By Brad Harrison | Field Pass Hockey
One way or another, this year will provide a first-time champion of the SPHL. In the best-of-five President’s Cup Finals, the Birmingham Bulls, who came within an eyelash of having the league’s best regular-season record, take on last year’s runner-up, the Roanoke Railyard Dawgs.
Both have been fully tested en route to the title series. Roanoke had to go on the road to topple Peoria whereas Birmingham has the distinction of being pushed to the brink in both postseason series, winning both in deciding third games.
Both should be equally rested, with both having won elimination games on Sunday, though Birmingham does have the opportunity not to have to travel before hosting the first two games of the series at home.
Final Regular Season Records:
Birmingham: 37-16-2-2, 78 points, 2nd in SPHL
Roanoke: 32-19-3-2, 69 points, 4th in SPHL
How They Got Here:
Both teams had to confront a pair of nemeses on the way to the finals. Roanoke had to dispose of defending champion Peoria, who topped the Railyard Dawgs in last year’s Presidents Cup Final. After goals by Jason Lavallee’ and Josh Nenadal keyed a 3-2 comeback win in game one, a decisive third game was forced as the series shifted to Peoria, and the Rivermen took a 5-3 win in game two. Little doubt was left in that third game, Roanoke leading 3-0 through the first 20 minutes on the way to a 5-3 win to clinch a spot in the finals.
The Bulls continued to flirt with elimination in their semifinal series against Huntsville. One round after rallying back from a 1-0 series deficit against Fayetteville, the Bulls and Havoc split the first two games in overtime by scores of 3-2. With home-ice advantage in the third game, the Bulls broke through just enough against Max Milosek, going up 3-2 in the final 20 minutes before padding the score with two empty netters. In doing so, the Bulls beat the Havoc, a team that beat them in their only other trip to the President’s Cup finals in 2019.
Series Schedule (Home team in CAPS and all times local):
Thursday, April 27 – Roanoke at BIRMINGHAM, 7 p.m.
Friday – April 28 – Roanoke at BIRMINGHAM, 7 p.m.
Monday, May 1 – Birmingham at ROANOKE, 7:05 p.m.
Tuesday, May 2 – Birmingham at ROANOKE – 7:05 p.m. *
Thursday, May 4 – Roanoke at BIRMINGHAM, 7 p.m.*
* => If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
If you want a sign that this series could come down to the wire, chew on this. The Bulls and Railyard Dawgs played four times during the season, splitting the season series 2-2. One factor in Roanoke’s two early-season wins? Austyn Roudebush, who was in net for both of those wins while not being in the crease in the two losses.
A 2-1 lead helped Birmingham win 4-1 in a later meeting, while the most recent was a wild 5-4 overtime win as Roanoke led 2-0, and allowed a 3-3 tie before the Railyard Dawgs came to force overtime, where Birmingham’s Troy MacTavish won things in overtime.
How Birmingham Wins:
There’s a golden chance for the Bulls to take advantage of home ice. With the first two games in Pelham, Ala., the opportunity is ripe for the picking to take a 2-0 series lead. If Birmingham can do that, it’ll be in a very good position to put all the pressure on Roanoke.
Mike Gillespie, Jake Pappalardo, and Carson Rose have helped Birmingham stay active offensively, and them having at least one point per game backs that up. If these three can do what they have been able to do so far in the playoffs and keep the pressure on Roanoke and get through the stubborn play of the defensive end, chances are good for a Bulls championship.
In goal, Austin Lotz does not have to play shutdown hockey – he just has to make enough saves to give the Bulls a chance to win. You saw that against Huntsville, and anytime a goalie can win an overtime postseason game, that’s huge for confidence. He’ll need to carry that into this series.
How Roanoke Wins:
Both home and away, Roudebush backstopped Roanoke past Peoria in the previous round. There are few things as dangerous to face in the postseason than a goalie on a hot streak, and that’s where the Railyard Dawgs netminder is. Putting the game in his hands in the final 20 minutes will be key in this series.
Obviously, Devito and Gehrett Sargis playing big will help matters. Devito’s eight points leads all scorers in the postseason, and his five goals ties for the lead, so if he keeps up that pace, he surely would have to be in the running for postseason MVP. Sargis has had a knack for coming up big at the right time. His pair of two-goal games were in the postseason opener at Evansville and the series-clinching win at Peoria.
Starting strong, especially on the road in the first two games, will also carry a level of weight. A slow start doomed Roanoke in its game two loss in the semifinals. The lay of the land changes with a best-of-five series compared to a best-of-three. Chief among those factors is the first two games, and if Roanoke is down 2-0, it’ll have its back to the wall, where even a home-ice advantage may be too much to overcome being down 2-0 in the series.