Bulls fall to Thunderbolts in first round of playoffs

Published 7:52 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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PELHAM – The Birmingham Bulls suffered a game three loss to the Evansville Thunderbolts on Saturday, April 13, ending their postseason run. The 4-3 overtime defeat occurred on home ice at the Pelham Civic Complex after a 2-1 loss on Thursday, April 11 in Evansville and a 5-4 victory on home ice on Wednesday, April 10.

The Bulls kicked off the playoffs at the Pelham Civic Complex on Wednesday, April 10. Despite the rare weekday appearance, the crowd was electrified from the excitement. This energy manifested on the ice with a frenzied speed of play only found in playoff hockey.

Just 2:18 in the first period, Birmingham’s Scott Donahue scored the first goal of the game with an absolute zinger from the blue line. And once the first point had been scored, the goals start flowing like a dam unleashed.

Evansville’s Dmitry Yushkevich nailed a shot past the Bulls’ goaltender a little over a minute later at the 3:49 mark. After a tough battle through the first period, the Thunderbolts once again scored at the 17:16 mark, courtesy of Myles Abbate.

The Birmingham Bulls didn’t let Evansville keep the lead for long as Zac Masson kept cool under pressure with a slap shot goal 45 seconds later.

Although the Bulls were able to tie up the game at the end of the first period, this luck did not last into the second as Bulls’ Carson Rose earned a game misconduct penalty for derogatory language or gesture at the 9:11 mark.

While this left the Bulls without a top point scorer, the call incensed the crowd and Birmingham came back with a chip on their shoulder. Less than two minutes after the call, Birmingham’s Romeo picked up the rebound from a blocked shot attempt and scored, putting the Bulls in the lead.

Despite this momentum booster, the Bulls were unable to score during the rest of the second period despite two power plays.

A difficult battle commenced in the third period with Evansville capitalizing off of a CJ Walker holding penalty. On the power play, Thunderbolts’ Brendan Harrogate slipped a puck right past the Birmingham netminder, once again tying up the game.

This stalemate continued until Bulls’ Nikita Kozyrev was able to once again tip the scales with his goal at the 14:59 mark. On the very next play, Evansville’s Matt Dorsey committed a slashing penalty. The Bulls would not need this advantage for long, as Birmingham’s Drake Glover would score a power play goal just 25 seconds later.

Two goals down, the Thunderbolts pulled their goaltender at the 17:45 mark. With the extra attacker, Evansville’s Logan vande Meerakker scored with 40 seconds left in the game, but the Thunderbolts were unable to score again making the first game of the playoffs a 5-4 Birmingham win.

While Wednesday’s game was a high-scoring spectacle, the next meeting of these two teams the following night in Evansville was a slow burn.

The Thunderbolts committed the first penalty of the game with a call of too many men on the ice, and the resulting power play featured a Birmingham goal courtesy of Glover.

Just like the night before, the Bulls scored early. But unlike the game prior, this did not set the trend for a high-scoring game. That early goal would remain the only goal of the night until the second period with Evansville’s Mark Zhukov breaking the dry spell at the 4:44 mark.

The tied game caused tensions to rise throughout the rest of the night with a scoreless third period with nothing but penalties and empty nets. This trend would carry into overtime before Bulls’ Jonathan Pace committed an interference penalty.

Evansville’s Chays Ruddy brought the game to an end with a power play goal at the 10:21 mark, ending a 35-minute stretch without a single goal.

With a day to rest and recuperate, the teams faced off once again on April 13 at the Pelham Civic Complex for game three of the first round. With each team having one win under their belts, this game would determine which team continued on their playoff journey and which would end their post season run.

The game started with yet another goal scored early in the first period. This time, vande Meerakker gave the Thunderbolts an early lead at the 0:42 mark.

Despite this goal coming devastatingly quickly, the Bulls were able to rally. Capitalizing off of a hooking penalty by Evansville’s Scott Kirton, Glover tied the game up for the Bulls with a power play goal at the 7:04 mark.

Ending the first period tied, the Thunderbolts were determined to take back the lead. With two successful penalty kills, Evansville’s Vadim Vasjonkin reclaimed the game’s leading position with a goal at the 18:10 mark.

In the third period, Bulls’ Matt Wiesner once again tied the game at the 6:13 mark, only for Yushkevich to snatch the lead back at the 15:32 mark.

Facing elimination with five minutes left in the third, Birmingham needed to get a puck deep in the Thunderbolts net. They found the perfect opportunity when Evansville’s Grayson Valente committed a hooking penalty just 20 seconds after his teammate’s goal.

At the 16:29 mark, the Glover scored his second power play goal of the game, sending the Bulls into overtime and keeping their playoff hopes alive.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, Evansville’s Matthew Hobbs scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

With this victory, the Evansville Thunderbolts won the series to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, this marked the end of the Birmingham Bulls’ year.

Despite this less than ideal conclusion, the Birmingham Bulls’ 2023-24 season will go down in the history books. The Bulls beat their former team records from the 2018-19 season of most points with a total of 85 points and fewest goals allowed with 132 goals.

In addition, Glover smashed the Bulls’ record for most goals in a season with 33 goals, as the leading goal scorer in the SPHL this season.  And speaking of SPHL leaders, Kozyrev broke the record for most assists with 41 assists this season and Rose holds the new record for most points with 65 points.

Goaltender Hayden Stewart also make Bulls’ history with the new lowest goals against average of 2.14.

And although they may not have made in far in the postseason, the Birmingham Bulls finished as the 2023-24 SPHL Regular Season Champion.