Chapter 12: Lucky Bounce [Slapshot!]
Aleks let the door to the locker room slam shut, announcing his arrival to all and sundry. Blake looked up at him; Erik was shaking his head.
Fedya rolled his eyes, crossed his arms. “You are late,” he said, the English syllables rolling strangely under his Russian accent.
Aleks shrugged, dropped his gear in his stall. “Not my fault,” he said. “I ran over Tremblay.”
“What?” Blake spat. “Like, with your car?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Erik groaned, “even Aleks isn’t that bad at driving.”
“He does not even have car here,” Fedya huffed.
Blake colored up to his ears. “Oh,” he said, “right.”
Fedya whipped about, fixing Aleks with a death glare. The taller Russian just rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. Fedya might think he was intimidating, but Aleks was beyond immune to his looks by now. He’d been playing hockey with him forever.
“And where did you see Tremblay?” he asked, sliding back into Russian. Blake and Erik exchanged glances, but said nothing.
“In the hall,” Aleks replied in English. Fedya’s lips twitched with disapproval; he wanted to have a private conversation. Aleks wasn’t in the mood. “I hurry here, he walks into me.”
“Isn’t he hurt?” Blake asked, turning to Erik. “Broken foot or something?”
“Yes,” Erik sighed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, he has not played any games.”
“I knew that,” Blake snapped, then went back to tying up his skates, apparently annoyed about being mocked. It wasn’t his fault Erik was a repository of useless facts.
“And?” Fedya asked. He wasn’t content to let the story lie.
“That is all,” Aleks replied, pulling on his hockey pants.
“Is it?” Fedya didn’t look convinced.
Aleks shrugged, pulled his jersey over his head. “Believe me or not,” he said, his voice dropping lower, even though he knew the other two wouldn’t understand him in his native tongue, “nothing else happened.”
“Really?” Fedya sneered. “You didn’t try to grab his ass or anything? ‘cause that is so unlike you.”
“Whatever,” Aleks huffed, tossing up his hands. “You can think what you want; I’m telling the truth.”
“I hate it when they do this,” Blake said to Erik, who shrugged.
“I offered,” the Swede said, “to teach you Swedish, so we could get revenge. But …”
“Dude, I had to learn French in school. I suck at every language but English.”
“You suck at that too, Sully!”
“Oh, screw you, Savvy!”
Erik rolled his eyes. “Here we go again,” he murmured.
Aleks laughed. “Better them than me,” he said, then flopped down in his stall, lacing up his skates.
“Oy, Aleks, hurry up, will ya?”
He glanced up at Adam, who grinned at him. “Coach is switching up his lines,” the rookie said.
“Oh?” Aleks asked, quirking a brow as he knotted his laces. Adam’s grin grew wider.
Fedya looked annoyed—Aleks knew why. Fedya hadn’t been producing, so Coach had hit “blend” on the lines. That meant Fedya was moving down a line, while Adam got moved up. It was a bold move, especially considering he was putting a scrappy, underdog rookie in with one of the league’s most prolific scorers—and demoting one of the most talented wingers in the IHA. But it was a combo that had worked well for them before, and there was no reason it wouldn’t work again. Shaking up the lines sent a clear message to them—they needed to wake up. Coach wasn’t happy with how they were playing, even if they were winning games. They needed to stay on their toes.
Adam tapped his stick on Aleks’s skate, then headed out of the room. Aleks let his smile fall, looked down at his skate laces. They did need to concentrate, he knew that. They’d been playing sloppy, and even though they’d been winning, that was no reason to play slack. He knew for a fact they had to be on their toes, especially against a team like the Stars. They might have seemed to have a clear advantage over the boys from the District, but the Stars hadn’t made it into the playoffs for lack of talent.
Of course, the Stars were down two key players—Syoma was the biggest part of their success, their most talented player. There was a reason that Aleks considered the Canadian player his rival, the only man in the league who could even come close to matching him in skill. He’d grown bored with the perpetual “Volkov-versus-Tremblay” arguments that the media thrived on, that fans perpetuated in the stands, but he admitted, perhaps grudgingly, that Syoma was the only player in the league that even held a candle to him.
