The last time the Peoria Rivermen visited the Cajundome, it was the opening game of the SPHL playoffs on April 1st, 2015. The 1,074 who attended the Wednesday night game witnessed an event that ran the course of every emotion imaginable. The Louisiana IceGators were expected to be a minor speedbump in the path of a team which was expected to hoist the President’s Cup in a couple of weeks. The Peoria Rivermen won all three regular season games against the IceGators that season, possessed the best record in the regular season, and had won seven of their last ten games. The Rivermen had two-time SPHL goalie of the year Kyle Rank, a deep offensive unit which outscored every other team in the league, and the best special teams unit in the SPHL.
The IceGators, on the other hand, were a team with a bunch of unfamiliar faces. Coach Drew Omicioli tapped the collegiate ranks hard at the end of the season, bringing in a bunch of fresh faces. Half of the team’s top defensive pairing was playing in the ECHL, the other suffered a season-ending injury. Their promising young goaltender was playing in only his fifth professional game, and injuries riddled the team so hard that their top-line center at the beginning of the season had to move back to the blue line.
The game began as a slugfest, with both teams delivering crushing hits. There were seven power plays between both teams during the first period, but the IceGators and Rivermen seemed to be more interested in setting a physical tone rather than scoring goals. The two teams combined for only 12 shots during the game’s first frame.
It took 24 minutes of play before Peoria would draw first blood. However, the Gators would answer in under a minute. Defenseman Jordan Ciccarello would even the score off of a Jeremy Boyer feed at the 24:42 mark. In less than 60 seconds, the mood in the Cajundome would shift from nervousness, to dread, and then to relief as the game was tied.
The pace of the game grew quicker, as the forward lines of both teams got in gear. The excitement grew to a feverish pitch when center Jake Hauswirth would give the IceGators a 2-1 lead late in the second period.
Soon afterward, the mood of the game would turn to terror. Rivermen forward Ryan Raven crashed into the corner boards after a shove from Ciccarello, and lay motionless on the ice. The awkward crash into the boards fractured Raven’s vertabrae in his lower back, damaging his spinal cord. The crowd at the Cajundome was silent for almost 20 minutes while paramedics were attending to Raven’s injury. Referee Steve Thomson suspended play with seconds remaining in the second period, and both teams went to their locker rooms. Once Raven was secured for transport to a local hospital where he would undergo emergency surgery on his spinal column, he left the ice to a standing ovation from a relieved, yet apprehensive audience.
Both teams played a tight third period – combining for a total of eight shots, but Rivermen center Garrett Vermeersch would even the scoring 43:40 into the game with an unassisted goal. Vermeersch’s tally would be the last of the third period. The previous two meetings between the IceGators and Rivermen were decided in overtime, and this game would follow suit.
The game remained scoreless during the fourth period, as both teams shifted to a defensive, counterattacking style of play. Both Diebold and Rank turned away excellent scoring opportunities – each netminder working to outplay his counterpart. Eighty minutes of hockey settled nothing, and the teams prepared to play twenty more.
Fatigue settled in for both teams in the last period of play, and some of the fans – the time was well past 11pm on a weeknight – decided to leave. Neither the Rivermen nor the IceGators were generating serious scoring chances, and as the fifth period was beginning to wind down, and the remaining fans believed a sixth period was imminent – the improbable happened.
Defenseman Kirk Byczynski blasted a shot from the far point that sailed high and to the right of Rivermen goalie Kyle Rank. The puck caromed off the back glass, and hit the ice right on the stick of IceGators forward Stephen Buco. Rank, out of position, dives with his stick extended to protect the net. After ninety-eight minutes and fifty-eight seconds of play, Buco lifted the puck over Rank’s stick and into the top netting. Relief. Exhilaration. Exhaustion.
The postseason series between the IceGators and Rivermen would go to a decisive third game. The game – and the series – would be decided in overtime. Stephen Buco would again be involved in the play – this time feeding winger Chris Wilson with the puck that would end Peoria’s championship hopes. The loss was so devastating to Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel that – according to an article in the Peoria Journal Star – he skipped the traditional handshake line, left the arena, and wound up at a nearby McDonald’s.
Three months after the game, Ryan Raven walked out of his rehabilitation facility for the last time, under his own power.
The Louisiana IceGators renew acquaintances with the Peoria Rivermen on Thurdsay night, November 5th. Game time is at 7:05pm.