After a long regular season, the quest for the Presidents Cup begins tonight! We have two of the four series beginning tonight. First, the regular season champs open postseason play. However, the Macon Mayhem will have to be at home in another team’s barn. The Macon Coliseum was previously booked in what we call being Disney on Iced, meaning the Mayhem will make the Columbus Civic Center their home for the best-of-three series with the Columbus Cottonmouths. In tonight’s other game, we have the second-seeded Fayetteville FireAntz hosting the defending Presidents Cup holders, the Pensacola Ice Flyers, in their postseason opener.

Furthermore, I’ll be taking to the internet airwaves tonight to bring you tonight’s Presidents Cup Preview Show, live on Mixlr! Catch me at at 7:30 pm CT tonight as I break down all of the playoff series.

#1 Macon Mayhem vs. #8 Columbus Cottonmouths

In the Regular Season…

Macon Mayhem:  37-13-6 (80 points), 4-2-2 vs. Columbus
Columbus Cottonmouths:  22-30-4 (48 points), 4-3-1 vs. Macon

Game Schedule (All Times Local):

Game 1 – Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 7:30 pm ET at Columbus
Game 2 – Wednesday, April 12, 2017, 7:30 pm ET at Columbus
*Game 3 – Thursday, April 13, 2017, 7:30 pm ET at Columbus
* – If Necessary

The season according to Macon Mayhem –  For the Mayhem, the second season in The Central City has already been a major success on the ice.  Coach Kevin Kerr has done a “Coach of The Year” type job improving this team’s forecheck from year one to year two and has this team believing it can finish the playoffs with The President’s Cup in hand after just earning the William B. Coffey Trophy for finishing in first place at the end of the regular season.  Now, unfortunately for the Mayhem, The Coffey and a quarter will only buy you a cup of coffee on Senior Day at the local Waffle House.  In fact, in only four seasons by just three teams in the history of the SPHL has the team that was awarded the Coffey Trophy gone on to earn the Presidents Cup in the same year.  To make matters worse, this particular team has some significant flaws that will need to be shored up or a team like Columbus can expose them and end their playoff run as quickly as it has begun.  We’ll talk more about that later in the keys for Columbus.

The season according to Columbus Cottonmouths – To describe Columbus’ season as challenging off the ice would be the understatement of the year.  Starting with the harrowing bus accident and culminating with the announcement of the attempted sale of the franchise a month ago, the veteran leadership of Coach Jerome Bechard and the hiring of Orrin Hergott, Bechard’s heir apparent, have been integral elements in the Snakes’ ability to outlast Roanoke in a race for the 8th and final spot to the dance – ironically, the exact position Macon found themselves in a year ago.  Couple that with a relentless ability by The Cottonmouths to get under the skin of the Mayhem and you have the instant makings of an intense rivalry in its second year.

When these teams played in the regular season…

This is a very interesting aspect to this in-state rivalry. As amazing as Macon’s season was, they had significant problems with these sneaky southern serpents going 4-2-2 overall.  Columbus fared much better than expected when compared to their overall record vs the rest of the league. Columbus also managed to sweep them in their most recent matchup weekend.  Even more, Macon has not been able to beat Columbus at all in 2017, losing 4-3, 5-4 (OT), and getting blown out 7-2 in their most recent contest.  One interesting wild card to this is the return of Ryan Michel, who had missed 21 games on the IR, to the Mayhem blueline just in time to possibly turn their fortunes around.

Macon keys to winning:

  1. The Mayhem will need to remember what got them here and do it often and well.  For Macon, that is a quick forecheck on the transition and lots of traffic in front of the net.  Six times this season, the Mayhem have scored six goals.  That kind of production is hard to beat for any team trying to oppose it, especially a Columbus team that finished ninth in points per game and eighth in goals against.
  2. Improve even more in establishing the zone on offense.  Earlier I discussed how Coach Kerr has done a remarkable job with improving this team from last year to this year.  The most noticeable difference can be found on the offensive side of the game. To further strengthen this team’s attack, the puck handler carrying it into the zone rather than a dump-and-chase is twice as effective in applying pressure on a defense.
  3. Play physical for 60 minutes.  Macon has been a physical team from day one.  If they continue to be scrappy in front of the net on both ends then this will bode well for opportunities for players like Dennis Sicard, Jake Trask, and Chris Joseph.