They played different games, entirely different styles, and different positions. Comparing them was like trying to compare apples and oranges—what Aleks did on the ice was entirely different from what Syoma did on the ice. And it needed to be that way. Aleks would be in huge shit if he started playing like a center. That wasn’t his job. And Syoma’s job wasn’t to be a winger; his team needed him as a center.
It was impossible to convince anyone of that fact; it didn’t make good headlines. But everyone who knew anything about hockey knew it. Their teammates knew it. The coaches knew it.
The Stars were also missing Luke Mackinnon, their second-line center. Mackinnon was nothing compared to Syoma—Aleks watched Fedya win face-off after face-off against the guy—but he was a decent enough player. On any other team, he would have been a superstar. On the Stars, however, he was overshadowed by Syoma.
Mackinnon was useful to them in other ways, though. While Syoma was unarguably the Stars’ anchor, Mackinnon was a veteran player with a cool demeanor. While Syoma riled them up, gave them inspirational speeches, shit like that, Mackinnon was sort of like glue, holding them all together when they threatened to fall apart. In stressful situations, in games where they were trailing or losing, when the pressure to win was on, a guy like Mackinnon was invaluable.
That should have meant tonight’s tilt would be easy-peasy. They’d won the last two games at home, on their own turf. They were confident, they had their key players, and they had two wins in hand. They need not be intimidated, even if they were traveling deep into Stars territory.
But Aleks knew better than to simply assume. In his younger years, he’d been overconfident, cocky. He was still cocksure, perhaps a little vain, self-assured of his own talent and his place among the legends of hockey. But he knew better than to believe that kind of inflated talk.
This was hockey, after all, and anything could happen. He knew that first-hand; he’d had his share of bitter disappointments and despite his façade, he knew better than to imbibe the kind of mentality of a manifest destiny, that the cosmos had preordained them as the winners before they’d even set their blades to the ice in the Telefira Center.
The Stars, even down two key players and down two games, could surprise. And they likely would. They were a desperate team, a team starved for a win. This was their first playoff appearance in years; they wanted a win. Their fans wanted a win. The whole city was itching for it. And now they were back on home ice, in front of nearly twenty thousand fans, almost all of whom would be rocking the red for their hometown team, their would-be hockey heroes. And if the Stars came out fighting, wanted that win bad enough, they’d get it.
And if the Rockets were complacent, overconfident, they’d get their asses handed to them tonight.
It was, without a doubt, one of the reasons that Coach had decided to shake things up in the line-ups. It would throw the Stars coaching staff for a loop, certainly—they wouldn’t expect it, would need to shuffle their own lines to play the match-up game they’d been trying to run in the last two games, and that could very easily lead to breakdowns in plays. The shuffled lines wouldn’t have practiced together; they’d be sloppy, unaccustomed to each other.
But it was also a wake-up call to the Rockets players, a warning that they couldn’t expect to simply go out there and win. That they couldn’t expect things to just stay the same. They needed to evolve, constantly. If they wanted to keep winning, if they wanted to advance to the next round, they had to stay hungry.
Only time would tell who was more starved.
Mason heard the door open, then squeal closed—a long, drawn-out sound that said someone was trying to be overly cautious. He stared at the ceiling for a moment longer, then sat up with a sigh, raking his hands through his hair. He stared at the rumpled sheets for a moment, then swung himself off the bed and headed down the hall.
He rounded the corner and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms as he regarded Luke coolly. The dark-haired omega had his head down, concentrating on his shoes as he toed them off.
Mason’s nostrils flared as he caught a whiff of the omega—Luke reeked. The scent was vaguely familiar and Mason frowned, trying to place it. He knew he knew it.
He licked his lips. “So,” he said.
Luke didn’t lift his head. “Hey,” he said, his voice muffled, subdued.
Mason gritted his teeth. “Where have you been?” he asked, taking a step closer.
Luke shrugged. “Out,” he replied.
