Order has been restored, in a way, to the SPHL Playoffs. For the first time since 2008, the top-seeded teams all advanced past the first round. Last season was especially chaotic, with all three lower-seeded teams pulled off first-round upsets.
The opening round showed us regular season success means nothing, as the Louisiana IceGators got rolled by the Mississippi RiverKings – a team the Gators were 7-2-1 against during the season.
We saw the redemption of the Peoria Rivermen, who advanced past the first round for the first time in their SPHL history in a chippy three-game series with the Macon Mayhem.
We were treated to great goaltending in the Fayetteville/Knoxville series, with the Ice Bears’ Brian Billett and the FireAntz’ Parker Van Buskirk both posting shutouts.
Finally, we saw unsung heroes – with the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ star line of Banfield-Pawlick-Caveney held to three assists, role players like Stephen Buco, Joe Holka, and Charlie Adams stepped up to sweep the Huntsville Havoc.
Will the Peoria Rivermen reach a league championship series for the first time in 16 years? Can the Fayetteville FireAntz ride their month-long hot streak for one more week? Will the veterans like Mississippi RiverKings’ Leo Thomas step up again, or will youth – like Pensacola’s Stephen Buco – be served? All these questions – and more – will be answered over the next few days.
#1 Peoria Rivermen vs. #4 Fayetteville FireAntz
The Rivermen take to the road again to open their semifinal series against the FireAntz. Peoria defeated a surprisingly game Macon Mayhem, 2-1 to advance. The Antz survived a tough first-round series against the defending champion Knoxville Ice Bears on outstanding goaltending from Parker Van Buskirk.
Game Schedule (All Times Local):
Game 1 – Wed, Apr 20 – Peoria at Fayetteville 7:30 ET (Peoria won, 1-0)
Game 2 – Fri, Apr 22 – Fayetteville at Peoria (Owens Center) 7:05 CT
*Game 3 – Sat, Apr 23 – Fayetteville at Peoria (Owens Center) 7:05 CT
*= If Necessary
Season Series Recap: First postseason meeting between the teams. The Rivermen went 5-1-1 against the Antz this season. The Rivermen swept the FireAntz in Fayetteville during their first weekend series in early January, outscoring the Antz 10-5. The teams played in Peoria at the end of January, with Peoria taking two of three over Fayetteville. The final weekend series was played in Fayetteville in early February. The teams split the series, with Fayetteville winning in overtime and Peoria taking their game via shootout. Chris Wilson leads the Rivermen with 10 points (3G/7A). Kyle Gibbons was the FireAntz leading scorer with nine points (6G/3A).
How Peoria Wins: Defense wins championships. As long as the Peoria Rivermen play sound defense in front of Kyle Rank, they should advance. The Rivermen mostly dominated play against the Macon Mayhem in the first round. Peoria will have a tougher time against the deeper FireAntz forward lines, but the Rivermen blueliners are currently at the top of their game.
How Fayetteville Wins: The Antz tied with Pensacola and Peoria for the league’s best home record. Away from the Crown Center, however, Fayetteville has struggled with the league’s worst road record. Game 1 is almost a must-win situation for Fayetteville, and they will have to lean on their offense to generate scoring chances and break down Peoria’s defense.
Prediction: The Rivermen are playing great hockey right now, especially in the defensive zone. Rivermen sweep the series, 2-0.
#2 Pensacola Ice Flyers vs. #3 Mississippi RiverKings
Last season, the RiverKings defeated the Ice Flyers in three games to advance to the semifinals on their way to their first President’s Cup Final appearance. The rivals meet again – this time for the right to play for the President’s Cup. The RiverKings rolled over the Louisiana IceGators in the opening round, outscoring the Gators 10-4 in a 2-0 series sweep. Pensacola swept the Huntsville Havoc with relative ease, outscoring the Havoc 8-2 on sound goaltending from Matt Zenzola.
Game Schedule (All Times Local):
Game 1 – Thu., April 21 – Mississippi at Pensacola 7:05 CT
Game 2 – Sat., April 23 – Pensacola at Mississippi 7:05 CT
*Game 3 – Sun., April 24 – Mississippi at Pensacola (Columbus Civic Ctr.) 5:05 ET
*= If Necessary
Season Series Recap: The Ice Flyers (4-1-2 vs. Mississippi) dominated the early games of the seven-game regular season series, winning the first three. Mississippi won three of the last four games, including the season ending game on April 9th. Four of the seven games in the series were decided outside of regulation. Pensacola took two games via shootout, and Mississippi won one in overtime & one in a shootout. Corey Banfield leads all Pensacola scorers with ten points (5G/5A) while Cullen Bradshaw leads Mississippi with six points (2G/4A). Matt Zenzola is expected to start in the pipes for Pensacola. “Zilla” has a 1-0-1 record in two starts against Mississippi with a 3.00 GAA and .895 SV%. The RiverKings should have Peter Di Salvo in net for Mississippi. Di Salvo went 2-2-0 in four starts with a 3.20 GAA and a .892 SV%.
How Pensacola Wins: Special teams will factor big in this series, and the Ice Flyers power play (19.2% vs. MRK) has been successful against the RiverKings this season. Look for second liners Charlie Adams, Stephen Buco, and Paul Rodrigues to continue their hot play.
How Mississippi Wins: The RiverKings are one of the few teams in the league who can keep up with the Ice Flyers’ pace, so look for Mississippi to play fast and put plenty of shots on net. Mississippi’s shooters will have to deliver in this series, so look for snipers like Linden Bahm, Ryan Marcuz, and Devin Mantha to fire away.
Prediction: This is going to be a fun series to watch. Pensacola has a defensive edge on Mississippi, as a result the Ice Flyers will get a bit of revenge from last season and take this series, 2-1.