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Bulls offense erupts in wins over Fayetteville, Knoxville to close in on top seed

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Shelby County Reporter

The Bulls shut out Fayetteville and put nine goals past Knoxville to hold on to the top spot in the SPHL with just two weeks left in the regular season. (Seth Allen/Birmingham Bulls)

The Birmingham Bulls kept their winning ways going both at home and on the road as they defeated the Fayetteville Marksmen 4-0 on Friday, March 22 at the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena before traveling to beat the Knoxville Ice Bears 9-3 on Saturday, March 23.

The wins keep the Bulls in first place of the SPHL as they inch closer to claiming the top seed in the President’s Cup Playoffs with four games remaining in the regular season.

In the first game of the weekend, Fayetteville had a couple of early opportunities off a pair of penalties, the first coming from too many men on the ice just 2:51 into the game and the second from a Nick Fea tripping penalty with 11 minutes left in the first period.

Just over a minute after Fea exited the box, he scored off an unassisted goal off a bad bounce for just his second goal of the season, putting Birmingham up 1-0 with 8:20 remaining in the opening period. While the Bulls had three separate chances on the power play and a litany of shots, the game remained scoreless until close to midway through the third period as the Marksmen killed off penalties on special teams and kept the game close.

Hayden Stewart kept Fayetteville from scoring with blocked shots throughout the game as he stopped all 21 shots he faced on the night. With just under 13 minutes left in the game, however, Ryan Romeo broke the goalless stretch after he took a pass from Matt Clark and scored just in front of the blue line, scoring his fourth goal of the season and giving Clark his first assist on the campaign.

From there, the floodgates opened and Birmingham pulled away for the win. Less than two minutes after Romeo’s score, the ever-reliable Drake Glover took a pass from Taylor Brierley, charged past the Marksmen defense and lobbed the puck in for his 32nd goal of the season to extend the lead to 3-0.

MacGregor Sinclair then closed out the five-minute stretch with a goal of his own, scoring off a perfectly timed one-two pass from CJ Walker to make the score 4-0 with 6:33 to go. However, that wasn’t the last time Sinclair factored into the game. A massive fight broke out with just 11 seconds left, during which he was ejected for kneeing a Fayetteville player. He received a five-minute major and game misconduct for kneeing as well as a five-minute major for fighting.

In addition, the Marksmen’s Jamie Dorsey received a 10-minute game misconduct for inciting an opponent and Matthew Araujo received a five-minute fighting major. While Sinclair left the ice to applause from his teammates and the home crowd, the league office in Huntersville, North Carolina wasn’t as pleased. As a result of the penalty, the SPHL gave Sinclair a one-game suspension which he served in the Bulls’ game against Knoxville on Saturday.

Despite playing without Sinclair, Birmingham got off to a strong start against the Ice Bears as Scott Donahue dampened the crowd on the road with an unassisted goal five minutes into the game. Nikita Kozyrev doubled that lead with 7:08 left in the opening period after he took assists from Glover and Kyler Matthews for his 17th goal of the season, giving the Bulls a 2-0 lead.

Birmingham had a 4-on-3 power play opportunity less than 30 seconds later after a Knoxville hooking penalty and dueling roughing penalties sent three players to the box. However, it couldn’t capitalize and went into the first intermission with a 2-0 lead. That only set the stage for a massive second period for the Bulls offense.

Just 1:14 into the second, Troy MacTavish scored his 12th goal of the year off an assist from Romeo to extend the lead to three. Five minutes later, Carson Vance gave Matthews his second assist of the night to put the Bulls up 4-0. The goals kept coming after the midway point in the game as Scott Donahue scored his 15th goal of the season with 9:08 left in the period, completing a sequence of passes from Fea and Jonathan Pace.

A cross-checking penalty on the Ice Bears’ Tyler Rollo with 7:45 left in the second gave the Bulls another golden opportunity to score, and 33 seconds into the power play, Vance did just that with his second goal of the game off assists from Donahue and Taylor Brierley.

Afterwards, Carson Rose scored two unassisted goals in just over two minutes, closing out the six-goal period and putting the Bulls up 8-0 with 3:28 left in the second period. Knoxville got on the scoreboard in the third period when Dawson McKinney scored 2:44 into the period. Emotions then boiled over in an incident with 12:17 left in the game as a Matthews hooking penalty turned into dueling roughing penalties for him and Mathieu Boislard of the Ice Bears. Boislard also received a 10-minute game misconduct for yelling at the official. With 7:20 left in the game, Zac Masson scored the final Birmingham goal of the night and his second of the season to make the score 9-1.

Knoxville cut into the final margin of victory by scoring a pair of goals in the final five minutes, including a power play goal by Cole McKechney with 30 seconds left. However, the goals didn’t make much of a difference as the Bulls won 9-3. Stewart stopped 14 of the 17 shots he faced in his 60 minutes of ice time. In total, the Bulls outshot the Ice Bears 39-17.

With the wins, Birmingham still sit in first place of the SPHL with 78 points, three points clear of the Peoria Rivermen. The two teams will battle over the final four games of the regular season for the top seed in the playoffs and the regular season title.

The Bulls will return home for their final series of the regular season as they host the last-place Macon Mayhem on Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena. Both games are set for a 7 p.m. puck drop.

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