PELHAM, Ala. — The rematch of the 2019 President’s Cup Final between the Huntsville Havoc and Birmingham Bulls lived up to the preseason hype. Both teams entered tonight’s season opener at the Pelham Civic Center with high expectations and plenty of questions.
The Havoc and Bulls both responded with a game played with the kind of intensity mirroring that of the last time these teams met for the SPHL championship. Similar to game one of the President’s Cup Final, tonight’s game would have to be settled in overtime. The back-to-back defending champs would prevail over their rivals from the Magic City in a 3-2 decision. Defenseman Nolan Kaiser‘s power play shot from the blue line at the 1:28 mark of the extra frame gave the Havoc the victory.
The first 40 minutes of Friday night’s game was the kind of goaltending duel we have come to expect from Birmingham and Huntsville. Max Milosek, the 2019 playoff MVP, looked to be in midseason form. The Bulls’ crease had a new occupant since the retirement of Mavric Parks. Rookie netminder Artt Brey made the most of his first professional start, making 41 saves despite the loss.
“I thought Brey played extremely well in our net,” said Bulls coach Jamey Hicks, “he had a really good camp and played at a high level. I think our fans will be real happy with the goaltending this season.”
The night’s scoring started early in the third period when rookie forward J.M. Piotrowski scored the Bulls’ first goal of the 2019-20 season. Hicks is high on Piotrowski, saying, “He’s a strong forward with a big shot, and we expect him to have a great season.”
Special teams would be the dominant factor for the rest of the game. The Bulls would open up a 2-0 lead midway through the third when Josh Harris would set up Jacob Barber with a quick one-timer right in front of Milosek on the power play. Milosek was playing the shot from Harris when the Bulls captain snapped the puck across the crease to an open Barber.
Penalties would eventually be the Bulls’ undoing this evening. Birmingham received 22 minutes of penalties resulting in nine Huntsville power plays. The Bulls successfully killed off a five-on-three situation, but the Havoc would capitalize on the second such opportunity later in the third period. Rob Darrar and Shawn Bates scored 48 seconds apart to deadlock the game.
“We have a bunch of young guys on the team this year, and they’re going to have to avoid taking penalties,” said Hicks. “You can only give up so many five-on-threes before something happens. Overall, I think our penalty kill played well for the most part.”
The Bulls would finish the night going six-for-nine on the penalty kill, while the Havoc would only allow one power play goal on six penalty-killing opportunities.
The Bulls’ costliest penalty took place at the very end of regulation time. With two-tenths of a second remaining in the third period, the puck deflected off of defenseman Alex Johnson‘s stick and went out of play. The resulting delay of game penalty carried over into overtime, which Kaiser eventually would pot the game-winner.
“I’m not sure if the puck hit the glass or not on the way out,” said Hicks, “but you can’t fault the ref in this case. If he said he saw it then you can’t argue it. It’s tough, especially with point-two seconds left, but it’s all about how we handle it that matters.”
The Bulls will head north to southern Indiana on Saturday to face the Evansville Thunderbolts. Friday night, the Thunderbolts won their first season-opener in franchise history with a 2-1 win on the road against the Knoxville Ice Bears. “I knew Jeff (Bes) would do a good job recruiting over there, and we’re expecting a really good game tomorrow,” said Hicks, “we expect to do better, and we have to be.”