By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
Amid a season full of its unique challenges, the Ice Flyers celebrated a win Friday night complete with some breakthrough narratives.
They answered during a pivotal, third-period moment, stayed an aggressor even after the final horn, then clinched a playoff spot with a 5-2 win against the Huntsville Havoc at the Pensacola Bay Center.
“All the credit to the guys,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “They’ve had an up and down year with a lot of different things. We lost some good hockey players, but all that stuff is out of our control.
“The guys fought all year and they deserve to be in this position (playoff clincher). It was a good win. We are looking forward to it. We are taking the right steps and playing some pretty good hockey.”
The win was the Ice Flyers’ first at home on a Friday or Saturday night since January. It assured the Ice Flyers (15-17-6) of being one of the four teams in a five-team league – cut in half due to Covid-19 restrictions – to play into an abbreviated post-season.
They now trail Huntsville (18-19-1) by just one point for third place, heading into Saturday’s game against the locked-in-second place Knoxville Ice Bears on Autism Awareness Night.
This season, the playoffs will be a set of best of three series for both rounds.
“It was very important,” said Ice Flyers winger Darren McCormick, who produced two goals, two assists Friday. “It’s something we try not to think too much about going into a game, but at the same time, that’s on our minds.
“Especially being able to (clinch) so at home. Get back to a rhythm of, ‘Hey, (home ice) is our territory. It’s very important.”
McCormick factored into the Ice Flyers fast start. He fed a pass to Eddie Matsushima for the Ice Flyers first goal seven minutes into the first period.
“Right out of the get-go we could have had one or two (goals) in the first five minutes,” Aldoff said.
They got two more goals within a two minute, 31 second span in the second period to take a 3-0 lead into the second intermission.
McCormick connected with Jake Wahlin for the second goal, then Jamal Watson found McCormick free for his first of two goals.
“That was a great play by Jamal,” McCormick said. “He made a great pass right on my (stick blade) tape, and I couldn’t ask for a better pass in stride.”
After Huntsville scored its second goal within a three-minute span with 12:39 left in the game, Aldoff immediately called a timeout.
He minced no words. His language to the players resonated with McCormick scoring 31 seconds later when his line hit the ice.
“The two goals you don’t want that to happen, but it’s how it happened that ticked me off,” Aldoff said. “It wasn’t like (Havoc) earned them. We lulled ourselves to sleep. We went to sleep for a couple shifts and it cost us.
“We had three or four minutes in the third where we went lulled, went to sleep. That’s the stuff where we need to eliminate. But I give the guys credit they got a kick in the pants and they stepped up and came up the next shift and put one in and went back at it.”
From that decisive sequence, Brennan Blaszczak followed with a goal as 7:43 remained to put the game away. Of the five goals, McCormick factored into four of them.
“When he has his opportunities, he’s pretty good at putting the puck in the back of the net,” Aldoff said. “Big players step up in those moments and he did that.”
Huntsville’s Cole Reginator, who was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct with 32 seconds left in the game, then got involved to trigger an ice-wide dust-up when leaving the penalty box as time expired.
It resulted in the Ice Flyers Alec Hagaman racing from the bench area to challenge the Havoc players. Hagama got two fighting penalties and a game misconduct, plus further respect from teammates.
“That is Hags in a nutshell,” McCormick said. “He is a great team guy. Anything happens, he is standing up for it. Good message to show we’re not going to get pushed around.”
The Ice Flyers now turn attention to Saturday night. A large crowd is expected for the biggest fund-raiser of the season with Autism Pensacola as beneficiary.
The ice Flyers will wear eye-catching, royal blue jerseys that will be sold at the merchandise stands on either concourse, plus auctioned as players’ game-worn jerseys after the game.
“It is a great cause,” McCormick said. “I have a special needs cousin. So anything geared towards that, I am huge advocate of. So it is great we’re doing that.”