The SPHL season is winding down, as the Finals are set. The road between Wheeling and Hamilton has been a well traveled path, while Scooter Vaughan is taking an alternative route to success in his first AHL season. Columbus Cottonmouths’ coach Jerome Bechard talks about his team’s season as a whole, while more yearly awards were given out. All that, the ECHL playoff bracket, news and notes, plus We Hardly Knew Ye.
The playoffs are upon us in the SPHL and it could be a helluva first round. With only six teams in the playoffs, however, it’ll be easy coasting for one team, while the other two winners duke it out. The highest seeded team left after the best-of-three first round will automatically go to the President’s Cup Finals, so there’s a lot at stake for this first round outside of just taking two of three.
#1 Peoria Rivermen vs. #6 Louisiana Ice Gators (Peoria won season series 4-1-1-0)
While the regular season series may look off, the Rivermen needed overtime for three of their four wins, all low scoring affairs. The Rivermen outscored the Gators 21-18 in those six match-ups, but will have to start on the road due to the travel issues around the trip from Louisiana to Peoria. Therefore, the Rivermen will have back-to-back home games rather than going back and forth. With Josh Harris hitting his stride late and Kyle Rank having another decent year, the Rivemen finished strong with four wins in their last six games.
The Ice Gators, however, are going to be a thorn in the side of the Rivermen, as they play a tight-checking game with many one-goal decisions under their belt. Even though they have three 20-goal scorers on their team (Adam Stuart, Jake Hauswirth, and Bret Peppler), the biggest question is going to be whether or not they can give enough support to Marco De Filippo to fend off the hungry Rivermen squad.
#2 Columbus Cottonmouths vs. #5 Knoxville Ice Bears (Columbus won season series 6-3-0-1)
Though it looked as if the Cottonmouths were dead in the water to start the season, the team rallied around SPHL leading goal scorer Matt Gingera, Bryce Williamson, and got stellar play from both Andrew Loewen and Shannon Szabados in net to push them to the second-seed overall. Though the tandem of Loewen and Szabados platooned, it’ll be interesting to see if they will ride Szabados’ hot streak to end the season into the first round.
Knoxville has had an up and down season, finally regressing to the mean at the end. They dropped a two-game series to the Cottonmouths on the 20th and 21st and had troubles with non-playoff teams on top of contenders. For the Ice Bears to be successful, Ryan Salvis and Eric Satim will need some secondary scoring help, while Bryan Hince will have a short-leash in net if they start him over Braley Torris to start the series.
#3 Pensacola Ice Flyers vs. #4 Mississippi River Kings (Pensacola won season series 5-4-1-0)
If there were a more even match-up in the playoffs, I would like to see it. Both teams took five games (though Mississippi needed OT to get one), they both scored 25 goals against each other, and both are looking to save some kind of face for a very mediorce season. Pensacola is also looking for their third-straight SPHL crown, but have had a lot of obstacles on and off the ice make the team have a bit of a meltdown towards the stretch run. With the top-two leading scorers in the league (Adam Pawlick and Corey Banfield) and the top goalie in the SPHL (Max Strang); on paper– this should be the Ice Flyers series to dominate.
With all that said, the tandem of Adam Courchaine and Peter Di Salvo have quickly and quietly gotten the job done for the River Kings and it will be interesting to see who head coach Derek Landmesser goes with in the first game of the series. Matt Whitehead and Leo Thomas will be the charge on offense; but they will need to get better with the extra-man if they want to succeed– something they didn’t do in the regular season, as they had the second-worst power play percentage with only 31 goals in 217 chances (14.29%).
It all starts Wednesday with Peoria/Louisiana and Pensacola/Mississippi kicking it off with the first round wrapping in up by Saturday at the latest for these series and then onto the next round. Fast and furious for these six squads, who should put on a great show for everyone around.
-With three big wins, the Worcester Sharks moved themselves into a playoff position in their last season at the DCU Center. Willie Coetzee had a goal a game this weekend, with Travis Oleksuk and Bryan Lerg adding three assists on the weekend. Aside from Coetzee, Trevor Parkes added two goals on the weekend with eight other Sharks adding a goal, showing the scoring was being spread around. Aaron Dell had two wins and a shutout, with Troy Grosenick getting the third win. The Sharks are two points up on 8th place Providence and five points up on 9th place Portland and only two points back of Springfield for 6th.
