The Columbus Cottonmouths relied all season on teamwork, determination and resilience.
All three qualities earned the Snakes a berth in the Southern Professional Hockey League championship series.
The Snakes swept their best-of-three series against the Huntsville Havoc to punch their ticket to the finals, winning a nail-biter 4-2 at the Columbus Civic Center on Thursday night.
The Snakes will face the winner of the Knoxville-Pensacola series which began on Thursday night. Seventh-seeded Knoxville stunned top-seeded Pensacola 2-0, grabbing home ice from the Ice Flyers and taking a 1-0 lead in their series. Game two is Saturday night in Knoxville.
If the Ice Flyers win, they grab home ice advantage. If the Ice Bears take the series, the sixth-seeded Snakes get home ice in the finals.
In game one against the Havoc, the Snakes relied on rookie Shayne Stockton, who has been on the team for only six games. In Thursday's game, it was two defensemen who kept the Cottonmouths in the game before the big guns fired.
Defenseman and team captain Kyle Johnson has scored one goal in his two-year professional career that spanned 108 games, before scoring a crucial one against the Havoc. When Huntsville drew first blood at the 9:38 mark
of the first period, it was the second time in the playoffs that the Snakes' opponent scored first. The first came in the opening round when Peoria scored first, en route to a 2-0 victory in what is the only playoff loss the Snakes have experienced.
Johnson scored one of the more unusual goals of the season. Stockton appeared to have netted the tying goal when the puck hit the back of the net and bounced right back out. The goal light went on, but the goal was waved off and play continued. Seconds later, Johnson rifled a shot past goalie Jesse Kallechy.
"It's true. I'm a goal scorer now," Johnson laughed. "Every single game we go out feeling like we're going to win. Everybody has gone above and beyond what's expected. We have a certain resiliency."
The first period ended with the score tied 1-1. Mike Switzer, another defenseman who has scored a total of 7 goals over two seasons, gave the Snakes a 2-1 lead at the 11:01 mark of the second period.
"Everyone knows his job on this team and everybody's stepping up," Switzer said. "We've been focused on a common goal all season. Our goal wasn't just to make it to the finals, but to win it all."
The Snakes' resiliency was tested in the third period. The slim lead Switzer earned held up until Havoc defenseman Stuart Stefan found a sliver of space and stuffed the puck in the corner of the net.
The score was tied 2-2 with just under 15 minutes to play.
"Nobody let down after they tied it," forward Jordan Draper said. "There has never been any doubt that this is the team to win a championship. We knew we'd be there in the end."
Draper and his linemates Sam Bowles and Matt Gingera all contributed to the game winner. The three entered the Huntsville zone together. They executed one of their patented passing sequences, leaving Kallechy guessing as to who was going to actually shoot. Gingera did and Draper buried the rebound.
Draper was eager to talk about Johnson's goal, rather than his own.
"I'm so happy for Kyle Johnson," Draper said. "That was one of the biggest goals of the year. Our line had a really good game. The goal came to us in the end. We knew we had this game. We dominated them the whole game."
Gingera added the empty netter to seal the win with 7 seconds left.
The Snakes put 55 shots on net against Kallechy, more than double than the 25 shots they took in game one.
Loewen stopped 29 of 31 shots he faced. Loewen's goals-against average is 1.21 and save percentage is .963. Both are second only to Knoxville's Bryan Hince, whose GAA is .61 and save percentage is .980.
Huntsville 1 0 1 --2
Columbus 1 1 2 --4
First period--1, Huntsville, Fidler (Stefan, Lazorko) 9:38 PPG; 2, Columbus, Johnson (Stockton)15:22. Penalties--Alexander, Huntsville (holding) 4:34; Gingera, Columbus (roughing) 9:17; Florentino, Huntsville (holding) 16:43.
Second period--3, Columbus, Switzer (Maldonado, Gingera) 11:01. Penalties--Florentino, Huntsville (tripping) 3:50; Kurceba, Huntsville (cross-checking) 15:29.
Third period--4, Huntsville, Stefan (Osman, Gurtler) 5:39; 5, Columbus, Draper (Gingera) 11:43; 6, Columbus, Gingera (Draper) ENG 19:52.
Shots on goal: Huntsville 7 14 10 --31
Columbus 16 23 16 --55
Goaltenders: Loewen (win) 60:00 31 29 2; Kallechy (loss) 59:44 54 51 3.
Power plays: Huntsville 1 of 1; Columbus 0 of 5
Referees: Anderson, Sheehan. Linesmen: Dloughy, Rawn