By Bill Vilona – Contributing Writer for the Ice Flyers
The Ice Flyers’ planned, post-game, party Saturday night with fans at a nearby brewery had even more reason for good cheer.
This team is ringing in the New Year in the most desired way.
The Ice Flyers 4-2 win Saturday against the Birmingham Bulls, which delighted a crowd of 4,303 on Military Appreciation Night at the Pensacola Bay Center, finished the 2019 portion of their schedule with three wins in three days against three different opponents during the holiday weekend.
“It started obviously Thursday (4-2 home win against Macon Mayhem),” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “We had a big game, then had a very good hockey game (Friday in win road win at Huntsville) and (Saturday) we finish it off.
“Guys push hard. This team skates hard, plays hard, pushes hard. They hold themselves accountable on each other, so it’s pretty fun to coach.”
Even a 6 a.m. arrival Saturday morning, following a long bus ride from Huntsville, Ala. after a 3-2 overtime win, didn’t affect performance.
The Ice Flyers (15-4-2), winners in five of their last six games and now only three points behind first-place Peoria in the SPHL, had zip in their step throughout the game against Birmingham. They needed it, killing off seven penalties, including four in the second period.
After getting a go-ahead goal from Michael Ederer just 30 seconds into the third period, the Ice Flyers forced the Bulls to battle in their own zone much of the final 20 minutes.
In the final minutes, it kept Birmingham from getting an extra attacked until 90 seconds remained, then Tanner Froese added the exclamation on the weekend with his empty net goal with three seconds left.
“We are playing great hockey,” said defenseman and team captain Craig Cescon. “We played tired, but at the end of the day, we’re producing, playing well, and it’s great time right now.
“There is a love in the locker room. It’s like a family.”
Ice Flyers goaltender Jake Kupsky, elevated into a No. 1 back-stopper role with Chase Perry called up to the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears, won his third game in three nights, stopping 20 shots. He is now 6-0 as a starter.
“Before we started this stretch, Rod (Aldoff) told us we’ve got to get nine good periods and if we do that it should be a good outcome,” said Kupsky, a 6-foot-4, 200 pound goaltender, who played at NCAA Division I member Union (N.Y.) College the past four seasons.
“I think we all bought into that on the first night. Going forward after this New Year’s break, all signs point to positive success.”
The Ice Flyers will have home-and-home games next weekend (Jan. 3-4) against the Macon Mayhem with Macon returning to the Bay Center for a Saturday night game..
Against Birmingham, their speed edge kept putting pressure on the Bulls to avoid turnovers.
“It was a dump and chase kind of game and we came out on top because we outworked them,” said Ryan Marcuz, who scored the first Ice Flyers goal and assisted on the second one. “The penalties gave (Bulls) ample opportunities. We just outworked them.”
The Bulls scored the game’s first goal Saturday following a flurry of Ice Flyers chances at the other end.
The Ice Flyers answered when Matt Ustaski fed a perfect pass to Marcuz inside the left faceoff circle and he buried a top-corner shot into the net with 6:55 left in the opening period.
Two minutes later, Marcuz returned the favor. He put a pass right on the backhand side of Ustaski’s stick as he finished a rush to the net for a go-ahead goal.
The Bulls tied the game with 44.5 seconds left in the second period.
But the Ice Flyers came out fast in the third period and Ederer buried a shot after Brett D’Andrea found him open in the crease area. That proved the game-winner.
“Those are always good early in the period,” Aldoff said. “Especially in that situation. Tie game in the third period and come right out and score.
“This is a team that just keeps the pedal down and we have done it all year. It’s impressive. It says a lot about those guys. They are a focused group.”
ICE FLYERS GAME NOTABLES
Retired Air Force veteran Michael Richardson performed the National Anthem and received loud applause.
The Ice Flyers also had a moment of silence to honor the memory of three airman shot and killed by a gunman – a fellow student – on Dec. 6 at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
In addition, the Ice Flyers put the spotlight on three empty seats designated to honor the airmen lives.
Five members of the Pensacola Junior Ice Flyers skated on the ice in pregame introductions with each carrying the flag representing a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. During play stoppages in the first period, each of the military branch theme song was played.