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Bulls down rival Huntsville to advance to SPHL President’s Cup finals

By Alec Etheredge | Shelby County Reporter

For the second time in team history, the Birmingham Bulls are headed to the SPHL President’s Cup finals after a determined third period against in-state rival Huntsville on Sunday, April 23 with the season on the line. After the first two games of the best-of-three series went into overtime, ending with split 3-2 wins, the series finale was headed in the same direction after battling to a 2-2 tie through two periods of play, but the Bulls put on a clinic in the final period.

Birmingham broke the tie eight minutes into the period to take a 3-2 lead on a goal from Stefan Brucato, and from there, they let their defense do the work. The Havoc had their lowest shot total of the game in the third period with 10, and goalie Austin Lotz saved all 10. Meanwhile, the Bulls took advantage of the momentum and put the game away in the final four minutes with two empty-netters as Huntsville pulled their goalie to get an extra attacker on the ice to try and put a game-tying goal in the back of the net.

Instead, Michael Gillespie added his second goal of the game on an empty netter with 2:25 to play, while Scott Donahue added the final blow one minute later on an empty netter of his own to finish off a 5-2 victory. The three-goal final period punched Birmingham’s ticket to the SPHL finals following the team’s second consecutive game-three win after doing the same against Fayetteville on home ice last Sunday. It also gave the Bulls some revenge, as they made it to the finals for the second time in team history with the last coming in 2019 when they lost to Huntsville in the championship series.

They’ll also have home-ice advantage in the finals, as the second-seeded Bulls will host four seed Roanoke, who finished runner-up last season to Peoria. In the game-three win over the Havoc, Birmingham took a 1-0 lead when Michael Gillespie took advantage of the power play, scoring off assists from Carson Rose and Artur Terchiyev. With the team’s confidence building, the Bulls made it 2-0 six minutes later on a goal from Taylor Brierley at full strength off assists from Jared Bethune and Terchiyev.

Huntsville, however, responded with goals from Austin Martinsen and Kyle Clarke in the final eight minutes of the period to even the score going to the third. But it was Birmingham who played the final period motivated with the backing of the home crowd.

The Bulls outshot Huntsville 35-32 in the game with 19 of those coming in the second period. Lotz faced 32 shots and saved 30 of them, putting together a perfect 11-for-11 opening period and 10-for-10 final period. The Bulls also staved off five Huntsville power plays in the win.

Gillespie, Brucato, Donahue and Brierley all had goals, while Carson Rose, Bethune and Terchiyev all had two assists. Matt Wiesner, Ryan Romeo, Troy MacTavish and Zac Masson each finished with one assist. As for the first two games of the series, the Bulls opened with an overtime win in game one. They battled from behind most of the game, as Huntsville took a 1-0 lead in the opening period. Birmingham responded with a Rose goal early in the second period, only to have the Havoc answer eight minutes later to take a 2-1 lead into the final period.

For a while, it looked like that would be enough for Huntsville, but Jake Pappalardo came through in the clutch, scoring with 9:33 left to play off assists from Donahue and Mike Davis to eventually force overtime. That set the stage for Rose to play hero, scoring his second goal of the game 2:21 into the overtime period to give the Bulls the game-one win. Birmingham’s defense was stellar, giving up just 16 total shots in the game, including a total of eight combined over the final two periods, while the Bulls totaled 45.

A night later, it was Huntsville who came from behind to force overtime and eventually win by the same score of 3-2. The Havoc scored first in the opening period, but the Bulls responded with two goals in the second period to make it 2-1. Huntsville then responded midway through the final period with the season on the line on a goal to even the score.

Then, 12:29 into overtime, Jamie Bucell ended it with a goal for the Havoc to force game three. The Bulls, however, were able to protect home ice to pick up the series win. Birmingham will now take on Roanoke in the championship series.

The Rail Yard Dawgs beat Peoria in the semifinals, who was last year’s champion and this year’s No. 1 seed entering the playoffs. The Bulls will host game one on Thursday night at 7 p.m., while game two will also take place at the Pelham Civic Complex on Friday night at 7 before the series shifts to Roanoke for the next two games in a best-of-five format. Game five would return to Pelham if necessary.

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