Hockey has returned to the south! The SPHL opened regular season play last night and fans were treated once again to the league’s unique brand of hockey. Last night, we had well-known players returning to play against their former teams, a couple of comebacks, a pair of shootouts, and a shutout. The only thing that fans missed out on Friday night was seeing their home team win. All four visiting teams got to the dinner table first and ate up the home cooking.

Title Belt Game – Knoxville 5, Macon 4 (SO)

The Knoxville Ice Bears began their President’s Cup defense in style. The Ice Bears had a 2-0 lead early in the 2nd period before the Macon Mayhem fired off four goals in under seven minutes. The defending champs suddenly found themselves two goals down, but the Ice Bears would roar back. Goals by Josh Cousineau and Trever Hertz’s second of the night tied the game at four by the end of the second act. After the wild second period, the final frame of the game went scoreless. The extra five minutes of 3-on-3 hockey solved nothing, and the game went to shots. Ice Bears goaltender Braely Torris came up big in the shootout, and Shawn Skelly tallied the deciding marker to secure the win for Knoxville. The Ice Bears made their first defense of the mythical SPHL Title Belt, and will attempt their second defense in front of their home crowd when the Columbus Cottonmouths come to town tonight.

Huntsville 4, Columbus 3 (SO)

Forward Will Aide returned to the Columbus Civic Center for a hockey game last night. However, for the first time, the scrappy enforcer arrived in a Huntsville Havoc sweater. Aide got into the game quickly, with a tripping penalty and a fight in the first eight minutes of the game. The Snakes opened scoring with a Ben O’Quinn goal, but by the end of the first frame Huntsville would have a 2-1 lead with goals by Brett Lutes and Kyle McNeil. Columbus would dominate the second act, and their efforts gave them a 3-2 lead again after goals by Chris Rial and Tyler Henry. The snake-bit Havoc looked as if they were returning to last season’s 11-win form, however, there was still 20 minutes of hockey to play. Huntsville unleashed a 17-shot barrage in the 3rd period, but Snakes goalie Shannon Szabados held off the attack for most of the period. Huntsville’s Nolan Kaiser eventually scored the equalizer with 1:48 remaining in regulation. The game eventually went to a shootout, and Havoc captain Stuart Stefan solved Szabados in the 5th round to give Huntsville the win.

Pensacola 3, Peoria 1

Former Peoria Rivermen captain Cole Ruwe returned to Illinois for the first time after he “retired” from hockey over the summer. Ruwe wound up signing with the Pensacola Ice Flyers over the summer and returned to the Peoria Civic Center to face his former teammates. The Rivermen opened scoring in the first period on a Tim Hall goal, and Pensacola’s Jeremy Gates got the equalizer in the second act. Special teams were the deciding factor in the game, with Joe Holka scoring with 9:36 remaining in regulation during the Ice Flyers’ fourth of their seven power plays of the night. The Rivermen found themselves in penalty trouble the rest of the way, and Gates scored his second goal of the night on an empty-netter with three seconds remaining to secure the 3-1 win for Pensacola. Ice Flyers 6’5″ goalie Matt Zenzola played big in the pipes for the winning side, making 35 saves on a 36-shot Rivermen barrage.

Louisiana 2, Mississippi 0

Former RiverKings goaltender Adam Courchaine returned to Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi for the first time after the IceGators traded for him over the summer. The IceGators wanted a steady presence in net, and their faith in Courchaine reaped instant dividends. Courchaine withstood a 17-save 1st period onslaught before the IceGators’ physical defensive play began to wear down the RiverKings. Goaltender Pete Di Salvo was up to the task in net for the RiverKings, and the Landers Center crowd was treated to a classic goalie duel for two periods. Rookie Blake Hietala finally solved Di Salvo at the 1:58 mark of the third period, and new IceGators captain Jake Hauswirth scored the insurance goal with 12:37 remaining in the game. The Gators special teams killed off all seven of the Kings’ power plays to secure the first-ever SPHL shutout for Courchaine.

Last Night’s Three Stars

3rd Star: Ice Bears RW Shawn Skelly. Skelly had two assists in regulation and potted the deciding goal in the shootout win over Macon
2nd Star: Ice Flyers D Jeremy Gates. The big defenseman was an offensive force against the Rivermen, scoring the equalizer and the insurance marker.
1st Star: IceGators G Adam Courchaine. Courchaine was brilliant in his 31-save shutout against his former teammates.
Honorary Star: The fans. All four opening-night games were well attended, with an average of 3,863 in attendance between the four cities.

Tonight in the SPHL

Title Belt Game: Columbus @ Knoxville – The Ice Bears raise their 4th championship banner tonight in their home opener.
Huntsville @ Fayetteville – The Havoc showed improvement over last season in their shootout win in Columbus. Can the Havoc spoil a second home opener this weekend in Fayetteville?
Mississippi @ Macon – The Mayhem showed some offensive prowess against the Ice Bears. How will they perform against Pete Di Salvo and the RiverKings?
Pensacola @ Peoria – Dan Bremner and the Rivermen try to avoid a weekend sweep by Adam Pawlick and the Ice Flyers.

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