MACON, Ga. – The last couple of weeks has been a road trip that many have circled on their calendars as the season has gone on for the Peoria Rivermen. The road trip schedule consisted of three games in three nights for two straight weeks, starting off against the Pensacola Ice Flyers in Florida and then heading to Georgia to play the Macon Mayhem.
During the duration of this season, there have been questions about the Rivermen’s true status among the leagues elite, citing playing 21 of their first 30 games against the two worst teams in the league, the Quad City Storm and the Evansville Thunderbolts. The road trip was deemed the biggest test for the Rivermen this season.
And they aced it…
Starting off in Pensacola, the Bay Center has become a place where Rivermen teams would get thrown into the meat grinder, no matter what each teams record was at that point in the season. The Rivermen had never won in regulation in Pensacola and carried a measly 2-10-2 record all-time at the Pensacola Bay Center. The weekend series looked like a Presidents Cup Final: both teams looking strong on both sides of the ice and playing a physical brand of hockey. Friday night’s game continued some of those previously mentioned defeats and hard battles, as goaltenders Stephen Klein and Brian Billett dueled the entire game. Billett would initially gain the upper hand with a 2-1 shootout win for the Ice Flyers. The next night would be much of the same between the two teams, including the final score of 2-1 in a shootout. Unlike the previous night, the Rivermen came out on top after shootout goals from Stephen Gaul and Ben Blasko and an excellent goaltending performance by Storm Phaneuf.
The narrative for Sunday’s series finale was much the same, Pensacola and Peoria battling it out as if they have been rivals since the 1800s. Pensacola pelted Stephen Klein with 44 shots on goal, while Peoria only mustered 22 shots on Billett, who played in all three games that weekend. The score, however, was something that fans aren’t used to seeing: a 4-3 regulation win for the Rivermen at the Pensacola Bay Center. The Rivermen had finally gotten a regulation win in Pensacola and got the monkey off their backs. Head Coach Jean-Guy Trudel told the Peoria Journal-Star over the phone “That’s awesome, the curse is over.”
The road trip was far from over though, as Peoria still had another three games in three nights slate in Macon the very next week. To add some more roster troubles into the mix, the Rivermen would be without Joe Kalisz, who was placed on the 21-day injured reserve after Sunday’s game for an upper-body injury he sustained the night before.
In Macon, Thursday’s game got started late as the linesmen assigned to the contest got in an accident on the way to the arena. Luckily, both of them were okay and the game was only pushed back a half hour. Macon came out hot, but it was Peoria who came out of the first period with a 2-0 lead after getting a pair of goals during four on four-time against Macon’s newly acquired goaltender Tanner Creel midway through the period. The Rivermen held on to the lead to win 4-1, adding a goal in each 20-minute frame afterward. The next night was much the same, with Macon battling back a little harder and scoring the first goal of the game. Macon had a record of 16-1-0 when leading after the first period, but the Rivermen recovered. Peoria would score three unanswered goals to take a 3-1 win.
The final game of the weekend and of the road trip was very chippy and was a closer game than the previous couple nights. Macon scored the first two goals of the game and held a 2-0 lead halfway through the contest, but the Rivermen roared back. The Rivermen would score one goal in the second period and two more goals in the third period to sweep the weekend over the Mayhem with a 3-2 comeback victory. The victory was also helped by a mass of Macon penalties which granted Peoria nine power plays, which the Rivermen would convert on two of them.
The Rivermen gained 11 out of a possible 12 points on the six-game road trip, a huge accomplishment for a team that is riddled with call-ups, injuries, and illnesses. That last one came about during the trip in Macon, as several Rivermen players had the stomach flu, including Rivermen players Jake Hamilton and Ralfs Grinbergs.
The star of the road trip was Blasko, who had two goals and four assists in the Pensacola half of the trip and another two goals and three assists in the Macon half. Blasko now has the league-wide season high 13 game point streak, while also leading the league in points and assists.
The Rivermen return home to Carver Arena this Friday, Feb. 8 at 7:15 PM CST against the Quad City Storm. It will be Hockey is for Everyone Night in cooperation with the You Can Play Project. The Rivermen travel to Moline, IL to take on the Storm on Saturday at the TaxSlayer Center.