Columbus keys to winning:

  1. Don’t allow Macon to go to the Power Play.  Sometimes taking a penalty can be a smart move that either gives a tired line a break or a beaten d-man a lifeline.  Columbus cannot gamble with this type of strategy.  Columbus’ penalty kill is 8th in the league and that is just ahead of two notoriously bad special team units who are already at home to watch these playoffs.  Columbus will expose themselves quickly if they allow Macon to play with a man advantage.
  2. A++ goaltendingMavric Parks and Spencer Bacon have been the main go-to netminders for Columbus of late with very mixed results. Bacon will have to drastically improve his game quickly in order to be able to give Parks the support he will need in these three consecutive day series.
  3. The Disney Dream.  This is the intangible advantage Columbus has in this series as every game in this particular playoff run could truly be their last.  Not just for the 2016-17 season, but for the franchise.  Bechard must use this as an advantage to motivate his experienced leaders like Keegan Bruce and Craig Simchuk to take advantage of this unique opportunity.  Add the fact that they have this entire series at home and Columbus has an incredible opportunity of a lifetime for an 8th seed to go out on top.  The Cottonmouths were only .500 at home in four games against the Mayhem and they must do better than that if they expect to upset the regular season league champion Mayhem.

Sin Bin Swami Sez: Columbus has too much to play for and Bechard will not let them forget that.  While on any other day, Macon is the better team., the stars have aligned for The Snakes.  Snakes in three games.

Thanks to Matt Gerik for the write-up. Follow Matt on Twitter at @SinBinMayhem

#2 Fayetteville FireAntz vs. #7 Pensacola Ice Flyers

In the Regular Season…

Fayetteville FireAntz: 36-17-3 (75 points), 4-2-0 vs. Pensacola
Pensacola Ice Flyers: 27-21-8  (62 points), 2-3-1 vs. Fayetteville

Game Schedule:

Game 1 – Tuesday, April 11th, 7:00 pm ET at Fayetteville
Game 2 – Thursday, April 13th, 7:05 pm CT at Pensacola
*Game 3 – Sunday, April 16th, 6:00 pm ET at Fayetteville
* – If Necessary

The season according to the Fayetteville FireAntz – The 2016-2017 regular season was a tale of Jekyll & Hyde for the FireAntz. After a sluggish start and a 7 game losing streak, Coach Jeff Bes decided he had seen enough and became quite the deal maker. During a 3 week stretch in November, Bes traded for Jake Hauswirth, Mark Corbett, Kyle Shapiro, and Brad Campagna while also signing veteran forward Bobby Chaumont. Riding the record-breaking goaltending of Sean Bonar the Antz made their meteoric rise up the standings to grab the #2 seed.

The season according to the Pensacola Ice Flyers – Coming off a Championship season, the Pensacola Ice Flyers knew this season was going to be full of changes. Gone were head coach Rod Aldoff, or at least they thought, and gone were key components like Adam Pawlick and Joe Caveney. New coach Kevin Hasselberg had the Ice Flyers in the middle of the pack mid-season however he was fired and back came Aldoff. With Aldoff, back came Gates and the Ice Flyers are now riding some momentum and confidence heading into the playoffs, even as the #7 seed with some of their championship pieces back in place.

When these teams played in the regular season…

The FireAntz held the advantage with a record of 4-2. None of the games have been played since Aldoff returned as coach and so these teams will be fairly new to each other. The FireAntz took the first two games on opening weekend in Pensacola. Since then they have been back and forth alternating wins. Fayetteville was led by Hauswirth against the Ice Flyers while Austin McKay (traded to Evansville) paced the Ice Flyers in the head-to-head match-ups.

