The Columbus Cottonmouths turned in their second straight solid playoff performance at the Peoria Civic Center in the third and deciding game of their opening round series against the Rivermen.
The result was a 4-1 Snakes victory which advances Columbus to the semifinals.
The first round saw three of the top four seeds fall. Only top-seeded Pensacola advanced. Semifinal action will pit Pensacola against number seven Knoxville and the sixth-seeded Snakes against number five Huntsville. Dates and times for the Columbus-Huntsville series will be announced shortly.
Game 3 was a tale of two goaltenders. Columbus' Andrew Loewen dazzled in net, stopping 28 of 29 shots, including 14 in the final period as the Rivermen desperately battled to cut the Snakes' two-goal lead.
Peoria started Kyle Rank, the prohibitive favorite for SPHL goaltender of the year. But Rank apparently was injured in an early collision with Columbus' Levi Lind. Only 34 seconds into the game, Lind crashed the net in an attempt to get a rebound and bowled over Rank. Rank remained on the ice for some time and received attention from the Peoria trainer. He appeared to be dazed but remained in the game for the rest of the first period.
The Snakes scored twice in the opening period. Preston Shupe's power play goal gave the Cottonmouths the lead at the 5:20 mark. Shupe assisted on Matt Gingera's goal with just over two minutes to play in the period and the Snakes led 2-0 after one.
When the teams came out of the locker room to start the second period, Kevin Carr replaced Rank in net. Rank didn't return to the bench for the remainder of the game.
"Levi didn't mean to hit Rank, but I think that shook them up," Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard said.
Peoria also played without the services of rookie forward Garrett Vermeersch, who injured a shoulder early in Friday night's game. Vermeersch played only a couple of shifts in game three.
For the second straight game, the Rivermen cut the deficit to a single goal, and the Snakes quickly responded with a goal of their own.
Adam Feniak put the only puck of the evening past Loewen at the 10:07 mark of the second period, making the score 2-1. But Sam Bowles countered with a goal for the Snakes only 46 seconds later. The 3-1 score stood despite Peoria applying intense pressure on Loewen for the whole third period. Shupe added an empty netter with 30 seconds left.
"They were really crashing the net," Loewen said. "At the end there was a lot of traffic. But our team cleared out the rebounds. I was nervous the whole game, but that's important for me. We're finally playing Cottonmouth hockey."
Loewen lauded his teammates for stretching the lead back to two goals.
"That's how our team needs to play," Loewen said. "We can't get down just because they score a goal. They make it easy on a goalie."