By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
A night earlier, Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff had warned about the next game rematch being so different.
And unfortunately for his team, so was the outcome.
The Birmingham Bulls rebounded from the 9-1 drubbing absorbed Thursday night with far better defense, tighter checking and seized power play chances to pull off a 3-2 overtime shootout win Friday against the Ice Flyers on a specialty theme night at the Pensacola Bay Center.
“We came out flat,” said Aldoff, whose team had the rest of Easter weekend off and will next hit the road for games against Macon on April 8-9. “We still had some opportunities, but the first period we needed to skate better. In the second and third period we had some good pressure. We missed some good opportunities.
“But the first period we let them have a little life, instead of just skating like we can. We were just flat. We didn’t pass the puck well.”
It set a tone that was opposite of the pregame vibe.
The Ice Flyers wore colorful, eye-catching “SpongeBob Night” blue uniforms as part of theme for the widely popular Nickelodeon network show. It had the Bay Center fans, especially the younger ones, active for various in-game promotions and a post-game jersey auction with players.
On the ice, however, the first period became the indicator of how it wasn’t going to be the same high-flying, goal-scoring, show the Ice Flyers produced in Thursday’s rout.
Birmingham took advantage of the Ice Flyers first penalty to get a power play goal with 7:36 left in the first period. The Bulls exited into intermission with a 1-0 lead and a 12-8 advantage for shots on goal.
As perspective, the Ice Flyers already had a 4-0 lead after the first period of Thursday’s game.
“The first period was the biggest period,” Aldoff said. “It didn’t cost us, but when you want to play consistent… we weren’t playing like we did the second or third (period) or like (Thursday night).
“The passes were off. The puck management was off. It probably cost us momentum in terms of letting (Birmingham) know they were in for a long night again with our speed. I thought we regained it in the second and third…and started doing better.
“We were chasing pucks (first period) and when you are chasing pucks, you are not controlling play.”
By then, the game’s flow was a far tighter play. The Ice Flyers caught a big break when the Bulls missed on a 2-on-zero breakaway while killing a penalty in the first minute of the second period.
Five minutes later, the Ice Flyers’ Jake Wahlin pulled up on a rush, froze the defense and rifled a wrist shot into the right corner of the net to tie the game.
Less than four minutes later, Eddie Matsushima gave the Ice Flyers a 2-1 lead with his shorthanded goal that became his fifth shorthanded goal this season – the best of any player in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The rest of the game turned into a grind. Just when it seemed the Ice Flyers may skate away with a different kind of win to sweep the weekend, Birmingham got a power play goal with 7:09 left, after the Ice Flyers failed numerous times to clear their zone.
“We were set up the way we wanted,” Aldoff said. “You have to be a great anticipator playing this game, but especially on a penalty kill. You have got to read eyes, read sticks and know where it is going, and beat the puck to the pass.
“We do it well for awhile, then we get off a little, and it ends up in the net.”
From that point, the game headed into five minute, 3-on-3 overtime where neither team broke through with a great scoring chance.
In the post-overtime shootout, four Bulls shooters, including the final three players in the extended one-and-done format, got shots past Ice Flyers goalie Jake Kupsky.
The Ice Flyers had twice forced another round when Garrett Milan and Wahlin answered, but Wahlin was thwarted the final time.
“These shootouts, we were scoring, but they were scoring too,” Aldoff said.
As result, the Ice Flyers lost a fourth consecutive time at home during an overtime situation. Their home ice record in 17 home games this season (5-7, 5 overtime losses) is why there is such separation between the top two teams, Macon Mayhem and Knoxville Ice Bears in the SPHL standings.
The Ice Flyers will now travel to face first-place Macon at the Macon (Ga.) Centreplex April 8-9 before returning for a mid-week home game April 14 against Birmingham.
“Every point is big. They are all playoff games now,” Aldoff said. “We are full tilt and we gotta be sharp and look on winning every game. We go to Macon, we have played well there. We went in there last time and won. We have gone in there every time and played well.”