Fayetteville FireAntz keys to winning:

No mystery here… the FireAntz will either ride Bonar to success or fall if Bonar slips. Bonar has been the rock all season setting a record for wins and minutes played and the playoffs should be no different. Offensively, the FireAntz have many weapons but I believe Hauswirth is the key. If he scores goals, the Antz seem to ride the momentum and win. When Hauswirth has an off game, the team seems to struggle. On special teams, the Antz must find their stride on the PP and that also goes through Hauswirth.

Pensacola Ice Flyers keys to winning:

Playoff hockey typically is a matter of a goalie getting hot at the right time. For the Ice Flyers. Matt Zenzola did just that last season and they are hoping he can do the same this year. The Ice Flyers need to make sure they put traffic in front of Bonar to have success offensively. Big blueliners Jeremy Gates and Brandon Blair should get matched up against the top scoring threats for the Antz so it will be key for them to use their strength and weight to take the skilled forwards of the Antz off their game.

Sin Bin Swami Sez: While the Ice Flyers have the pedigree behind the bench, I believe it is the FireAntz year. Fayetteville wins this series in 2 games as Bonar and the Antz offense will be too much for the Ice Flyers.

Thanks to Jimmy Gentry for the write-up. Follow Jimmy at @SinBinFireAntz.

#4 Huntsville Havoc vs. #5 Mississippi RiverKings

In the Regular Season…

Huntsville: 34-16-6 (74 pts), 3-2-1 vs. Mississippi
Mississippi: 32-21-3 (67 pts), 3-3-0 vs. Huntsville

Game Schedule (All Times Local):

Game 1 – Wednesday, April 12th, 7:30 pm CT at Mississippi
Game 2 – Friday, April 14th, 7:00 pm CT at Huntsville
*Game 3 – Saturday, April 15th, 7:00 pm CT at Huntsville
* – If Necessary

The season according to Huntsville – The Havoc started their 2016-17 campaign with a sweep at Peoria – outscoring the two-time defending regular season champions 11-2 over the weekend. Huntsville, led by a stout defense led by Stuart Stefan, Zach Carriveau, and Nolan Kaiser; and the speedy, high-scoring offense of Lou Educate, Dylan Nowakowski, and Johnny Daniels; rattled off winning streaks of five and eight games during the first half of the season. Injuries and ECHL call-ups affected the Havoc in the second half of the season. Nowakowski finished the season with the Cincinnati Cyclones and Daniels took up a call-up to the Wheeling Nailers, where he made team history with a natural hat trick in 58 seconds. The Huntsville defense had to finish the season without Carriveau, Educate was lost for the season, and Sy Nutkevitch spent a sizable stint on injured reserve. The Havoc stumbled down the stretch, going 4-5-1 in their last ten games to finish fourth in the standings.

The season according to Mississippi – If you could describe the RiverKings’ season in one word, consider using “Goldilocks.” The Kings never got too hot – their longest winning streak of the season is only four games. Mississippi never got too cold, either – never losing more than three in a row. Rookie of the Year frontrunner Mike Moran had a breakout season, scoring 29 goals and leading all first-year players with 53 points – good for second overall in the league. Second-year netminder Brad Barone saw the bulk of the action with veteran goalie Peter Di Salvo spending time with the ECHL Allen Americans. Barone had a stretch in January with back-to-back shutouts against Evansville and Knoxville. While call-ups had an effect on the team in the middle of the season, most of the team is intact going into the playoffs, except for Cullen Bradshaw, who is playing for the Kelly Cup with the Adirondack Thunder.

When these teams played in the regular season…

Both Huntsville and Mississippi scored three wins over the six-game regular-season series. Huntsville’s Adam Courchaine scored the series’ lone shutout on January 14th at the Von Braun Center. The home team went 4-2-0, with the last three games being 4-2 decisions. Mississippi’s Mike Moran and Ryan Marcuz led the Kings with eight and seven points, respectively. Sy Nutkevitch is the leading Havoc scorer with a goal and four assists but was third in Huntsville scoring to the injured Lou Educate and Zach Carriveau. On special teams, both teams were relatively successful, with Mississippi gaining a 21.1%-19.0% edge with the man advantage, but the Kings notched two shorthanded markers.

