Last March, the Huntsville Havoc limped into the President's Cup Playoffs as a struggling 8th seed, and were pitted against a seemingly unstoppable #1. The Havoc knocked off the heavily favored top team in three games to move on to the second round.
This year, the red & black again barely made the post-season and were matched up against the Coffee Cup winners - this time, the Fayetteville FireAntz. After a 5-2 drubbing at the hands of Fayetteville at home last weekend, the Havoc's prospects looked bleak.
But coach Glenn Detulleo dismissed any negative emotions as the second season began. "Once the playoffs start, I don't think seeding matters."
Detulleo's team took those words to heart, and came out firing on all cylinders on Wednesday night.
The FireAntz took the early advantage when Havoc goaltender Jesse Kallechy wandered too far out of the net to play a puck. Fayetteville's Tyler Matheson found the loose puck and put it past Kallechy, who was scrambling to get back into position.
Huntsville regained composure and went on the attack. A tic-tac-toe play from Ian Boots to Bill Baker found its way to Justin Fox, who snuck it over Marco Emond's right should to tie the game, just five minutes after Fayetteville's goal.
The rest of the first and most of the second period saw a tight, defensive struggle with some brutal physical play. Hits from Aaron McGill and Bill Baker brought the crowd to its feel several times. All part of the plan, said the coach in his post game media briefing. "That's our game, we can't not play that way. If we don't play physical and we just try to go up and down the ice with them, it's not going to be a hockey game." Detulleo praised the FireAntz, but said he knew the way to beat them. "They've got a lot of skill through the line up. We're effective when we're physical, we get the puck down low, we grind them out, we wear them down.. If we can play that game we've got a great chance to close the series out, if we get away from that, we're in trouble."
Kyle Laughlin gave the Havoc a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes left in the second period when he buried the puck during a mad scramble in front of the visitor's net. The Havoc held the lead throughout most of the third period, as the defense tightened up and Kallechy made save after save. After the game, Detulleo had nothing but praise for his new goaltender. "He's calm back there, confident, they guys are playing with a lot of confidence, we know if he can see it, he can stop it."
But one small lapse with only a minute left in the third period proved costly. A shot from defenseman Corey Toy found its way behind Kallechy, and the score was suddenly tied at two.
After a minute of scoreless play, the game headed for overtime. The Havoc dominated the extra period, with five scoring chances before a battle in front of the Fayetteville net developed seven minutes into OT. Mike Gurtler took a pass from Anthony Battaglia and fired it towards Emond. The Quebec native made a great stop on Battaglia, but had no answer for defenseman Leland Fidler, who found the rebound and put it home to end the game.
Both Fidler and Justin Fox returned to Huntsville this week after months-long call ups to higher leagues. Their return couldn't have come at a better time, according to Detulleo. "There's a reason why we wanted both of these guys back. Fids is a great defenseman who can add some offense, and Fox is a great guy, top to bottom we did our job, all three lines scored tonight."
The Havoc will try to end the series tonight in Fayetteville. If the FireAntz come out on top, a third and final playoff game will be held Sunday afternoon, also in Fayetteville.
The winner of the series moves on to the second round, where they'll play the winner of the Mississippi Riverkings vs. Louisiana Ice Gators series.