“Out where?” Mason almost winced at the sharpness of his own voice, the question cutting, like a knife.
Luke finally looked up at him, his eyes narrowed just slightly. They were so goddamn bright. “I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he huffed.
The worst part was that Mason knew he was right—it wasn’t any of Mason’s business, really. They weren’t mated. They had been once, a long time ago, but they’d broken that off pretty quickly. And Mason had no intention of mating Luke again. Luke had made it pretty clear he was done with being mated—the two scars on his neck were evidence enough of how that had gone for him. He didn’t want to have to break another bond, and, well, Mason couldn’t blame him. Mason had only ever had to break one, and that had been one too many for him.
Luke was the idiot who had allowed himself to get mated that second time, though. He should have known better after the first time, truthfully, but he’d managed to be mated again—a drunken college tryst, something of that sort, Mason guessed. Luke had never really said what went down, but Mason supposed he was ashamed of being dumb enough to get mated a second time, to need to break a second bond.
Since they weren’t mated and really had no intention of being bonded, Luke was right: Mason had no jurisdiction whatsoever. He had no control over Luke. Luke, as an unbonded omega, was free to do as he saw fit, whether that was sleeping around or staying celibate.
Evidently, he’d chosen the former. Mason rolled his tongue against the roof of his mouth, still trying to place that scent. It was so familiar.
Mason lifted his chin a little, trying to look imperious, to impress upon Luke just who was in control of the situation. Even if he didn’t have a leg to stand on, he was still the alpha. He was still dominant.
“I’d really like to know where you disappeared off to for, what, two days.”
“I was out,” Luke said again. He wasn’t going to yield.
Mason grinned ferally, anger welling up inside him. He hated when Luke bucked him like this. It was wrong—Luke was omega and should have backed down, rolled over and showed his belly to Mason. But he refused.
Luke was nothing if not stubborn.
“I think I have a right to know,” he said, stepping in close to Luke. The scent was thicker, and Mason nearly choked on it. Other alphas’ scents were almost unbearable, especially on an intimate partner. Mason gripped his biceps, digging his nails into his own flesh. He was pissed; that smell was making his blood boil.
How dare someone else touch his property.
It was a hard thought to shake, even though he knew it wasn’t true. Luke wasn’t his—even if he wanted him to be. No bond, no intention of bonding—Luke was free as a bird. Mason had no control, despite how badly he wanted it.
And oh, he wanted it bad. It was taking everything he had to rein himself in, to keep himself from throwing Luke against the wall and fucking him until he begged for mercy, until he smelled like Mason again—not this other alpha.
He gritted his teeth. Every nerve in his body was screaming that he needed to correct this situation, that he needed to exert his dominance, to show Luke who was boss. To reassert his ownership of this slutty omega standing in front of him.
“You don’t have a claim,” Luke said calmly. “Get over yourself—I don’t belong to you.”
Mason hated that he was right. He stepped closer; Luke took a step back. Mason moved in again, again, until Luke’s back was right up against the wall. Mason pressed his hands against the flat surface, on either side of Luke’s head. “You could be,” he growled low.
His gaze flicked down, to those damn scars. “You were, once,” he said.
“Fuck off,” Luke spat, shoving him back. He stumbled against the closet doors. “You wanted to end that bond, so we did. I’m not yours—I don’t belong to anybody, and I don’t want to.”
Mason glowered at him. Luke rolled his shoulders back. “You had your chance,” he sneered, then headed down the hall.
Mason huffed, knowing he was right. “I was sixteen and stupid!” he snapped. “What did you want me to do?!”
“Keep your fucking teeth out of my neck, you goddamn vampire.”
Mason rolled his eyes. They had this argument just about every time they got together. It was a stupid argument. What was done was done, and there was no going back. Mason had apologized profusely for biting Luke that first time—he had been just sixteen, stupid and overly excited. Luke had been the first omega in rut he’d ever encountered. Mason hadn’t meant to bite him, but he hadn’t really been in control of himself at that point. He’d been running on auto-pilot, pure instinct guiding him to bite Luke, mate him, make him his.