Huntsville keys to winning:

The Havoc are going to have to lean heavily on their defense to keep the bigger Mississippi forwards out of the high-percentage areas. Offensively, look for playmakers Sy Nutkevitch and Blake Hietala to generate scoring chances for Jordan Wood and John Clewlow. Coach Glenn Detulleo is likely to platoon the goaltenders in the series, although Adam Courchaine, if healthy, has had more success – and veteran experience.

Mississippi keys to winning:

Mississippi needs to keep spreading the scoring around. Four players have had three goals in the Kings’ last five games. The Kings need to get role players like Matt Harrington, Dillan Fox, and Dustin Jesseau involved in the scoring. Look for Coach Derek Landmesser to go with the veteran Di Salvo over Barone in net.

Sin Bin Swami Sez: This series has been evenly played all season, so look for this one to go the distance. In this series, size – and the healthier team – matters. RiverKings in three games.

#3 Peoria Rivermen vs. #6 Knoxville Ice Bears

In the Regular Season…

Peoria: 32-13-11 (75 pts) – 3-1-3 vs. Knoxville
Knoxville: 29-20-7 (65 pts) – 4-2-1 vs. Peoria

Game Schedule (All Times Local):

Game 1 – Wednesday, April 12th, 7:05 PM CT at Peoria
Game 2 – Friday, April 14th, 7:30 PM ET at Knoxville
*Game 3 – Saturday, April 15th 7:05 PM CT, at Peoria
* – If Necessary

The season according to Peoria – In a word… Stormy. The Rivermen began their quest for a third consecutive regular-season title with a pair of humiliating losses to Huntsville at Carver Arena. After a month of large-scale roster moves by Coach Jean-Guy Trudel, the Rivermen began to settle down in December with the goaltending tandem of Tyler Green and Tyler Parks. The Rivs were streakish going into the second half of the season, winning five, then losing six, then finally winning eight straight. After starting the season in Peoria, followed by a stint in the FHL, Storm Phaneuf came into his own and secured the starting goaltending job. Fourth-year pro Cody Dion had a breakout season, scoring 24 goals with 15 assists. Defenseman Dave Pszenyczny anchored the blue line, while also contributing 28 assists to go along with his three goals.

The season according to Knoxville – The veteran-loaded Ice Bears started the season winning six of their first seven games, and doing so without last year’s starting netminder Brian Billett, who started the season on IR; and center Berkley Scott, recovering from a major leg injury from last January. Once Billett and Scott were in the lineup and up to speed, the Ice Bears had their best stretch of the season in December and January, winning six in a row and eight of nine games. Scott would go on to score a league-record twelve game winning goals. Unfortunately, Knoxville’s season ended in turmoil. Defenseman and team captain Jason Price was suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs for firing a puck into Huntsville’s bench on March 11th, and Billett was suspended from team activities after a DUI arrest on April 3rd.

When these teams played in the regular season…

This season, the Ice Bears got their first-ever win at Carver Arena with a 2-1 win on December 9th. Knoxville would go on to a 3-1-0 record in Peoria’s barn. The Rivs were equally at home at the KCAC, winning two of three at the Bears’ den. Andrew Bonazza led all Knoxville scorers with seven points (2G/5A) against Peoria; while Dion, Pszenyczny, and rookie Connor Gorman each had six points against Knoxville.

Peoria keys to winning:

Look for the Rivermen to let their defense carry the load in this series, with Knoxville looking to press the action to compensate for their goaltending. If Knoxville presses, look for quick counterattacks by the Rivermen on the breakout, generating odd-man rushes and grade-a scoring chances. If Peoria controls play in their offensive zone, this could be a short series.

Knoxville keys to winning:

With goalies Dylan Wells on a cold streak and newcomer Greg Dodds an unknown, the Ice Bears are going to have to outscore – rather than prevent scoring. Look for Knoxville to lean heavily on scorers like Scott, Doug Reid, and Evan Neugold to maintain offensive pressure on all three scoring lines without using their defensemen to pinch in and risk odd-man rushes.

Sin Bin Swami Sez: Defense wins championships, and the Rivermen have their zone locked up tight. Peoria in two.

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