By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
The puck was on its side, rolling, and the shooting angle was tricky, but Ben Freeman figured he still might have a scoring chance.
As fate would have it, that’s exactly what led into Freeman scoring his first professional goal late in the third period, which became the game-winner in the Ice Flyers 4-2 victory Saturday night against the Knoxville Ice Bears at the Pensacola Bay Center.
Freeman, 25, a former standout player for the University of Connecticut, produced a special hockey memory in a unique game with the Ice Flyers wearing custom uniforms and raising thousands of dollars for Autism Pensacola on Autism Awareness Night.
“I came back to the puck and kinda chipped it over their D-man (defenseman) and I knew I had a bad angle,” said Freeman, a Falmouth, Maine native, who was the UConn Huskies’ team captain and leading scorer his senior year during the 2019-20 season.
“But I had some speed, so I was going to surprise (goaltender Peter Di Salvo),” said Freeman, who finished his collegiate career with 25 goals and 52 assists. “I just flicked it in. It was pretty lucky, but it was good.
“I knew if I could get some good wood on it, so to speak, I probably had a chance to score. Just because (puck) was bobbling and it was a bad angle. Those are tough for the goalies to handle.”
Playing in his 12th game for the Ice Flyers, Freeman’s goal with 6:02 left gave the Ice Flyers a 3-2 lead and further ignited energy in the Saturday crowd.
The positive vibe continued when Knoxville, which has clinched second place in the league standings, pulled DiSalvo, a former Ice Flyers goalie, with 1:39 remaining for an extra attacker.
Jake Wahlin then finished off a rush that Brennan Blaszczak started with an empty-net goal as 0:07 remained. And just like that, the Ice Flyers had their first back-to-back wins on home ice since Jan. 29-30.
“It was a fun game to be in,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “It was tight. It was intense. And I was happy for the guys.
“It was a hard fought game. I thought we played 60 minutes for the most part. Both teams played pretty hard, but I felt we controlled most of the momentum in the hockey game.”
Ice Flyers goaltender Jake Kupsky stopped 32 shots, making some big saves throughout the game to earn his ninth win in 14 starts.
“Jake played a helluva game in goal,” Aldoff said. “He’s that type of goaltender if he can get that done and we need that from him, so he played a great game.”
The win pushed the Ice Flyers (16-17-6) into third place in the five-team Southern Professional Hockey League in this COVID-19 abbreviated season.
They are a point above Huntsville, which has four games left, including one against the Ice Flyers, who have three games left in the regular-season schedule.
The Ice Flyers will close out their three-game, three day weekend with the season’s final scheduled home game Sunday (4:05 p.m.) against Knoxville.
“The past couple weeks I think we have felt good about our game, but we just haven’t been getting the results, so it’s nice to see some W’s in the column there,” said Freeman, who became the first UConn player to win a sportsmanship award in the Hockey East Conference, after playing his entire senior season (33 games) without taking a penalty.
The Ice Flyers twice answered tying goals in the game. They led 1-0 at first intermission after Wahlin scored his first goal Saturday on a power play with 55 seconds left in the period.
Knoxville (24-12-4), which had won four of the five previous games between the teams, tied the game only 90 seconds into the second period.
But Blaszczak answered just eight seconds later after the ensuing face-off at center ice. Two minutes later, Knoxville again tied the game.
The game remained that way until an eventful 13 minutes of the third period. The Ice Flyers were forced to be on a 5-on-3 penalty kill that ensued when Blaszczak and Zach Walker were whistled for separate penalties eight seconds apart.
The Ice Flyers specialty teams shined on the penalty kill for the next 90 seconds, along with Kupsky, combined to ensure the Ice Bears didn’t get another tying goal. Knoxville’s Brett Beauvais was whistled for roughing with 22 seconds left on the first Ice Flyers penalty, and both were killed off.
The Ice Flyers thwarted an open look during the entire sequence.
“Huge. It was probably the biggest part of the game right there,” Aldoff said. “I don’t think (Knoxville) got much out of it. So the guys just beared down and played big. They got in the shooting lanes and passing lanes so it was great kill.”
Five minutes later, Freeman gave the Ice Flyers the lead again.
Upon creating his opportunity with a puck flip over a stick blade, Freeman figured his bad angle shot was worth a shot.
“I feel like I have been getting good chances, so it was kinda nice to get my first one and help the team win, which is first and foremost,” said Freeman, who played 135 games at UConn, an NCAA Division I hockey program which had 18 players the past eight years become NHL draft picks.
“It was a game winner, that was the best part about it. I helped my team win and that’s all that really matters, but to get the first one, it was a pretty big relief.”