-Despite their quick start, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers dropped two more games this weekend– extending their losing streak to six and putting them in last place of the Eastern Conference. Granted, they’ve dropped their last three games by a goal apiece, it still doesn’t calm a team who was on top of the East in the early going. Granted their game Saturday was a spirited affair with the Hershey Bears, seeing goalie Kevin Poulin getting thrown out and leaving David Leggio to get the loss in that game. While they have shown some fight on the ice and put up some goal support; the Sound Tigers defense is the issue and it could be on the blueline and goaltending for the downfall when all is said and done.
-The Toledo Walleye are good….and they showed it this weekend allowing only one goal in three games while putting up 20 including a 12-0 victory over the Gwinnett Gladiators Sunday. Jeff Lerg had two wins and let up the lone goal, while Neil Conway was able to be perfect in his game Saturday. Scoring was plentiful with Shane Berschbach and Anthony Luciani each having two goals and six assists, Alden Hirschfeld had two goals and five assists, and Justin Mercier put up four goals and two assists. With a goal-differential of +79, the Walleye have gotten it done on both ends of the ice as they are second to the Allen Americans in goals for and 1st in the ECHL for fewest goals given up.
-One of the better races to look at will be for that 4th and final spot in the Central Division, as the Rapid City Rush and Wichita Thunder are tied for that final spot, and with Rapid City’s two wins and Wichita’s two losses this weekend– it seems both teams are going to need every point they can muster going into the final weeks. There will be a lot of scoreboard watch, however, as these two teams only play once more in the season.
-Thanks to two goals and an assist from Linden Bahm, the Mississippi RiverKings won both their games this weekend, helping them up to 5th spot and only three points out of 2nd place in the SPHL. Paul Ciarelli and Andrew Randazzo added a goal and assist each with Peter Di Salvo putting up his first career shutout on Saturday night against Huntsville. Getting the 2nd spot would give that team a buy into the league semi-finals, which would be a nice jumpstart for the team.
-A team ahead of the RiverKings is the Columbus Cottonmouths, who kept themselves ahead with two wins of their own to keep them in 3rd place. Along with the shootout winner Saturday, Nick Curry added two goals and one assist. Craig Simchuk had a goal and two assists on Saturday, while Andy Willgar and Louis Belisle had a goal and assist on opposite days of the weekend. Both Shannon Szabados and Andrew Loewen got wins, putting Szabados at 10 wins on the seasons and making them the third tandem in the SPHL to have double-digit wins.
-With two wins in upstate New York this weeknd, the Milwaukee Admirals extended their win streak to seven games– with four of them coming on the road. With two goals and an assist this weekend, Viktor Arvidsson lead the way for the Admirals with Richard Clune chipping two goals on the weekend as well. With Marek Mazanec being called up to Nashville, Magnus Hellberg got the workload put onto him, stopping 55 of 59 shots that Utica and Adirondack threw at him this weekend. With a short two-game homestead before the All-Star break, the Admirals are looking poised for a good run in the second half of the season.
-Though only one game of the three wasn’t a one-goal affair, the Worcester Sharks now have points in their last eight games and have moved up to 7th in the Eastern Conference. Troy Grosenick had two wins on Friday and Saturday, with JP Anderson putting up the third win on Sunday. Offensively, Chris Tierney‘s two goals, Jeremy Langlois‘ two goals and an assist, and captain Bryan Lerg‘s goal and three assists helped out the Sharks for wins against the Manchester Monarchs on Friday and Sunday, as well as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday. Matt Taormina added a goal and two assists from the blue line, also.
-Despite being severely outshot this weekend (72 against, 40 for), the Utah Grizzlies pulled out a two-game sweep of the Bakersfield Condors, putting them with five wins in their last six– with points in all six games. Ryan Faragher was barraged with 72 shots, but only let in four on the weekend. Barry Almeida was the offensive star with three goals and an assist on the weekend, while Ryan Hayes had four assists and Brandon Yip had a goal and two assists for the weekend. With these wins, the Grizzlies are in the fourth and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division, surpassing the Condors and putting themselves three points clear.
