goalie or a deft deke that gives Cavanaugh a completely open net for an easy goal, or keep the puck to unleash an unimpeded slap shot. The pass is the riskier play. No glory for you on this one, Casanova.

Alessandroni cruises in alone from the blue line. Fifty feet. Forty feet.

The opposing goalie leaves his crease, gliding directly toward Alessandroni, squared
up to him. His pads, stick, blocker and catching glove loom ever larger in Alessandroni’s field of vision, creating a wide, imposing profile to cut down the shooting angles in an
effort to give the rapidly approaching shooter nothing to see and aim for, pressuring
him to take a high risk shot at the barely visible corners of the net. Alessandroni, the team’s best sniper, can hit the corners in his sleep. He raises his stick behind him, the blade above head height, threatening a slap shot at 100 miles per hour.

At that speed, the vulcanized rubber puck will be an unstoppable lethal missile cover-
ing the short distance between the shooter and the goalie in just over one-tenth of a second. There is no human reaction time now, just a set of divergent possible results.

The puck could hit the goal-tender, or miss him and rip into the net at the corner of Alessandroni’s choosing for a goal that sets off a wild frenzy of celebration, or fly
wide and smash into the protective glass or boards behind the net. It might strike
the bright red metal crossbar or one of the goalposts and continue into the net for
a goal, or it might carom away from the players harmlessly or drop down into the
tangle of bodies in front of the net where it could deflect in off a leg or arm or skate
for a goal, or skitter off into a corner or be buried under a body to end the play with
the harsh shriek of the referee’s whistle. All of these futures are about to collapse
into one.

Alessandroni winds up to take the shot. It is a violent action, shooting a puck at
this speed toward another human being, fierce, uncompromising, unmerciful.

In a final effort to fuse desire and determination into pure athletic focus, Alessandroni envisions Cavanaugh’s chiseled features on the surface of the puck. With a slight change of direction and lift, too subtle for anyone to see, he could fire the puck at Cavanaugh’s head.

No one can control a slapshot in today’s high speed game, he imagines the comment-ators saying as they replay the video again and again, the shot just went awry. At that short distance, the impact was bone-breaking. The helmet saved his life. Cavanaugh is
a lucky man tonight.
That vision he has of Vicky and Cavanaugh naked together, bed-sheets askew, their skin glistening with sweat, her hand tracing a line down Kevin’s rock hard quadriceps has never left him.

He drives the blade of his stick toward the frozen black disc, meeting it flat and hard slightly in front of his body where the laws of physics pinpoint the exact location of maximum force. In his mind, time slows to a crawl. The decibel level in the stands skyrockets. Eighteen thousand fans are propelling themselves upward from their
seats, leaving their feet, anticipating, their arms prematurely beginning to fly above
their heads in that unmistakable reflex of triumph, the way hockey goals are always celebrated. They are already halfway to a thunderous ovation that will shake the
stadium from floor to ceiling if the ACE line ties the game.

It all happens so quickly. Alessandroni hears the unmistakable harsh thunk of the
puck on metal, a sound so loud it reverberates through the entire arena, rising
above even the cacophony of the screaming fans. The puck deflects downward
off the crossbar, bouncing crazily and spinning on the ice surface in the crease
behind the goalie, rolling perilously close to but not entering the gaping four by
six foot rectangle that is now a wide open net. The puck is a black hole vacuuming
in the attention of everyone who can see it, waiting to be tapped in to the net to
tie the game or to be batted away by the desperate defense.

The fans behind the net are delirious, shouting, pounding on the protective glass. Instantly everyone converges in the goal crease - the defense-men, Cavanaugh,
Evans, the trailing opponent wingers, the goaltender.

The sheer tangle of bodies obscures Alessandroni’s vision of the net as the players wrestle each other to the ice surface in a flailing mass of arms and legs and sticks
and skates. The referee is positioned perfectly a few feet to the side of and slightly behind the cage where he can see the entire play and follow the fate of the shot.

He begins to make a waving motion toward the net with his arms, peering in
to find a glimpse of the puck, looking for a round black edge, ready to signal.

 


Stan Lee Werlin's short stories and poetry have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, Sheepshead Review, Prime Number, Glassworks, Futures Trading, Soundings East, Saranac Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Reunion, The Write Launch, Waymark, Blind Corner, Dark Elements, The Louisville Review and Roanoke Review. His humorous children's poetry has been published in numerous children’s magazines and anthologies. He was a Harvard undergrad and received an MBA from The Wharton School. Stan enjoys competitive singles tennis
and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins. You can follow him on Twitter at @natsnilrew.