PENSACOLA, FLA – When the Pensacola Ice Flyers and Columbus Cottonmouths step onto the ice at the Pensacola Bay Center Thursday night in game one of the 2014 SPHL President’s Cup finals, it might just feel like a bit of déjà vu. That is because this best-of-three series is in fact a rerun.
Two years ago, the Ice Flyers and the Cottonmouths decided the league’s championship with Columbus claiming its second SPHL title on the road. A year ago, Pensacola grabbed its first championship banner since joining the league by beating the Huntsville Havoc. Now the two meet to determine which franchise will reign over the league once again.
Columbus finished the regular season as the six seed for the playoffs with a 27-26-3 record. The Cottonmouths road to the finals started in Peoria with a hard fought three game set against the Rivermen. After being shut out in game one, the Cottonmouths scored ten goals in the final two games. In the semifinals, Columbus met up with Huntsville just as they had in 2012. The Snakes swept the best-of-three series to head to the finals.
Coming in as the top seed, Pensacola swept the quarterfinal series with the Mississippi Surge with relative ease. The semifinal matchup with the Knoxville Ice Bears was anything but as Bryan Hince shut out the Ice Flyers in game one in Pensacola. The teams then headed to Knoxville where the Ice Flyers forced a deciding game three back at home. Being back at the Bay Center was all Pensacola needed as the Ice Flyers won to continue on.
Pensacola and Columbus faced each other twice during the regular season with the Ice Flyers winning both contests easily. The playoffs are a different story and the statistics show the teams being pretty even. Columbus has scored just one more goal than Pensacola thru five games (15-14) and has given up only two fewer goals on defense (6 to Pensacola’s 8).
Special teams are a virtual wash as well. Each squad has scored three power plays goals while the respective penalty killing units have both been successful more than 80 percent of the time (Columbus’ kill rate is 82.35 percent while Pensacola’s is 86.67 percent).
Columbus’ offense has been paced by forward Matt Gingera who has four goals and seven total points in five games. The Cottonmouths have had a well balanced attack with Preston Shupe, Shayne Stockton and Jordan Draper all kicking in with four points. Ryan Salvis has been the leader of the band for the Ice Flyers, scoring two goals and adding four assists for six points. He has gotten help from Brett Lutes (five points) and John Dunbar (four points including three goals) along the way.
The duel between the netminders may just be the most entertaining battle to watch. Ice Flyers goalie Ross MacKinnon and Cottonmouths keeper Andrew Loewen have both been outstanding. Each are 4-1 in the playoffs with Loewen posting the better goals against average of 1.21 to MacKinnon’s 1.55. Loewen also has the higher save percentage but not by much as his is .963 while MacKinnon has a .926 mark – the difference being in Loewen stopping 58 more shots than his counterpart (158-100).
Observers note that the series will be a battle of Pensacola’s speed against Columbus’ physical play. Whichever team can enforce its will on the other will put pressure on the opposition which could create mistakes. It could also come down to home ice which favors Pensacola.
Prediction: Pensacola was the best team in the regular season and is the defending champion. The Ice Flyers handled the Cottonmouths in the regular season but Columbus has the playoff mentality locked in and should provide quite a fight. Still, the incentive of being the first back-to-back champs since Knoxville in 2008-2009 is a motivating force and should play a role. Pensacola wins the cup in three games.
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