Sometimes, Mason really, really wished he’d never bit Luke. That was usually when they had these arguments. They’d broken the bond soon after—they’d both realized they’d done it in the heat of the moment, that neither of them were ready for the kind of commitment a bond entailed. Luke had been eighteen, ready to leave for college, embarking on the next phase of his life. Mason had been sixteen, still in high school. Neither of them were ready for a bond with anyone—let alone each other.
Sometimes, Mason regretted breaking the bond. Sure, they’d been immature and unready for it, but there were times when he wished Luke was his and solely his. When he wished Luke would just yield to him, when he wanted to drag Luke to bed and then cuddle after, whisper nothings to his omega, and Luke would blush and relent, allow his alpha to shower him with affection—
Neither of them allowed much room for tenderness in their relations. They fucked, sure, and they were friends outside of that. But there was always banter, a little bit of roughness, a veneer that neither of them was willing to slough off. They couldn’t be tender with each other, because they weren’t in love with each other.
Most of the time, Mason didn’t really care; he was perfectly content with the life he was living, with not being tied down. Casual relations were better. He wasn’t ready to settle—and he wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready. He was still searching, checking out all of his options. He wasn’t sure he’d found The One, and he wasn’t going to risk missing out on that.
He stalked down the hall, paused in the doorway to Luke’s bedroom. He wanted to enter, knew that as the alpha, he had all the right to simply go where he wanted to go. But this was also Luke’s house, and he was a guest. The bedroom was Luke’s sanctuary, his safe space—to enter was to deny the omega a space that could be his own. It was an invasion, one Mason hesitated to take, even though to do so would be a display of his rights as an alpha.
He hadn’t been invited in. It would be one thing if they’d slept together in the bedroom when Luke was in heat, but Luke had been very careful about not letting them set foot in the bedroom. And Mason had respected that wish, unspoken as it was, even when Luke was in hard heat, barely conscious. And Luke most definitely hadn’t invited him in now.
He folded his arms and turned about so that his back was to Luke. Luke had few qualms undressing in front of him, but it still felt like a violation of the omega’s space. He glowered at the ceiling.
He sniffed, inhaling again. He still couldn’t place that damn scent. “So, who’d you fuck?” he snarled.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Luke murmured.
“I would,” Mason replied hotly. “I want to know who got between your thighs, Lucas, I want to know who you let—”
“What I do is none of your goddamn business, Jarhead.”
Mason gritted his teeth, then forced himself to relax. “I dunno, I think it is—what if he had like HIV or something, or—”
“If anybody has an STI, it’s you.”
He turned about to glare at the omega. “I’m not that much of a slut,” he snapped.
Luke raised a brow. Mason tensed. “I’m not.”
“Says the guy who banged one of his teammates, then me, then some random model,” the omega huffed. “How do I know you didn’t give me chlamydia or something?”
“I get tested,” Mason huffed.
“Good for you,” Luke spat. “If you could keep it in your goddamn pants, maybe you wouldn’t have to.”
He hucked his clothes into the laundry basket on the other side of the room, then shouldered past Mason. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Mason snarled. “That won’t help,” he huffed.
“I don’t care,” Luke said waspishly, whirling on him. His eyes were wide, as though emphasizing his anger. And shit, he was angry. “Did you ever think I want to smell like someone else?”
Mason blinked. “Why,” he said after a moment.
“I dunno, maybe I don’t want to smell like the biggest fucking whore on the planet.”
“Bad news, Luke—you do. Probably because you are, I dunno how you figured sleeping with someone else would fix the issue—that you can’t keep your legs shut—”
“I don’t have anything on you, asshole, you’re the one who brought a model back here, to my house, to bang her. Like, fuck. Can’t you keep your dick to yourself?”
“Why?” Mason asked, pausing in the washroom doorframe. “I like to share—”
“I don’t,” Luke snapped, then slammed the door in his face.
Mason reeled back, then stared at the closed door. He heard the water start. “If you don’t like to share,” he barked after a moment, his voice rising, “then why do you keep giving it up, spreading your legs, you fucking slut?!”
