By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
Even during the roughest times, which were not long ago, the Ice Flyers had a sense their struggles would shift into success.
That faith has been rewarded.
The Ice Flyers produced their best weekend on the season’s final home weekend, completing a trifecta of wins Sunday in a 4-1 triumph against the Knoxville Ice Bears, which now has this team hitting a peak with playoffs in sight.
“We played the way I believed we can and the guys believe we can,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, after a Fan Appreciation Day at the Bay Center evolved into a perfect finale. “We had a great weekend. And we played great hockey. That’s the way you’ve got to play. There is no magic wand.
“It’s hard, it’s simple and you must execute. And the guys did that. When we play like that, we’re a great hockey team. I am proud of the way they played.”
In all facets, the Ice Flyers gained well-earned praise.
Sunday, they shocked the league’s top goaltender, Austyn Roudebush, with a four-goal flurry in the second period. It matched the most goals he’s allowed in a game all season.
After trailing 1-0 at the first intermission, the Ice Flyers struck with two goals in six seconds from what started as a 5-on-3 power play. They got two more goals in the final 3:07 of the period to deliver a knockout punch.
Four different players – Alec Hagaman, Jordan Ernst, Darren McCormick and Frederic Letourneau – lit the goal lamp. Four others – Jake Wahlin, Ben Freeman, Zach Walker and Clark Kuster – had assists.
“You gotta smell blood in the water and finish,” Aldoff said. “When you get it rolling and get that confidence and get playing well, you keep doing the same thing.”
Among the constant elements was Ice Flyers goaltender Jake Kupsky. He delivered his third win in as many nights and has elevated performance since rejoining the team in early April.
Kupsky, 25, a seventh-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 2015 NHL Draft, stopped 75 of the 80 shots he faced in three weekend games.
“Goaltending is everything,” Aldoff said. (Kupsky) played the way he can and our other players played the way they can.
“It’s a team I believed all year that we had. We always believed we had a good team.”
In getting back to .500 in regulation-time games (17-17-6), the Ice Flyers pushed into a three-point lead for third place ahead of the Huntsville Havoc.
The Havoc (18-19-1) have played two less games, but finish the season’s final week ahead with four games, including the season-finale May 2 against the Ice Flyers in Huntsville, Ala.. That game could determine the playoff order.
The Ice Flyers announced Sunday they will have a home playoff game either May 6 or May 7 at the Bay Center. They will either face first-place Macon or second-place Knoxville. Each of the playoff rounds is a best-of-three sprint.
“I think we are coming together as a group and doing it at the right time,” said Wahlin, who assisted on two goals Sunday to raise his team scoring lead.
“Before playoffs is definitely when we want to play at the peak of our game and I think that is something we have started to do.”
All the better, of course, this hat trick of wins was produced at the Bay Center. That two-month struggle without a home win is now in the past.
The energy generated in the stands the past three games was reflected by what happened on the ice.
“I think we have best fans in the league,” Kupsky said. “They want to see us win and unfortunately this year, we haven’t done a lot of that.
“But obviously, going forward, if we keeping winning like this we’re going to win for those (fans). They give us so much energy. Just to put three good games together, three good wins, they deserve that.”
The win Sunday occurred in different fashion. Knoxville scored the game’s first goal with 1:28 left in the first period.
The Ice Flyers erased the deficit in a six-second span. Hagaman finished on pass from Wahlin for the first power play goal. On the ensuing faceoff, Ernst got the second power play goal after Freeman connected with a pass.
“Two goals that quick were difference makers, for sure,” Aldoff said. “Swung the momentum. It kinda took anything they had out of the game. Those were big goals.”
McCormick and Letourneau then followed with even-strength goals to close the period.
The Ice Flyers entered the weekend on a three-game losing streak. But there was belief that even in losses at Macon (3-1, 5-3) on April 15-16 and the April 20 loss (2-1) at Huntsville, the team was heading in the right direction.
“I think for the past few weeks we have been playing really good hockey and the bounces haven’t been going our way,” Kupsky said. “But it takes a lot of character to stick with that and I think that’s what we’ve been doing and the bounces have started to come our way.
“It gives the team a little more confidence going forward.”
In a season played with half the league’s teams (5), numerous adjustments due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and games being switched, the Ice Flyers have emerged from their own adversity to seemingly hit a desired stride.
“Now, we’re striking gold type of thing and playing the way we want to,” Aldoff said. “And it’s fun to watch. But we’re not going to get our heads big. We’ll sleep on it, then prepare for next weekend.”