PEORIA, ILL – A Press Conference is held at the Peoria Civic Center. Carver Arena would host an expansion SPHL team. With the drop of the first puck just five months away, the team had nothing but a name, a logo, and an empty office. It would be a month before a head coach was named.
Fast forward ten months and a complete 56 game SPHL season and Head Coach Jean-Guy Trudel and the Peoria Rivermen will host the Columbus Cottonmouths in the opening round of the President’s Cup Series. The SPHL Rivermen started with nothing ten months ago find themselves the third-seed in the eight-team tournament and averaging 3500 fans per game, third in the ten-team league. They also find themselves legitimate contenders for the President’s Cup, having taken regular-season powerhouse to overtime twice on the road as the season wound down.
The Tale of the Tape:
PIA Home 19-6-3
COL Home 15-12-1
PIA Road 11-12-5
COL Road 12-14-2
Regular Season head-to-head (4 games)
Peoria 3 wins
Columbus 1 win
Garrett Vermeersch leads the Peoria offense with 27 goals and 57 points (52 games). He also leads the team with a +17 rating. If Vermeersch is scoring, it will be a short series for Columbus. However, Parker Stanfield, Nick Prockow and Taylor Larsen are all capable of picking up the scoring slack so eliminating Vermeersch from the scoring equation won’t be the defensive answer for the Cottonmouths. Chris Greene spent a majority of the season in the CHL and could be a huge contributor as he settles in with the Rivermen.
Wildcards on offense for Peoria include Dean Yakura and Kyle Watson. Yakura was a late cut in camp but was re-signed and has been improving throughout his tenure with the team. Held back by an injury at mid-season, he has come back and been a big contributor some nights, surprising teams with his special teams play and finding the back of the net at key times.
Watson, on the other hand, has not played a game with the Rivermen. A post-season waiver claim from Bloomington, Watson (24 points, 164 PIM) can play multiple roles and brings toughness to a team that has lacked it all season long. That waiver claim give him new life and a chance for a title after laboring for the league’s doormat all season long.
Columbus has gone thru stretches of being able to score and not being able to buy a goal. The two most consistent scorers all season have been Matt Gingera and Jordan Draper. Gingera netted 32 goals and 23 assists for 55 points in 56 games played and was a beast on special teams where he picked up 20 of his total points. Draper, who popped for four goals in the home schedule finale, picked up 53 points including 20 goals. Four other players – Tory Allan, Neilsson Arcibal, Preston Shupe and Jason Gray – hit the 30 point plateau.
Defense has been a question mark all season long for Peoria and Trudel has made moves to improve it all season long. Often skating short-handed, the defensive unit has improved. Joe Schiller leads the blue liners in scoring with 29 points, but Charlie Carkin is the ironman, having (along with Larsen) played in all 56 regular season games. Ben Oskroba is a rookie and has just 12 pro games under his belt, but at 6′ 5″ and 220#, he fills a lot of space and has started scoring, too.
Gray was the best scoring defenseman on the Cottonmouths roster as he posted eight goals and 22 assists including 12 helpers on the power play. His plus-5 rating was second best among the blue liners behind team captain Kyle Johnson who was a plus-9 over the course of 52 games. Tom Maldonado proved to be a skilled playmaker, grabbing 16 of his 23 assists while Columbus had the man advantage.
Peoria goalie Kyle Rank leads the league by a mile with a record of 19-8-3, a goals against average of 1.89, a .938 save percentage and eight shutouts. Rank’s record since his trade from Fayetteville are even more impressive as he has posted a 14-7-3 record to go with a 1.79 GAA, .942 save percentage and seven shutouts. Rank is a big reason the Rivermen have home-ice for the first round of the playoffs. Rank will be backed up by rookie Kevin Carr who carries with him a 1.48 goals against average and a .950 save percentage to go along with a 2-1-1 record, all tops among the team’s individual stats. Rank is a big reason why the Rivermen have home-ice advantage in the first round but if he needs relief, Carr’s brief pro resume isn’t shabby and may also indicate how the Rivermen defense has developed over the season.
Rank is opposed by Andrew Loewen. When he isn’t becoming a viral internet sensation while dancing “The Wobble”, Loewen clocks in with a 21-15-1 record, GAA of 2.70, .914 save percentage and six shutouts. Loewen is anything but wobbly between the pipes. He is backed-up by Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados. Szabados has just two pro starts and has lost both with a 3.55 GAA and a .894 save percentage. While not overly impressive, it is a small sample size and Szabados has performed well on a much bigger stage than this in the very recent past.
Columbus ranks higher than Peoria in almost every special teams category. However, the Snakes spend one-third more time than the Rivermen in the penalty box. Peoria was the least-penalized team in the league while Columbus ran neck-and-neck with Bloomington, finishing behind the Thunder in the race for most PIM’s for the season. Columbus, in fact, spent almost eight more minutes in the sin-bin than Peoria. That could tip the series, significantly.
Jean-Guy Trudel has been learning on the fly since his introduction as coach this past summer. He has done a fantastic job of building a team on short notice and from scratch and then find guys to fill key roles when players were called-up. As a player, he reached the NHL. He has all the makings of a fantastic coach.
On the other bench, however, is Jerome Bechard. As a player and then coach, his tenure has lasted 18 years in Columbus. He has two league championships to his credit. He has one thing Trudel does not – experience – and he has it in spades.
Peoria has home ice for the 1-1-1 formatted series. The schedule has games set for Wednesday, Friday and Sunday with twelve-hour bus rides between cities. On paper, this should be Peoria’s series. However, a short series like this, a bad period – heck a dumb penalty and a bad shift – can swing the odds wildly in the favor of one team.
Prediction: The experienced Bechard keeps his team out of the penalty box and each game becomes a low-scoring affair with Columbus upsetting the Rivermen in three games.
Contact the Author at Shaun.Bill@ProHockeyNews.com or follow him on Twitter @SLBatPHN.