The Columbus Cottonmouths entered the last weekend of the regular season with high hopes of hosting their entire first-round playoff series.
Instead, the Snakes have to make the longest road trip of the playoffs.
By finishing sixth, the Snakes earned a match-up against third-seeded Peoria. They left on Monday for the 800-mile trip to Illinois. After losing their fourth straight game to end the regular season, the Knoxville Ice Bears slipped into seventh place and will face No. 2 Louisiana. Louisiana has no ice available for the first round, so Knoxville grabbed home ice advantage from the IceGators.
The rest of the opening round pits regular season champion Pensacola against the eighth-seeded Mississippi Surge. The fourth-seeded Mississippi RiverKings also have no ice available, so No. 5 Huntsville will host their whole series.
The Snakes will face an opponent with which they are relatively unfamiliar. The two teams have met only four times, twice in Columbus in late December and twice in Peoria in early February. The Snakes are 1-3 against the Rivermen, with three of the four being one-goal games. The Snakes outscored Peoria 10-9 over the course of the four contests.
Coach Jerome Bechard looks forward to the match-up.
"I think we match up well with them," Bechard said. "They have the lowest goals-against in the league, so we'll have to throw a lot of pucks at them and be creative about what we do."
Bechard submitted the team's playoff roster on Monday afternoon. Making the cut was one of the two new college players signed last weekend. Shayne Stockton, who played at Holy Cross, will be on the line with Neilsson Arcibal and Preston Shupe. The other new player, Andre Herman, and Seth Ronsberg were left off the postseason roster.
The top scoring line of Matt Gingera, Sam Bowles and Jordan Draper will lead the way offensively for the Snakes. The Arcibal-Shupe line suffered two losses within the past month. Linemate Tory Allan, who finished third on the team in scoring, suffered a season-ending knee injury and was placed on the 30-day injured reserve list on March 1. Steve Mele came back from Utah (ECHL) on the same day, but stayed only two weeks before heading to Tulsa (CHL).
Tough guys Alex Gallant and Will Aide both made the cut as the Snakes will look to establish a physical presence. Columbus' 1313 penalty minutes are second only to Bloomington (1383). In contrast, Peoria amassed only 889 PIMs, last in the SPHL.
The Rivermen boast the league's top goaltender in Kyle Rank, who has yielded only 59 goals in 33 games played, for an impressive 1.89 goals-against average. Rank's save percentage was .938 and he led the league with 8 shutouts. Rank's record in the regular season was 19-8-3.
The Cottonmouths' Andrew Loewen was second to Rank in shutouts with 6, including three in a row. Loewen set the SPHL record for consecutive shutout minutes at198:18. Loewen's record this season was 21-15-1. His goals-against average was 2.70 and save percentage .914.
Shannon Szabados, who signed with the Snakes on March 13 and is the SPHL's first female player, will serve as Loewen's backup. The two-time Olympic gold-medal winning goalie lost the only two games she played in.
The Snakes have six healthy defensemen since Chris Bailer returned from the 30-day injured reserve list for the last weekend of the season. The Snakes boast two of the league's top 9 scoring defensemen in Jason Gray (30 points) and Tom Maldonado (29).
Rookie center Garrett Vermeersch leads Peoria in scoring with 57 points, 27 goals and 30 assists. Gingera tops all Snakes scorers with 55 points, 32 goals and 23 assists.
Game 1 of the best-of-three series will be played on Wednesday night at 8:15 at the Peoria Civic Center. The series moves to the Columbus Civic Center for game 2 on Friday at 7:30. If necessary, the teams square off in Peoria for game 3 on Sunday at 6:15.
Columbus Cottonmouths 2014 Playoff Roster
Andrew Loewen G
Shannon Szabados G
Chris Bailer D
Jason Gray D
Kyle Johnson D
Tom Maldonado D
Mike Switzer D
Andy Willigar D
Will Aide F
Neilsson Arcibal F
Sam Bowles F
Dan Bremner F
Jordan Draper F
Alex Gallant F
Matt Gingera F
Levi Lind F
Preston Shupe F
Shayne Stockton F