Just over a minute remained in regulation Thursday night and the Pensacola Ice Flyers were staring the possibility of overtime in the eyes.
In the blink of an eye, the storyline of this Game 2 SPHL playoff showdown against Fayetteville inside the Bay Center took a turn in favor of the Ice Flyers, the drama of postseason hockey unfolding in front of a crowd of 2,916.
Stephen Hrehoriak , fresh out of college and with the team for just two weeks, took a perfect pass from Ken Neil and scored in front of the net to lift the Ice Flyers to a thrilling 2-1 victory that caps a two-game sweep of the Fire Antz in the opening round.
Second-seeded Fayetteville desperately tried to counter in the final frantic minute and 32 seconds of action but to no avail as seventh-seeded Pensacola advanced to the semifinals, its hopes of a second consecutive title still very much alive.
“In the playoffs, it’s all about the ending,” Ice Flyers head coach Rod Aldoff said.
Indeed it is and the Ice Flyers put together an ending no one will soon forget behind the clutch performance of Hrehoriak, who has scored a goal in each game of this hard-fought series.
He was actually about to come off the ice moments before his game winner.
“I look back at the bench and then saw the puck go down to Neil. I turned back and stayed on the ice,” Hrehoriak said. “Neil swept it in front and I wacked it home.”
As expected in the playoffs, the game featured a little extra physicality.
Neil battled for the puck in front of the net in the first period and fell to the ground. As he tried to get up, Fayetteville’s Nicholas Rivait pounded on his back several times with his stick.
Later on in the period, Cory Banfield was viciously drilled against the wall by Kyle Shapiro and had to be helped off the ice by two of his teammates. He did not return.
But the Ice Flyers will return next week for more postseason hockey, taking on top-seeded Macon in a best-of-three series. Pensacola, winners of its last nine playoff games going back to last season, will play its lone home game of the series Tuesday or Wednesday. Matt Zenola has started every game of that impressive streak, stopping 39 shots on Thursday.
“It was a team effort. Everyone battled,” Aldoff said. “Our heart was in it and our fight was in it for 60 minutes.”
Read more about the Ice Flyers in the April 20 issue of Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year.