The Columbus Cottonmouths and Huntsville Havoc traveled similar paths to the semifinals of the Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs.
There was one significant difference.
The Snakes had to make two 800-mile road trips in five days to eliminate the Peoria Rivermen. In contrast, thanks to their opponent's scheduling problems, the Havoc secured home ice advantage for the entire opening round.
Huntsville hosted the fourth-seeded Mississippi RiverKings because the Kings had no ice available. The fifth-seeded Havoc dropped game 1 to Mississippi, 4-2, before roaring back to take the series with a 4-2 victory and a 5-3 win in the deciding game.
The sixth-seeded Snakes followed the same route, dropping Game 1 on the road to third-seeded Peoria by a 2-0 count. The Cottonmouths followed with a pair of convincing victories, 6-1 at home and 4-1 in the winner-take-all game in Peoria on Sunday.
The two will face off Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Huntsville.
The top seeds didn't fare well in the opening round as only top seeded Pensacola survived. Second seed Louisiana fell to number seven Knoxville, the Snakes defeated the Rivermen and the Havoc eliminated the RiverKings.
The Snakes and Havoc split their regular-season series 4-4. They played five times in Huntsville, including the last game of the regular season, and three in Columbus.
Andrew Loewen was 3-2 in the regular season against the Havoc with a save percentage of .913 and goals-against average of 3.21. Loewen won his last two starts against Huntsville, 2-1 on January 24 and 6-4 a week later. Travis Bosch, now with Denver of the CHL, was 1-1 against the Havoc. Shannon Szabados was in net for the regular season finale, when the Snakes dropped a 3-2 decision.
Loewen will get the nod in net as he's been dominant during the playoffs, returning to the form he displayed a year ago when shattering nine-year old SPHL marks in both goals-against average (1.74) and save percentage (.945). Loewen has a 2-1 playoff record, stopping 84 of the 88 shots he's faced and giving up only four goals in three games. Loewen's goals-against average for the playoffs is 1.35 and his save percentage is .955.
Huntsville has used both goalies in the playoffs. Jesse Kallechy won two games, with a 2.50 GAA and .930 save percentage. Kevin Genoe and the Havoc lost to Mississippi in Game 1. Genoe's GAA is 3.02 and his save percentage is .903.
The Snakes' three top playoff scorers play on three different scoring lines. Leading the way are Matt Gingera and Preston Shupe with 5 points each. Gingera was the team's leading scorer in the regular season with 55 points in 56 games played. Shupe, who didn't join the team until Jan.4, chipped in 31 points in 31 games. Levi Lind is third with 3 points.
Rookie forward Shayne Stockton finished the playoffs with Holy Cross College and arrived in Columbus for the last weekend of the regular season. Stockton was placed on the line with Shupe and Neilsson Arcibal and has a goal and an assists in the Snakes' first three playoff games.
"Our chemistry has been good right from the start," Stockton said. "We talk a lot off the ice about different situations. We're getting more and more comfortable with each other."
The Snakes have utilized a balanced scoring attack in the playoffs. The Ginger-Sam Bowles-Jordan Draper line has 8 points, followed by Shupe-Arcibal-Stockton with 7. The third line of Lind-Dan Bremner-Alex Gallant-Will Aide has 4 points in the first three games.
"All three lines can score at will and all three are physical, too," Stockton said. "If we're consistent, we should have success."
Nick Lazorko and Josh Harris lead the Havoc with 5 points each. In the regular season, Lazorko led all Huntsville scorers with 49 points in 56 games played, while Harris contributed 45 points in 50 games.
Both teams have excelled on special teams in the first three games of the playoffs. Huntsville's penalty kill is perfect, killing all 11 Mississippi power plays. The Snakes are tops in the power play, converting 3 of 15 chances (20 percent).
Huntsville has scored 11 goals in its first three playoff games, followed by the Snakes with 10. The Snakes have given up only 4 goals, while Huntsville has yielded 9.
The winners of the Columbus-Huntsville and Pensacola-Knoxville series vie for the 10th President's Cup awarded by the SPHL. The Snakes won in 2005 and 2012. The Havoc raised the Cup in 2010.