No. 2 Bulls sweeps No. 1 Peoria with two shootout victories

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – The Birmingham Bulls and Peoria Rivermen have sat atop the SPHL standings for the majority of the 2018-19 season, and while the Rivermen have been in first most of that time, the Bulls seem to have the upper hand on the ice and were able to complete the season sweep with two shootout victories in front of the home crowd between Friday, March 15, and Saturday, March 16.

Despite giving up three goals in regulation of both contests, goalkeeper Mavric Parks stepped up and dominated both shootouts to lead Birmingham to the two wins.

Parks allowed just one goal in the shootout of the first game, while the Bulls scored two goals to pick up the victory, and then a night later he felt even more comfortable allowing no shootout goals with the Bulls scoring two. Both shootout efforts from Parks led to 3-4 wins for Birmingham.

Now through 50 games, Peoria still sits in first place with a record of 35-7-8, but the only difference between first and second is the number of overtime losses. Right now, the Bulls sit at 34-14-2, and the Rivermen’s extra six overtime losses giving them the majority of the extra points needed for a 78-70 points lead in the league.

With just six games left this season and Birmingham trailing eight points, it’s tough to see a path to getting the overall No. 1 seed in the league, but for a team that is just in its second season and missed the playoffs a season ago, the two seed is more than a stellar accomplishment.

Plus, having now beaten Peoria three times this season, once on the road and twice at home, the Bulls have shown they might have an advantage in a championship matchup regardless of home ice or not.

A recap from each of the shootout victories is below.

Game 1: Birmingham 4, Peoria 3 (Shootout) 

The Bulls built up a 3-1 lead early in the third period of the first matchup behind goals from Josh Harris and Cole Golka in the first two periods and then one early in the third from Josh LaFrance, but two late interference calls on Russell Jordan game the Rivermen two great power-play opportunities.

While the Bulls went 0-for-5 on the power play during the game, the Rivermen had better luck and capitalized on both of those opportunities with Justin Greenberg scoring the first with 8:20 left to play, and then Ben Blasko scoring the game-tying goal with just 3:06 left in the contest.

Neither team capitalized on chances in the overtime period, which seemed like a win for the Bulls after losing momentum near the end of regulation.

The shootout started out action packed, and looked as if it would go back and forth. Peoria started with a goal from Austin Hervey, but Harris got the first shot for the Bulls and capitalized with a great move to make it 1-1 early.

Both teams missed their next three shots, leaving the fans holding their breath knowing one goal was going to make the difference.

Then, Austin Daae stepped up for the Bulls on their fifth attempt. Daae took the puck, made a great move and beat Peoria goalkeeper Storm Phaneuf for the game-winning goal.

While the Bulls were outshot 45-29, they made their shots count, and Parks’ stellar performance in goal was the key facing different attacks all night. Birmingham’s balanced attack featured an astonishing 10 different players with a point in the game and eight with at least a plus-one in the plus-minus category. 

Game 2: Birmingham 4, Peoria 3 (Shootout) 

While the Bulls struggled on the power play again in the second game, going just 1-for-8, they used consistent scoring with a goal in all three periods to force another shootout opportunity, but yet again, it came after giving up a 3-1 lead in the final period.

Early in the game, both teams traded power-play goals with Jacob Barber scoring late in the first period to put Birmingham up 1-0, before Blasko answered 7:18 into the second period to tie the game at 1-1.

The Bulls then went on to score two goals in a row when Barber put his second on the board midway through the second and Golka grabbed an unassisted goal midway through the third.

Now up 3-1 and Peoria having gone on a long scoring drought, it looked like Birmingham was in good shape for the second night in a row late in the game

But, less than two minutes after Golka’s goal, Alec Hagaman buried a shot in the back of the net off nice passing from Ralfs Grinbergs and Brandon Parrone to cut the deficit to 3-2 with 8:43 to play.

Then, close to three minutes later, Joe Kalisz took the puck up ice by himself for an unassisted goal that tied the game leading to another overtime period and shootout.

Yet again, however, the Bulls were able to overcome a late struggle after losing most of its momentum.

In the shootout, Parks stepped up and stopped all four shots that he faced, while Barber and Golka closed out the game with the Bulls going 2-for-5 on their opportunities. Barber picked up his third goal of the game, and Golka, who had done great in a one-on-one situation to pick up his first goal, did so again with a flashy move to win the game.

Both of those guys were the points leaders in the game with Barber posting three points and Golka two points. Harris, Daae and Matt Fuller each added a point as well.

Yet again, Parks faced pucks flying at him all night with Peoria getting off 24 more shots than Birmingham, outshooting the Bulls 44-19, but Parks continued an inspirational season in net.

Next up for the Bulls is a road trip to Evansville March 22-23, before returning home to close out the season with a combined four home games against Fayetteville and Roanoke between March 29 and April 6.