PELHAM, Ala. — The semifinal series between the Birmingham Bulls and the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs remained dramatic to the end. After a pair of road team wins – game one to Birmingham and a penalty-filled game two to Roanoke, the decisive game three to send one team to their first-ever President’s Cup Final would not lack for the theatrics.
The rubber match between the Bulls and Dawgs would be one of wild momentum swings, timely playmaking, and special teams play making the ultimate difference. The Bulls would capitalize on four of five power play opportunities, vaulting the second-year franchise to their first SPHL President’s Cup Final by a 6-4 decision.
During the opening period, it seemed the homestanding Bulls would coast past the Dawgs. Justin Larson netted the first of Birmingham’s power play goals with a rocket of a shot from the right halfboards to open up the scoring, with Bulls captain Craig Simchuk following up later in the opening frame.
However, the visiting Rail Yard Dawgs would be up for the task after a slow start. Mac Jansen would put his squad on the board immediately after Simchuk’s score, sparking a four-goal outburst which lasted through the opening half of the second period. Jansen and Cody Dion traded goals twice during the span, and all of a sudden the Dawgs seemed firmly in control of their destiny.
Borrowing Roanoke broadcaster Brian Gardner’s catchphrase, “It’s a party in Roanoke.”
Unfortunately, Roanoke forward Jeff Jones would be called for a trip and the party would come to an abrupt end. Birmingham defenseman Geoff Crisfield would bang home the first of his two power play goals, shifting the momentum – and eventually the series – to the Bulls’ favor.
“We knew we had to focus on our special teams tonight,” said Hicks, “and our power play units came through for us tonight.”
In the final period, with the score tied at four goals apiece, the Bulls took control of the game for the final time. Jacob Barber would score off of a cross-ice feed from Josh Harris, then Crisfield would net his second power play goal off of Barber’s rebound, punching Birmingham’s ticket to the President’s Cup Final.
The game would not go without a small bit of controversy. During the second period, with the score tied at 2-2, Bulls forward Shane Topf appeared to regain the lead with a shot from the near post with Dawgs goaltender Jacob Caffrey out of the net. Despite the goal light being on, referee Eric Krasnichuk quickly waved off the goal. However, the replay would show the puck would bank off of Jansen’s helmet and away from the net.
In defeat, the Rail Yard Dawgs played tough to the end. “The boys played their hearts out in this series,” said an emotional Dan Bremner, “I’m proud of the way they played, but this was a devastating loss for us.” Jansen would lead all Roanoke scorers in the playoffs with five goals and defenseman Cam Bakker had six assists.
The Bulls’ experienced players were crucial factors tonight. “Our veteran players like Simchuk, Harris, and Larson made a huge difference tonight,” said Bulls coach Jamey Hicks. Larson had a three-point evening, Simchuk with a goal and an assist, Crisfield added his two power play goals with an assist, Harris had a pair of assists, and Barber scored a goal and helped on another.
The Bulls will face their archrival Huntsville Havoc in an all-Alabama President’s Cup Final, opening Friday night at the Pelham Civic Center. The Bulls and Havoc faced off nine times over the regular season, with the Havoc taking five contests to the Bulls’ four.
The notion of facing off against a team with mutual familiarity was not lost on the Bulls coach. “Playing a team like the Havoc is going to be a special challenge for us,” said Hicks, “We both know one another so well. We’re going to have to focus on our game and play our best hockey.”
After game one on Friday night, the series will shift Saturday night to the Von Braun Center in Huntsville for game two with a possible deciding game three back in Pelham on Monday, April 29th. Follow The Sin Bin on their Facebook page, @SinBinSPHL and @SinBinBulls on Twitter for all of the 2019 President’s Cup Final coverage.