LAFAYETTE, La. — The third time was supposed to have been the charm for the Peoria Rivermen. After a pair of gut-wrenching series sweeps by Pensacola in 2016 and Macon in 2017, the Peoria Rivermen went into the 2018 Presidents Cup Playoffs with the SPHL’s best record for the third time in four seasons.
The Rivermen’s first appearance in the Presidents Cup Final could have been written up as a defeat to a team with championship pedigree – an organization which has been there before and knew how to win on the league’s biggest stage. Last season, the Rivermen ran into a goaltender who caught fire and carried his team to a title.
This season, against the fourth-seeded Huntsville Havoc, the Rivermen had the experience in playing at the league’s marquee event. This season, the Rivermen had the hot netminder in Tyler Parks. This season, the Rivermen cruised undefeated into the Presidents Cup Final after dispatching the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs and Knoxville Ice Bears in a pair of series sweeps.
This season, the Peoria Rivermen learned another painful lesson and faced a team with the heart of a champion – a team playing for a higher purpose and would not be denied in accomplishing their mission. Sunday afternoon, in front of a crowd of 3,106 at Carver Arena, the Peoria Rivermen lost a do-or-die game three, 4-2, to the Huntsville Havoc – a team which simply wanted it more.
The 14th running of the SPHL’s championship series began with the Rivermen learning the lessons of the past and seizing their moment. Peoria jumped out to a three-goal lead by the three-minute mark of the second period of game one.
The first turning point of this series occurred seven seconds later when Tyler Piacentini used his quickness to create space for Christian Powers, who then wristed a shot past Parks to prevent the game from getting out of hand. As the second period progressed into the third, the Carver Arena crowd began to get restless as the visitors from Huntsville progressively seized control.
Huntsville’s efforts paid off in the final frame. The Havoc would rattle off four unanswered tallies – three of them in a span of 2:48 – and stunned the Peoria faithful in what would eventually be a 6-5 win in the series opener.
The series’ next shift took place in front of a raucous, sold-out Von Braun Center throng in Huntsville on Friday night. Again, the Rivermen would hold the lead after the first twenty minutes. Also similar to game one would be Huntsville’s offensive control over the remainder of the game.
This time, it was the Rivermen’s time to seize control of the series. Justin Greenberg‘s score at the 3:38 mark of the third period gave the Rivermen a two-goal lead. A pair of penalties around the midpoint of the final frame handed the Havoc a power play stretch of 3:41 – the perfect moment for Huntsville to mount yet another third-period comeback.
However, the stellar goaltending of Parks – turning away 25 of 26 Havoc shots over the final forty minutes of game two – swayed the series back in the Rivermen’s favor. Peoria would eventually silence the sold-out Huntsville crowd and win their first-ever SPHL Presidents Cup Final game, 3-2.
The series would conclude on Sunday afternoon in Peoria, and it did not take long for the final turning point of the series to occur. The Havoc would draw first blood only 3:10 after the opening puck drop as Scott Trask would pounce on a rebound and shoot it past Parks.
As the championship-deciding game progressed, every time the Rivermen would step up their efforts – especially the efforts of Joe Kalisz, one of Peoria’s stars of the series – the Havoc would quickly match and keep control of the game.
In the end, the Huntsville Havoc played as a team willing to do whatever it would take to win the franchise’s second SPHL championship. Coach Glenn Detulleo‘s team played with a gritty, blue-collar mindset throughout the series. The Havoc skated like a team which has overcome adversity the entire postseason, took the best shot from the league’s best team, and seized their moment of greatness.
One spring evening in the future, the Peoria Rivermen will eventually lift the Presidents Cup high above their heads. This moment will be the culmination of all of the painful lessons learned by those who strive to be the best in what they do. The Rivermen may be taking the road least-traveled, but the league’s winningest team over the past five years will undoubtedly reach the promised land.
Three Stars of the Presidents Cup Final
★★★ – Christian Powers (C – Huntsville) – Powers, playing on a line with Sy Nutkevitch and Tyler Piacentini was the driving force in Huntsville’s game one comeback. Powers had two goals and an assist during the Havoc’s stretch of five unanswered goals.
★★ – Joe Kalisz (RW – Peoria) – Should the Rivermen have prevailed in the series, Kalisz would have been the MVP of the playoffs. Kalisz was outstanding during Peoria’s breakout first period and did the work in both of Peoria’s goals in game three.
★ – Stuart Stefan (D-Huntsville) – Huntsville’s veteran blueliner was tireless during the entire series. Stefan had three assists in game one, a goal in game two, and dished out the pass to Nutkevitch’s empty-netter to seal the championship for the Havoc. Leading the Havoc in scoring with five points, Stefan was the hardest worker on the ice this series.