A year of historic performances has lead to a Battle of Alabama for the President’s Cup: The defending-champion Huntsville Havoc vs. the sophomore-superstar Birmingham Bulls in a winner-take-all three-game series.
From seeing the way that these two teams developed down the stretch, it seemed like we were on a collision-course to Alabama fighting for the Crown. For one team, it means the journey from ninth-place last year, to a chance to be the champs; for another, it means the chance to have a repeat champion for the first-time since Pensacola in ’13 & ’14.
These are two tough, high-scoring, impressively-goaltended teams who have fought through a tough playoff pool to reach the finals, and for one to say there’s an outright favorite would be an absolutely confident lie.
We had to bring in the big guns to help us predict who would lift the President’s Cup this season, so we asked all ten broadcasters in the SPHL (we did not hear back from Pensacola’s Paul Chestnutt) – who’ve seen these teams play more than anyone – on their feelings based on what they’ve seen of who takes this best-of-three battle.
ELI GOLD – BIRMINGHAM BULLS
Let me begin by saying that I see the Birmingham Bulls defeating the Huntsville Havoc in three games. The reasons are multiple. First on a comparison basis, the Bulls and Havoc are both tough to beat at home. Advantage Birmingham with home ice advantage.
Between the pipes are the two top netminders in the SPHL. Birmingham has the SPHL Goaltender-of-the-year Mavric Parks who has more wins than any other goaltender in the league, while Huntsville’s Max Milosek is #2 in wins. This matchup is a beauty, but in my book, #1 is #1 for a reason. Advantage Birmingham.
Huntsville has won 5 of the 9 regular season meetings between the two teams. That’s almost a toss up, but the numbers are what they are. Advantage Huntsville.
Ryan Salkeld, who scores constantly, and Tyler Piacentini, who scores big goals, are dangerous for Huntsville, but natural goal scorers Harris, Barber and Davis are a potent trio for the Bulls. Both teams have fine offenses.
Huntsville was #1 in the league in regular season goals with 209, while Birmingham was just five goals behind. I give the edge to Birmingham due to its vast number of scorers, but others might call the offenses as a “pick ‘em.” Now the intangibles. The Bulls roster is back to where it was early in the season when the team was nearly impossible to beat.
Add in the facts that Taylor Dickin and Geoff Crisfield are surprisingly second in the league in post season goals with four each, while captain Craig Simchuk and Crisfield lead the league in post season points with seven, and you have the recipe for a Bulls win in three games.
TOMMY PECORARO – EVANSVILLE THUNDERBOLTS
These are two teams with plenty in common, and not just their location in the state of Alabama. Both teams bring stellar goaltending, potent offense, solid defense, and excellent coaching, both cheered on by very passionate fan bases.
Besides the luck factor of getting the most bounces to go their way, I believe goaltending will be the biggest factor. Mavric Parks was named the league’s best goaltender for a very good reason. He has seemingly won games single-handedly at times, making spectacular saves look like child’s play. However, that is no slight to Max Milosek, who has emerged as a top goaltender in his own right, especially after Huntsville’s shaky-start.
My pick in this series would have to be the Birmingham Bulls in 3 games, and I don’t see any game being won by more than 2 goals all series long. Birmingham has been a team on a mission since the second half of last season, and if Birmingham does in fact seize the crown, it will be a fitting passing of the torch from their I-65 rivals.
It will be one of the best President’s Cup Finals yet, it’s only a shame it will only be a best-of-three.
SHAWN BEDNARD – FAYETTEVILLE MARKSMEN
When it came to battle-tested teams this season, there was never a seed of doubt that Birmingham and Huntsville down-the-stretch fit the bill for the toughest teams to beat in the SPHL. While a team like Macon got off to a hot start, they were heavily afflicted by the call-up bug and had to struggle more-so down the gauntlet of the season. For Peoria, as Ronaoke showed with a pretty convincing First-Round sweep, they were heavily-bolstered by a weaker schedule.
Birmingham started strong and finished stronger. Eight wins in their last nine games, securing second-place weeks in advance, and flaunting out the league’s MVP Josh Harris, outright Goaltender of the Year Mavric Parks, and Coach of the Year Jamey Hicks, all while going into deep battles with the Marksmen (2-1) and the Rail Yard Dawgs (2-1). They’re a team that’s had an absolute dream turnaround season, and looks to have a fire in their belly heading into a rivalry tilt for the Championship.
