By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
Buoyed from the force of the season’s largest home crowd, the Ice Flyers nearly made Star Wars Night an unforgettable saga.
But it fell one strike attempt short.
Trailing 5-1 in the second period, then 6-3 with 13 minutes left, the Ice Flyers rallied with their goaltender pulled and had a great chance at a tying goal before the Birmingham Bulls held on for a 6-5 win at the Pensacola Bay Center.
While the comeback drama may have pleased the crowd of 4,415, Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff was not in the mood for solace. It was Birmingham’s first win in seven games against the Ice Flyers and only their fourth win overall this season.
“The crowd was great. I wish we would have played better for them,” he said. “They deserved it.”
After the Ice Flyers’ Robert Blugers scored the game’s first goal two minutes into the game – his first professional goal – the Bulls responded with five unanswered goals.
It caused Aldoff to pull goaltender Cody Karpinski, who had been stellar in previous games, and inserting Sean Kuhn, who wound up making 15 saves in his 29 minutes played.
The goaltending, however, is not what had Aldoff irate.
“It was one of the worst defensive games with our D corps (defensemen) that I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “A lot of off-the-charts stuff I can’t explain. You can’t have boneheaded plays.
“We are banged up, obviously, but we need some guys to step up. It’s January, but some guys are making the same mistakes. It’s got to be a wakeup call for some of these guys. We have to get healthy, and the play has to pick up.”
The Ice Flyers (12-10-4) will get that chance tonight in a rematch in Birmingham against the Bulls (4-17-4).
What did go well Friday was the Star Wars theme. The Ice Flyers wore custom-designed Star Wars jerseys that were auctioned after the game. The jerseys available at the merchandise stands were a hot item, along with orders for more jerseys.
“We had replica jerseys available at the game and those sold out a few minutes after puck drop,” said Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris. “We had 75 special order forms filled out and our person handling that was contacted and said we needed more forms. So, it’s great to see that response to our specialty jerseys.”
It was the Ice Flyers second Star Wars Night in two seasons. As Harris explained, putting on such an event requires approval on nearly everything from Lucasfilm, the company which has produced all Star Wars films behind creator George Lucas, who produced the original film in 1977.
“OT Sports (athletic apparel company) is our jersey providers, so they have the contacts at Lucasfilm,” Harris said. “We have to fill out a long application to be able to get all the licensing with what we want to sell. Anything we do marketing-wise and social media-wise, we have to send over to Lucasfilm to get approved.
“But they are really great about it. And it’s actually a very easy process, not a daunting process. They are great to work with.”
Part of Friday’s show included 20 or so Star Wars characters in full costume. Those characters and which kind of Star Wars characters are provided also must be approved by Lucasfilm.
“The way it works is that once our night was approved, we were able to add characters to have in the crowd and really make it a fun night,” Harris said.
Those in costume came from the 501st Legion, The Rebel Legion, and the Mandalorian Mercs which are international , all volunteer, fan based organizations who give back to their communities through costumed volunteer activities and charity events.
The game was the part of a trio of holiday-time, home games which began with games on Dec. 26 and 30 the Ice Flyers won against Birmingham.
“We had three awesome crowds over the Christmas break,” Harris said. “I just like to have some games during this time, spaced apart, because I feel people are looking for things to do. We probably just had the best two weeks at this time of year we’ve ever had.”
The crowd Friday saw two different kinds of games within three periods. Two Birmingham players, Mike Davis (first period) and Carson Rose (second period) delivered two goals apiece. The Bulls scored two power play goals and a short-handed goal to build their 5-1 lead.
Eight seconds after the Bulls killed an Ice Flyers’ power play, Pensacola’s Kyle Wendorf started the comeback with his goal as 2:46 remained in the second period.
Seth Ensor then scored three minutes into the third period. The Bulls’ Danny Liscio scored what became the decisive goal on a power play three minutes later.
But the Ice Flyers weren’t done. Marcus Russell scored on a power play, then Aldoff called timeout with 3:13 remaining and pulled Kuhn from the goal cage for an extra attacker.
Brandon Tucker scored with 1:01 left and suddenly the Ice Flyers had a chance to complete a comeback.
“We weren’t getting much off five on five,” Aldoff said. “We just weren’t sustaining any pressure. We were not getting our second forecheckers in their quick enough. So, you have to get them outnumbered.
“Obviously it helped, and yeah, we could have squeaked out and got that one, but at the end of the day, it was not a good hockey game at all from our standpoint.”
With about 50 seconds left, Russell had a point-blank look from the slot area. He shot was turned away and that split-second was the difference maker in a potential overtime situation.