The Columbus Cottonmouths open the 2011 Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs Thursday night in Huntsville trying to advance to the second round for the first time since winning the league’s inaugural President’s Cup.
Since April 1, 2005, when the Snakes hoisted the cup, they have made five consecutive first-round exits, including 2007, when they entered postseason play as the No. 1 seed.
Thursday night, at the Wilcoxon Iceplex practice rink in Huntsville, the fourth-seeded Cottonmouths open a best-of-three series against the No. 3 Havoc with five key questions to answer:
Will the top guns come out blazing?
The No. 1 scoring line of Sam Bowles, Jesse Cole and Brett Hammond finished the regular season in style, combining for a whopping 10 points in a 6-3 victory over Louisiana on Saturday night.
If the Snakes are to succeed against Huntsville, this line must carry the load.
If their passing is as precise as it was against the Gators, the Havoc will be hard pressed to shut down all three of them. During the last month of the season, the Cottonmouths won four of five games in which the big three combined for at least four points.
Bowles, Cole and Hammond will set the tone for the Snakes’ offensive hopes. If they falter, it will mean another early exit for the Cottonmouths.
Which goaltender will coach Jerome Bechard ride into the playoffs?
Bechard usually insists all season that he has two No. 1 goalies and gives both a fair share of the playing time. Near the end of the regular season, Bechard rides the goalie with the hot hand into the playoffs.
This season, the more experienced Ian Vigier has been in net for three of the past four games, going 1-2 and allowing four, two and four goals. Andrew Loewen produced a solid rookie season, going 4-1 in his past five starts, including two straight victories over Huntsville.
Despite the recent statistical nod going to Loewen, Bechard probably will go with experience and Vigier in net for Game 1.
Can the Cottonmouths limit their turnovers?
Turnovers in their zone have killed the Snakes all season. A large percentage of them have ended up in the back of the net. Saturday night, there were two costly ones, but the Snakes capped an up-and-down season with a huge win. Controlling play in the neutral zone is crucial, and protecting the puck at their end will be a top priority, not only for the defensemen but the forwards as well.
How many minutes of solid, physical hockey will the Snakes play?
A disturbing trend this season has seen the team play anywhere from 20-40 minutes and, in Bechard’s words, “run around” for the remainder of the game. In a short series, especially one opening on the road, the Cottonmouths cannot afford to take off a period or two.
If they open the game hitting and dictate a quick tempo and continue for 60 minutes, the will come into Saturday night’s home game with a 1-0 series lead. If not, they will take the first step toward their sixth straight first-round exit. When the Cottonmouths hit, they win.
Will special teams continue to shine?
The Snakes’ superb penalty kill led the league all season and finished at a dominating 87.77 percent, 2.27 percent ahead of second-place Huntsville. The power play started off strong, struggled at midseason but then climbed to a third-place finish. At 20.24 percent, the Snakes are only 2 percent behind league-leading Mississippi. Huntsville’s power play finished fifth at 16.83 percent. If the penalty killers keep Huntsville off the board and the power play chips in a goal or two, special teams will make a considerable contribution toward a Snakes victory.
Game time Thursday night in Huntsville is 8:30. Game 2 at the Columbus Civic Center is Saturday night at 7:30. If necessary, the series returns Sunday night to Huntsville for Game 3 at 6.