Huntsville…is Huntsville. A team that didn’t have a preferable start, with some murmuring of a President’s Cup hangover. With one of the best coaches in the game in Glenn Detulleo, returning nearly all of last year’s championship roster, and still having one of the league’s most solid goaltenders in Max Milosek, it was only a matter of time before Huntsville’s wheels got turning and burning. When they did, they lit up quick.
My Marksmen played both of these teams in the final weekends of the season (and post-season) when they were absolutely red-hot, stealing a win from both of them.
Prior to the playoffs, Birmingham scored no-less than five goals against us in any game. It took our playoff debut to knock them off a peg with a 4-0 win. They stormed back with 3-2 and 5-0 wins at home to take the series. The absolute KEY against them is stopping their power play. When the Bulls have had any kind of sniff of a man-advantage this post-season, they’re almost automatic. Our PK was PERFECT in Game One against them, but too many bad penalties ended up sinking the Marksmen. Huntsville is no stranger to Birmingham, and they’re a smart team that doesn’t take those anxious penalties.
Huntsville, when they get going, they go OFF. We were 1-2 against the Havoc this year, but in the two we lost, they flexed their defending-champion muscles, with a 14-4 total score. In our lone win, we played an outstanding game at their barn for our head coach’s return after being in Huntsville for years. If you can get to the Havoc early and keep up the intensity, they can be beat, but once they get a taste of blood, they kill.
Honestly, I’ve had such a tough time deciding which of these teams has the distance to be able to outlast the either. Yes, the Havoc won the nine-game season series, but that’s in the past. Birmingham is a hot team right now that’s battled their way there. Huntsville is a perennial-power looking to do what no team has done in years: win back-to-back Cups.
After long consideration and definitely going back on my own thoughts, I have finally come to the decision that Birmingham completes their dream season – in three intensely fought games – by lifting their first President’s Cup in franchise-history. Final scores: 2-1 Birmingham, 3-2 Huntsville, 3-1 Birmingham.
STEVE MOULTON – HUNTSVILLE HAVOC
#2 Birmingham v #3 Huntsville.
These two teams began the year against each other and will end the year against each other. They’re separated by 96 miles and played nine times during the season with the Havoc winning five of the nine.
Huntsville is a team that is very similar to last year’s team that won the President’s Cup. Huntsville started slow, 4-6-1 in the first 11 games that was not the case for the Bulls starting off 11-0.
The anchors for both teams are the goaltenders Mavric Parks (Bham) and Max Milosek (Hsv). Between them, a total of 53 wins and both GAAs were nearly identical, within one-hundredth of a point. Should be a fun series, but the difference in the series will be the defenses. The Havoc get in trouble when defensive lapses occur and leave Max exposed.
Because I am calling this season I will not predict a winner, but I know who I am rooting for. Go Havoc!
JOEL SILVERBERG – KNOXVILLE ICE BEARS
There doesn’t seem to be an in-between with this Birmingham team so far in the postseason. The Bulls either explode or fall flat offensively. Fortunately for Birmingham it’s been more of the former. Getting Geoff Crisfield back in March has proved to be huge and his production has continued throughout the playoffs. Veterans Jacob Barber and Craig Simchuk will look to pace the offense. Mavric Parks has had a great season in net, but he’s had some subpar games in Birmingham’s first two series.
Huntsville has grinded out two series wins with tough defense and timely goals. The Havoc’s last four games have been decided by one goal, including a pair of overtime wins in the semifinals against Knoxville. Offensive production can come from anywhere on this roster and no goaltender has been better in the postseason than Max Milosek (2.05 GAA, .949 SV%).
Birmingham has the resiliency to overcome deficits and survive high-scoring games. However, Huntsville’s defense has the ability to limit opposing offenses to the perimeter and can tilt the ice quickly to maintain possession away from its own net. Birmingham needs to crash the crease and create chances from the slot.
Prediction: Huntsville in 2.
