Bulls win thriller to advance to SPHL Championship series against Havoc

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

PELHAM – After giving up three unanswered goals early in the second period to fall behind 4-2 in a win-or-go-home matchup with the winner moving on to the SPHL Championship series, the Birmingham Bulls looked to be losing confidence and were in a tough hole with their season on the line.

But the team that finished second to last in the league a season ago and turned things around to become the second best team in the league this year, knew a thing or two about coming back, and over the final 28 minutes of play, the Bulls lowered their horns and powered through the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs scoring four unanswered goals to pull off a thrilling 6-4 victory.

In a penalty-filled game, Birmingham took advantage of several power-play opportunities and mistakes that Roanoke shouldn’t have made with a two-goal advantage.

The Bulls got three penalties in the final 28 minutes of the game and capitalized on all three, while scoring on four of five opportunities in the game, to pull off the comeback victory and advance to the SPHL Championship series where they’ll meet hated rival Huntsville in a best-of-three to be deemed the best team in the league.

Early in the game, the Bulls looked as if they had some leftover anger from the 4-1 loss on home ice the night before as they came out and put up two goals in the first 14:03 of the game.

It helped that Birmingham earned two quick power plays in the first 6:36 of play, and on the second opportunity, Justin Larson got the puck on his stick off nice passing from Matt Fuller and Shane Topf. Larson found his gap and drove the puck into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead in the early going.

Seven minutes later, Larson was on the passing end of another goal when he pushed the puck ahead to Craig Simchuk, who buried the Bulls second goal of the game in the back of the net for a 2-0 advantage with 6:57 left in the opening period.

To that point, it looked like the Bulls would be able to coast in the game, but Roanoke knew its season was on the line as well, and it showed with the aggressiveness and determination that followed.

It took 30 seconds for Mac Jansen to answer Simchuk’s goal for the Rail Yard Dawgs as he cut the deficit in half before the first period came to an end with the Bulls in front 2-1.

That lead quickly dissipated in the first 11 minutes of the second period, as Roanoke didn’t just take the lead, but scored three goals in that span to jump ahead 4-2.

With 8:48 to go in the second period, Birmingham was all of a sudden searching for any sort of success on both ends of the ice as the Bulls found themselves down by two after leading by two shortly before.

But that’s when they received the gift of that first power play that seemed to have a major impact on the game and shifted the momentum quickly.

The first opportunity came when Jeff Jones went to the box for tripping, which Geoff Crisfield quickly took advantage of. He buried a shot into the net less than 30 seconds into the opportunity to put Birmingham down by a much more manageable one goal.

While it took a few minutes for the next goal to come, there was just a sense in the building that the momentum had shifted and the Bulls used that as fuel to get opportunities.

They didn’t take a ton of shots in the period, but continued to press taking six of their nine shots in the period after that goal from Crisfield. And on the sixth shot, Taylor Dickin put the equalizer in the back of the net off assists from Simchuk and Larson to tie the game at 4-4 heading to the final period.

Whether it be feeling the pressure of the moment or just having lapses in judgment, that’s when the mistakes started to play a factor for Roanoke.

In a tie game, the Dawgs committed a slashing penalty two minutes into the final period to put the Bulls quickly on the power play, and they capitalized.

Jacob Barber grabbed the puck and threw it at the goal finding a crease to give the Bulls their third unanswered goal and a 5-4 lead with 16:35 to play in the game.

Close to 10 minutes later, the Dawgs committed another crucial penalty late in a close game, and Birmingham made them pay on Crisfield’s second goal of the four unanswered that led to the comeback.

The Bulls also committed two penalties in the period, but their defense did a great job of killing off the opportunities which made the difference in the win. And it wasn’t just in those final minutes, but the entire game as Roanoke only made one of their six power-play opportunities count.

Down 6-4 with 3:06 to play, Roanoke pulled their goalie, but never could make the extra attacker count. The Dawgs put nine shots on goal in the final 5:35 of the game, including five on a power-play opportunity, but none got past Mavric Parks, who turned up his game in the final period.

It was an incredible back-and-forth game that saw both teams lead by multiple goals with their season on the line, but it was the Bulls who protected home ice to advance to the final series of the season.

Larson and Crisfield posted a team-high three points for Birmingham. Larson posted two goals and one assist, while Crisfield had two assists and one goal. Simchuk, Barber and Josh Harris each added two points, while five others had one point.

Parks saved 29 of 33 shots in goal, but saved the last 14 shots he faced after Roanoke went up 4-2 to help in the comeback.

Next up

In a state that has rivals Alabama and Auburn, we now get a different type of rivalry. A football run state deep in the south will get the opportunity to choose a side on the ice when the Huntsville Havoc and Birmingham Bulls meet in a best-of-three series known as the battle of Interstate 65.

The series will kick off in Birmingham on Friday, April 29, before moving to Huntsville the next night. Should the two split those matchups, there will be an if necessary game on Monday night, April 29, to determine the champion. Puck drop is set for 7:30 p.m. in all three games.

In the regular season, the Bulls totaled 80 points to finish second in the standings, while Huntsville totaled 75 points to finish just behind in third.

The two teams are very familiar with one another having met nine times during the regular season. In those nine games, Huntsville won the series taking five of the matchups. The Bulls actually started 3-0 against them through the first month of the season and then won 4-1 on Feb. 12, but lost the final three in the month of the season.

Six of the nine games were decided by two goals or less with three being decided by one goal or less.