The Columbus Cottonmouths are chasing their third SPHL championship in 10 years.
The finals begin on Thursday night at 8:05 at the Pensacola Bay Center and continue Saturday night at 7:30 at the Columbus Civic Center. Game 3, if necessary, is Sunday night at 7:05 back in Pensacola.
Though sweeping through both the 2005 and 2012 playoffs, the Cottonmouths' first two experiences were very different.
Fifth-seeded Columbus won the league's inaugural President's Cup at home on April 1, 2005, after disposing of Fayetteville, Huntsville and Macon and posting a perfect 5-0 record.
The 2012 Snakes were seeded second, behind the Augusta RiverHawks. Columbus was considered a dark horse in 2005 and one of the favorites in 2012.
The talented 2012 squad stormed through the playoffs with a 6-0 record and sweeps of Louisiana, Huntsville and Pensacola, winning the cup in Pensacola on April 14, 2012.
There were only six playoff teams in 2005 with the top two, Knoxville and Jacksonville, earning first-round byes.
Third-place Macon took on sixth-seeded Huntsville and number four Fayetteville squared off against the fifth-seeded Snakes.
The Cottonmouths had to win in Fayetteville in the one-and-done format. They did just that, 4-2, and their reward was a trip to Knoxville.
Columbus had significant challenges in adjusting to the smaller ice surface in Knoxville and lost all three regular-season games there, by scores of 5-1, 4-0 and 5-0. They rose to the occasion during the playoffs by winning the opener in Knoxville 4-2.
The best-of-three series moved to Columbus. The Snakes went up 2-0 in the first period but the Ice Bears tied it up 2-2 in the second. Captain Craig Stahl netted the game and series winner in overtime, sending Columbus to the finals.
History wasn't on the Snakes' side against their arch-rival Macon Trax either. The Trax had won 7 of 10 regular season games against the Snakes, including the last four in a row.
Columbus went to Macon and mauled the Trax 5-1 in Game 1, putting themselves one win away from the championship.
The final seconds of game two ticked down with Macon leading 2-1, and a decisive Game 3 was looming. Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard pulled goaltender Chad Rycroft for the extra attacker and Tim Green tied it with 1:01 left, setting the stage for overtime.
Almost five minutes into overtime, Green put the puck on net as Tylor Keller was sprawled in front of Macon goaltender Mark Cairns. The puck hit Keller's skate and ricocheted into the net for the championship winner.
Though the Snakes earned home ice advantage for the 2012 playoffs, they had to open the first round in Louisiana due to scheduling conflicts. A 4-2 road win sent the series back to Columbus. John Sullivan staked the Snakes to a 2-0 lead in game two before the IceGators came roaring back to tie it 2-2 in the third period. Sam Bowles scored the series winner at the 9:23 mark of overtime.
The Cottonmouths cruised through the Huntsville series, winning 5-0 on the road and completing the sweep with a 6-1 win at home, setting the stage for the finals against fourth-seeded Pensacola.
For the first time in the 2012 playoffs, the Cottonmouths opened a series at home. It was a seesaw battle until Bowles put Columbus up 3-2 at the 4:30 mark of the final period. The Snakes held on and led the series 1-0, earning the opportunity to win the Cup on the road.
A raucous crowd of 5,630 packed the Pensacola Civic Center, now the Bay Center, urging the Ice Flyers to extend the series. Jordan Braid gave Columbus a 1-0 lead, but the Ice Flyers tied it 1-1. Beller put the Snakes ahead 2-1 with an interminable 24:36 to play. The slim lead stood up until Sullivan sealed the victory and the championship with an empty netter with 28 seconds to play.
The last chapter for the 2013-2014 Snakes has yet to be written.
A last-minute change in seeding cost the Cottonmouths the chance to play the first round at home. Second-seeded Louisiana had no ice available, so their seventh-seeded opponent would get to host the whole series. That would have been the Cottonmouths until Knoxville lost its last four regular-season games and ended up in seventh place and the Snakes sixth.
Columbus' reward for the higher seed was a 15-hour bus ride to face third-seeded Peoria.
The Snakes dropped game one, 2-0, and had to make the lengthy trip again for Game 3.
The Snakes have won four straight since dropping the opener.
The Cottonmouths won the next two against the Rivermen decisively, 6-1 at home and 4-1 in Peoria to advance to the semifinals. A tense 1-0 road win against fifth-seeded Huntsville was followed by a 4-2 victory at home, setting the stage for the rematch against Pensacola.
The Ice Flyers are participating in their third straight championship series, losing to the Snakes in 2012, defeating Huntsville in 2013 and now engaging in the matchup of the league's last two champions.