BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – This past weekend the Birmingham Bulls saw their losing streak extend to five games with a trio of losses at home over the weekend. Despite the three losses, there were plenty of good moments to go along with the bad. The good was the execution on the power play Sunday afternoon. After failing to convert on ten different chances against Pensacola on Friday and Saturday night, the Bulls went 2-for-4 on the man-advantage Sunday afternoon.
I wish I could say this has been all sunshine and rainbows this season, but it’s not. Birmingham is struggling. Why are they struggling is the question? This is a franchise that tied the SPHL record for the biggest turnaround from one season to the next last year. The same franchise with the reigning SPHL MVP. The same franchise that made it to the President’s Cup Final in only their second year of existence, so what’s wrong?
Looking over the team stats, there’s one glaring issue. While the returning players are doing their job, one could question if the new faces of the 2019-20 team have made it out of training camp yet? Josh Harris, Jacob Barber, Matt Fuller, Mike Davis, and Kasey Kulczycki all appeared in 85 percent or more of Birmingham’s games last season. Harris, Barber, Fuller and Davis are the top scorers on the team through 17 games this season. Of the six rookies that remain from the opening day roster, only JM Piotrowski and Cole Stallard have multiple goals scored.
Another reason for the struggles is either really good opposing goaltending or bad shot selection. In the past three games at home, Birmingham scored six goals on 101 shots on goal. That’s 5.9% of the shots going into the net. Conversely, Pensacola and Quad City also took 101 shots, they scored 12.8% of the time.
After Saturday nights game, I spoke with coach Jamey Hicks about the current slump the team is in:
“We’re not scoring, multiple chances in the second period, their goalie played real well. When things go like this, it’s hard to score and every mistake goes in your net.” He was optimistic despite the skid, “I’ve been around the game long enough to know, you’ve got to be patient, hard work will get you through it, once you’re through it, you’ll be better for it.”
Currently, Birmingham is tied with Knoxville for fourth in the league in major penalties (11). However, they are in a three-way tie for first in the league with 91 minor penalties. When asked about the appearance of a less than physical team as of late, Hicks said: “everyone is gonna have their assessment of what’s going on right now. We obviously would like to be more physical; we lost some physicality with (Russell) Jordan being out, (Shaquille) Merasty being up (called up the ECHL). Physicality and compete level are two different things; they cross over sometimes.”
Despite the team’s struggles this season, there is a trio of players who deserve to be mentioned, led by Matt Fuller. He came into the 2019-20 season had only five career goals in the SPHL, is tied for the team lead with seven this season. Fuller only trails Barber and Josh Harris in team scoring.
Are the Bulls struggling right now? Absolutely.
Is it the end of the world and a death sentence come the end of the regular season? Absolutely not.
This is SPHL hockey, a league where roster turnover from season-to-season is a given. Setting your roster to start every season is hit or miss for most coaches and teams.
Last season alone, the Pensacola Ice Flyers started the 2018-19 season in a slump similar to, if not worse than, Birmingham. Through their first 18 games, the Ice Flyers had scored 30 total goals for an average of 1.61 per game, allowed 55 goals for an average of 3.06 per game, and had a record of 5-11-2. However, they were able to turn it around and finish the season with a winning record, an appearance in the playoffs and took the eventual league champions to the wire in the first round of the playoffs.
Obviously, the Bulls would like to go a couple of steps further in the last part, but a turn around is coming for Birmingham. Losing streaks suck, it sucks the air out of the arena when you’re at home and makes the possible seem impossible. But when the streak snaps, it’s a glorious thing. Birmingham will be back to the team that fans remember last year, it’s just taking a little longer to fine-tune the process.
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