BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When the 2018-19 SPHL season started, one of the many unknowns were the Birmingham Bulls. Coming off an expansion season in which the Bulls had a few moments of excellence but more moments of despair, what would happen in the upcoming season was like trying to guess heads or tails. Starting this season with only nine players that had played more than 20 games the previous season, it almost looked like another expansion team. So to say expectations were all over the board would be considered an understatement.
After this past weekend, though, the Bulls have all but clinched a spot in the SPHL Playoffs this season. They did so with an impressive weekend sweep over the league’s two most northern teams, the Peoria Rivermen and Quad City Storm. A pair of overtime wins, followed by a throttling of Quad City on Sunday, could be considered the best weekend of hockey played by a team from Birmingham in years.
Friday night was the game everyone around the league was wanting to see. You had Peoria, the juggernaut of the season. The only team in the SPHL without a single regulation home loss. The winners of the Coffey Cup three of the last four years, and to this point the only team with 30 wins on the season. On the other side, you had the Birmingham Bulls. Both teams have spent the majority of the season in the top three of the SPHL standings. This was a battle of the heavyweights, and it played out as such.
With no score through two periods, it was Rivermen captain Alec Hagaman who put Peoria on the board first, midway into the third period. With less than two minutes left in the game, Shane Topf would end Rivermen goalie Stephen Klein’s shutout attempt and send the game to overtime. After a scoreless three-on-three overtime period, it came down to a shootout. Mavric Parks, who has been a brick wall in shootouts this season, was once again. Parks stopped three of the four Peoria shootout attempts and Justin Larson picked up his second game-winning shootout goal of the season, giving Birmingham a 2-1 win.
Saturday night saw Birmingham take an early 2-0 lead after one period against Quad City. The Storm would rally back in the second period, beating Sebastian Andersson three times to tie the game 3-3 after two periods. Quad City would take the lead early in the third period before a goal from Larson would tie it up. For the second consecutive night, the Bulls would find themselves in overtime. After picking up a rebound from the Storm’s Tommy Tsicos, Josh Harris would skate through and around the Quad City team and beat former teammate Ryan Mulder for the overtime game-winner.
The look I would get from Coach Hicks or any of the players if I dare say a game was easy, but after the first two games of the weekend, Sunday’s was the easiest of the weekend. Birmingham would score three times in the first period and never look back as they took home a 6-3 win over the Storm.
After the weekend sweep, I had a chance to chat with Coach Jamey Hicks. I asked him about the weekend and how from the outset it looked to be the hardest one of the season:
“Obviously happy with the results from the week, but we are still in the middle of the process trying to get better.”
Birmingham is now on the downhill swing of the season. With just 15 games remaining in the regular season, the Bulls are 29-10-2. All Birmingham needs now is to pick up two points on the Quad City Storm and a playoff berth will be clinched. Who Birmingham will draw in the playoffs will be determined during the challenge round. For those unfamiliar with the way the SPHL does their playoffs, the top four seeds get to select their first round opponent from the bottom four teams. As it stands right now, Birmingham would have the second selection.
The Sin Bin Bulls Three Stars of the Weekend
Third Star – Shane Topf. The forward from Eagle River, Alaska had the overtime-forcing goal against Peoria on Friday night. He followed that up with goals on Saturday and Sunday against Quad City.
Second Star – Josh Harris. Harris, who was awarded the Warrior Hockey SPHL Player of the Week honors, had three goals (two of which were game-winners) and an assist.
First Star – Justin Larson. Larson was a point-producing machine over the weekend. Five points coming off three goals and a pair of assists.