The 18th weekend of the SPHL season kicks off in force tonight with a full five-game docket. Headlining this evening’s slate features the Fayetteville FireAntz, red-hot lately, facing a big test at home against the league-leading Huntsville Havoc. The Knoxville Ice Bears, fresh off of a huge shootout win against Huntsville on Tuesday night, go for their second win in a row (and second win ever) at Carver Arena against the Peoria Rivermen. In Macon, the Macon Mayhem look to hold off the Mississippi RiverKings in a battle between the league’s second and third place teams. If the Columbus Cottonmouths are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need a win against the free-falling Evansville Thunderbolts. Finally, Rod Aldoff makes his return to the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ bench tonight as they travel to the Berglund Center for a little payback against the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs in a game between two upward trending teams.

You read that right. Rod Aldoff is once again coach of the Ice Flyers. After a 15-15-6 record, Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris surprised fans by deciding to pull the plug on Kevin Hasselberg‘s coaching tenure. Aldoff began the season at the helm of the ECHL Norfolk Admirals but was fired after 17 games. Matthew Harding and I discuss the coaching change in depth on our Inside the SPHL Podcast. While Harding and I disagree with Harris’ decision to dismiss Hasselberg from his coaching duties in a moderately successful rebuilding season, Harris is going to do whatever he feels necessary to put his team in the best possible position going into the playoff run. Hasselberg is a talented coach and a class act; we wish him well and hope to see him continue his career coaching in pro hockey.

This week we ran a flash poll on our Facebook page whether the Ice Flyers’ record will improve, regress, or stay within our projections. Half of our 22 respondents believe the Flyers will finish the regular season within our 56-60 point prediction, nine have Pensacola finishing better under Aldoff, and two have the Flyers falling short of 56 points.

Dawne Walters, our Columbus writer, is coordinating with the Cottonmouths to run our Ask a Snake campaign. Fans can send questions to their favorite Cottonmouths player, Coach Bechard, Coach Hergott, Boomer, or any staff member and they will answer in an exclusive video. Go to our Facebook post or use the #AskASnake hashtag on Twitter and send in your questions! Walters also had a sit-down with Cottonmouths defenseman Rusty Hafner. Check out their fun and informative Q&A here.

Tonight’s Game Capsules

Title Belt Game: Mississippi RiverKings at Macon Mayhem

  • The Mayhem make their first defense after retaking the Title Belt at Roanoke on Sunday. Tonight’s game is the Mayhem’s fifth-straight TBG appearance and sixth overall, with a 3-2 record this season.
  • Macon leads the season series 2-1, but the RiverKings won the only game this season at Macon, a 5-2 decision on December 10th.
  • Both teams’ penalty killing units have struggled in this season series. Mississippi has gone 6-for-12 (50.0%) on the power play against Macon, while the Mayhem are 4-for-11 (36.4%).
  • Players to watch: Mississippi’s Ryan Marcuz (4G/3A) & Dillan Fox (3G/4A) and Macon’s Jake Trask (3G/4A) & Collin MacDonald (2G/5A) all have seven points over the last five games. Marcuz is riding a six-game point scoring streak.
  • Sin Bin Swami sez: It looks like the Mayhem have survived their mid-season slump and are surging back to the top of the SPHL standings. Conventional wisdom has the Mayhem going all barbarian on the Kings. I’m not conventional. Mississippi, 3-2.

Pensacola Ice Flyers at Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs

  • The Rail Yard Dawgs lead the season series, 2-1. The teams will complete their season series Saturday.
  • Over the first three games of the season series between the teams, Pensacola has outshot Roanoke 150-78.
  • Dawgs goaltender Ryan de Melo has a .951 save percentage against Pensacola.
  • Players to watch: Roanoke’s Jackson Brewer has scored in every game (3G/4A) since returning to the lineup from IR. Both the Dawgs Zach Tatrn and Pensacola defenseman Nathan Bruyere have three-game goal scoring streaks.
  • Sin Bin Swami sez: It seems like every team goes on a winning streak after changing coaches. I’ll take Pensacola, 5-4, in overtime.

Evansville Thunderbolts at Columbus Cottonmouths

  • The Thunderbolts make their first trip to the Snake Pit tonight in their only game this weekend. The Bolts look to make it two straight wins against the Cottonmouths after winning 3-2 back on December 9th at the Ford Center.
  • It’s been feast-or-famine for the Bolts. Their last five games are either great performances in net by Tanner Milliron or five-goal shellings.
  • Tonight’s game is the first since the previous game against Columbus in which the Thunderbolts are facing a team with a sub-.600 point percentage. Evansville has gone 5-13-1 in the 19 games since.
  • Players to watch: Columbus netminder Spencer Bacon has a 2.02 GAA and .946 SV% with a shutout in his last two starts. Evansville’s Dave Williams has provided the bulk of the offense lately, and with Justin MacDonald and Spencer McKay up in the ECHL, all eyes will be on Williams tonight.
  • Sin Bin Swami sez: The Bolts are scattering wins between losing streaks. Since Evansville lost their last game, it’s time for another losing streak. Columbus, 3-1.

Huntsville Havoc at Fayetteville FireAntz

  • Can you believe it? Tonight is the first time the Havoc and Antz will meet this season. Fayetteville leads the all-time series, 42-35-7 to Huntsville’s 42-40-2. The FireAntz also won last season’s series, 5-1-1.
  • Both teams lost their last time on the ice. Records for both teams after a loss: Huntsville is 7-0-1, while Fayetteville is 7-5-0 – but has not lost consecutive games since their six-game losing streak back in November.
  • Recent injuries and callups are affecting key players for Huntsville. Sy Nutkevitch & Zach Carriveau are currently on IR, and Johnny Daniels is with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers. The FireAntz have two callups this week with Sean Robertson (Utah) & Chris Porter (Adirondack) up in the ECHL.
  • Players to watch: Tayler Thompson has six goals and nine assists over his last seven games for Fayetteville, while Huntsville’s Lou Educate and John Schiavo will have to step up their goal scoring with Daniels up with Wheeling.
  • Sin Bin Swami sez: Both teams are a bit depleted defensively, so look for the smoking hot FireAntz offense to shine tonight. Fayetteville, 4-2.

Knoxville Ice Bears at Peoria Rivermen

  • Third of seven regular-season meetings between the teams. Knoxville holds the edge in the series, 1-0-1. Tonight’s game is the beginning of a three-game weekend set at Carver Arena.
  • The 2-1 Ice Bears win at Carver Arena on December 9th was Knoxville’s first ever win in Peoria.
  • The Rivermen have yet to score a power play goal against Knoxville. The Ice Bears continue to have the league’s best penalty kill at 89.8% – and 93.1% on the road.
  • Players to watch: Knoxville’s Andrew Bonazza has been excellent against Peoria this season, and the role-player has stepped into the spotlight lately. Don Olivieri has become Peoria’s primary offensive weapon. The Godfather has whacked five pucks in the net with an assist over his last five games.
  • Sin Bin Swami sez: It’s going to be an ALL OUT WAR this weekend! Both teams are looking to rebound and go for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. I pick the Rivermen, looking for payback after getting running aground at the beach last weekend, to take Round One. Peoria, 4-3.

Tomorrow’s Games

  • Pensacola at Roanoke, 7:05 ET
  • Huntsville at Columbus, 7:30 ET
  • Fayetteville at Macon, 7:35 ET
  • Knoxville at Peoria, 7:05 CT

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