-With the Allen Americans running away with the Central Division, the rest of the playoff spots are the real race– with the Quad City Mallards, Wichita Thunder, and Tulsa Oilers all tied for second spot at 42 points– with only Quad City getting a win this weekend in their two games (Wichita dropped two to Allen, Tulsa lost to Orlando and Florida). Late-off-season signing Mario Lamoureux has paid off divdends for the Mallards– putting up two goals and two assists this weekend and has had points in 10 of his last 12 games (7g, 7a). If he can stay healthy, Lamoureux is on pace to break his season-high in points, which he set in his rookie season of 2012-13 with 65 points.
-Despite a rocky start, Columbus Cottonmouths’ Andrew Loewen has bounced back in a big way with his 12th straight win on Sunday, tying a SPHL record. Loewen only played two of the three games this weekend, while Shannon Szabados won the game on Friday against Huntsville. Neilsson Arcibal was a catalyst for the offense this weekend with two goals and three assists, with Levi Lind adding a goal and two assists in the three games. The wins have put the Cottonmouths in a tie for fourth spot and only four points out of 1st place.
-Another team who swept the weekend was the Mississippi RiverKings, who put up two wins at home and one on the road to continue to creep up on the playoffs as they are six points out of 1st and two points out of that tie for 4th. With three goals and four assists in those three games, Leo Thomas made his case for Player of the Week, with Matt Whitehead contributing a goal and three assists. Adam Courchaine had two wins, one coming on in relief for Peter Di Salvo on Saturday night.
If you don’t have eyes on the SPHL, maybe it’s time you started to pay attention. Their season is already half over and with the exception of the Huntsville Havoc, the other seven teams are all in contention for the playoffs. There was a point where it seemed like the Pensacola Ice Flyers and the Peoria Rivermen were going to run away with the top-two spots and let everyone else battle underneath, but thanks to things evening out just a bit– just 10 points separate 1st place Pensacola and the 7th place Mississippi RiverKings.
When you look at the storyline, the big deal for the SPHL teams was the ability to get streaky. The Columbus Cottonmouths were the first one to start this trend. The President’s Cup runners-up from last year had a bit of a hangover as they started off 0-7-0. However, the Snakes finally got their bearings about them and made a huge run, winning their next ten straight and putting them in the thick of it, currently in 5th and eight points out of 1st.
During an interview with the Fayetteville Observer’s Thomas Pope, Cottonmouths’ head coach Jerome Bechard was amazed by the parity going on in the league.
Other than Huntsville, and the games they’ve lost are probably all one goal or overtime losses. Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. Does the schedule favor anybody? I don’t think so. Whoever plays smarter and more than likely has less turnovers probably wins the game.
When you look at the team Pope covers in the Fayetteville FireAntz; they also got off to a bit of a rough start losing 10 of their first 12 games, then bouncing back with nine wins in the next 12 games after that. You could chalk the losing up to the adjustment with coach Emery Olauson, but now that the season is at the mid-point; the team has developed more chemistry– even with both of their top goalies being loaned out to the ECHL.
Despite starting off hot and still having a bit of momentum here and there, the Pensacola Ice Flyers have cooled off just slightly, having a .500 average in their last 12 games, with only two of the six losses coming in extra time. The Peoria Rivermen have been getting by with the help of their goalie Kyle Rank, but the offense has hit somewhat of a slide with only 11 goals in their last five games (2-3-0).
A final anomoly is that of the Knoxville Ice Bears, who are currently 2nd in the SPHL. Usually, you think playing at home is the best remedy for any team– unless you’re the Ice Bears, who are 5-6-1 at the Civic Coliseum and makes them the only team other than Huntsville to have a losing record at home. Contrary to that– their road record is unbelievable at 12-3-1. The big key isn’t the offense for as Knoxville has 43 goals on the road and 41 at home; but the defense hasn’t been on point at home as they have let up 50 goals against compared to 34 on the road. The Ice Bears defense has also had eight games allowing four or more goals at home in comparison to only three on the road– which happened to be three of the first four road games of the season.
