President’s Cup Finals: Mississippi RiverKings vs. Knoxville Ice Bears

Sal_vs_LOU_feature

It’s all come to this, as the first (to me) minor league hockey season comes to an end and with plenty of questions surrounding the placement of the games, especially since the lower seed team will get all three games in their barn. That said, it’s not as if home-ice has been nice to the Knoxville Ice Bears all season, but in the playoffs; a home crowd is always a nice boost.

However, the big factor is if the rest or rust will be present for the Mississippi RiverKings, as they have not played since April 4th and could have to deal with a lot of rust on their legs. However, the RiverKings can provide offense; as six players put up points in the first three games, Byron Paulazzo being the top goal-scorer with three and Matt Harrington setting up the RiverKings with four assists. Having Easton Defenseman of the Year Andrew Randazzo will be a nice boost to help protect Peter Di Salvo, who has the best GAA in the playoffs so far with 1.70 in his three games. Di Salvo has stood strong for the RiverKings and even though it was a debate between him and Adam Courchaine; Di Salvo has proved himself embedded into the crease.

For the Ice Bears, they’ll need continued success from Ben Power and Francis Drolet, both of whom are on three-game point streaks and really have stepped up for Knoxville with Ryan Salvis and Berkley Scott not getting their offensive stride in the playoffs yet. Bryan Hince has taken over the crease from Braely Torris and has put up a solid save percentage when getting the chance he has gotten in net. However, with Salvis still not hitting his stride; it could be the time for him to actually step up and regain the performances he has had in Pensacola in years past to put on a show in the Finals.

Yet, the RiverKings will be in tight– losing four of the six games against Knoxville during the season; even though the IceBears won four of them before Christmas. All of the games will be in Knoxville, which the Ice Bears are 2-0 at in the playoffs, but were only 16-11-1 during the season. That’s also the same record the RiverKings have on the road, which may or may not mean anything when all is said and done.

It could be a soild series, despite it being in one place over a neutral site or going back and forth– but these two teams were in the middle of a hungry pack for the playoffs. With rest, the RiverKings should be ready to actually out skate the Ice Bears; but it’s not a sure thing as long-layoffs can be good for the body, but shotty for the play. Puck drops in Knoxville at 7:35 PM ET with Mississippi as the “home” team– creating even more confusion.

SPHL Semi-Final: Knoxville vs. Louisiana

11076273_932130883487365_2731307153118976594_n

Tonight is the start of the SPHL semi-final to see who will face the Mississippi RiverKings in the President’s Cup finals. The best-of-three series starts tonight in Louisiana and moves onto the weekend to Knoxville for Game Two and maybe a Game Three. On the surface, it looks like another close match-up, as the Knoxville Ice Bears took four of six games against the Louisiana IceGators, but all minus two games were one-goal games. Both the Ice Bears and IceGators had wins of three-or-more goals.

All six games were late in the season, the first match-up being on February 13th and ending with the last series of the season. Even though the Ice Bears took the series, they were outscored 18-17 by the IceGators. One of the big hang-ups for Knoxville is that the top guys for the Ice Bears were shutdown by Louisiana’s defense. Ryan Salvis, Eric Satim, and Francis Drolet combined for four goals in those six games, but did contribute on the assist side with Salvis adding four helpers, while Satim and Drolet added two each. Josh Cousineau added two goals and two assists, but hasn’t been seen on the scoresheet for most of the year. Drolet has been able to contribute in the playoffs thus far with four goals, along with Satim’s four assists– but Salvis has yet to really make his mark, with only two assists.

On the Louisiana side, Jake Hauswirth and Jeremy Boyer really took it to Knoxville, tallying three goals and five assists a piece in their six meetings, as Matt Viola added two goals and three assists in three meetings after being traded from Huntsville (which is where the IceGators shipped him earlier in the season). Viola added a goal and three assists in four games with the Havoc against the Ice Bears. One noticeably absence scorer against the IceGators is leading scorer Adam Stuart, who only mustered a goal and two assists, while also being held off the scoresheet in the first round.

