MACON, Ga. – In a little more than a month, the President’s Cup Playoffs will be set. Between now and then, all five teams in the league have the task of weathering the storms of callups from higher leagues, injuries, and the nature of how breaks may fall within hockey.
As another power-packed weekend of hockey arrives, here’s the latest SPHL Rundown.
Friday, March 19
Pensacola 3, Birmingham 2 (OT)
Huntsville 5, Macon 4 (SO)
Saturday, March 20
Knoxville 3, Birmingham 2 (OT)
Huntsville 4, Macon 1
Sunday, March 21
Macon 4, Knoxville 1
Three Stars of the Week
⭐ Tyler Piacentini, Huntsville – He did a bit of everything in the Havoc’s pair of games against Macon, leading to a win in both. Overall, he had three goals, an assist, and was plus-three. Oh, and one of the scores was a game-winner in the seventh round of a shootout. With 23 points, he is second in the SPHL in scoring.
⭐⭐ Jacob Benson, Knoxville – In three games last weekend, he had three goals for the Ice Bears.
⭐⭐⭐ Logan Coomes, Macon – In a trio of contests for the Mayhem, he netted two goals plus an assist.
Around the league…
Everyone back together again?
If the absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, then the 2021-22 season could be something special in the SPHL. Signs of optimism appear to be strong that two of the teams that opted out of this season, Peoria and Quad City, are planning towards a return to play. The Rivermen this week went so far as to unveil a new team logo.
— Peoria Rivermen (@Peoria_Rivermen) March 20, 2021
As for Peoria’s in-state rival? Things look good for them, as well.
Rivermen mourning loss of Plager
The Rivermen and their fan base are mourning one of the biggest icons in Peoria’s hockey history. Bob Plager, whose hockey exploits included coaching Peoria to an IHL title in 1990-91 and an 18-game winning streak, was killed in a car crash on Wednesday. Plager, a defenseman for the St. Louis Blues for 11 seasons before going on to having his number retired by the organization, would later serve the organization in various off-ice roles, including head coach for 11 games in 1992-93. The Rivermen will wear a decal on their helmets next season with Plager’s initials.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 25, 2021
Depth put to the test
A week ago at this time, Macon’s Jake Theut and Knoxville’s Austyn Roudebush were the league’s top goalies. Now, neither is on an SPHL roster. Both in recent days have been loaned to ECHL clubs, Roudebush to Knoxville and Theut to Fort Wayne.
Roudebush’s 10-0 streak ended with a loss to Macon this past Sunday. His counterpart in that game, Theut, has the second-best GAA (1.79) and save percentage (0.933) in the league behind only Roudebush.
Now, the depth in goal will be put to the test. Ryan Ruck has played well when needed in goal for Macon, going 5-3 with a 2.15 GAA. The Mayhem this week have also signed Dillon Kelley to add goalie depth.
A team is only as good as its goalie depth. How well each team is able to manage will determine if Knoxville and Macon are the legitimate frontrunners in the SPHL or if a pair of ECHL call-ups end up being an equalizer.
Is Huntsville finding its usual late-season surge? Based on two games last weekend, the answer is yes.
A 5-4 road win over first-place Macon on Friday night ended up not to be a fluke to the tune of a 4-1 win a night later as four third-period goals were scored by four different Havoc players – Sy Nutkevitch, Justin MacDonald, Matthew Barnaby, and Piacentini.
The pair of wins snapped a four-game losing streak for Huntsville and was also its first string of consecutive wins since Feb. 5-6.
Bulls staying in the hunt
With 22 points in the standings, Birmingham is last in the SPHL standings. If the season ended today, they’d be the odd team out of the playoffs. But the Bulls have some tenacity, too. Last weekend, Birmingham could have easily taken a pair of wins, losing instead in overtime to Pensacola and Knoxville and picking up a pair of points.
With Birmingham three points out of fourth at this time, every bit could be the difference between making the President’s Cup playoffs or staying home. With Hayden Stewart being the third SPHL goalie in the past two weeks to get a callup with a call from Cleveland in the AHL and Austin Lotz on the 21-day DL, the Bulls last weekend looked to Zach Quinn. Thanks to his efforts, the Bulls had a chance to win a pair of games. Through three games in Birmingham, he has a 2.54 GAA and 0.927 save percentage.
Mayhem answer the bell
You don’t want to jump to conclusions by saying that a single game could be a season-defining one for any team, but Macon’s 4-1 win on Sunday did reveal a lot about the makeup of the Mayhem roster. Sure, Macon entered Sunday’s game as the league leader, but Knoxville rolled in with a ten-game winning streak while the Mayhem had just lost a pair of games to Huntsville.
Macon played like a team on a mission, doing what no team had been able to do all year long – solve Knoxville’s Roudebush by jumping on him early with two goals from Coomes and Ryan Smith. The end result was a 4-1 Mayhem win
Now, Macon has to do what it has been able to avoid all year long until now – make do without its starting goalie. The good news is that Ruck has split a portion of the time over the past two months in net with Theut.
#SPHLPHOTOS | Night one of a back to back celebration of the Macon's International Cherry Blossom Festival against the @HuntsvilleHavoc and the @MaconMayhem. Bryan Meeks was there to capture all the action. https://t.co/6KANs6iLWZ
— Sin Bin News (@SinBinNews) March 24, 2021
Ice Bears seeking another streak
Knoxville’s magical ten-game winning streak came to an end on Sunday against Macon. Now, the Ice Bears will aim to start another string of wins. The bigger story, of course, is that the goalie in net for all of those wins, Roudebush, is now in the ECHL, meaning that it’ll be revealed soon how much of that run had to do with goalie play.
But there’s anything but gloom and despair around the Ice Bears given their propensity for scoring goals. With 21 and 20 points, Austin Plevy and Jacob Benson rank among the top ten in league scorers. Benson especially has been on a recent roll, having a goal in his past four games.
This is also a team that has a mindset that it came rally back from everything, and that was never more evident than last weekend. On Saturday, Knoxville trailed Birmingham 2-0, coming back to win 3-2 in overtime.
Tapping into the Play-by-Play Cam for last night's game-winning goal in overtime!
— Knoxville Ice Bears (@icebears) March 21, 2021
Ice Flyers unshaken by setbacks
Pensacola didn’t let a pair of losses from the weekend before get things down in the dumps too bad. Last weekend, Jack Berry held Birmingham off the board for the game’s final 30-plus minutes as the Ice Flyers won it in overtime, 3-2. Jake Wahlin continued his case for rookie of the year, scoring for a 1-0 lead with Darren McCormick netting the equalizer prior to Jordan Ernst winning it in overtime.
— Pensacola Ice Flyers🏒 (@PcolaIceFlyers) March 20, 2021
Much like Macon and Knoxville are doing this week, Pensacola is soldiering forward without its top goal with Jared Kupsky in the ECHL. If the Ice Flyers can continue to get solid play from Berry and Chase Perry, they’ll have a chance to win games.
Thursday, March 25
Birmingham at Knoxville, 7:35 p.m. EST
Pensacola at Huntsville, 7:00 p.m. CST
Friday, March 26
Birmingham at Knoxville, 7:35 EST
Macon at Pensacola, 7:35 CST
Saturday, March 27
Birmingham at Huntsville, 7:00 p.m. CST
Macon at Pensacola, 7:05 p,m. CST
Sunday, March 28
Knoxville at Huntsville, 5:00 pm CST
Brad Harrison is the SPHL Editor for The Sin Bin and also covers the Macon Mayhem. Follow or interact with him at @SinBinMayhem