By James Hayes | Field Pass
On the final night of the 2020-21 season for Birmingham, the Bulls faced the same opponent as opening night back in December. That team is the Pensacola Ice Flyers. In net for the Bulls on the night was Hayden Stewart and on the other side of the ice in net for the Ice Flyers was Jake Kupsky. On this Friday night matchup, the Bulls would be looking to close out the season on a high note for both themselves and the fans. Pensacola on, the other hand is playing for the 3rd seed in the playoffs and a matchup with the Knoxville Ice Bears.
The first period started out fast and furious with both teams pressing hard and exchanging chances early on. In true Bulls vs. Ice Flyer fashion, the game was physical early on and the physical play resulted in penalties early in the period. 3:36 into the period both teams were cited with penalties, but the Bulls ended up with an extra roughing minor and that resulted in an Ice Flyer powerplay. Pensacola went to work on the powerplay and 33 seconds into it, they got on the scoreboard. The goal came when Ben Freeman sent a pass to Jordan Ernst from behind the net into the slot. Ernst gathered control of the puck and sent a wrist shot just over the shoulder of Stewart's glove side.
After the goal, Pensacola took over the game for a while until the 11:22 mark when Cameron Strong stole the puck from the Ice Flyers at the blue line off a faceoff and raced off on a breakaway. Strong skated in on Kupsky with two Ice Flyers in tow and used some quick stick work to beat Kupsky to tie the game up at one goal aside. After the goal, Pensacola went right back to putting heavy offensive pressure on the Bulls but the stellar goaltending of Hayden Stewart made sure the score stayed tied. With just under 5 minutes remaining in the period, the tides changed and Birmingham took over. With 4:48 remaining captain, Logan Nelson sent a centering pass from the right-wing boards to Mike Davis who tipped the puck in past Kupsky and the Bulls took a 2-1 lead. Birmingham continued to pressure through the end of the period but the score stayed the same.
The second period was the Hayden Stewart show. Pensacola dominated the shots on goal category 14-4 but Stewart turned every one of them away. 5:16 into the period Malcolm Hayes of the Bulls was called for kneeing and Birmingham went to work on the penalty kill. Pensacola got two early shots in on Stewart but Stewart denied entry into his net both times. For the rest of the penalty time, Birmingham made the Ice Flyers chase the puck. When Hayes came back on the ice, the score was still 2-1 Bulls. At the 8:57 mark, Mike Davis was given a double-minor penalty for a high sticking penalty that happened minutes before the actual penalty was called but nonetheless, the penalty was called after a TV timeout and the Bulls went back on the penalty kill but this time for 4 minutes. Stewart turned away all 6 shots he faced during the penalty and the Birmingham penalty kill unit did the rest, ensuring the one-goal lead stayed intact. The further into the middle frame the game got, the more chippy became between the two teams. In the waning seconds of the period, Birmingham’s captain was called for kneeing and the Bulls would have to kill off 35 seconds of penalty time before heading into the locker room for the second intermission. They would do just that and head into the locker room with the same 2-1 lead they had after one.
Birmingham’s penalty kill unit did its job once again and killed off the remainder of the penalty on Logan Nelson to start the 3rd period. After the penalty, the tempo picked up in the game and both teams tried to add to the score. The physicality of the game also picked up and tempers began to flare as the game moved along deeper into the final period. Pensacola continued to put quality shots on the net but Stewart maintained his composure and continued to turn everything away. With 10:14 remaining Pensacola’s Zach Walker tripped up Birmingham's Kasey Kulczycki and the Bull’s players didn’t take kindly to that. A scrum ensued at center ice. It looked as if Malcolm Hayes of the Bulls and Cam Bakker were going to drop the gloves, but Walker didn’t seem interested in that at all. Despite not dropping the gloves both players went to the penalty box and when the dust settled Birmingham went on the powerplay. The Bulls would not be able to convert on the powerplay chance but also disrupted a 2 on 1 short-handed chance by the Ice Flyers.
Pensacola pulled Kupsky in the final few minutes of the game for the extra attacker to try and tie the game up. With 1:04 remaining in the game Cameron Strong took the puck in the Bulls defensive zone and skated out to center ice. Strong took a shot at the empty net and scored his second goal of the night giving the Bulls the 3-1 lead. When the final horn sounded the Bulls gave the home crowd one final win before the summer defeating the Ice Flyers.
After the game on the ice, it was announced that both Anthony Florentino and Chris Lijdsman were retiring from hockey and the fans gave the two Bulls players a proper sendoff to great careers.
At the final post-game press conference of the season for first-year head coach, Craig Simchuk expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the team for never giving up in the past week when the team was out of playoff contention. He also expressed how much he loves the Bulls organization and the city they play in.
An emotional Simchuk said, “I love this place, there is no place I would rather be.”
Despite the disappointing ending to the season, the coach and the players put together a great final performance and now head off into the offseason to prepare for the 2021-22 season that will welcome back all the teams that opted out of this season due to COVID restrictions as well as one new team the Vermillion County Bobcats.