Snakes open league championships tonight against Pensacola Ice Flyers

The Columbus Cottonmouths set a lofty goal at the beginning of training camp in mid-October.

Six months and 60 games later, the Snakes are only two victories away from reaching the Southern Professional Hockey League's summit.

Tonight, the Cottonmouths open the league championship series against the Pensacola Ice Flyers at 7:30 at the Columbus Civic Center. The series moves to Pensacola for Game 2 on Saturday at 8:05. If necessary, Game 3 will be at the Civic Center on Sunday at 4 p.m.

The series marks the Snakes' return to the finals after a seven-year absence. Columbus defeated Macon on April 1, 2005, to raise the SPHL's inaugural President's Cup.

Coach Jerome Bechard brought the core of this team to camp. But a number of dramatic roster changes throughout the season produced shock waves as he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on controversial transactions. Bechard has enjoyed the Midas touch this season as he methodically assembled a contender.

The first blow came when forward Matt Kinnunen was released after a week of camp after scoring 18 goals in his rookie season. The move was openly questioned in light of the team's recent offensive struggles. The ripple effect hit Kinnunen's close friends on the team and placed all on notice. The players looked over their shoulders and skated with their jobs on the line long after the team broke camp.

One of the Snakes' unsung heroes arrived the day before the regular season started. Forward Derek Pallardy had two years of experience in the Central Hockey League and has proven to be solid and steady.

Pallardy later became an integral part of the team's most productive scoring line.

Coming into camp, the team's strengths were its goaltending and defense. Returning in net were Ian Vigier and Andrew Loewen. Vigier struggled early while Loewen got off to a quick start.

Vigier soon got into a zone and went on to become the league's Goaltender of the Year.

A reliable, experienced defensive corps added two key members in camp. Kevin Kessler, a stay-at-home bruiser with a year's experience, and Andrew Krelove, an intuitive rookie, improved an already talented blue line corps. Returnees Tom Maldonado, Bret Tyler, Dave Cianfrini and captain Will Barlow complete the strong defense. The addition of former all-star defenseman Brad Prefontaine as assistant coach bolstered it even more.

The team was plagued by several key injuries and more roster changes, but weathered and even prospered after each challenge.

Forwards Pete MacDougall, John Sullivan and Sam Bowles each spent 30 days on injured reserve.

Beller's emergence as a top offensive weapon and Bowles' offensive explosion after his late-season return from injury gave the team the offensive spark it needed. Jordan Braid led the Snakes in scoring with 52 points.

Veteran Orrin Hergott rebounded from a disappointing 2010-2011 with 43 points.

One of the feel-good moments of the season came when Army Captain Ken Porter filled in while MacDougall was on the shelf and Levi Lind tested his wings with Rapid City of the CHL. Porter, who played in the local adult league with the Columbus Hockey Association, scored the game-winning goal in his Snakes debut in a 2-0 win over Pensacola on Dec. 2.

Lind left for greener pastures on Dec. 1 and didn't return until Feb. 20. During Lind's absence, his former linemate was traded to Fayetteville in a stunning move.

Jesse Cole was in his third season in a Snakes sweater, once a rookie of the year candidate whose production tailed off last season. But Cole was plagued by injuries this year and not what Bechard wanted in terms of a physical presence.

The Cottonmouths began the season with several players sharing the enforcer role, led by Mitch Wall and MacDougall. But a key move in December helped solidify the Snakes' physical aura.

Rookie Daniel Amesbury quickly established himself as one of the premier fighters in the league. Amesbury's signing in mid-December was the last piece of the puzzle.