The Columbus Cottonmouths have played 62 games this season as they head into Game 2 of the Southern Professional Hockey League championship series Saturday night.
Saturday night's contest against the Pensacola Ice Flyers is the only one that matters.
The best-of-three series resumes at the Columbus Civic Center at 7:30. If the Snakes win, the deciding game will be Sunday at 7:05 p.m. at the Pensacola Bay Center. If they lose, their season ends.
To win Saturday night, the Snakes must put Thursday night's 9-1 loss behind them. The game featured a host of mistakes, turnovers, defensive lapses and missed opportunities.
"I never expected a game like this," Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard said. "Whether you lose by 9 or 2, it's still a loss. It doesn't matter. It was one of those nights. I hate to have it happen in such a big event. We know we're not a 9-1 team."
The Snakes will do a lot of soul-searching before they hit the ice tonight. With the championship on the line and the end of their season looming, Bechard said he needs each player to do a self-evaluation.
"I know we can play better," he said. "We played very tentative hockey. We were just sitting back."
The Snakes have a negative history with the Ice Flyers this season. Pensacola has won all three meetings between the two teams, by a significant margin each time. On opening night, Oct. 25, in Penacola, the Ice Flyers won 6-2. The teams didn't meet again until March 13 in Columbus. Pensacola took home a 5-0 win that night. Then 9-1 on the biggest stage of all, the opener of the SPHL championship series.
Prior to Thursday night's game, Andrew Loewen was 4-1 in the playoffs and had given up a total of six goals. In game one, he gave up six goals in 36:55, before giving way to Shannon Szabados.
"We didn't play in front of Andrew," Bechard said. "We didn't play in front of Shannon either. We had terrible breakdowns."
Pensacola seized control from the opening faceoff. The Ice Flyers got a shot off on their first rush, though it went wide, and the Snakes couldn't clear the puck out of their zone. Pensacola's first official shot on goal was deflected in by Ryan Salvis when the contest was only 31 seconds old.
Things quickly went from bad to worse.
A Snakes' turnover in their zone also found the back of the net. Pensacola had two goals on two shots only 1:41 into the game. Only 55 seconds later, the total rose to three goals on three shots. Bechard took a timeout after the third goal, at the 2:36 mark.
The Snakes steadied themselves and finished the period trailing 3-0. The Snakes got new life from their checking line, with Will Aide taking an Alex Gallant pass and putting it on net. The puck dribbled past goaltender Ross MacKinnon and the deficit was now a more manageable 3-1.
The two-goal deficit lasted just over seven minutes before Joe Caveney put the Pensacola lead at three goals again. The home team scored two more before the end of the period.
When Corey Banfield scored unassisted at the 16:55 mark to make it 6-1, Szabados got the call. The SPHL's first female player made her playoff debut after playing in two regular-season games. Szabados didn't fare much better than Loewen, yielding three goals on 12 shots.
Thursday night's defeat was the Cottonmouths' first loss in their third trip to the SPHL finals. The 2005 Snakes swept Macon for the league's inaugural title and the 2012 Cottonmouths won their series against Pensacola, also two games to none.
Pensacola 1, Columbus 0
(Best-of-3; x-if necessary)
Thursday, April 10: Pensacola 9, Columbus 1
Saturday, April 12: Pensacola at Columbus, 7:30 p.m.
x-Sunday, April 13: Columbus at Pensacola, 7:05 p.m.