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.