Fresh Fangs: Septet sparks Snakes' run into SPHL finals

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerApril 9, 2014 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Seven Columbus Cottonmouths players joined the Snakes after the beginning of the 2013-2014 season. From left, standing: Preston Shupe, Mike Switzer, Neilsson Arcibal, Shannon Szabados and Alex Gallant. Kneeling: Sam Bowles, left, and Shayne Stockton, right.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

Columbus Cottonmouths defenseman Mike Switzer watched glumly on the sidelines as the Snakes opened the regular season on Oct. 25.

Less than six months later, Switzer and six other players who were not on the roster that night are integral parts of the team that's competing for the Southern Professional Hockey League's 2014 President's Cup.

Game 1 is scheduled for 8:05 Thursday night at the Pensacola Bay Center. The series moves to Columbus for Game 2 at the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday at 7:30 and back to Pensacola, if necessary, for game three on Sunday at 7:05.

Switzer was added to the roster after the first weekend of play and the other players trickled in until the last weekend of the regular season. Enforcer Alex Gallant was recovering from off-season surgery and didn't arrive in Columbus until mid-November, three weeks before Neilsson Arcibal.

Two key additions joined the Snakes days apart in early January as Sam Bowles came out of retirement and rookie forward Preston Shupe became a Cottonmouth.

The final two components of Jerome Bechard's drive to build a championship team were goaltender Shannon Szabados and recent Holy Cross graduate Shayne Stockton. Szabados, the two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist, became the SPHL's first female player and Andrew Loewen's backup. Stockton joined the Snakes in time for the last two games of the regular season.

Arcibal and Shupe were initially paired with rookie speedster Tory Allan and the trio quickly blended into a legitimate scoring threat.

"I was moved to center, which I'd never played before," Shupe said. "We clicked pretty easily with Tory. He and Neilsson are both pretty fast."

The players' collegiate backgrounds helped jump start their success.

"Coming from the same college conference (Atlantic Hockey Association), we play the same style of hockey," Arcibal said. "We already knew each other's style."

Adversity struck the line soon after it got rolling. Allan went down with a season-ending knee injury and Arcibal was on the shelf briefly.

"We played with a couple different guys after Tory got hurt," Shupe said. "We played with Alex (Gallant) and Levi (Lind) and one game with Seth (Ronsberg)."

Stockton was dealing with the emotional end of his college career when he received a phone call from Bechard.

"I was literally on a plane the next day," Stockton said. "I had one practice. There were new schemes to learn and the game is definitely different."

In the playoffs, having two scoring lines is a major asset. The Snakes have three lines that can put the puck in the net.

The top line is unquestionably the Matt Gingera-Jordan Draper-Bowles line. In the first five games of the playoffs, this line leads the Snakes with 13 points. The Arcibal-Shupe-Stockton line has 9 and the grinders, Will Aide, Dan Bremner, Lind and Gallant have chipped in four.

Each of the top two lines has contributed two game-winning goals. Gingera and Draper each have one, as do Arcibal and Stockton.

Switzer, a second year pro, played his first season in Augusta. He joined a defensive corps which combined rookies, second-year guys and one veteran.

Veteran Tom Maldonado anchors the blue line. Maldonado reversed his decision to retire and returned for his sixth professional season. He joins second-year pros Chris Bailer and captain Kyle Johnson, along with rookies Jason Gray and Andy Willigar.

A year ago, Loewen put up dazzling numbers and shattered nine-year-old SPHL records in both goals-against average (1.74) and save percentage (.945). But the Snakes made an early playoff exit, losing two 3-0 games to Knoxville in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs.

After playing for three seasons in Ian Vigier's shadow, Loewen stepped up this season as the undisputed number one goaltender. Loewen got off to a slow start, winning only once in his first eight starts. But the jovial goalie stayed the course as he and the defense steadily improved and solidified.

Loewen has been a brick wall in the playoffs, stopping 158 of the 164 shots he's faced and losing only once, 2-0 in the playoff opener in Peoria. Loewen's goals-against average through the first five games is 1.21 and his save percentage is an impressive .963.

Vigier served as a mentor to Loewen when he arrived as a rookie late in 2010 training camp. Now Loewen is acting in the same capacity for Szabados, who generated considerable media and fan attention when she arrived on March 12.

Championship Schedule

Columbus vs. Pensacola

• Thursday, April 10: Columbus at Pensacola, 8:05 p.m.

• Saturday, April 12: Pensacola at Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

• *Sunday, April 13: Columbus at Pensacola, 7:05 p.m.

(Best-of-3; *if necessary)

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