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Columbus Cottonmouths win SPHL title

UPDATE: The Columbus Cottonmouths won the Southern Professional Hockey League championship Saturday with a 3-1 victory over Pensacola. Read more here.

The goal set by the Columbus Cottonmouths more than a year ago can be accomplished tonight at the Pensacola Civic Center.

Game 2 of the best-of-three Southern Professional Hockey League championship series featuring the Snakes and Pensacola Ice Flyers begins at 8:05. A Snakes victory gives the team their first championship since raising the league's first President's Cup on April 1, 2005.

The Cottonmouths captured a 3-2 Game 1 victory in an intense, physical battle at the Columbus Civic Center on Thursday night. As the playoffs' highest remaining seed, the Snakes enjoy home-ice advantage in the finals. If Pensacola rebounds to take Game 2, the third and deciding contest will be Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Columbus Civic Center.

One of the constants since the Snakes joined the SPHL in the summer of 2004 has been speedy forward Orrin Hergott. Hergott, who scored a pair of goals in Thursday night's game and has enjoyed a comeback season playing with linemates Derek Pallardy and Greg Beller, was cautious about discussing tonight's game.

"We all know what's at stake," Hergott said. "It's hard not to let your mind wander."

Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard wasn't surprised at the intensity or game plan that the Ice Flyers brought to the series opener.

"I thought we executed our game plan for the most part," Bechard said. "Their strength is their forecheck and relentless work ethic. They caused a lot of turbulence out there, but we did a good job of creating turnovers."

Bechard plans nothing different as he and the Snakes hit the road.

"Nothing at all," Bechard said. "There will be a lot of intensity and electricity, but we can use that atmosphere to help us. It'll be hostile, but we can use that energy."

Tonight marks the fourth head-to-head meeting between elite goaltenders Ian Vigier and Steve Christie. Vigier won the first meeting Dec. 2, the night of army captain Ken Porter's surprising third-period goal. An empty-net goal by Sam Bowles gave the Snakes a 2-0 victory.

Christie almost had a shutout of his own Dec. 23 in arguably the Snakes' worst performances of the season. A late power-play goal by Derek Pallardy spoiled Christie's shutout bid, but the Ice Flyers dominated 5-1.

Christie was loaned to Tulsa of the Central Hockey League on Jan. 13, returning to Pensacola right before the playoffs began. He's yielded only five playoff goals, three by the Snakes in Game 1. He posted shutouts of the Mississippi Surge and Knoxville Ice Bears.

The Snakes have dreamed of this opportunity since they were ousted from the playoffs last April 10 by the Augusta RiverHawks. The loss capped a frustrating series in which the team experienced flashes of brilliance punctuated by moments of inconsistency. The rebuilding process began that night.

Gone from last year's playoff roster are forwards Daryl Moore, Jesse Cole, Matt Kinnunen and Brett Hammond, though Hammond spent most of the season with the club. Defensemen Jeff MacPhee and Kyle Lundale have also moved on.

Bechard painstakingly assembled a team emphasizing solid goaltending and a stout defense. Both goalies returned, with Andrew Loewen and Vigier living up to expectations.

The defense was shored up with the addition of second-year pro Kevin Kessler and rookie Andrew Krelove. Bechard experimented with defensive pairings, finally settling on Dave Cianfrini with Tom Maldonado, Bret Tyler and captain Will Barlow and Kessler with Krelove. The pairs worked diligently to learn each other's moves and tendencies.

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