AUBURN, Ala. – Time flies when you’re having fun.
This past weekend, several SPHL teams hit the halfway point of their 2018-19 campaign, with the Macon Mayhem logging a league-high 29 of 56 games already this season.
This week, we take a look back at five big takeaways from the first half of the schedule in the SPHL this year. Here’s the second installment of five:
We all missed the mark this season on the Pensacola Ice Flyers
Many of us here at TSB had anointed the Ice Flyers as one of the best in the league prior to the start of the season. Boy, were we all wrong.
We thought the trio of RiverKing refugees – forwards Matt Harrington, Ryan Marcuz, and Brantley Sherwood – would make a big splash on the Gulf Coast and keep the machine moving along in Pensacola.
Instant chemistry in the locker room. The three, in some order, likely becoming the team leaders in scoring. If they were all on a line together or on the first power-play unit at forward, we all thought the scoring would come in bunches.
They lead the team in scoring, alright, but are nowhere near the SPHL leaderboards as they were last season in Southaven. Marcuz’s 14-point output leads the Ice Flyers. Fourteen points. In 27 games. Sherwood is good for second with only 13, while defenseman Nathan Bruyere is third at 12. And Harrington? He was placed on waivers last month.
We thought the late coup of goaltender Andrew D’Agostini – a proven starter in the ECHL with Brampton last season – would join established SPHL netminder Brian Billett (who I tabbed to have a bounce-back year himself) for one of the most dangerous duos between the pipes in the league.
D’Agostini, plain and simple, was not as advertised in the SPHL. Yes, part of the blame can be placed on lack of goal support, but a 3.18 goals-against average, and worse yet, a .885 save percentage, were glaring weaknesses as well, especially for a goaltender who was a season removed from being an ECHL starter.
The Ice Flyers had seen enough six weeks into the season.
After losing a game 3-0 against Birmingham and stopping only 19 of 22 shots on November 30, D’Agostini was placed on waivers the next day. The Macon Mayhem, who had seen their top two goaltenders poached by ECHL teams, signed D’Agostini to a contract the next week. After one game with the exact same 19 saves on 22 shots stat line, he was placed on team suspension and then reported to Reading in the ECHL. With the Royals, D’Agostini currently sports a 3-0-0 record with a 2.07 GAA and .934 save percentage. Better defensive support in the ECHL? Back in a league where he feels he belongs? All good questions and hypotheses to explain D’Agostini’s lackluster performance in the SP.
Billett, however, is having the bounce-back year this author had predicted. He is currently sixth-best in the league with a 2.63 GAA. His .915 save percentage is among the SPHL leaders as well. But goal support has been a major issue. The Ice Flyers have scored three or more goals in just TWO of Billett’s 13 appearances in net for Pensacola so far this season. Billett is having a much better season, but because of the Ice Flyers’ woeful offense, he, unfortunately, has nothing to show for it.
We thought the magic touch of head coach Rod Aldoff’s third stint behind the Ice Flyer bench – what we affectionately at TSB call Aldoff 3.0 – would put it all together in a bow for success.
Aldoff led Pensacola to SPHL championships in 2014 and 2016 in his first tour of duty with the Ice Flyers. He returned late in the 2016-17 season after a less than stellar showing with Norfolk in the ECHL, leading Pensacola to a 12-6-2 record in their final 20 games. After being ousted in the semifinals by eventual league champion Macon, Aldoff returned to his role as an NHL scout for the Edmonton Oilers. Jeff Bes took the helm of the Ice Flyers, but he and the team made a “mutual decision” to part ways at the end of last season.
Enter Aldoff again.
Unlike the previous two appearances, the third time has NOT been a charm behind the Pensacola bench.
Is something amiss in the locker room between the three Mississippi musketeers and the rest of the Ice Flyers’ roster? With only four players on the current active roster in double-digits in scoring, the Ice Flyers have a total of 53 goals scored in 27 games. That’s one goal shy of averaging a pair of goals a game. Two goals will not win many hockey games. And they haven’t for the Ice Flyers, with Pensacola carrying a 7-18-2 mark at the halfway mark of the season.
Is it shot selection? The Ice Flyers are currently third in the league at just shy of 32 shots on goal per game and fourth with just over 30 shots allowed. They are barely outshot 272-267 in the first period and go on to outshoot their opponents a combined 579-537 in the final two frames.
Here’s a telling stat. Despite being outshot in the opening period, the first 20 minutes are the only period where the Ice Flyers have outscored their opponents, 19-15. They are outscored 29-15 in the second period and then 35-16 in the final stanza. That statistic raises a red flag: is conditioning a factor? Something happens in the final two frames of Ice Flyer contests that doesn’t in the first period.
The diagnosis? Pensacola needs to become a hungrier team in the latter stages of games and become better conditioned both mentally and physically for a full sixty minutes. Whether that’s more mandatory practices, getting in the weight room and on the bike as well as on the rink, or just developing team cohesion, Aldoff and the gang have their work cut out for them to ascend through the SPHL standings in the second half of the season. If not, many of our writers need to prepare for a helping of crow come April.