Bulls clinch regular season championship with sweep of Evansville

Published 1:31 pm Wednesday, April 10, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – The Birmingham Bulls are headed to the SPHL President’s Cup Playoffs as the No. 1 seed after clinching the regular season championship with their 5-3 win over the Evansville Thunderbolts on Friday, April 5.

That was just one of two wins over the weekend for the Bulls after they beat the Thunderbolts in a shootout on Saturday, April 6 in the regular season finale, setting the stage for a best-of-three series between the two teams in the first round starting on Wednesday, April 10.

Birmingham got right to work in its Friday night showdown with Evansville thanks to Matt Wiesner’s goal just 2:54 into the game. CJ Walker and Troy MacTavish assisted Wiesner’s 10th score of the season to put their team up 1-0.

The Bulls doubled up that lead just over five minutes later when Scott Donahue scored his 16th goal of the season off assists from Zac Masson and Nick Fea.

However, Evansville responded in a big way with two goals in just 90 seconds, leaving the score tied at 2-2 with just 5:36 remaining in the first period.

The Thunderbolts then had a pair of opportunities to take the lead when Kyler Matthews of the Bulls tripped an Evansville player at the same time as the Thunderbolts’ second goal and Nikita Kozyrev earned a major penalty and game misconduct for butt-ending an opponent with 54 seconds left in the period.

However, Birmingham killed off both penalties and then got a power play of their own after a sequence that saw two players from each team go to the box at the 5:58 mark of the second period, including a double minor on Evansville’s Matthew Hobbs.

While that ensuing five-on-four power play didn’t result in a goal, the Bulls scored shortly after when Carson Rose found CJ Walker for his fourth goal of the season.

Then, Birmingham got a massive opportunity with 5:13 left in the second period when the Thunderbolts’ Jordan Spadafore cross-checked a Bulls player, starting an altercation that sent the Bulls’ Nick Fea and Evansville’s Jacob Camps to the box for a roughing minor and game misconduct.

Spadafore received not just a slashing minor but also a cross-checking match penalty, which saw him get ejected from the game and gave Birmingham a 10-minute power play.

Spadafore also received a three-game suspension from the league that started in the series finale on Saturday and will last through the first two games of the Thunderbolts’ first round series with the Bulls.

During that 10-minute man advantage, MacGregor Sinclair score with 3:07 left and Troy MacTavish added another power-play goal with 12 seconds remaining in the period to put Birmingham up 5-2 at the second intermission.

Evansville got a goal back 4:13 into the third period, but it couldn’t score any goals after that and the Bulls took the 5-3 win.

Birmingham outshot the Thunderbolts 31-19, and MacTavish and Walker were awarded the first and second stars, respectively, after each finished with a goal and an assist.

Hayden Stewart claimed the win after stopping 16 of the 19 shots he faced.

The next day, the Bulls had to overcome some first-period adversity to come back for the win.

Before that, though, Birmingham sprinted to the lead after Scott Donahue scored just 16 seconds into the game, taking advantage of assists from Fea and Zac Masson to score his 17th goal of the regular season.

However, that lead disappeared with just a moment’s notice.

With just under six minutes to go, Evansville’s Adam Pilotte and Myles Abbate scored two goals in 21 seconds to take a 2-1 lead.

That lead lasted for almost the entire rest of the game as the Bulls went 0-for-3 on the power play despite killing off all four of the Thunderbolts’ power play chances and were outshot 25-16 through the first two periods.

While Evansville came within a few seconds of stealing a win going into the teams’ first-round series, Drake Glover had other plans.

Kozyrev and Taylor Brierley got the puck to Glover with just 34 seconds remaining, and he scored his 33rd goal of the season to tie the game at 2-2 and send the teams to overtime.

The Bulls just slightly outshot the Thunderbolts 3-2 in the extra five minutes, but neither team found the back of the net, meaning a shootout would decide the regular season finale.

Neither team scored in the first three rounds of the shootout, but Brierley broke the deadlock with to put the Bulls up 1-0.

While Evansville missed on its fourth attempt, Hobbs scored on his team’s next attempt, tying up the shootout at 1-1 and extending the shootout.

Sinclair came up with a goal in the sixth round, and the Thunderbolts missed on their attempt during the round, giving Birmingham the win.

Bulls goaltender Drennen Atherton earned the first star of the game for stopping 27 of the 29 shots he faced in 64:34 of ice time. Sinclair earned the third star after his game-winning shootout goal for Birmingham.

The Bulls finished the regular season atop the SPHL with 85 points, six clear of the second-place Peoria Rivermen, and went 38-9-6-3 through the 56-game regular season.

Birmingham and Evansville’s first round series will start on Wednesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. at the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena with game two following on Thursday, April 11 in Evansville. If the teams split the first two games, the teams will return to Pelham for a win-or-go-home game three on Saturday, April 13 at 7 p.m.