By Bill Vilona – Contributing Writer of the Ice Flyers
The Ice Flyers started a New Year, new decade on Saturday night in the same suspenseful way they started this season.
They lit up the Pensacola Bay Center with an overtime win.
On a final rush in the waning seconds of overtime, Jesse Kessler followed a rebound from Garrett Milan’s determined effort with a crowd-screaming goal on Fan Appreciation Night for a 2-1 win against the Macon Mayhem.
Only 11.8 seconds remained when the emotion poured.
“You know, we kinda like to make it worth (fans) money, right? Isn’t that what they say?,” said Kessler, after scoring his second goal of the season.
After the Mayhem tied the game with 4:09 left – and already had a 3-2 win in their rink Friday against the Ice Flyers – the Bay Center vibe was full of unease.
“That can be a morale buster,” Kessler said.
But in winning three of their first four home games this season in overtime, including the season-opener Oct. 18 against Roanoke (3-2 win), it has built a bank account of confidence.
Milan, as he has often done this season, got the final push ignited with his speed along the boards and burst into the Mayhem zone towards the net.
The Ice Flyers (16-5-2) had already thrown 40 shots at Macon goaltender Hayden Stewart when Milan raced the net for his shot, after Kessler receive a pass from Patrick Megannety to start the last-chance rush.
“To tell you the honest truth, I knew we were inside a minute, but I really didn’t know we were at 11.8,” Kessler said. “Milan sprung for a break and I kinda jumped in to see what happened and it kinda worked out that the rebound was laying right there and I put it home.
“Garrett and I have a pretty good understanding. If I can find him in space with speed, he’s getting the puck. Paddy (Megannety) makes a great play on the wall to me, then I saw Garrett streaking. If you get Garrett Milan’s skill and speed in space, I take that every time.
“I got him the puck and you saw what he created. I just came in to clean up the trash. It’s been quite a bit of fun to get to play with him this last year or so.”
Milan’s 24 points this season lead all Ice Flyers players. The assistant captain has nine goals. He has generated 106 shots, 40 more shots than the next closest teammate.
“Garrett plays like he loves the game,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “It is refreshing as a coach. He is a good leader. He is an elite player in this league.”
For a rare time this season, Aldoff did not like the way his team played Friday. The Ice Flyers led at Macon 1-0 at the first intermission, then gave up three goals in a five minute span during the second period and could not come back.
The Mayhem (8-15-3) are in eighth place in the 10-team Southern Professional Hockey League.
“We just went in there I think and with some big heads and didn’t think we had to work as hard,” Aldoff said. “Even though we were up 1-0 we were not playing the way we had been.
“It was a game we didn’t deserve to win. Sometimes you need a slap in the face, kick in the butt… that was definitely the case.”
Saturday, the game was scoreless through the first intermission. Tommaso Bucci rifled home a rebound only 3:17 into the second period for the game’s first goal. But the rest of the period, the Ice Flyers weren’t as effective in getting scoring chances.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play smart,” Aldoff said. “Second period, we didn’t manage the puck like we should. We had full control of pucks and it was almost like we got scared. Then we started chasing our tails.
“Third period was a better period and we found a way to get it done at the end. The chances (Macon) got we gave them.”
Ice Flyers goaltender Jake Kupsky assisted on his team’s first goal and had sequences in every period where he made game-changing saves. He is now 7-1 in eight starts in net. The season’s former No. 1 goaltender, Chase Perry, remains on loan to the Orlando Solar Bears in the higher-level ECHL.
“Our goaltending has been great all year,” Aldoff said.
“I think the big thing we’re so confident in our goaltending, we’re confident with what we have (teammates) in that (locker) room and when (Macon) tied the game, it was like okay, put on the hard hats, boys, we got to find a way to play.”
Earlier in the overtime, Kessler bemoaned giving up a turnover that led to a wide open shot that Kupsky stopped to help extend the game. He said bouncing back from struggle has been the trademark of this team during the season.
“I liken hockey to a metaphor for life,” Kessler said. “Things don’t always go your way, but you know what, the next day the sun comes up and you get right back at it. That’s what we did.”
ICE FLYERS NOTEWORTY ITEMS
The Ice Flyers will stay in town this week and play back-to-back games Friday and Saturday night (Jan. 10-11) against the Evansville (Ind.) Thunderbolts.
Only three penalties were called Saturday by referee Jason Lortie and no penalties whistled in the second and third periods.
The Ice Flyers gave away thousands of dollars worth of merchandise on the Fan Appreciation Night. The 50-50 raffle drawing after the second intermission surpassed $4,000, meaning one lucky fan took home more than $2,000 cash.