HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – “Businesslike” was the term used by Huntsville Havoc coach Glenn Detulleo after their opening game in their defense of the Presidents Cup. Playing in the IcePlex, rather than their usual stomping grounds of the Von Braun Center, the Havoc hosted the red-hot Pensacola Ice Flyers in game one of their Challenge Round Series.
The defending champions withstood a chippy 40 minutes from the Ice Flyers before an early third-period hit by Pensacola defenseman Nathan Bruyere on veteran Havoc forward Sy Nutkevitch gave the champs the spark they needed. Minutes after receiving stitches on his nose, Nutkevitch would bury a back-door feed from Kyle Sharkey past Ice Flyers goalie Brian Billett to give the Havoc a lead they would not relinquish.
The Havoc would get three-point performances from Sharkey and SPHL leading scorer Ryan Salkeld and a 41-save night from goaltender Max Milosek to down the Ice Flyers, 3-1, in the opening game of their Challenge Round series.
The opening frame was played close-to-the-vest by both squads. The Havoc tested the Ice Flyers defensive unit with a series of speedy rushes, while Pensacola sat back and played disciplined defense to keep the first period at a scoreless deadlock.
As is typically the case in playoff hockey, the opening two periods featured an uptick in physical play, mainly by the Ice Flyers attempting to use their size to impose their presence and slow down the Huntsville attack. The game’s first score would not take place until the opening minute of the middle frame when Huntsville – playing shorthanded after a Christian Powers roughing call as the first period closed out – scored from a clean faceoff win back to Salkeld.
“We played really nervous over the first two periods,” said Detulleo, “when (Pensacola) tied it up in the third period, we just relaxed a bit and started to play our game.”
After Salkeld’s second-period shorthanded goal to open the scoring, the Ice Flyers’ Andrew Schmit capitalized off of a Havoc turnover to tie up the game at the 1:39 mark of the third.
After the Nutkevitch goal to give the Havoc the lead in the third period, Powers would ice the game with 8:02 remaining on a second-effort try, lifting the puck over a prone Billett.
“We’ve got a mature group, and they’ll admit they didn’t play their best game tonight,” mentioned Detulleo after the game, “it’s not very often you can play one good period at this time of year and find a way to get a win.”
For the first 40 minutes, the Havoc didn’t play their best hockey, especially in the middle frame where the Ice Flyers peppered Milosek and controlled possession for vast stretches. Pensacola’s physical play seemed to take the wind out of the Havoc as the middle frame ended.
Then, Bruyere poked the bear, leveling Nutkevitch with a crushing check against the end boards. Nutkevitch went face-first into the glass, requiring him to get stitched up before returning to action. After that moment, the Havoc were flying all over the ice and controlling play throughout the third period.
For the Ice Flyers, they leaned heavily on Billett to keep them in the game. Billett would wind up with a 34-save night in a solid effort. However, the team lacked pace and urgency in the offensive zone.
Defensively for the Ice Flyers, newcomer Don Olivieri – playing in his first game with the Ice Flyers – particularly struggled in his debut. Traded to Pensacola from the Quad City Storm while on an ECHL call-up which lasted for the balance of the regular season – had difficulty gelling on the ice with his new teammates. Making matters worse, it appeared Salkeld’s second-period shorty deflected off of Olivieri’s arm.
On the other end of the ice, the postseason Ice Flyers looked like the team which struggled to find an offensive rhythm over the first half of the season. Forwards Garrett Milan and Josh Cousineau looked good at times, sparking some scoring chances, but most of their shots on Milosek made for plenty of routine stops for the Havoc goalie.
In the winner’s locker room, the mood was all business, according to Detulleo. “Everybody knows we could play better and we felt like we got away with one,” said the Havoc coach.
Looking forward to Saturday’s second game in Pensacola, Detulleo knows what to expect. “We know what we’re going to see there,” said Detulleo, “(The Pensacola Bay Center) is going to be rocking, they’re going to come out hard and it’s going to be physical.”
Game two between the Huntsville Havoc and Pensacola Ice Flyers will be Saturday night at 7:05 pm CT in Pensacola. If the Ice Flyers even up the series, the deciding game three will be Sunday at 7:00 pm CT at the Huntsville IcePlex.