By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
On Sunday the Southern Professional Hockey League hosted its first ever Challenge Round Selection Show. The top three teams in the eight-team playoff field got to select their first round playoff opponents from the bottom four teams (the fourth overall seed was paired with the remaining team which went unselected).
Each fan base had its own viewing party while the league held its primary selection reveal in Huntsville, which featured Nashville Predators broadcaster Terry Crisp. The fans in Huntsville did an excellent job of emulating an NHL Draft feel by booing league commissioner Jim Combs relentlessly whenever he took the podium to announce each selection.
Knoxville finished the regular season as the fifth seed and was selected by the third place Pensacola Ice Flyers with the final pick of the Challenge Round. The Ice Bears went 1-3 against Pensacola this season.
The two teams split a pair of games this past weekend to close out the regular season. The Ice Flyers won a gritty, physical game 2-1 on Friday before Knoxville erased a 3-1 deficit in the third period to knock off Pensacola 4-3 in a shootout.
With home-ice advantage, Pensacola will host game one on Thursday. The Ice Flyers took both home meetings against Knoxville in December and hung up 12 goals against the Ice Bears over the two games. Knoxville hosts game two on Saturday night at the Civic Coliseum, but game three will actually be played in Birmingham if necessary.
However, that was before Knoxville’s big turnaround, which started in mid-December. The Ice Bears had dropped five of six before a comeback win against Peoria jumpstarted a run where Knoxville won 13 of 17 and has looked significantly improved on defense ever since.
Pensacola comes into the playoffs with a strong postseason history in recent years. The Ice Flyers have won the President’s Cup three times in the last five seasons. The Ice Bears have not won a playoff series since winning the title in 2015.
Scott wins scoring title
Ice Bears’ forward Berkley Scott edged out Macon’s Jake Trask for the Kevin Swider Leading Scorer Award, given to the player who leads the SPHL in points during the regular season. The veteran finished with 26 goals and 44 assists for 70 points, all career highs.
Scott and Trask both entered the final day of the regular season tied with 68 points. Trask notched an assist in the second period of Macon’s overtime loss to Evansville on Saturday. Scott had two assists in the third period in Knoxville’s rally against the Ice Flyers to steal the title. His second assist came when he won a face-off in the Pensacola zone and captain Evan Neugold carried the puck in front of the net and scored.
“I’m going to have to take him (Neugold) out to a nice dinner,” Scott said at Sunday’s selection show. Scott is the first Ice Bear to lead the league in scoring since Swider himself in 2012 and the first player period to score 70 points in a year in the last five seasons.
(1) Peoria Rivermen vs. (8) Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs
As far as the rest of the playoff field is concerned the Peoria Rivermen selected the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs with the first pick of the inaugural Challenge Round. The Rivermen went 4-1 against the Rail Yard Dawgs this year, including both games played in Roanoke. The Rail Yard Dawgs beat the Rivermen on Saturday night in a game that essentially meant nothing in the regular season finale. On paper it’s clear the only thing Roanoke has in its favor is the chip on its shoulder from being the first team taken off the board. To make things more interesting, Roanoke coach Dan Bremner is a former Rivermen captain.
(2) Macon Mayhem vs. (6) Evansville Thunderbolts
The defending President’s Cup champions selected the Evansville Thunderbolts after Macon took four of the seven meetings in the regular season series. The last four games in this series all went to overtime with the teams splitting them at two apiece. Trask and Daniel Gentlzer both averaged more than a point per game in the series for Macon. Evansville’s John Scorcia had seven points in seven games against the Mayhem. Why take the Thunderbolts rather than seventh-seeded Mississippi? Macon dropped three of the five meetings against the RiverKings, including an 8-3 loss at home in February.
(4) Huntsville Havoc vs. (7) Mississippi RiverKings
Huntsville won five of the seven games it played against Mississippi, including both meetings at home. The RiverKings won the two most recent meetings, including an overtime win Friday night in Southaven. Mississippi potentially gains some confidence by being the team “nobody wanted to play” in the Challenge Round. Brantley Sherwood and Devin Mantha each had eight points in the series for the RiverKings. Shawn Bates led the Havoc with 10 points in only six appearances.