In the first two games of the best-of-three Southern Professional Hockey League first round series, the Columbus Cottonmouths and Macon Mayhem combined to score just two goals on 160 shots.
In Thursday night’s game, the two teams scored nine times on 69 shots.
Buoyed by a pair of power play goals and a four-goal outburst in the second period, the Mayhem doubled up the Cottonmouths 6-3 to advance to the semifinal round against Pensacola, who defeated Fayetteville Thursday night to dispatch the second-seeded FireAntz in two games.
The two teams exchanged goals in the first period before Macon scored four unanswered to break the game open in the middle frame.
It was the third game in three nights for both teams as ice availability was non-existent in Macon this week and limited in Columbus until Thursday due to a concert and Easter services over the weekend.
“Obviously it didn’t go as well as we wanted, but I knew with three games in three nights, it was going to be feast or famine,” said Columbus head coach Jerome Bechard. “With three games in three nights, it’s unfortunate we had to put our athletes through that, but with ice time, it is what it is. There were a couple of calls here and there got us on our heels. We had two goals off our own sticks and a couple of bad turnovers. With all that, though, we kept coming and didn’t stop.”
“I don’t really know,” Macon head coach Kevin Kerr said when asked about the source of the second period outburst. “I think it was a couple of breakdowns in the defensive zone by Columbus, and then I think the defense got caught up and we got a 2-on-1. It was just timing. We were all tired playing three in three. I think we started to get to Parks a little bit. That’s what we preached to our guys, keep getting pucks to net, keep him moving laterally. There were a couple of lucky and good bounces on our part, and we got the momentum.”
After Macon headed to the locker room in the second intermission up 5-1, Alex Kromm and Andy Bathgate brought Columbus to within 5-3 late in the third, but a Matt Johnson goal on a 2-on-0 breakaway with John Siemer sealed the deal for the Mayhem.
It seemed as if Macon went into somewhat of a prevent defense in the early stages of the third period, clogging the neutral zone and preventing the Cottonmouths from having any sustained pressure in the Mayhem end. That type of play was against Kerr’s wishes, however.
“I don’t know what got into our guys,” Kerr said. “I’m preaching attack, attack, attack. It was not by my design. I’m not a protect the lead and sit back guy. We have some young guys who may not be used to closing out a playoff series. They’re sitting back trying to protect the lead, and our veteran guys are telling them to go. I’ll live and die by the sword all day long.”
Turnovers plagued the Cottonmouths all game as the Macon defense clamped down on the Columbus offensive attack.
“We had three colossal turnovers,” Bechard said. “At the end of the day, the score was 6-3, so the turnovers were what got us. With three games in three nights and the energy level, I knew right away if something bad happened, our energy level would go down. You could see that. It took the whole second period to regain that. In the third period, we had a chance right up until the end.”
Macon advances to face the Ice Flyers next week, with the schedule yet to be determined. However, two games will be played in the Macon Centreplex as the Mayhem have the top seed in the league by virtue of their regular season championship.
“We celebrate tonight and get back to work tomorrow,” Kerr said. “We’re going to get guys healed up from nagging injuries; this was a very tough series. We’ll get guys back to work over the weekend, watch video on Pensacola, and then we’ll get ready. I’m hoping our building is going to be full.”
For the Snakes, it wraps up perhaps their most tumultuous season in the 21-year history of the franchise. Their Jan. 19 bus crash in Illinois created a rallying point from which the team turned around, going 14-11-2 down the stretch after an 8-19-2 start to the season.
“We’ve had so many peaks and valleys,” Bechard said. “Prior to the bus accident, we were going through a spell of not playing the way we wanted to. We had the bus accident and injuries, and that should have been the low point, but the guys rallied around and made that the high point.”
The Cottonmouths’ playoff run also came this season during the ongoing sale of the team. While a buyer has not been announced, Bechard maintains his optimism in a deal being struck soon to preserve hockey in Columbus.
“We’ll find out in the next week or two, that’s for sure,” he said. “The chances are still really good. I know I keep saying this for the last month, but there are groups that have all the information and paperwork that needs to get done. They’re just doing their due diligence and seeing if it makes sense to have a hockey team. I’m doing everything I can to make sure they have the information they need and show them a way it can work. I would say there’s a 65 to 70 percent that we’ll be playing hockey here in October.”