By Bill Vilona – Ice Flyers Correspondent
The idea to create a Pensacola Barges Night turned into quite an impact.
The one game rename, complete with specialty jerseys and video board branding, started with a first period fury, then ended with acclaim after Pensacola’s 4-1 win Friday night against the Birmingham Bulls at the Bay Center.
“I thought it was one of our better games of the year just from the standpoint of competing for 60 minutes,” said coach Rod Aldoff, whose team is now 5-3-1 and one point behind first place Huntsville. “There really wasn’t too many lulls or breakdowns. I thought the guys competed well for 60 minutes and deserved what they got.”
The team will return as the Ice Flyers on Saturday with the season’s first meeting against the Macon Mayhem on Mardi Gras Night at the Bay Center. Macon has played just five games this season, four fewer than everyone else.
But Friday was all about the Barges.
The light-hearted theme, formulated in reference to recent, dubious history in the community with real barges during Hurricane Sally, proved very popular with fans.
Team owner Greg Harris said all of the specialty merchandise, including the replica Pensacola Barges jerseys, was sold out before the opening faceoff.
Many in the crowd of 2,328 made purchasing the apparel the first priority when entering the arena.
And it didn’t take long for fans to break out the goal celebration moves.
Less than five minutes into the game, Jake Wahlin, a first-year pro and St. Paul, Minn. native, was fed a perfect pass from Darren McCormick on a power play exchange that began with Eddie Matsushima. Wahlin instantly snapped a shot from the crease into the net.
Four minutes later, it got wild and ugly.
With one Pensacola player injured at the other end of the ice, Alec Hagaman broke free with teammates toward the Birmingham zone. As Hagaman skated around the net, Bulls goaltender Austin Lotz took a frightful, baseball bat swing at Hagaman’s midsection, causing him to crumple to the ice.
Skirmishes ensued, Pensacola’s Matt Ustaski and Anthony Collins squared off at center ice, and fans voiced anger as video replays showed Lotz’ bizzarre clubbing.
The goaltender was given a five-minute major for slashing and tossed off the ice with a game misconduct.
“It was a gutless move, especially from a goaltender,” Aldoff said. “The league will take care of that and we’ll move on.”
While Pensacola couldn’t capitalize on that power play, the team got a short-handed goal from Matsushima later in the first period for a 2-0 lead at intermission.
“Specialty teams, those are important in a hockey game,” Aldoff said. “On power plays you want to get one or two (goals) in a game. When you get a shorthanded goal, it’s even more icing on the cake. Those are big goals in key moments of a hockey game.”
The tensions settled down in the final two periods and the teams had just two penalties apiece – all 2-minute minors – the rest of the game.
The Barges kept scoring. Defenseman Nick Neville, who returned along with team captain Garrett Milan to play for the first time in weeks, launched a shot from the blue line that got past the Bulls’ screened goaltender for a 3-0 lead.
Wahlin then produced his second goal when firing a wrist shot from the left side into the opposite corner of the net.
Birmingham got its lone goal with 4:42 left in the second period. But Pensacola kept solid defense and got some big saves by goaltender Chase Perry in the third period to keep the score intact.
“When we skate hard, skate like we can, and compete like we can for 60 minutes, the game in a good way gets easier for us,” Aldoff said. “We didn’t really give them many opportunities. They got a few, but Chase made some big saves in those moments. Everybody did their job.
“When this team plays like that, skates like that, competes like that, we’re tough to beat.”
Pensacola outshot Birmingham 38-26, including a 21-7 edge in the eventful first period. With Milan back with his linemates and Neville back on defense, along with Perry in goal, the team looked like the one which started the season 3-0.
“I felt good before the game and all week,” Aldoff said. “The guys have been skating hard. It was a good feeling coming into this game. We started off fast. And we finished fast.
We have been grinding for a few weeks, but every team is going through it. But it was nice to get everybody back, healthy and excited to play a game again.”