MACON, Ga. – The emotions could not have been more opposite of one another as each team exited the ice on Saturday night.
While the jubilant Knoxville Ice Bears headed to their locker room in the underbelly of the Macon Coliseum, the Mayhem slowly exited the playing surface with facial expressions of emptiness, disappointment, and heartbreak.
It was all the result of a heartbreaking loss for Macon, as the Mayhem saw a 2-1 lead evaporate in the third period as Knoxville rallied to win 3-2 and sweep the Challenge Round series between the two teams to advance in the President’s Cup playoffs.
“The whole series, we played good hockey. We just didn’t get the bounces,” Mayhem head coach Leo Thomas said. “This team has battled all year from game one all the way to the end. It’s definitely something you can build off of.”
The win completed a series win for the Ice Bears, who took the first game of the series on Friday in Knoxville, 3-1. It came two weekends after Knoxville shrugged off a two-game sweep against the Mayhem.
That recent history didn’t rattle the Ice Bears. Having fully healthy goalie Hayden Stewart, whose time on injured reserve included those late-season games did not hurt, either. He stopped 32 of 33 shots on Friday and turned around and slowed Macon down again on Saturday, making 29 of 31 saves.
“We honestly weren’t talking about other teams matching up against us. (Stewart) was on the IR until the last day of the season and Bryce Nielsen came in and kind of solidified our third line,” Ice Bears head coach Jeff Carr said. “We knew we had a set lineup and it was a new page.”
Knoxville was also unshaken from facing two different goalies by the Mayhem after Jordan Ruby got the starting nod on Saturday after Kevin Entmaa started between the pipes on Friday.
“We knew (Ruby) was going to play the puck a little more. We knew we had to be more active on the retrieval and be on the forecheck more and trap the right way,” Carr said. “We just had to play our game and whoever was in the pipes, put the pucks in.”
Macon still found ways to crack through against Stewart on Saturday. Jake Trask got things going first, pouncing on a rebound off a Larry Smith shot from the point for a 1-0 Mayhem lead in the first period.
With the game ties in the third period, pure hustle put Macon out front 12:05 into the stanza. Danny Cesarz rifled a shot toward the boards behind the Knoxville net and a lunging Derek Sutliffe chipped the puck into the net for a 2-1 lead.
The resilient Ice Bears, meanwhile, were not shaken. Having already rallied once from a 1-0 deficit when Mitchell Mueller tied the game on a short-handed goal to beat Macon goalie Jordan Ruby for the score, Mueller and company were at it again. This time, he followed up his own rebound to tie the game at 2-2 less than two minutes after Sutliffe’s goal.
Knoxville prevented the game from going into overtime as Chandler Madry’s shot in front of Ruby beat him on his blocker side for the go-ahead goal with 3-2 to play. Mueller? He had a role in this goal, too as he had an assist. All told, he had three points in Saturday’s win.
The loss capped a series for Macon in which it played well enough to win but didn’t get the desired result. Knoxville was held to 22 shots or less both nights against Ruby and Entmaa on Friday, only to have bounces of the puck go not quite Macon’s way.
“We held them to under ten shots a period. The little bounces and maybe us not being as hungry in the net (made a difference),” Thomas said. “I thought we were in it every shift, it just didn’t work out for us.”