“Go to hell!” Luke yelled back, and then the shower kicked in.
Mason huffed. He looked about helplessly, but knew it was senseless to keep arguing. He headed down the hall, into the kitchen, stewing.
So what if he slept around? He was an alpha; that was his right. And it wasn’t like they were mated or anything, and Luke was clearly sleeping around too, so he didn’t get why Luke would be upset about it. Why was it all right for Luke to share, but not for Mason to? That made no sense whatsoever. Mason had been pretty sure they were on the same page about it—they were not anything in the way of exclusive.
He frowned into the fridge, as though the selection of food displeased him.
He supposed he was being a bit possessive, one-sided. He couldn’t really help it. He tried, really hard, not to be one of those jealous alpha types, but it was definitely ingrained in his DNA. Alphas were, for the most part, jealous and possessive.
He tried, but it made his skin crawl when Luke smelled like someone else, made him itch with rage.
He inhaled sharply. His eyes widened.
He was back down the hall in a flash, pounding on the bathroom door.
“What?!” Luke barked, cutting the water short.
“You fucked Flanagan?!” Mason hollered. He couldn’t even begin to describe how angry he was. That was definitely Sean’s scent, slathered all over Luke, Luke wearing it proudly, like some kind of badge of honor.
Mason wanted to puke.
“What’s it to you?” Luke replied, peeling back the door so he could glare at Mason.
Mason stared at him, then wound up and decked him. Hard. Luke stumbled back, clutching at his cheek. He spit blood into his hand, then gawped at Mason.
“You,” Mason growled, balling his fists. He was shaking. “You whore.”
Luke licked his lips, cleaning up blood.
Mason pushed him up against the wall, pinned him there. He jammed his knee between the omega’s legs, spreading him wide. “You fucking whore,” he spat, “I can’t fucking believe you, that you’d sleep with him—that you’d let him fuck you, you disgusting—”
Luke clutched at his shoulders. “Stop,” he said, but it was scared and weak, not firm, not a command.
Mason shoved three fingers into him. “Let him stretch you out, you loose fuck, like a goddamn canyon down here—”
“Mason, stop.” Luke’s voice was higher, more panicked.
Mason pulled his fingers back, turned away. “Fuck,” he spat. He’d never been so goddamn angry in his life. He wanted to hurt Luke. Badly. Wanted to break him. Wanted to make him suffer for fucking Sean Flanagan.
He swallowed bile.
He couldn’t look at Luke, even though he knew Luke was looking at him. “I’ll, uh … go get food,” he said after a moment. “Wash up. Indian good?”
“Yeah,” Luke replied, his voice trembling.
“Okay,” Mason said. “We can … uh, watch the game, I guess.”
“Okay,” Luke whispered. His voice sounded like he was about to shatter.
Mason shut his eyes, then ducked out of the room as quick as he could. He grabbed the keys from the hook in the hallway, then fled the condo. He couldn’t believe he’d done that.
He slid into the SUV, turned the key in the ignition. He sat there for a moment, contemplating. He hoped Luke washed up real good; Mason wasn’t sure he could be responsible for what happened if Luke still smelled like Flanny when he got back.
With a sigh, he put the car in gear, then pulled out of the garage.
The locker room went quiet when Danny stepped through the door. He paused, looking about at his teammates.
Mike opened his mouth, but Danny shook his head. “Matt’s not playing tonight,” he said. It was better to get it out of the way.
“Well, shit,” Mike said, sitting back in his stall.
“What happened?” Jake asked.
Nicky pursed his lips; he had a pretty good idea that something was up, at the very least.
“Just an injury,” Danny said, refusing to make eye contact. “It’s been nagging him, but it’s pretty bad now. Dunno when he’ll be back.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it was vague. Jake looked like he wanted to argue, so Danny glowered at him, daring him to challenge him. The younger player fell silent, nodding.
“So we’re down another guy,” Mike muttered.
“That’s just great,” Leo huffed, leaning on his stall. “Who’s gonna go out there and score goals now?”
