What We Learned About the SPHL Challenge Round Selection Show

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When the SPHL came up with their Challenge Round before their season, it created a lot of buzz about the idea overall and how it could be pulled off. On Sunday night, it was put to the task and, honestly, went off with flying colors. The concept, the broadcast, the production– in my eyes– all great and a great way for the SPHL to really put themselves out there as a league.

They broadcast opened with a hot crowd in Huntsville while the Challenge Round montage began. It was a welcome sight to see  Eli Gold and Terry Crisp as MCs, two guys who have a history of hockey, especially with Gold being the play-by-play guy for the Birmingham Bulls– which means he’s seen the league in a big way this season. Gold also worked for the Nashville Predators alongside Crisp– who is still with the team.

Gold made sure to talk about history of the challenge round in hockey in other countries like Switzerland and Austria, while also putting over the SPHL in creating a widespread buzz of this concept across the North America sporting landscape. Gold also mentioned how game-changing the SPHL has been by starting three-on-three OT to North American hockey.

Onto the actual picks by the teams. Gold explained some of the reasoning that teams could have for picks and then went off to say how a lot of teams didn’t have their real home-ice due to scheduling. It went then into  a video montage of what the league is about for outliers who may be tuning into the show.

Now– the picks. Peoria as the first seed was first pick and they kept it a 1/8 match-up picking the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. This is an interesting match-up because neither team will have their home-ice. Roanoke will play at Liberty University, while Peoria will have to go to their practice rink. Second pick, the Macon Mayhem decided to switch it up a bit, as they will play the sixth seeded Evansville Thunderbolts, believing in a better match-up against them than Mississippi, while the third seed Pensacola went with the fifth seed Knoxville Ice Bears, leaving Huntsville with the seventh seed Mississippi.

Overall…not too much over-the-top as some would have predicted, but it did cause for a bit of drama when it came to who would pick who and why. The idea is a solid one and the broadcast was a nice added touch to help those who didn’t know much about the SPHL going into it.

This could get some more eyes on the league if there are some upsets in this first round. It always creates that mentality of the top-ranked team having to really hold serve and justify their pick, while the underdog can have the feeling of a team picking them because they were thought to be weak, but now have to turn the tables to make it right.

Thunderbolts Looking to Spark Attendance with Free Tickets

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The Evansville Thunderbolts are employing an interesting strategy for their first playoff game. The team, which is 10th in the 10-team SPHL in attendance, is offering free admission to their first playoff game.

Heading into their last weekend, Evansville will have the sixth or seventh spot– seventh if Mississippi wins out and Evansville loses out; though Evansville can sneak up to fifth if they win out and Knoxville loses out. Of course, with the new playoff format– the Thunderbolts are pretty much sitting ducks for the top three teams in the whole Pick-Your-Poison playoff system the SPHL has.

However, the question is does this sully the SPHL if teams need to have free admission to their first playoff game?? Sure, it’s “Single A” hockey, but it’s still a business. You have to think that other teams don’t think highly of a team in the playoffs just giving away their seats to people and not turning a profit. It cuts into the team and possibly the league’s bottom line.

That said, it could also be something that creates fans in an area that needs to get back to their glory days in the ECHL by putting in– at the worst point– over 4,000 people on average with over 5,400 at it’s peak. You can believe that there are still people sour over the whole situation Ron Geary had in moving the team to Owensboro and then eventually Jacksonville when Owensboro didn’t work out.

Even if it isn’t the old Icemen fans coming back to see this new team, playoff hockey is a chance to create new fans. People also say that they became a bigger fan of the game when they attended it live and experienced the speed and excitement of the game. Now, double that when it comes to the playoffs and how that could play out and you may have new ticket holders after that experience.

It doesn’t look good on the surface, sure– but at the same time, it’s pretty ingenious. Giving away tickets to this franchise’s first playoff appearance after finishing dead last in their inaugural season in 2016-17 could be a big way to get some buzz around the team and turn people into supporters. It allows some families who may not be able to afford a playoff game a chance to experience it with their kids. It creates some kind of community togetherness, also– maybe getting the city to rally behind this team after their other one was ripped from them.

The real question is how it will actually play out and how much they’ll be able retain after the first playoff game is done. That falls on the marketing and promotion departments in a big way to help maintain it all.

Good luck, Thunderbolts– make this opportunity count.