It’s anyone’s race and it’s probably the least paid attention to league in mainstream minor league hockey. Even though they’ve garnered headlines with Shannon Szabados in net, Scott Darling drawing attention to the league as the first SPHL player to make the NHL, and female referees being a regular happening– it doesn’t seem to stick and it’s a shame. The SPHL is going to be wild in the last 28 games (give or take) for each team and you never know how it will all shuffle out.
This week, the AHL West news hit the fan with teams buying, selling, and completely making the silly season come in full force just at the start of the year. Scotty will try to sort it all out, but could leave you more confused as ever. One thing not confusing is Olie Kolzig’s reasoning to step down to a development coaching role and how he’s adjusting to it, Drew MacIntrye is not confused with his place in AHL history, the Columbus Cottonmouths players aren’t confused with why they moved down from Edmonton, while the AHL and ECHL All-Star announcements will be as confusing as you let it. All that, some news and notes and We Hardly Knew Ye
AHL All-Star Rosters: http://theahl.com/rosters-announced-ahl-all-star-classic-p195655
ECHL All-Star Starters: http://www.echl.com/starters-named-for-echl-all-star-team-p195663
ECHL All-Star Reserves: http://www.echl.com/reserves-and-alternates-named-for-all-star-classic-p195683
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-After going pointless in four games, Andy Miele turned it on in a big way with a five-point (1g, 4a) night on Friday in Grand Rapids’ 7-1 win over Toronto. Despite being to close to a point-per-game clip, December has been pretty cold for Miele; as he has only registered points in three games for the month, eight points in the nine games this month. Miele ended November hot with nine points in the last seven games of that month, but fell on hard times in most of the last month of 2014. Though, it seems Miele loves to score in bulk with six multi-point games on the season in his first year in the Griffins’ system.
-There’s little doubt that the Springfield Falcons are the class of the league this year, as the team is on a nine-game winning streak and won their games this weekend in a high-scoring affair and tight-checking game; proving their variety. Friday night everyone got involved in the 6-5 win over Binghamton, as Kerby Reichel was the only Falcons with a multi-point game. Friday was also the game that Anton Forsberg got lit-up by the Senators, but the Falcons came back from a 4-1 deficit to win. On Saturday, Forsberg came back with a 34-save effort in an overtime win in Hershey, with T.J. Tynan putting up the game-winner along with an assist.
-After a rough start to the season, the Rapid City Rush came up big this weekend with three wins– two by way of shutout and another on the shootout. Etienne Marcoux and Danny Battochio combined for a 41-save shutout Friday, Marcoux having to leave with an upper-body injury mid-way through the second period. Battochio went on to have 33-save shutout on Saturday and played his 200th professional game on his 29th birthday while getting the shootout win. Offensively, J.M. Rizk had a goal and four assists through the weekend, leading the team in points on the weekend.
-This weekend, the Stockton Thunder played all three of their goalies against the Idaho Steelheads and only Philippe Trudeau got the loss on Friday thanks for a late goal by Idaho’s Gaelan Patterson. The other Thunder goalies Kent Simpson and Shane Owen got the wins on Saturday and Sunday respectively, helping Stockton get closer to crawling out of the cellar of the Pacific Division. Tyler Maxwell put two goals and two assists on the weekend in only two appearances, while Tyler Shattock had a goal and three assists over the three games.
-The Peoria Rivermen have been playing some close hockey lately, especially against some well-below average teams. That was shown in two one-goal win games against the last place Huntsville Havoc this past weekend. It’s the fourth straight one-goal game for the Rivermen and eighth of the season. One bright spot is Kyle Rank stopping 60 of 63 shots on the weekend to bump his record up to 9-4-1.
-Despite having their ten-game win streak snapped on Friday, the Columbus Cottonmouths came back in a big way with a 6-2 win against the Knoxville Ice Bears with Shawn Bates having a hat-trick in the win. Bryce Williamson also chipped in big over the weekend with a goal and two assists, pushing him to a tie with Matt Gingera for the team’s top scorer and 8th in the SPHL.