“First Sy, then Macks, now Matt …”
“Macks’ll be back next game,” Ty said. “We just have to hang on.”
Danny turned away from his teammates. He wished he felt like they’d be in a better position for next game.
He was still in a daze during warm-ups. Really, if he was honest with himself, he probably shouldn’t have been playing either, at least not tonight. He stared down at the ice, tried to concentrate on the stretch in his leg, not the fact that his mate had leukemia.
“Are you okay?” Nicky asked, dropping down beside him.
“Hm?” He looked up at the older player. “Yeah, fine.”
“How is Matt?”
Danny gave him a sidelong look, sizing him up. Should he be honest, or … ?
“I don’t really know,” he said. “We’re waiting to hear back from the doctor about his treatment options and shit.” Not a lie—he liked half-truths and vagaries tonight, apparently.
“I know,” Danny said, closing his eyes. “I need to keep my head in the game. Trust me, Nicky—I’m not a rookie. I got this.”
“I know,” Nicky murmured, looking up at the lights. “Just … be alert.”
“Gotcha,” Danny said, hoping his annoyance didn’t creep into his tone. His teammates were just concerned about him—but that wasn’t helping ground him. It made him worry about Matt, about himself, about what the future held for them.
Cold as it sounded, he needed to forget Matt existed right then and there, so he could focus on the game.
Matt wasn’t the only one who needed him. The rest of his team was counting on him to pull his weight.
They needed the win badly tonight. They couldn’t afford to lose—not tonight.
They were down two centers so Ricky and Zitsy were playing extra minutes. Now, without Matt, Sebby, Dima, and Ty were all bumped up a line. Nicky could play center decently enough, which meant Maxy, Bryz, and Danny were taking over for him. They were running just three lines; that meant shorter, but more frequent, shifts.
It was an exhausting, grinding game. They went down two in the first, then scored three in the second. They were ahead going into the third period; the crowd was on their feet when they took to the ice for the final period of the game. The arena seemed to shake with their thunderous cheers.
They still had twenty minutes of hockey to play.
The Rockets tied it up not two minutes in and the arena went silent, as though the air had been sucked out of the room. The silence was deafening.
At the halfway mark, Volkov tipped it in, and the Rockets took the lead again. Danny glanced at the bench. Coach was silent, his expression strained and stormy.
Nicky took another face-off. The whistle went. They had to re-take the face-off.
The Rockets won it, and it was only Timmo’s quick reflexes that saved the score from being 5–3.
They took the draw to the circle to Timmo’s right. Nicky won that one, fired it around the back of the boards. Jake snapped it up and passed it to Danny, who fired it over the blue line.
Nabokov picked it up and carried it back in for the Rockets. Nicky dove at him, but he fired it off to Volkov, who passed it to Sullivan. Danny slammed him to the boards, grabbed the puck and fired it over to Jake, who skated headlong down the ice with it, carrying it deep into the Rockets’ zone.
Danny and Nicky peeled off for the bench. Sebby was over the boards; Ty was right behind him.
Jake landed beside him on the bench a moment later, huffing and puffing, wincing. “What?” Danny asked.
“Got bees in my boot,” Jake said, gritting his teeth. “Got in the way of their D—trying to fire it out of their zone. Fuck, ow.”
He crumpled over. “You’re not broke,” Danny huffed, “you can’t be broke.”
“Ow,” Jake mouthed. One of the trainers came over, checking on him.
Danny chewed his mouthguard, looked to the ice. Play hadn’t stopped; they were holding possession in the Rockets’ zone.
Sebby got boarded hard; one of the Rockets picked up the puck and shot it down the ice, clearing the zone. Play scrambled back to the Stars’ end, even as Sebby picked himself up off the ice.
The refs hadn’t seen it, so there was no call.
Danny popped his mouthguard in, shuffled down the bench as Sebby’s line came in. He grabbed up one of the Energaid bottles and downed some. His line was up next, even though he barely felt rested. He glanced at Jake again. The younger man was pale and drawn, but he was watching the game with intensity, a predator hunting.
