Bulls win 4th straight, inch closer to playoff spot
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor
PELHAM – The ice inside the Pelham Civic Complex main arena wasn’t enough to cool down the Birmingham Bulls as they continued to be one of the hottest teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League with a weekend sweep of Pensacola on Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10.
Birmingham has now won four consecutive games and 10 of 12 to go from last place in the league to one point out of a playoff spot with 45 points.
With the top eight teams advancing to the postseason, the Bulls trail eighth-place Roanoke (46 points) by one point and seventh-place Mississippi (48 points) by just three points.
The weekend sweep of the Pensacola Ice Flyers was the perfect paradigm for how well this team has been playing over the last month of the season.
The Ice Flyers are the second best team in the league with 61 points even after the weekend series with Birmingham, which shows the level of brilliance this team is playing with right now.
In the Friday matchup, the Bulls came flying out of the gate taking advantage of the hot streak they had hit and put up three first-period goals to take command of the game early.
Shane Topf and Craig Simchuck have been on fire during the stretch and each was responsible for the Bulls’ first two goals of the game.
Topf was able to score a rare short-handed goal during a Pensacola power play, while Simchuk scored on a Birmingham power play just three minutes later.
With 3:41 remaining in the period, Josh Harris added the Bulls’ third goal of the opening frame to give them a 3-0 lead at the end of one.
Pensacola got into the scoring column just 1:19 into the second period on a Chapen LeBlond power-play goal. That was one of two for the Ice Flyers in the period as Trever Herts also added a goal.
Birmingham, however, continued its aggressive play and fired two more shots into the back of the net to keep its three-goal advantage. Evan Schultz picked up the fourth goal of the game for the Bulls 5:17 into the period, while Myles McCauley added a power-play goal with 50 seconds until the second intermission.
With seven combined goals scored in the first two periods, the final period was baffling with the amount of defense that was played.
Pensacola’s Tory Vance added a power-play goal with 6:39 left to play in the game, but that was the final goal the Ice Flyers were able to put home for the night.
With less than two minutes remaining, Justin Larson put an exclamation point on Birmingham’s strong offensive performance with an empty netter to post the 6-3 victory and earn two points.
In game two of the weekend series on Saturday night, the two battled in an overtime thriller that featured strong play on both ends of the ice for the entire 60 minutes of action.
Thanks to two power-play goals from Simchuk, including an overtime flip shot, Birmingham was able to claim a second victory in a row against the Ice Flyers to pick up its third and fourth points of the weekend.
Despite being outshot 34-26 in regulation, the only shot that mattered was Simchuk’s game-winner 1:24 into overtime.
Simchuk’s opportunity arrived thanks to the Ice Flyers picking up a too many men on the ice penalty putting the Bulls on a power play.
After receiving the puck on the right side of the attacking zone, Simchuk danced around for a few seconds testing out what the defense planned to do.
As he inched closer to the goal and realized no defender was stepping up to him, Simchuk found himself just outside the right faceoff circle and fired a shot directly over the left leg pad of the Ice Flyer’s goalkeeper for the game-winner.
It completed a comeback effort as the Bulls scored two unanswered goals between the third period and overtime.
Pensacola took a 2-1 lead at the end of two periods, but Mike Davis was able to put the equalizer in the net early in the third period to knot the score up at 2-2. The final 17:42 was played without a score, which sent the game into overtime.
Simchuk and Taylor Dickin ended the series with four points to lead the Bulls, while Larson, Harris and John Rey all had three points to help a strong offensive attack.
Golakeeper Charlie Millin stopped 66 of 71 shots between the two games as he faced 12 more shots than both of Pensacola’s goalkeepers during the two games.
With nine games remaining, the Bulls are 20-22-5, one point out of the final playoff spot and winners of 10 of their last 12 games.
Birmingham’s next home game will be Saturday, March 17, against Roanoke, who is the team one point ahead of them in the standings, making it possibly their biggest home game of the season.