By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
The explosion of joy the Ice Flyers ignited meant a little more on this night.
Reaching a championship has that effect.
With a three-goal flurry in the final eight minutes, the Ice Flyers pulled off a 4-2 win Friday night against the Knoxville Ice Bears to thrill an charged-up crowd of 2,539 at the Pensacola Bay Center and sweep their semifinal series sprint in the Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs.
The two wins against the league’s second-place finisher in the best-of-three format lifted the Ice Flyers to their fifth SPHL President’s Cup Final in the 12-year history of the franchise.
“I’m very proud of our guys, our staff and everybody worked extremely hard. We deserved it,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, who has led the Ice Flyers to three SPHL titles. “We played two excellent hockey games.
“We came out a little jittery, a little nervy,” Aldoff said. “But you’re at home and it’s a lot of fun, so once we settled in, I thought we played really well. Obviously we got some big saves and big goals at key times. We played six good periods, hard. Mentally we were strong and physically we played a good hard physical game.”
Trailing 1-0 after the first period, then 2-1 at the second intermission, the Ice Flyers got a fifth power-play opportunity with 8:44 remaining and made it a game-changer.
Team captain Garrett Milan was fed a perfect pass from rookie Ben Freeman, after Milan got free inside the face-off circle. His quick wrist shot went into the top corner of the net, tying the game with 7:51 left and stirring the crowd.
“I saw Ben go down the wall pretty hard there, and their guys kinda collapsed towards him,” Milan said. (Freeman) made a great play to find me in the slot.
“I look up, saw the open corner there, and tried to pick it. But heck of play by Ben. We were playing hard. We came into the third (period), we knew we had to play hard there and collapse and get on their D (defensemen).”
The crowd had barely settled from doing their goal dance when rising for an encore.
Jordan Ernst followed from close range with a go-ahead goal 1-minute, 29-seconds later
“Just another good forecheck,” Milan said. “When we are playing well, we are forechecking hard. And Ernie has a great shot, a heavy shot.”
In the final five minutes, the crowd was standing in some places, but mostly screaming at every location. Knoxville eventually pulled goaltender Peter Di Salvo, 30, a long-time, minor league player, including one season (2013-14) with the Ice Flyers, with 1:02 left in effort to force overtime.
It didn’t happen.
The Ice Bears had the puck in the Ice Flyers zone when Brennan Blaszczak got the disc outside the blue line, outraced and out-maneuvered a Knoxville defenseman to slide an empty goal with 3.2 seconds remaining for the game-sealer as the crowd screamed its loudest.
It sends the Ice Flyers into next week’s championship round, another best-of-three series, against either regular-season champion Macon Mayhem or the Huntsville Havoc. Macon is up 1-0 and heading back to their home ice for Saturday’s second game.
The Mayhem chose to play at Huntsville first, then have the remaining two games, if necessary, at home on the weekend. That would be an option for Macon as the higher seed, if the team faces the Ice Flyers.
Either way, It’s a position the Ice Flyers had planned to reach when the season started Dec. 30 in a unique way. Only the southern half of the SPHL with five teams were able to play this season in a 42 game schedule.
“This is where we expected to be,” Aldoff said. “We came here to win this thing. This series was a just a step we needed to take care of to get to the finals.
“We’re happy to be in this position but we are not satisfied unless we win this thing.”
The Ice Flyers overcame a season of challenges and not all related to dealing with protocols from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The team went two months without a home win and had slipped into a battle for last-place Birmingham for the final playoff spot before finishing third.
“Right from beginning of the season, we have a good team here,” Aldoff said. “We’ve had some injuries, some long-term injuries that made it tough. But once we got through that, we got a healthy team, got some players in place we needed.
“We believe we had a team that could win this for a long time. It was a matter of getting together, getting some games, some practices that rhythm as a team.”
When the horn sounded Friday, the Ice Flyers remained on the ice after the traditional playoff handshakes with Knoxville. They were able to soak in the cheers from their fans.
The crowd stayed into the tight game all the way through and it created an atmosphere different from many regular-season games.
“We really appreciate it (crowd),” Milan said. “This year we’re all fortunate to be playing hockey.
“There’s a lot of guys out there that can’t play hockey this year. So it’s huge to play and play in front of the great fans here.”