By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
The puck dropped Saturday night. The game-winning goal was scored Sunday morning.
The Knoxville Ice Bears began game two of their first round playoff series against Pensacola shortly after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. By the time Lawrence Cornellier redirected the puck in for the game-winning goal to win the series for Knoxville it was after 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Knoxville’s 4-3 series-clinching victory at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum needed nine minutes of a third overtime period. The Ice Bears trailed 3-1 at one point during the second period of regulation.
109 minutes of hockey were played in total. The second longest game in SPHL history and just over two minutes shy of the all-time record. Knoxville has played in three of the five longest games in the history of the league.
Cornellier nearly won it for Knoxville during the first overtime on a breakaway chance, but his shot sailed wide. When the puck was sent towards him in the slot from the left circle he made up for the earlier miss.
Pensacola selected Knoxville with the third pick of the SPHL’s new Challenge Round format where the top three seeds in the regular season standings select their first round playoff opponent from the 5-8 seeds. Knoxville finished as the fifth seed.
Seventh seeded Mississippi was still on the board, but the Ice Flyers opted for Knoxville instead. The Ice Bears responded by beating Pensacola 6-2 in Florida on Thursday before ending the Ice Flyers’ season with the overtime thriller. Knoxville was the only one of the four lower seeds to advance to the second round.
The Ice Bears will next face the regular season champion Peoria Rivermen in the second round. Peoria went 4-1 against Knoxville this year. The Ice Bears’ lone win came back on December 16.
The semifinal series will start in Peoria with game one on Wednesday night. Knoxville will host the Rivermen for game two on Friday. Should the series go to a deciding game three the series will head back to Peoria on Sunday.
The Rivermen have lost in the President’s Cup finals in back-to-back seasons and are still looking for their first title. Knoxville is into the semifinals for the first time since winning it all back in 2015 and is attempting to win its fifth championship.
Knoxville could’ve potentially had home-ice advantage in the second round. Second-seeded Macon and fourth-seeded Huntsville both dropped their playoff openers before rallying to win their respective series in three games. Had both teams failed to do so Knoxville would’ve been the second-highest seed remaining.
The defending champion Macon Mayhem advanced past Evansville with a pair of convincing wins in games two and three of their first round series. Huntsville trailed 3-1 in game two and rallied to win in overtime to deadlock the series. The Havoc dominated game three to move on to the semifinals against Macon.