MACON, Ga. – The weekend is drawing near, which means that it’s time for the SPHL Rundown.
The newness of finally getting back on the ice is wearing off across the league. Now, as teams are figuring out, to a degree what they have to work with, the on-ice product is starting to take shape.
Coaches are figuring out what line combos and defensive pairings work better than others. The task of finding perhaps another player to make a roster better is not ceasing. And as long as the ECHL keeps playing, the allure of a call up from the next level will be there.
The point is that there’s now a bigger sample size across the league with everyone having played at least six games.
One factor that showed itself last weekend? Goalie play took a big step up. In every game across the league last Thursday through Saturday, the losing team was held to one goal or fewer. On Friday, Huntsville’s Jason Pawloski posted just the second shutout of the year in Huntsville’s win against Knoxville.
It all came a week after Huntsville and Birmingham’s pair of weekend games saw a combined 24 goals scored.
Much has rightfully been made about the league’s scorers. But last weekend showed that the SPHL has some pretty good goalies, too.
Thursday, Jan. 28
Macon 2, Knoxville 1
Friday, Jan. 29
Pensacola 4, Birmingham 1
Huntsville 3, Knoxville 0
Saturday, Jan. 30
Birmingham 4, Huntsville 1
Pensacola 2, Macon 1 (SO)
Three Stars of the week
⭐ Jake Theut, Macon. He was one shootout loss away from picking up two wins last weekend. Even still, he was 1-0-1 with a 0.96 GAA and .966 save percentage. He had 18 saves last Thursday against Knoxville and stopped 39 of 40 shots against Pensacola on Saturday, including 17 in the second period alone.
⭐⭐ Jared Legien, Birmingham. He scored a pair of goals in helping the Bulls bounce back and beat Huntsville 4-1 on Saturday.
⭐⭐⭐ Darren McCormick, Pensacola. He had a goal and assist in wins against Birmingham and Macon, but his biggest clutch performance may have been in overtime when he scored four goals to cement a shootout victory.
Around The League
Lotz suspended, Stewart set to step in for Birmingham
The signing of Hayden Stewart last week by Birmingham has turned out to be fortuitous. Going into the weekend, the Bulls picked up Stewart to reinforce their depth in between the pipes. His arrival turned out to be well-timed. Friday’s starting goalie Austin Lotz exited Friday’s game against Pensacola by way of a game misconduct, and he was suspended for Saturday’s game while his suspension by the SPHL was pending. On Wednesday, it was announced that Lotz will be suspended for eight games. That now puts the spotlight on Stewart with the Bulls other starting goalie from earlier in the year Hayden Lavigne, having been loaned to the ECHL. Stewart, who also appeared in one game earlier this year for Knoxville, settled in nicely in his first start as a Bull on Saturday, stopping 29 of 30 shots against Huntsville.
Mayhem building a strong foundation in goal
When you go back to the Macon Mayhem’s President’s Cup title season, there was one factor that was key – the goalie being able to shut an opponent down in the form of Jordan Ruby. It’s early, but Macon may again have that with Jake Theut. If he can continue to play like last weekend in which he gave up a combined two regulation goals, it’ll be hard for Mayhem head coach Kevin Kerr to go away from the hot hand. With a 1.76 GAA, Theut still leads the league.
Widespread scoring help for Havoc
If being able to develop varied scoring options is a point of emphasis, then the Huntsville Havoc are on the right track. Consider this. While center Rob Darrar, second in the league with 12 points, has one point in his last three games, others have picked up the slack. With seven points, Kyle Rhodes has the most of any defenseman in the league. Isaac Johnson’s strong start has also continued. He notched a score last Friday against Knoxville and has eight points on the year, placing him seventh in the league.
Ice Bears looking to halt slide
For a three-game stretch in mid-January, the Knoxville Ice Bears appeared to be clicking on all cylinders. In winning two of three games, Knoxville put a combined 14 goals in the net. Since then, fortunes have taken a detour. In their past three games, the Ice Bears have scored one goal or less. Roster attrition has not helped. Since Jan. 22, Knoxville has had five forwards either waived, placed on injured reserve, or on team suspension. Perhaps most detrimental has been Brady Fleurent being placed on 21-day injured reserve on Jan. 23, one day after scoring a hat trick. Centers Josh French and Scott Cuthrell have been placed on team suspension, and Connor Sanvido has been waived. He didn’t last long on the waiver wire, being picked up Feb. 2 by Huntsville.
Of the players who’ve played for Knoxville this year, Fleurent and Sanvido ranked among the team’s top six scorers. Knoxville looks to get back on track Thursday against Birmingham in its first game this year against the Bulls.
Ice Flyers back on track, add physicality
After losing three games in a row, the Pensacola Ice Flyers appear to have righted the ship, having now won three in a row. They’ll have some more muscle added for this weekend with defenseman Travis Armstrong being added after being waived last week by Knoxville. With the Ice Bears this year, he had one assist and six penalty minutes in four games. He was picked up in the offseason by Knoxville after Roanoke, who he racked up 181 penalty minutes with the past two years, opted out for the season.
Pensacola has won three in a row thanks to doing things well in multiple areas. Two particularly? Goalie play and special teams. Last Friday against Birmingham, the Ice Flyers took a 2-0 lead 14 minutes into the game with a power-play goal by Jake Wahlin and a shorthander from Eddie Matsuhima. In goal, Chase Perry is hitting his stride, having yielded one goal in each of his past three games.
“He had a couple tough games at the start of the year. And then he got healthy. You look at his last three games and he’s probably one of our best players on the ice. You need that.” – Pensacola head coach Rod Aldoff to PensacolaIceflyers.com on Ice Flyers goalie Chase Perry
Stat of the week
32- The number of days since the Macon Mayhem has last played a home game, partially due to the SPHL’s safety protocols. That dry spell of games in the Macon Coliseum ends on Friday with Knoxville visiting. After this weekend’s games against the Ice Bears and Birmingham on Saturday, Macon won’t play at home again until Feb. 20.
Thursday, Feb. 4
Birmingham at Knoxville, 7:35 p.m. EST
Pensacola at Huntsville, 7 p.m. CST
Friday, Feb. 5
Knoxville at Macon, 7:35 p.m. EST
Huntsville at Birmingham, 7:30 p.m., CST
Saturday, Feb. 6
Birmingham at Macon, 6:30 p.m. EST
Huntsville at Pensacola, 7:05 p.m. CST
Brad Harrison is the SPHL editor and covers the Macon Mayhem for The Sin Bin. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @SinBinMayhem!