By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
The Knoxville Ice Bears split a pair of games over the weekend beating Birmingham at home on Friday before falling to Roanoke on the road Saturday night. Birmingham’s loss to Huntsville on Saturday clinched the Ice Bears a playoff spot, meaning Knoxville remains the only franchise to be in the postseason in each season of the SPHL’s 14-year existence.
Knoxville has four games remaining in the regular season, three of which are at home where the Ice Bears have won five straight. With two weeks to go in the playoff race here’s a Q&A on Knoxville’s outlook and the new playoff format.
How does the new “Challenge Round” work?
Eight of the ten teams in the SPHL qualify for the playoffs. Beginning with the top overall seed the top three teams get to select any of the four teams seeded 5-8. Rather than the No. 1 seed facing the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 face the No. 7 and so on, the regular season champ could choose to host the No. 6 seed if it deems that team to be a more favorable matchup.
The No. 4 seed hosts whichever team remains from the 5-8 group that goes unselected. The teams are reseeded for the semifinals following the first round with the higher remaining seeds gaining home-ice advantage.
Where will Knoxville likely end up?
The Ice Bears currently sit in fifth place, four points ahead of Evansville in sixth, two points behind Macon in fourth and three points behind Huntsville in third. While Knoxville looks to chase Macon for home-ice advantage with four games remaining, Macon has a game in hand over the Ice Bears. Knoxville faces Evansville twice this week with the possibility of being tied for fifth should the Thunderbolts sweep the Ice Bears this Friday and Saturday.
While there is still a handful of games left for each team, it’s most likely the Ice Bears will remain in fifth place. Knoxville doesn’t play Macon or Huntsville for the remainder of the season so there’s no opportunity for Knoxville to control its own destiny in the standings. If that happens then the Ice Bears could be selected for the challenge round by one of the top three teams in the year-end standings.
If Knoxville is chosen as one of the three challenge round opponents, how do they stack up?
Peoria has just about locked up the top seed for the playoffs. Knoxville is 1-3-1 against the Rivermen this season with the lone win coming at home in December. The Ice Bears are 0-2 against Pensacola, but face the Ice Flyers twice next weekend. Knoxville is 6-0-1 against Huntsville, which currently sits in third. Finally the Ice Bears are 2-3 against the Macon Mayhem.
All four of those teams have better records against other playoff bound opponents this season. Obviously there’s no way to tell how the top three will make their selections, but Knoxville should be in good enough shape to matchup well against any of its potential first round opponents. For what it’s worth, the last time the Ice Bears won the President’s Cup they entered the postseason as, yup, the fifth seed.