PEORIA – Alec Hagaman, Jordan Ernst and Nick Neville helped the Pensacola Ice Flyers win a ring last season.
They kept them from winning another one on Saturday, helping the Peoria Rivermen to a 4-2 victory in Game 3 of the SPHL first-round playoff series to eliminate the defending champion Flyers.
Peoria-born captain Hagaman scored the go-ahead goal and added an assist, Ernst scored a goal to seal the victory nine seconds after Pensacola had closed to within one, and Peoria-born Austin Wisely notched the game-winner on a huge play in the final seconds of the second period.
Jack Berry jumped into the net and shut down the Flyers, and the Rivermen advanced to the semifinals that start next week.
“Go get another one,” Pensacola head coach Rod Aldoff said to Hagaman as the two met in the post-game handshake line, according to the Rivermen captain. “Playing with them last year was a great experience, and now I’m building one with our team in Peoria. Go get another ring is exactly what I want to do.”
BOX SCORE:Rivermen 4, Ice Flyers 2 | PLAYOFF PAIRINGS: 2021-22 playoffs
Hagaman held a court in the Rivermen room, wearing a captain’s hat – that goes after each game to a player who was a hero – and joining his teammates in a celebratory beer.
“We got everything we wanted out of this series,” he said. “That’s the way players have to step up in a Game 3, and we had guys do that.”
Settling some old scores
The series meant a lot in the Peoria locker room.
There was Hagaman, Ernst and Neville, determined to repeat the success with the Rivermen they had with Pensacola last year.
There was goaltender Jack Berry – who was also part of that Pensacola championship team. He didn’t appear in the postseason for the Flyers, and then they cut him during the summer and he wound up with Peoria.
“I definitely had extra motivation,” Berry said. “I was excited to make the start tonight, and I wanted to get in there and stop them. I wanted to play against them. They are a good team, and I wanted to beat those guys so bad.”
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And there was head coach Jean-Guy Trudel, who will always feel the sting of a championship series lost to Pensacola years ago on a last-second goal.
“A lot of little subplots like that,” Trudel said. “That series loss hurt so much. And Hagaman, Ernst, Neville playing for them and then playing against them. And Berry, what a game he gave us tonight, just outstanding. And (Rivermen rookie goalscoring leader) Marcel Godbout was with that team and they released him.
“There were a lot of guys who wanted to beat them. We have respect for Pensacola and that’s why we want to win.”
How it all happened
The Rivermen struck first for a 1-0 lead at 5:12 of the first period on sniper shot from defenseman Dale Deon, who buried a snap on the fly from deep in the right circle shortside into top right corner that dislodged the water bottle.
Pensacola tied it on a power play, Frederic Letourneau on the back door from the bottom of left circle, left uncovered at 10:34. That made the Flyers power play 6 of 13 in the series.
The Rivermen, just 2 of 13 on the power play in the series, finally broke through on the advantage for a 2-1 lead at 17:20 of the first period on a play that started when SPHL scoring champion Alec Baer dragged the puck in the right circle, faked a defender to the ice, and put a quick shot on goaltender Cody Karpinski.
Mitch McPherson poked at the rebound from the doorstep, forced another rebound, and Hagaman put it away from between the hashmarks.
The Rivermen were hit with slashing and hooking penalties to give Pensacola a five-on-three power play for 1:01 early in the second period.
But Peoria defenseman Lordanthony Grissom blocked two shots and Berry made three saves during the two-man portion, and the Rivermen erased the whole thing as the crowd counted down the last five seconds.
The Rivermen took that momentum into a 12-minute stretch of five-on-five play, and it was Wisely who delivered the winner on a huge play for a 3-1 lead with 16.1 seconds left in the second period.
With the clock winding down, Wisely skated into the Pensacola zone one-on-three, pulled up in the left circle, spun and flicked the puck into the top left corner off Karpinski’s blocker.
He went to the right circle and waited for his teammates, looking half in shock, half on Cloud 9.
“It was so exciting,” Wisely said, grinning afterward. “I was just trying to find everyone to celebrate.”
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Pensacola turned up huge pressure in the third period and converted on another power play with a goal from Weiland Parrish to close within 3-2 at 14:19.
But Ernst stunned the Flyers nine seconds after the ensuing faceoff, bolting to the left post for a quick shot that appeared to hit the left post and ricochet into the net and out.
The red light went on, Pensacola disputed the goal, officials huddled and then talked to the goal judge and upheld the initial call for a 4-2 Rivermen lead.
“It went in, I know it did for sure,” Ernst said. “If that didn’t go in there I’d be really surprised. It was weird, as we got ready for the faceoff I had a flash play in my mind with me and Hags from last season, when we (Pensacola) played at Knoxville. It was the same play, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try that again. There’s a goal coming.’
“I think we faced some adversity after the (Game 2 loss) and I think a lot of guys came in here tonight and handled it.”
The rest was desperation time for Pensacola, who managed to get three more power plays in the final 6:07. That included one in the final two minutes that left Pensacola with a six-on-four.
“Their power play was dangerous,” said Grissom, a key member of Peoria’s kill group. “On that five-on-three earlier, if they score one on it, it’s a different game. Then we turned around and got that huge goal from Wisely, and I think that was the nail in the coffin.”
The last word
Some final thoughts from Rivermen head coach Jean-Guy Trudel:
• “Five-on-five we just dominated in the series, played phenomenal. We took care of the things we could control and I was pleased with it.
• “That Wisely goal was just so huge for us. He’s our Swiss Army knife, plays forward, defense, kills penalties. He really stepped up.”
• “I told our guys a story about when I was playing in the IHL in 1998-99. We had a Game 7 at Grand Rapids, and we went up there and our fourth line played 10 minutes in the game and scored both our goals in a 2-1 win. Everybody plays a role. It’s how you win in the playoffs. Everybody has their moment. Some of our guys found theirs. “
Quad City upset Fayetteville 4-2 on the road in Game 3 of that series Saturday and knocked the No. 4 seeds out of the playoffs. … Pensacola’s team was one of the youngest in the ECHL, with 12 rookies in the lineup. … Pensacola scored 11 goals in the three-game series, and seven of them were on power plays, with an eighth coming 17 seconds after an advantage expired. … Peoria-born Austin Wisely, a third-line forward, has two goals in the playoffs, second-best on the Rivermen team. … The Rivermen will face either Huntsville as the road team or Quad City as the home team in the semifinals, pending results of Sunday’s action. Either way, the next round will start with a Game 1 in Peoria at Carver Arena.
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men’s basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.