By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
The first period has so often been a detriment in games this season with the Ice Flyers.
The Ice Flyers set a decisive tone with a fast, four-goal start and gained a much-need boost in a 5-2 victory against the Birmingham Bulls at the Pensacola Bay Center.
The win followed a forgettable weekend when the Ice Flyers were outscored 14-3 in back-to-back losses at Macon, the runaway leader in the Southern Professional Hockey League standings.
“It didn’t surprise me how we started because guys were focused and had to be focused,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “We got kicked in the pants (at Macon) and the guys got kicked in the pants during practice this week and they responded well.
“We came out, competed, skated, hit, and got the job done.”
After the all-night bus ride from Macon, Ga. to Pensacola early Saturday morning, Aldoff arranged for an unscheduled Sunday practice at the Bay Center.
That session, along with practices Monday and Tuesday delivered a message the players heeded.
“A lot of players played out of character (against Macon),” Aldoff said. “We got lackadaisical and I had to wake ‘em up this week at practice. You shouldn’t have to do that.
“But every now and then you have to wake your team up. We were just soft. We had people in place to play good defense, but we were soft. And when you’re soft, I don’t care what level you’re at, what sport you are playing, you are going to get it.”
By playing hard Wednesday, the win enabled the Ice Flyers to extend their lead to six points over Birmingham in fourth place and the final playoff spot.
Now, it’s back on the road, back to Macon for games Thursday and Friday against the Macon Mayhem, which has bulldozed its way to a 25-5 record in regulation-play games with four overtime losses.
“It is a perfect week for us after the weekend we had,” Aldoff said. “We have a team (Bulls) we’re battling with and we got team (Mayhem) that just beat us. So you have to be a pro, you have to be a man and step up.”
The Ice Flyers quickly stepped up Wednesday night. The Ice Flyers did not allow Birmingham a shot on goal for the first eight minutes and kept play in the Bulls’ zone.
Jake Wahlin scored the first of his two first-period goals just 3:37 into the game. After Eddie Matsushima won the face off, he instantly got the puck to Wahlin, who wheeled left and fired a wrist shot into the net.
Ten minutes later, the Ice Flyers finished the first period with a flurry of goals.
Alec Hagaman, playing in his first game since Feb. 19 when suffering a leg injury, fed team captain Garrett Milan a perfect pass on a power play that Milan finished into a wide open net.
Getting Hagaman back on the ice, back on a line with Milan, could make an impact in the final stretch.
“(Hagaman) is a presence. He’s a leader,” Aldoff said. “He’s a presence on the ice and in the (locker)room and he’ll say what he needs to say. He is a good part of our team and it was good to have him back.”
As that goal with 6:07 left was being announced, Jordan Ernst followed 20 seconds later with a shot inside the blue line that lit the goal lamp.
To complete the exclamation point, Wahlin produced his team-leading 15th goal in shorthanded fashion with just 21.8 seconds left in the period. It was the Ice Flyers 10th shorthanded goal this season, the best in the SPHL. The Ice Flyers are also the only team to not allow a shorthanded goal.
The performance matched the four-goal first period the Ice Flyers produced on April 1 when they mauled Birmingham 9-1 to break a 10-game, home losing streak and match one of the top scoring nights in franchise history.
“To me, we played hockey,” Aldoff said. “That’s how it’s played. There was no magic wand we had. It was hard work, compete, second effort was good.
“We hit. We have to be a team that hits, finishes checks and hits at the right time.”
After Birmingham got a goal just 27 seconds into the third period, the Ice Flyers’ Zach Walker deftly flicked a side-angle shot into the net with 7:24 remaining to complete the Ice Flyers’ scoring.
The effort is something Aldoff is hoping his team continues in these next two nights against Macon, a team the Ice Flyers have a 2-7-1 record against this season.
“We have played well against them. We’ve had tight games all the way through against that team,” Aldoff said. (Last weekend) was one of those weekends. We have been on the other side of it, too, taking it to teams as well.
“We have a good team. When we do that, skate, we’re tough. When you finish checks, you stop momentum. You are hard to play against. It doesn’t take a hockey player to figure that out.”