“Foot okay?” Danny asked, leaning over.
“I’ll be fine,” Jake said without looking away from the action. The puck shot back up the ice, where Richie picked it up and carried it into the attacking zone.
The whistle went—an off-side call. Danny glanced back at Q, then swung a leg over the boards. Richie came in, shaking his head. They switched off.
Nicky took the face-off and they went right back in with the puck; Danny passed it across the ice to Jake, who fired it toward the net. It bounced off the goalie’s pad and they closed in, like sharks, red sweaters and white swarming around the net, all of them whacking blindly at where they thought the puck was.
The buzzer blared, and Jake had his arms in the air. They’d scored. Danny felt a weight lift off his shoulders. It wasn’t a buzzer-beater, it wasn’t even an equalizer. But suddenly, it felt like they had a chance again.
They got the equalizer with the third line, next shift, just twenty-two seconds later. The stunned Rockets milled about as the lights flashed and horns sounded. The arena was roaring again, the crowd back on their feet.
Danny chanced a glance up at the clock. They had three minutes. If they could hold on for three minutes, then they’d enter sudden-death overtime.
Of course, if they could get the go-ahead goal in the next three minutes, they could put this whole thing to bed …
He tightened his grip on his stick and shuffled down the bench. He patted Jake on the head.
“Nice work,” he said.
“Nicky’s the one who put it in.”
“Lucky bounce,” the Swede drawled, then got to his feet, fetching a towel to mop off.
They settled down on the bench, watching intently as Sebby, Maxie, and Shawn worked, trying to keep the puck out of their zone. The Rockets were on their heels now; the Stars had suddenly come to life and the Pittsburgh team had no idea what to do. The Stars were energized.
Mike grabbed the puck and skated deep into Pittsburgh territory with it. He was out of position when he lost it, and Danny shut his eyes, unable to watch.
Timmo made an amazing glove save, plucking the puck out of mid-air. The whistle screamed and play stopped.
Danny exhaled, looked at his linemates. They shifted down the bench yet again.
Q called his time-out. Richie’s line came skating back, all of them milling about as Buck, the assistant coach, explained the strategy to them. Q was arguing with the refs about getting time back on the clock.
Back to the ice. Danny looked at the clock again—Q had won the argument, but it hadn’t mattered much. Six seconds wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, not when there was only fifty-six seconds left to get ‘er done.
He gripped his stick tight again.
Richie took the face-off, and Leo took possession of the puck. He banked it around the boards.
Ty picked it up and skated out of the zone with it. Richie and Lu made for the bench. Timmo vacated his net as Ty gained the zone.
Sebby, Danny, and Nicky were over the boards, into the zone. Danny skated around the back of the net, picking up the puck from Ty, who got rode into the boards. Danny came up on the other side, looked for Sebby. He dished the puck to Mike instead, who passed across the blue line, to Brenden.
Ty made for the bench, and Jake took his place, entering the zone and catching a pass from Brenden as he glided by. He nipped around the back of the net, passed back to Sebby, who wound up and fired. The puck bounced off the crossbar, dropped back into play. Danny and Jake both whacked at it.
Volkov took a whack at it too, trying to out-muscle them off the disc. Danny shot it toward the boards. Sebby picked it up, and then it got caught up in a jam play, all of them along the boards, kicking and hacking at the puck until it popped free—
Right to Mike, who released a wicked shot, his twig shattering on impact. Bennett’s eyes got wide and he ducked, allowing the puck to sail right by him, on into the back of the net, rippling the twine.
The goalie hadn’t even seen it coming.
The buzzer blared, the arena flashed red and white and blue. The crowd’s applause was thunderous, their cheers deafening. Jake jumped on Mike, hugging him tight. Sebby was right there with him, and Brenden scooped them all up in a tight embrace. Nicky and Danny fist-bumped, then patted their teammates on their heads, knocking their buckets about.
They milled about for a second, then skated for the bench, fist-bumping their way down the line, their teammates’ exuberant grins matching their own.
Danny looked at the clock once more. Two seconds on the clock.