By Bill Vilona • PensacolaIceFlyers.com Correspondent
The scene itself Saturday was festive enough with costume revelers tossing beads, candy and other trinkets from trucks in a slow procession around the rink and off-ice on Mardi Gras Night.
The Ice Flyers’ lament was being unable to keep the good times rolling at game’s end.
With a portion of the team batting a flu bug which transferred throughout the locker room, the Ice Flyers left the Pensacola Bay Center feeling glum after a 2-1 overtime loss against the Evansville (Ind.) Thunderbolts.
“It was a grind. We got a lot of guys with the flu and sick, but no excuses,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “They battled and we just have to get through this and the next couple days get healthy.”
In earning three of four possible points in the back-to-back home games against Evansville, the Ice Flyers (17-5-3) are part of a three-way tie for third place. They are one point behind Fayetteville, which is tied with the Ice Flyers for second-fewest games (25) played.
The Ice Flyers are four points behind the first-place Peoria Rivermen, the team they will travel in mid-week to face in games on Thursday, Friday and Sunday in Peoria, Ill. That will conclude the Ice Flyers’ first-half schedule.
“They’re (games) all big from here on out,” said Aldoff, whose team has played six overtime games among the 14 home games. “We got to go up there and take one game at time, battle it out. We’re going up there to win three games.”
After beating Evansville 4-0 Friday, Aldoff predicted Saturday’s game would be tougher with his ailing team. The Thunderbolts (15-10-3, sixth place) are coached by Jeff Bes, the Ice Flyers coach for one season two years ago before exiting in May 2018 and Aldoff returning days later.
Bes chose goaltender Brian Billett, who played the past two seasons for the Ice Flyers, to make his second start of the season for Evansville.
After the Ice Flyers Garrett Milan scored on a breakaway early in the first period, Billett stopped everything else in recording 30 saves and his first win.
Both teams engaged in hard checks and some occasional scuffles in each period. It was not the end-to-end, free-wheeling style as Friday’s game which ended with Ice Flyers goaltender Jake Kupsky recording his first pro shutout.
Kupsky, 24, a former seventh-round draft pick by the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, stopped 34 shots, including a couple breakaways.
But he had no chance of thwarting the overtime goal, just 40 seconds into the extra period. After keeping the puck in the Ice Flyers zone in the 3-on-3 format, Evansville’s Kenton Helgesen waited for teammate Jacob Smith to get in place for a pass that he buried into a wide open net before Kupsky could react.
“It was a bad goal we gave up in overtime,” Aldoff said. “It was a pretty basic play, but we got a big point and now we have to get healthy and move forward from here.
“When you have a goalie (Kupsky) play that well, you have to take advantage of it. Jake played tremendous. He was our best player all weekend. It would have nice to get to the win for him. But three of four (points), under the circumstances… we got to smile and go from there.”
Complicating matters Saturday, the Ice Flyers lost defenseman Jesse Kessler, who was struck in the face by a shot with 5:17 left in the second period. He didn’t return.
“We were short already,” Aldoff said. “I give the guys a lot of credit, they battled through the elements. We have a lot of guys who were playing that probably shouldn’t have been playing.”
After Milan’s first-period goal, Evansville tied the game on Derek Sutliffe’s goal near-midpoint of the second period to finish a 2-on-1 break and players in the net.
The Ice Flyers killed a 5-on-3 situation for 45 seconds as part of three penalty kills in the game.
“We played hard, as hard as we could,” Aldoff said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”
ICE FLYERS NOTABLES
Matthew and Melinda Baransy, owners of Pensacola Photo Booth and A DJ Connection, were recognized in the ceremonial opening faceoff and sponsors of the Mardi Gras Night.
Ten different vehicles with various krewes were part of the procession on ice during both intermissions with passengers tossing the beads and trinkets. It was believed to be the Ice Flyers’ largest Mardi Gras Night parade of “floats.”
Following the game, the Ice Flyers’ players returned to the ice to toss even more beads in the crowd. A young boy won the “Shirt Off His Back” contest for the game and Tommasso Bucci placed his jersey on the boy’s back and carefully arranged it so that it nearly touched the ice.
The Ice Flyers next home games on Jan. 24 and 25 against Birmingham and Roanoke will feature the annual $5 promotion where all seats except for the ones along the glass area, will be priced at $5.