In net, Bryan Hince won all three games against the IceGators he played in and was thrown into Game Three against the Columbus Cottonmouths. Braely Torris got the first two starts, but the rookie stepped aside for the veteran Hince. One of the big questions for Louisiana is to go with Scott Diebold or Marco Di Filippo, as both have a win and loss against Knoxville, but Di Filippo has gotten into more games– as he let up seven goals in his four appearance against the IceGators. Diebold has been the guy down the stretch and in the playoffs, which could be the best play since the IceGators seem to know how to get to Di Filippo.

Much like the first round, this series should be close scoring and very entertaining. All the while, the Mississippi RiverKings lay in waiting hoping that this series goes the distances and they can wear each other out for a bit of relief going into the championship series.

2015 SPHL Playoffs: Round 1 Primer

291666_raw

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.

The Weekend That Was: February 6th-8th

AHL

shane-harper-628x319

-Chicago Wolves’ Shane Harper took in the southern hospitality that the Charlotte Checkers gave him and he put up three goals and an assist in the two-game set in Charlotte, as the Wolves took two 4-1 wins on Friday and Saturday. With those points, Harper has already surpassed his career high last year with 33 points and did it with 20 less games. Also, thanks to two power play goals on Saturday, Harper is in a four-way tie for most power play goals in the AHL with 10 on the season. Harper also continued his point streak, which sits at nine games where he’s totaled seven goals and six assists.

-Despite the AHL’s website talking about Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg carrying the weight for the Milwaukee Admirals, the Admirals had two high-scoring match-ups in their three games over the weekend. Milwaukee took both games in a home-and-home against the Rockford IceHogs and won a tight game in OT over the Rochester Americans on Sunday. The Admirals let up 11 goals in those three games, but got a lot of help offensively, especially from Viktor Stalberg— who netted four goals on the weekend and Kevin Fiala notched two goals and two assists. Reigning Rookie of the Month Viktor Arvidsson had five assists over the week, including three on Saturday. The Admirals are first in the Midwest Division and tied for second in the Western Conference while winning eight of their last 10 games.

———

ECHL

thunder_ak_0206r_FRONT

-Though it was a rough start to the season, the Alaska Aces– on the back of Greg Wolfe‘s ten-point weekend (3g, 7a) — the Aces swept a three-game series against the Stockton Thunder putting up 21 goals in that set. Not to be outdone by Wolfe, Brendan Connolly put together a nine-point weekend (4g, 5a) with Bryan Cameron adding seven points (3g, 4a). Johan Gustafsson got the wins on Friday and Saturday before being called up to the Iowa Wild, which put super-substitute Troy Redmann on the center stage getting the win on Sunday to close out the sweep.

-With two of the top-five goalies in the league– the South Carolina Stingrays were having an issue trying to get pucks in the opposition’s net. That exploded this weekend with 13 goals in two wins over Greenville and a short-handed Gwinnett. Derek DeBlois had himself a weekend with four goals on Sunday following two assists on Saturday. Captain Andrew Rowe added a goal and five assists on the weekend to help DeBlois out. In net, Adam Morrison stopped 48 of 52 shots he faced in the two wins. That put Morrison up to 2nd in GAA and 6th in save percentage in the ECHL.

———

SPHL

10526011_10153118762193968_7125466259831140704_n

-With two more wins, the Mississippi RiverKings add to their six-game winning streak, which has boosted them to the 3rd spot in the SPHL standings. Leo Thomas had a goal and two assists with Linden Bahm and Matt Whitehead adding a goal and assist in the wins. Peter DiSalvo faced 41 shots an only let up one on Friday, with Adam Courchaine stopping 23 of 25 on Saturday in the home-and-home sweep of the Pensacola Ice Flyers.