ALEX VON KEUDELL – MACON MAYHEM
Both of these teams are incredibly deep and hardworking. It’s no wonder at all they both reached the championship. Huntsville undoubtedly holds the edge in experience and in players who have won the President’s Cup before. There is always a possibility this could result in a “President’s Cup Hangover” effect which Birmingham could use to their advantage.
When the Bulls were virtually invincible at the start of the season, Huntsville was one of the many teams to fall victim to their success. However, as the campaign wore on, the Havoc tilted the head-to-head season series in their favor and won four of the last five match-ups over Birmingham.
Based on their depth, playoff experience, and the rock-solid finish to their season, I believe the defending-champs will win this series in three games.
BRAD KUPIEC – PEORIA RIVERMEN
It’s going to be a very competitive finals, the teams met nine times in the regular season with the 5-4 edge going to Huntsville in head-to-head matchups, all decided in regulation.
Finals experience has to go to Huntsville, they’ve got a lot of key veterans back from last year’s championship team, especially on the offensive side, and all the new pieces they’ve brought in have had an entire season to gel and assimilate into coach Detulleo’s program. I’ll look for Huntsville’s offense to get pucks deep, cycle, and generate chances with an extended forecheck, which will put a lot of pressure on Birmingham’s defensive corps and Mavric Parks in net.
Looking at Birmingham, Parks has been an absolute work horse in net, leading the league during the regular season in games played, wins, and save percentage, and making a lot of tremendous saves along the way. I think having him in net will give the Bulls confidence to take more chances in the neutral zone, in particular the Barber/Harris/Davis line of coach Jamey Hicks. If Parks can keep up his high level of play in net for the rest of this series, and all indicators say he will, Birmingham will be a very tall task to score on in the defensive end, and it’ll free up their speedy and skilled forwards, making them even more dangerous in transition.
It’ll be a very hard-fought, evenly matched series, but I’ll pick Birmingham in 3.
BRIAN ROTHENBERGER – QUAD CITY STORM
Over the course of the season I thought the Bulls and Havoc were the second and third best teams in the league, respectively, so I’m glad to see a couple top dogs getting a chance to spar in the finals.
I see Huntsville as a deeper team who, top to bottom, is the most well rounded. Birmingham however has the best line in the series and is scarily opportunistic. Earlier this season the Storm built a 5-1 lead over Birmingham at the TaxSlayer Center and held it with 8:43 left in the third. The Bulls came back to tie the game and eventually won in overtime. The most impressive (or at least incredible) aspect of the comeback was that they scored those four goals on 11 total third period shots, about seven of which came in the final 8:43. They could not help but score.
In this finals match-up I give a slight edge to Birmingham on special teams and Huntsville between the pipes based on the performances we’ve seen through two series. I like Huntsville in two or Birmingham in three and my gut says it will be the former, giving the Havoc their second championship trophy in as many years.
BRIAN GARDNER – ROANOKE RAIL YARD DAWGS
Roanoke’s schedule meant I saw very little of the Havoc and I did so early in the season, far before they hit their stride. The Dawgs last games against the Havoc came during a weekend sweep on February 15-16, during which Huntsville looked listless. Of course Huntsville then promptly reeled off an eight-game point streak. I was most impressed with Ryan Salkeld, who is a threat to score whenever he has the puck on his stick. And I think very highly of Max Milosek in net.
Birmingham was a different story – counting the postseason I saw the Rail Yard Dawgs play the Bulls ten times. Birmingham is a fast and talented group. Oddly, league MVP Josh Harris did very little against the Dawgs all year and Goaltender of the Year Mavric Parks looked extraordinarily human both in the regular season and in the semifinals. Even with their big guns having down series in the playoff meeting, the Bulls snuck by the Dawgs. They’re deep. Their D corps is the best in the league. And despite the extremely even season series against Roanoke, I walked away from every game impressed.
It’s hard to pick against the defending-champs but this feels like the Bulls year. They’re great at home and they have the home-ice advantage during the short series. Give me the Bulls in three, no home team loses a game.
There you have it – the surefire, no doubt, have-to-be-correct predictions from the distinct and talented broadcasters who’ve seen these teams the most this season. Our sincerest thanks to all the voices of the league who contributed, and we wish best of luck to both of these teams into the President’s Cup Final.
Our prediction: a team from Alabama will be the SPHL Champions.