The Columbus Cottonmouths split the first two games of their Southern Professional Hockey League opening round playoff series with Peoria. The deciding game of the best-of-three series will be at 6:15 Sunday evening at the Peoria Civic Center.
The outcome depends upon which Snakes team shows up.
The first two games could not have been more different. Game 1 in Peoria went to the third-seeded Rivermen by a 2-0 score. The sixth-seeded Snakes put 35 shots on goaltender Kyle Rank to no avail. They hit a couple of posts, one crossbar and missed several empty nets.
Cottonmouths goaltender Andrew Loewen let in two goals, one on the power play. Loewen stopped 24 of the 26 shots he faced.
The Snakes had stretches where they dominated the pace of the game and times where they played the physical game at which they excel. But they also had lapses in each area.
Rookie forward Garrett Vermeersch scored both Peoria goals in Game 1. The Snakes extended their playoff scoring drought to 180:28, dating back to John Sullivan's empty net goal in Pensacola on April 14, 2012, when the Snakes last raised the SPHL's President's Cup.
Wednesday's Game 1 contrasted with the Snakes' elimination game at home on Friday night. From the opening faceoff, the Snakes dominated in all areas while gliding to a 6-1 win. The power play provided the first two goals of the game, including rookie forward Shayne Stockton's first professional goal.
The Snakes crashed and banged for the whole 60 minutes, led by a stellar performance by center Levi Lind, who also chipped in one goal and an assist.
The game's key moment came early in the second period. Peoria's Parker Stanfield cut the Snakes' lead to 2-1 on what turned out to be the Rivermen's only goal of the night. But the Snakes' Jordan Draper responded with a Columbus goal only 13 seconds later. The lead was a slightly more comfortable two goals again and the Snakes accelerated their efforts from there. Lind's goal plus two Matt Gingera goals ensured the series-tying victory.
The Snakes chased Peoria goaltender Kyle Rank from the net at the 6:49 mark of the second, right after Lind's goal made it 4-1 in favor of the Snakes. Rank, who began the season in Fayetteville, had not been pulled from a game in his 33 starts this season.
The importance of goaltending and special teams play is magnified in the playoffs, especially in a short series. The Snakes are a combined 2 of 7 with a man advantage, 0 of 4 in their 2-0 loss and 2 of 3 in the 6-1 victory. Peoria is 2 of 8 over the two nights, scoring once on the power play in each game.
Rank received a glancing blow from the Cottonmouths' Alex Gallant on Lind's scoring play, but was not injured as he gave way to Kevin Carr. Rank turned in solid numbers this season and is the leading candidate for the league's goaltender of the year. His goals-against average in the playoffs swelled to 2.76 after yielding four on Friday night. His regular-season GAA was an impressive 1.89. Rank's save percentage in the playoffs is .931, while in the regular season it was .942.
Andrew Loewen stopped 57 of 60 shots he's faced in the two games against Peoria, for a save percentage of .950 and GAA of 1.52. Loewen finished the regular season sixth among the league's goaltender with a 2.70 GAA and save percentage of.914.
The Snakes displayed balanced scoring in game two, with all three lines contributing. The top scoring line of Gingera, Draper and Sam Bowles contributed five points. The Neilsson Arcibal-Preston Shupe-Stockton line chipped in three. The Lind-Gallant-Will Aide-Dan Bremner line added three.
Vermeersch was injured in the first period and played very little for the remainder of the game. Stanfield assisted on both Vermeersch goals in game one and scored the only Peoria goal in game two. Stanfield is the Rivermen's leading playoff scorer with three points, followed by Vermeersch with two.
Fatigue won't be a factor as both teams endured the long bus trip from Columbus to Peoria beginning shortly after Friday night's game ended. Both are playing their third game in five nights, with the winner advancing to the semifinals.
For the semifinals, the highest remaining seed plays the lowest seed, and the other two teams will play each other. The higher seed in each contest earns home ice advantage, but dates and times are subject to building availability.