-There was a power outage for the Knoxville Ice Bears as they only scored two goals in regulation/overtime in their three games, while pulling out a shootout win in one of them. Splitting against Columbus, the Ice Bears also were what helped the Pensacola Ice Flyers break their eight-game losing streak. Ryan Salvis and Jarrett Rush were the goal-scorers for the weekend with Braely Torris 123 shots and stopping 118 of them. The Ice Bears are still 2nd in the SPHL, three points clear of 3rd.

The Playoff Race You’re Not Paying Attention To

229430_raw

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.

The Weekend That Was: January 9th-11th

AHL

10172604_900627866627740_1022301423783468286_n

-It was a perfect weekend for Richard Bachman. In the two games that he played of the three that the Oklahoma City Barons had this weekend, he stopped all 54 shots against him from the Rochester Americans and Hamilton Bulldogs. Plus, for the Barons– it was a perfect weekend with three wins, which includes a 5-4 OT win over the Adirondack Flames. Aside from Bachman, Andrew Miller had himself a weekend with three goals and two assists to go along with Ilro Pakarinen two goals and an assist. The win keeps the Barons five points clear of the Utica Comets for 1st overall in the Western Conference and one point ahead of the Springfield Falcons for 1st overall in the AHL.

-Despite all the news surrounding the team’s future in Norfolk, the Admirals went to Pennsylvania and took two of three games on the weekend with a win in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and split in Hershey. Emerson Etem racked up three goals and two assists, while captain Dave Steckel chipped in two goals of his own. Jason Labarbera stopped 54 of 57 shots with a shutout on Friday, while Igor Bobkov got his second win of the season on Sunday– his first since coming back from Utah. However, they’ll need a lot more than this weekend to salvage the season– as they are last in the Eastern Conference and 29th in the league in goals for.

———

ECHL

Wheeling Nailers v. Elmira Jackals 1/10/15

Photo by Rachel Lewis, Inside Hockey/Triple Deke Photography

-The giving season may be over, but no one told that to the Wheeling Nailers’ Zack Torquato who had six assists (along with one goal) this weekend as the Nailers won two of their three games this weekend. Not to be outdone, Morgan Ellis had three goals and three assists, while Derek Army notched a pair of goals with an assist. However, the Nailers lone blemish on the weekend was a part of history as they got shutout by the Indy Fuel– which was the first road win and shutout in franchise history for the Fuel as Shane Owen was the goalie who gets that recognition and shut the Nailers down for the weekend.

-It’s a little unusual for two goalies to get their first game action of the season in the same weekend on the same team, but Tate Maris and Troy Redmann did just that for the Colorado Eagles, who were hampered by the call-up of Doug Carr and the injury to Clarke Saunders. On Friday, Maris got the start– his first in seven years– and had a shaky first period before settling down and letting the defense help him out– letting only 17 shots get to the Colorado native in a 5-3. With Saunders ruled out on Saturday, the Eagles signed Redmann that morning and he went on to stop 27 of 28 shots in a 4-1 win.

———

SPHL 

cousineau010815

Photo by Jim Purvis, via Ice Bears Booster Club

-The dominance on the road by the Knoxville Ice Bears continued as they went into the Huntsville and took both games on the weekend. The games on the weekend were one-goal affairs, including Josh Cousineau‘s overtime winner on Saturday, which capped a great performance by Braely Torris— who stopped 42 of 43 shots. On Friday, Knoxville came back with goals from Berkley Scott and Lucas Van Natter to cap a 3-2 win in regulation. This was after Huntsville kept Knoxville home record dismal by winning on Thursday in Knoxville 4-2.

-Despite being shutout on Saturday, the Mississippi RiverKings took two of three from the Peoria Rivermen this weekend, holding the Rivermen to only four goals on 92 shots on the weekend. Matt Whitehead kept his team scoring lead alive with two goals and an assist on the weekend, with Peter Di Salvo picking up both wins on the weekend, even though Adam Courchaine only allowed one goal in the lost Saturday.

