The Columbus Cottonmouths and Pensacola Ice Flyers launch their quest for the SPHL's President's Cup Thursday at 8:05 p.m. at the Pensacola Bay Center.
After the series opener in Pensacola, the best-of-three series shifts to the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. If necessary, game three will be back in Pensacola on Sunday at 7:05 p.m.
The league's last two champions are virtual strangers to one another.
Due to the quirky SPHL schedule, the sixth-seeded Snakes and top-seeded Ice Flyers have met only twice during the 56-game regular season, once on opening night and once in mid-March. Pensacola swept the abbreviated season series.
The Snakes opened on the road for the first time in their 10 SPHL seasons. Columbus, 2012 President's Cup winners, came out on the short end of a 6-2 score against the reigning league champs.
The teams did not meet again until March 13, but the result was the same. This time, the Ice Flyers shut out the Snakes 5-0.
On opening night, Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard gave goaltender Jesse Chenard one more chance to claim the backup goalie's slot. Chenard and Travis Bosch competed throughout training camp, and the race was too close to call. John Griggs was in net for Pensacola.
The Snakes had a difficult night. They gave up four power play goals in eight tries, while scoring only once in six tries with a man advantage. Matt Gingera couldn't convert on his penalty shot. Defenseman Tom Maldonado scored one of the Snakes goals, and Jordan Braid, who was later traded to Louisiana, scored the other.
The Ice Flyers' Joe Caveney, later named the league's rookie of the year, scored two goals in his first professional game, and Mitchell Good chipped in a goal and four assists.
March 13 was a special day for the Cottonmouths off the ice as the Snakes signed two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados to back up Andrew Loewen. The Snakes had just snapped a six-game winning streak in which they defeated Bloomington, Fayetteville and the Mississippi RiverKings and Surge. All of these teams except the RiverKings finished below the Snakes in the standings.
The first period doomed the Snakes. Pensacola scored three times in a span of 6:27 to take a commanding early lead. The Snakes didn't play their trademark physical style of hockey and there were too many turnovers and defensive breakdowns.
The 2014 finals feature two of the league's hottest goaltenders in Loewen and Ross MacKinnon, who are second and third in the playoffs statistically, behind only Knoxville's Bryan Hince. Loewen has a tiny 1.21 goals-against average in postseason play, and MacKinnon is right behind him at 1.55. Loewen's goals-against average is .963, followed by MacKinnon at .926.
Gingera leads all playoff scorers with seven points, four goals and three assists, in five games played. Pensacola's Ryan Salvis is tied for second with six points, two goals and four assists.