Minor League Weekly: Puempel Powering Griffins, LaValle-Smotherman on Fire, SPHL MVP Contenders

AHL

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Photo by Icon Sportswire

-It’s taken the Grand Rapids Griffins a while to get going, but with points in eight of their last ten games– they’ve regained their championship form. A lot of that success is due in part to the play of Matt Puempel, who’s in the midst of a nine-game point-streak (6g 7a), while having 40 points in 35 games with the Griffins and putting Puempel fourth in the AHL in scoring. This season is looking to be Puempel’s best in the AHL. With 43 points (19g, 24a) already this season, Puempel is only five points away from tying his AHL high, which he set in his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Binghamton Senators.

-When it comes to Thatcher Demko, it’s a matter of when he’ll get the full-time call-up to the Vancouver Canucks. His play this season has been stellar (17-7-5, 2.27 GAA, .929 Sv%) and will give the Canucks an interesting move late in their season– whether to call him up to get some NHL playing time, as he’ll luckily move into that role next season– or will they allow him to stay with Utica for the rest of the season and get a taste of a playoff run??

ECHL

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-Since the turning of the calendar, Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman has turned on his game big time with 11g, 12a in 14 games in 2018. The Monarchs forward has been on quite the roll with multi-point games in six of his last season, which has quietly put him in second spot for league leaders in points (52) and second in the league in goals (26). Not bad for a guy getting back into the North American game full-time after traveling around Europe from 2011 until towards the end of the 2016-17 season.

-There might be a chip in Joe Cannata’s shoulder because his play right now is really telling the Colorado Avalanche he wants to be promoted. The minor-league vet is 16-2-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .934 Sv%, which puts him 2nd and 1st respectively in the league. After years of being in the AHL– whether it being the veteran back-up or the stop-gap veteran– he’s in the ECHL full-time for the first time since 2014-15. With a championship team in front of him, he could be marking his way for when the Eagles move up to the AHL next season.

SPHL

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-While Jake Hauswirth has had a great season– it’s going to be hard-pressed for him to go ahead and win the MVP on a non-playoff team. For me, Berkley Scott could be the front-runner, especially with the month he just had in January (9g, 7a)–which earned him Player of the Month honors. Tomas Shall should also get some kind of recognition for the year he’s had with Evansville thus far with a 14-2-2 record, while ranking top-five in GAA and save percentage.

Minor League Monday: Marlies Rolling, Herbert Streak Snapped, Sholl Leading Thunderbolts

AHL

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Photo by Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com

-With seven-straight wins, the Toronto Marlies are again atop the AHL in points, which should be no surprise. The past few years, the Marlies have been the favorites as the season went on, though they have no Calder Cup to show for it…yet. Andreas Johnsson has led the way for the Marlies with 17 points on the year, which includes his current seven-game point streak (4g, 5a). Garret Sparks has dazzled in net with a 1.50 GAA to go with his ten wins on the season.

-The team chasing the Marlies for league supremacy is the Manitoba Moose. After finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference their first two years back in the AHL, the Moose have been quite a surprise this year with their young stars finally getting the hang of playing in the pros. Both second-year pros Jack Roslovic (11g, 11a) and Brendan Lemieux (5g 6a) are better than a point per game– 1.05 and 1.10 respectively– while veteran Mike Sgarbossa (8g, 12a) and Buddy Robinson (7g, 7a) have provided solid secondary scoring. A bigger surprise is the bouncing back of Eric Comrie (8-4-1) who has been solid in net for the Moose with a 2.30 GAA and .927 save percentage in 13 games.

ECHL

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-A round of applause to Caleb Herbert, who finally had his 17-game point-streak snapped on Friday night. The Swamp Rabbits’ forward had 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points during the streak that began since the beginning of the season. Herbert, unsurprisingly, leads the ECHL in points, with teammate Allan McPherson two points behind him before a trio of Wheeling Nailers pop up– Cody Wydo, Reid Gardiner, and Garrett Meurs.

-With points in seven of their last ten, the Colorado Eagles are making the most of their last season in the ECHL in their title-defense season. Michael Joly is leading the way in the ECHL in goals with 13 and has only one of his 16 games has been held pointless. Matt Register has helped out on the back-end quarterbacking the power-play and holding down play in his own end. All the while, Joe Cannata has been a near-perfect 7-0-1 on the year since being placed in Colorado by the Avalanche from San Antonio.

SPHL

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-Quietly, the Evansville Thunderbolts are having a great sophomore season in the SPHL. The play of Tomas Sholl since he came from Macon, he’s been solid with a 4-1-0 record with a 2.00 GAA in Evansville. Justin MacDonald is leading the league in goals with nine, while MacDonald, along with Dylan Clarke and John Scorcia are point-per-game players. The Thunderbolts also boast a great road record with points in six of their eight road game on the season (5-2-1). With one more road win, Evansville will match their entire road win output from last season.