The Columbus Cottonmouths have been flying high over the past two weeks, reeling off six straight victories including three shutouts.
First-place Pensacola brought the Snakes back to reality with a humbling 5-0 win in front of 1,773 at the Columbus Civic Center on Thursday night. It was the Snakes' second straight loss.
Earlier in the day, the team welcomed goaltender Shannon Szabados to the team as the first female player in SPHL history. The energy and excitement that permeated the Civic Center didn't carry over to game time.
"We just didn't play," forward Sam Bowles said. "We got into a funk playing all of the bottom teams and we got away with stuff. We were all right in Mississippi, but tonight it was the same story. There's a reason why they're in first place."
The Ice Flyers widened their lead over second-place Louisiana. The Snakes' only good fortune of the night came when Knoxville also lost. The Ice Bears dropped a 4-2 decision to ninth-place Fayetteville and remain two points ahead of the Snakes as both battle for playoff seeding. Knoxville is in sixth place and the Snakes in seventh. The two teams go head-to-head Saturday night at the Civic Center. Game time is 7:30.
The game will probably mark Szabados' debut in net. An official announcement is expected on Friday.
"Saturday night will not be an ordinary SPHL game," Bowles said.
"It will be a great game for the city of Columbus. I hope everybody comes out to see it."
The Snakes struggled in all phases of the game. After posting three straight shutouts and amassing 191:07 consecutive shutout minutes, goaltender Andrew Loewen yielded five goals, three in the first period.
Team captain and second-year defenseman Kyle Johnson assumed a lot of responsibility for Loewen's performance.
"This was a rough one," Johnson said. "We pride ourselves on being a physical team and we didn't do it against the first-place team. Hopefully it was a learning experience. We can't blame Andrew for those goals. He's carried us all year and we hung him out to dry. It was a team letdown. We need to clean it up and play better defense."
The Snakes dug themselves into a 3-0 hole in the first period. Three Pensacola goals in a 6:27 span put the Cottonmouths on their heels.
Columbus played without forward Steve Mele, who left earlier in the day for Tulsa of the Central Hockey League. Mele's linemate Neilsson Arcibal was not at full strength after being injured in the last home game. The Snakes played with nine forwards, as Levi Lind remained at defense in the absence of Chris Bailer. Bailer is eligible to come off the 30-day injured reserve list on Saturday.
The Snakes have scored only two goals in the last two games combined, while scoring 28 during the winning streak.
Thursday at the Civic CenterPensacola 3 1 1--5
Columbus 0 0 0--0
First period--1, Pensacola, Pawlick (Gates, Good) 10:17; 2, Pensacola, Pawlick (Banfield, Caveney) 14:39; 3, Pensacola, Whitely (Salvis, Dunbar) 16:44. Penalties--Draper, Columbus (tripping) 8:12; Flaherty, Pensacola (hooking) 11:03; Gates, Pensacola (hooking) 12:01.
Second period--4, Pensacola, Turnbull (Banfield, Caveny) 14:55. Penalties--Gallant, Columbus (equipment violation, fighting) :02; Bueltel, Pensacola (equipment violation, fighting) :02; Bremner, Pensacola (hooking) :37; Banfield, Pensacola (hooking) 6:54; Caveney, Pensacola (hooking) 8:56; Willigar, Columbus (holding) 11:39; Caveny,Pensacola (goaltender interference) 17:16.
Third period--5, Pensacola, Dunbar (Salvis) 4:57. Penalties--Salvis, Pensacola (tripping) :50; Caveney, Pensacola (hooking) 6:31; Good, Pensacola (roughing) 13:33; Bowles, Columbus (roughing) 13:33; Bremner, Columbus (interference) 15:28.
Shots on goal: Pensacola 7 15 10--32; Columbus 8 6 11 --25
Power play: Pensacola 0 of 4; Columbus 0 of 7.
Goaltenders: Loewen(loss) 60:00 32 27 5; McKinnon (win) 60:00 25 25 0.
Referees: MacDougall, Sheehan. Linesmen: Madsen, Meacham.