BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – On Wednesday night, the Birmingham Bulls did something they haven’t done all season. In the end, however, they did do something they’ve done too often this season.
It sounds repetitive to say Birmingham has struggled to score goals this season…and it is, because they have. Coming into Wednesday night’s game, the Bulls were averaging 2.48 goals per game, good for ninth in the SPHL. Birmingham has failed to score more that three goals in 17 of their 24 games played this season. Going into the last part of the third period on Wednesday night, it looked as though they were headed down that same path.
Trailing the Knoxville Ice Bears 4-1 with 6:40 remaining in the game, Birmingham drew their fourth power play of the game. Nothing too serious, it seemed, as the Bulls where 0-for-3 on the night with the man advantage and had not converted a power play opportunity since the first period against the Macon Mayhem on December 27, 2019. Birmingham was 0-for-11 on the power play coming into the game.
During this power play, something clicked. Just 24 seconds into the man advantage, Matt Fuller fired a laser over the right should of Knoxville goalie Joseph Murdaca, cutting the Ice Bears lead to 4-2. Another Knoxville penalty with 3:37 left in the game set the Bulls up again. Mike Davis would clean up a rebound and fire it past Murdaca 33 seconds later to make it a 4-3 Ice Bears advantage.
With 1:01 remaining in the game, Coach Jamey Hicks pulled Artt Brey from the game for the extra attacker trailing by a goal. This is a strategy that has failed Birmingham more times than succeeded this season. But, it’s a strategy every hockey coach uses because when it does work, it provides a spark to the team.
This time it worked with only 20 seconds remaining in the game. Fuller would beat Murdaca again blocker side to tie the game up at 4-4. The final 20 seconds would see Birmingham have one more scoring attempt, but the game headed to overtime.
During the three-on-three period, there was some controversy on a call that gave Knoxville a power play early during the period. Birmingham’s Brey would stand tall, along with Murdaca, sending the game into a shootout.
Unfortunately in the shootout, the Bulls found themselves on the wrong end of the final tally. Anthony McVeigh and Josh Pietrantonio would score for the Ice Bears in the shootout and only Fuller for Birmingham, as the Bulls would lose 5-4. The OT loss moves the Bulls into a tie for ninth in the standings with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs.
The Birmingham Bulls were perfect on the penalty kill on Wednesday night. Seven times Knoxville would have a man advantage, seven times the Bulls would kill the penalty. Coach Hicks spoke postgame on the power play:
“We took a lot of stick penalties tonight, which is very frustrating…frustrating as a coach because that means you’re not moving your feet. We have to be better, we can’t take seven penalties in a game, let alone a home game.”
Coach Hicks also commented on the comeback late in the game.
“It was nice seeing life out of the guys and stuff like that. I think we were outshooting them after two, but were trailing 3-1. [Referring to the Ice Bears 4th goal], It gets demoralizing a bit when one goes off a hip, into the air, and lands in your net. Obviously happy with how we are struggling to gain a point back, which looked like it wasn’t within our grasp late in the game.”
Now, the Bulls will hit the road to Roanoke, Virginia for one of the oddest home-and-home series I’ve seen in three years in the league. Birmingham will play at the Berglund Center on Friday night against the Rail Yard Dawgs. Both teams will then load the bus up and head back to Birmingham for a Saturday night game at the Pelham Civic Complex.
On the strangeness of the home-and-home, Birmingham and Roanoke played back-to-back home games in the semi finals of the Presidents Cup back in March of 2019.
“Tongue in cheek, I guess they saw us do it in the playoffs,” Coach Hicks said.
What’s at stake for the Bulls this weekend is separation in the standings. As mentioned earlier, Birmingham is now tied with Roanoke for ninth. Both teams trail the Macon Mayhem by a single point for eighth place. Picking up the maximum amount of points for the Bulls would be huge, probably the understatement of the season. The life shown by Birmingham in the closing half of the third period on Wednesday night is the kind of life needed to get out of the slump they’re currently in. Only time will tell if the funk has lifted and the team everyone is waiting to see in the Bulls is finally on the ice.
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