The Weekend That Was: December 26th-28th

AHL

GZXQUCZFRZDMKVE.20141202220446Photo by Bill Tenca

-It was a clean sheet weekend for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, as Kevin Poulin and David Leggio had shutouts on Friday and Saturday respectively. Poulin stopped 34 against Providence in a 2-0 win, while Leggio had an easier job on Saturday with 19 saves in a 5-0 romp of the depleted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Poulin didn’t have a chance to celebrate his second shutout of the season, as he was recalled (and started) on Saturday by the New York Islanders. Colin McDonald helped with the offense with two goals and two assists on the weekend, with Sebastian Collberg putting up two goals and an assist of his own.

-On the flip side, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were shutout all this weekend, as were the Hamilton Bulldogs. Of course, as mentioned, the Penguins are dealing with a lot of their regular players being called up to Pittsburgh thanks to the mumps epidemic going on there. Jeff Zatkoff was in net for three goals against and 37 saves in Friday’s loss against Binghamton before he got called up, while Matt Murray made 27 saves in Saturday’s loss against Bridgeport. For the Bulldogs, the mojo was gone from the previous week where they scored seven goals in two games– as Mike Condon let up four goals in the Boxing Day rivalry game against the Toronto Marlies, while Joey MacDonald let up five goals in Saturday’s loss against the Adirondack Flames. Not against the goalies, as the Bulldogs defense let up 67 shots in the two games, coupled with the lack of goal support– which caused a bad weekend after the holiday break.

———

ECHL

15871265360_7fd0b82da3_b

-With losing their two top goalies in the past few weeks, the Reading Royals were still able to get two wins out of the weekend in a home-and-home with the Elmira Jackals. They did have the services of Connor Knapp for Friday’s 5-2 win on the road, but since he was recalled to Lehigh Valley; Joe Howe was in net for the 4-3 win back in Reading. Matt Hatch was one of the top scorers for the Royals on the weekend with a goal and three assists, while defenseman Jordan Heywood came into the line-up (with Adam Comrie being called up on Saturday) and potted his first two goals of the season in only his eighth game.

-For the first time all season, the Allen Americans lost back-to-back games. After a win on Friday at home against the Tulsa Oilers; the Americans lost Saturday to the Wichita Thunder in a shootout, then lost by a goal against Tulsa in Tulsa. However, the offense was still going a bit as Jack Combs added to his league lead in points with six assists over the weekend, while Chad Costello closed the gap with a goal and four assists over the three games.

———

SPHL

202872_raw

-Should the Pensacola Ice Flyers want to three-peat as champions in the SPHL, their record has to be better on the road. Pensacola came out with only a split against the SPHL’s last place team in the Huntsville Havoc, losing 6-1 on Friday, but winning 3-2 on Saturday. That drops the Ice Flyers to 5-2-3 on the road compared to their 10-2-1 record at the Pensacola Civic Center. Max Strang was in net for both games and while he is the best choice, the Ice Flyers may have to use Matt Zenzola a little more to give Strang a rest for the playoffs and to prevent injury along the way. Nick McParland was the stand-out offensively this weekend with two goals and an assist in the weekend set.

-Conversely, the Knoxville Ice Bears may want to petition the league to play outside of the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for the rest of their season as they split a home-and-home with the Fayetteville FireAntz, winning the road game and putting their road record to 10-3-1 on the year. The Ice Bears home record is at 4-4-1, but being able to win on the road could help them come playoff time. Berkley Scott was all over the scoresheet with a hat trick on Friday and the lone goal on Saturday for the Ice Bears, as well as an unsuccessful penalty shot. Both games went to OT, with Fayetteville’s Kevin Murdoch playing big in net for the FireAntz stopping 62 of 66 shots he faced during the weekend.