Columbus Cottonmouths goaltender Shannon Szabados entered the ice Saturday night to rousing cheers from the 4,295 Snakes fans who came to witness history.
The first female player in the Southern Professional Hockey League’s 10-year history achieved success not indicated on the scoreboard.
The Snakes dropped an important contest to visiting Knoxville, 4-3, but all eyes were on Szabados. Special teams were in the spotlight as each team scored a pair of power-play goals. The Snakes took a 2-0 lead, but the visitors came roaring back to grab two points in the tight SPHL race.
The game was almost an afterthought for those who had come to see the two-time Olympic gold medalist in action. Szabados arrived in town on Wednesday night. She’d like to have had a little more time to prepare.
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“I’ve been here two days,” Szabados said. “It would have been nice to have had a week to get used to it. But I felt as good as I usually do.”
Szabados appreciated the warm welcome during introductions.
“It was fun,” Szabados said. “I saw a few Szabados shirts out there. It was definitely a great moment.”
Szabados has played in a number of big games on an international stage. Making her professional debut ranked pretty high on the list.
“It’s definitely up there. I’ve been asked a lot whether this or the gold medal game was bigger,” Szabados said. “I’d have to say the gold medal game but here there was a little more excitement.”
Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard was happy with Szabados’ performance.
“I thought she played well,” Bechard said. “She made the stops she was supposed to make. We hung her out to dry for about a 10-minute span in the second period.”
The Ice Bears scored three times during a span of 4:43 in the second. The other goal Szabados yielded came at the 16:24 mark of the first. Knoxville coach Mike Craigen was impressed with Szabados’ skills.
“I came into the game without any preconceived notions,” Craigen said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But she was fundamentally sound.”
Szabados faced a total of 31 shots, 13 in the first, 12 in the second and only 6 in the third. Her teammates staked her to a 2-0 lead on first-period power-play goals by Jason Gray and Matt Gingera.
“The guys came out flying,” Szabados said. “They had a little extra in their step tonight.”
Szabados lauded her defense, as the shooting lanes remained clear and, for the most part, the Ice Bears were forced to take shots from the outside.
“The guys played extremely well in front of me,” Szabados said. “They kept everything outside.”
Szabados controlled her rebounds effectively, except for two which found their way to the back of the net for Knoxville’s first two goals.
“That’s part of the game,” Szabados said. “I was probably a step behind. There was a little rust out there. I haven’t skated or played in a while.”
The last time Szabados faced live action was in the gold medal game in Sochi, Russia a 3-2 win over the United States on Feb. 20.
Szabados stuck to her usual pre-game routine.
“(Jordan) Draper and I went and got groceries and I did an interview after pre-game skate,” Szabados said. “I took a nap, ate and got coffee with the guys.”
Szabados and her teammates headed to the hospitality suites for the post-game jersey auction. Her jersey sold for $2,400.
The Snakes conclude the home portion of the regular season schedule Sunday at 4 p.m. against Louisiana. They have two road games left in Biloxi and Huntsville the weekend of March 21-22.
Saturday at the Civic Center
Knoxville 1 3 0—4
Columbus 2 0 1—3
First period—1, Columbus, Gray (Maldonado, Gingera) 7:12; 2, Columbus, Gingera (Bowles, Willigar) 15:37; 3, Knoxville, Scott (Vliet, Satim) 16:24. Penalties—Arcibal, Columbus (tripping) 3:55; Neal, Knoxville (cross checking) 6:27; Price, Knoxville (tripping) 14:11; Fulton, Knoxville (roughing) 16:16; Gallant, Columbus (roughing) 16:16; Pawlowski, Knoxville (slashing) 19:38; Pawlowski, Knoxville (roughing) 19:38; Gingera, Columbus (slashing) 19:38.
Second period—4, Knoxville, Peter Neal (Klein Vliet) 2:34; 5, Knoxville, Klein (Satim, Scott) 3:27; 6, Knoxville, Drolet Satim) 7:17. Penalties—Lind, Columbus (slashing) 3:05; Draper, Columbus (tripping) 5:47; Hill, Knoxville (boarding) 15:18.
Third period—7, Columbus, Gingera, (Maldonado, Draper) 7:34. Penalties—Hill, Knoxville (tripping) 7:23.
Shots on goal: Knoxville 13 12 6—31; Columbus 16 12 11—39
Power play: Pensacola 2 of 3; Columbus 3 of 5.
Goaltenders: Szabados (loss) 58:35 31 27 4; Hince (win) 60:00 39 36 3.
Referees: MacDougall. Linesmen: Dloughy, Kuerston. Scorekeeper: Hall.