By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers correspondent
On a night when historic memories from their predecessors were honored, the Ice Flyers came oh-so-close to creating one of their own.
Trailing 2-0 in the first four minutes, then 4-1 after two periods, the Ice Flyers threw their body and grit into a crowd-stirring final period, before the Birmingham Bulls held on for a 4-3 win on Ice Pilots Night at the Pensacola Bay Center.
After Jordan Ernst deftly flicked a backhand shot with 7:12 remaining into the upper right corner of the goal cage, trimming the lead to one goal, the Ice Flyers fed off their charged-up crowd in attempt to tie the game.
“The third period was remarkable,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “Probably one of our best periods of the year. Give the guys credit, they came out with determination.
“We were in a hole and they put the pedal down like never before. We scored some nice goals and we could have had three or four more. We had Grade-A opportunities that just didn’t fall. But the determination, the way they played, the desperation, it was good to see. And that’s the way we need to play.”
He’s hoping the performance carries into Sunday’s 4 p.m. matinee finale of a three-game weekend. The Ice Flyers face the Huntsville Havoc, the third different opponent this weekend, to complete the extended homestand.
The final minutes Saturday night created a scene inside the arena that reminded of the Ice Pilots heyday decades ago.
Even with less than 3,000 in the building, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the fans became energized. Many on their feet, pumping the noise volume as if from a sellout crowd during the Ice Pilots early era.
When the game ended, fans applauded as Ice Flyers players – attired in sleek, blue-and-gold uniforms worn by the original Ice Pilots team in 1996 — raised their sticks in a center-ice salute. Players, coaches and trainers then gathered inside the faceoff circle for a team photo.
“I think that’s testament to our fans who have been supportive of this team, (both) the Ice Flyers and Ice Pilots,” said Aldoff, who played one season in Pensacola for the Ice Pilots in 2005-06. “I think it’s hand in hand. I think our fans are special and our team is special and our organization is special. .
“It is a community thing. Hockey is strong here and it shows. We’re a product of that.”
It meant enough that assistant captain Alec Hagaman, who joined the team for this season, asked to be wheeled out to be part of the team photo — his foot in a walking boot as he recovers from injury. Hagaman is one of five players on injured reserve.
“We’re banged up,” Aldoff said. “The little extra effort goes a long way. It was a physical game, but I thought we responded well.
“We initiated a lot of (hard checking) so that’s a good thing. That’s the way you want to play.”
The ending Saturday reversed the mood from the Ice Flyers rough opening.
The Bulls scored goals on two of their first three shots, including just 40 seconds into the game. Goaltender Chase Perry had little time after errant shots ricochet in front of the net area.
“We got two bad bounces… goals that went into our net,” Aldoff said. “That’s what we have to deal with here. We had some tough puck luck, but I think overall we played okay. “
After the first intermission and highlights from the Ice Pilots inaugural season, the Bulls opened a 3-0 lead less than four minutes into the second period.
But that’s also when the vibe began to change.
Ice Flyers captain Garrett Milan scrapped with Birmingham’s Kasey Kulczycki after the ensuing faceoff from that third goal. Seven minutes later, the Ice Flyers Travis Armstrong and Bulls’ Chris Lijdsman brawled in front of the penalty box in what became the best fight of the season with both players trading haymakers.
The emotions led to Ice Flyers newcomer Connor Powell scoring his first goal, which also became the Ice Flyers first goal in two games. Even when Birmingham answered off a bad-bounce goal from the end boards, the Ice Flyers appeared a changed team.
Trevor Pryce scored less than seven minutes into the third period and Ernst then provided a giant emotional lift with his goal six minutes later.
“The team is pushing hard,” Aldoff said. “We’ve got a good group of guys. We just have to get through this. There’s always ups and downs, and there’s always times like this in a season.
“No excuses, the other team doesn’t care and they’re going to be in that situation,, probably, too as well as well and you just have to battle through it.”
During timeouts in the game, highlights from some of the Ice Pilots most famous playoff goals were shown on the new video boards. Dan Shugart, sports director for WEAR-3 TV, put together video highlight packages from the Ice Pilots post-season run during their inaugural 1996 season.
In some cases, the famous radio broadcast calls from Paul Chestnutt, who was working the game Saturday, were aired on the sound system.
Interviews with former Ice Pilots, including Aldoff, along with the star players from that first team like Sean Gauthier, Chad Quenneville, Christian Sbrocca and Hugo Belanger, were shown in the now-revamped arena.
Merchandise products created for the Ice Pilots theme night were a hot sell. All of the replica jerseys, priced at $130 apiece, were sold out minutes before the opening faceoff. A live jersey auction of the players’ jerseys followed the game.
From that experience Saturday, the Ice Flyers now hope to salvage two points from the weekend on Sunday.
“Sometimes, surprisingly, you come out and you feel the best on the third day of a three on three (games),” Aldoff said. “You obviously have to take care of yourself. Those games come quickly. But it is what it is.
“Every team does it and you have make sure you take care of yourself. It is a lot of hockey but that’s also the fun about it.”