After a truncated, out-of-the-ordinary regular season because of the coronavirus, it’s playoff time in the Southern Professional Hockey League, with the Pensacola Ice Flyers on the road for their opener Wednesday night.
Pensacola, which finished third in the five-team league’s 42-game regular season, visit the Knoxville Ice Bears in game one of the best-of-three. Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris says because Knoxville is the higher seed at number two, they’ll get the third game if necessary.
“Their goalie is playing well, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re getting some quality shots,” said Harris. “We’ve got to take care of ourselves and the goaltending is up to par and we’re putting pucks in the net and playing sound defensive hockey. If not, (laughs) we’ll be done this week instead of next week.”
When the league season got off to a late start in December, it was under a stringent COVID-19 protocol – face coverings and social distancing in the stands. And Harris says going in, they knew that they weren’t going to think of everything. The key was being flexible.
“How the first few weeks started out with some things that were definitely trying, but we all got through it and we’ve been doing very well since,” Harris said. “We actually played all 21 [home] games out of 21 that we had scheduled; we were wondering if we were actually going to make that happen. It’s been interesting, it’s been trying, but it’s been worth it when all is said and done.”
Harris was asked if he preferred to take on Knoxville in round one, instead of that 800-pound gorilla in Macon, Georgia. He said yes and no.
“Right now they’re the best team in the league, and if we want to be crowned as champs then it’s hey – let’s beat the best,” said Harris. “We had a really good couple of games against Knoxville just last weekend – took both of them; so we definitely have some confidence going into the Knoxville series.
“And we definitely sent a message to them and the rest of the league that, hey, we’re starting to rise here, and we’re going to the playoffs on the right note.”
Macon, the regular-season champs, hosts fourth-seed Huntsville in their opener. All rounds in the SPHL are best of three, which Harris says does not provide a lot of breathing room.
“And that’s kind of the exciting part of it too that they’re basically [like a] best-of-seven,” said Harris. “You shut down, you don’t ‘show up’ for a game that may just cost you the series. And so, the play, the anticipation — the desperation of that play — is very similar to a game seven situation.”
Looking ahead to the 2021-22 season, the SPHL is scheduled to return to normal.
“We’re looking at playing a full, 56-game schedule; but hey, that could all change,” laughed Harris. “So, we don’t know exactly where it is, but that’s what we’re planning on having. Then there will be a new team coming in, making that 11 for us in the league.”
The new squad in Danville, Illinois, will be called the Vermillion County Bobcats. That again prompts the question: when will a 12th team be added, and could the league split into two divisions?
“We’re always looking for expansion, if it’s the right situation [and] if it’s within our footprint,” Harris said. “Whether we split into divisions, I don’t know; it just depends on where our footprint is. Basically, we’re almost in divisions already because we do regionalize travel. We’ll play Birmingham 12 times next year, whereas we’ll only play Roanoke, Virginia four.”
Once again, the Ice Flyers open their playoff run this evening in Knoxville; game two is Friday night at the Bay Center — aka The Hangar. If a game three is necessary, the teams will return to Knoxville Sunday.