PEORIA, Ill. — The Peoria Rivermen shut out the the sixth-seeded Cottonmouths 2-0 in the series opener before a crowd of 1,369 at the Peoria Civic Center on Wednesday night behind a 35-save performance by goaltender Kyle Rank.
The Columbus Cottonmouths and Peoria Rivermen head to the Columbus Civic Center on Friday night for Game 2 of their best-of-three series in the opening round of the SPHL playoffs.
Third-seeded Peoria is in the driver’s seat.
The loss was the third straight playoff shutout suffered by the Snakes. Since raising the President’s Cup on April 14, 2012, they’ve lost to Knoxville twice, both by 3-0 counts, and now 2-0 in game one to Peoria.
Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard credited Rank as the difference in the game.
“He made some unbelievable saves in the first period,” Bechard said. “He made one when we were on the power play and one when we had a two-on-one with (Matt) Gingera and (Preston) Shupe. He didn’t make any mistakes and was probably the difference in the game.”
The Snakes failed to generate any offense despite outshooting the Rivermen 35-26.
“We outchanced them as far as quality scoring opportunities,” Bechard said. “They got an ugly one off a turnover and one off the power play.”
The Snakes trailed 2-0 after two periods of play on two goals by rookie forward Garrett Vermeersch. A power play goal and one following a turnover in a span of less than two minutes gave Peoria two quick goals.
With the Cottonmouths’ Tom Maldonado in the penalty box for high-sticking, Vermeersch fired a shot into the upper right corner of the net for a 1-0 Peoria lead with only 47 seconds left in the opening period on Peoria’s second power play of the night. The Snakes failed to convert on their only power play opportunity of the opening period.
The Snakes outshot the Rivermen 16-10 in the first period, with nothing to show for it. The second period saw Vermeersch score his second goal of the night. The Snakes turned the puck over right in front of goaltender Kyle Rank. Vermeersch pounced on it and fired it past Snakes goalie Andrew Loewen for a 2-0 Rivermen lead.
The Snakes played a more physical game in the opening period, but Peoria turned up the intensity in the second. The Cottonmouths had trouble completing any passing sequences and couldn’t mount much in the way of offense.
Bechard credited a strong Peoria defense for its solid play.
“They keep four guys inside the dots all the time,” Bechard said. “We’ve got to get some shots through.”
Peoria’s Chris Greene was whistled for interference with eight seconds left in the second period, giving the Snakes a 1:52 power play to start the final period. The Snakes held a slim 25-24 advantage in shots on goal entering the third period.
The Snakes displayed a sense of urgency throughout the third period as they tried to put one past Rank.
“We came out in the third and executed,” Bechard said. “We had good scoring chances.”
Each team had a goal disallowed in the final eight minutes of the game. Peoria’s came with just under eight minutes to play when referee Scott Bokal ruled that the shooter was in the crease. Minutes later, Bokal declared that Gingera directed the puck into the net with his glove and disallowed the goal that would have ended Rank’s shutout.
Vermeersch was named to the SPHL’s all-rookie team on Wednesday. He scored 27 goals and chipped in 30 assists during the regular season.
Goaltender Kyle Rank finished first among all SPHL goalies in both goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.938). He had a league-leading eight shutouts in the regular season.