MACON, Ga. – Any time the Macon Mayhem host the Birmingham Bulls, it’s hard not to notice the specter of Bulls assistant coach and former tw0-time head coach Macon head coach Kevin Kerr.
All three regular-season and postseason banners hanging in the Macon Coliseum came with Kerr at the helm, and three current Macon players, CJ Hayes, David Nippard, and Caleb Cameron, played for Kerr either in Macon or Birmingham.
Motivated more than usual or not, the Mayhem finally showed fruits of recent improvement on Thursday night, coming back from a 2-1 deficit to knock off the Bulls 4-2 and snap a six-game losing streak in which three losses were by one goal.
“You can’t put into words how important this was to this hockey team, and the organization in general,” Mayhem head coach Nick Niedert said. “Coach Kerr has been here for years, right? Those banners are all his. For anyone who says it’s just another game, that meant a lot more to the guys in this room who played for him. It meant a lot to the guys to be able to go into the break with a win. That was huge.”
MAYHEM WIN!! #BattleEveryShift pic.twitter.com/55mJcL3cJt
— Macon Mayhem (@MaconMayhem) December 23, 2022
Macon (3-13-2, eight points) enjoyed a two-point night from Kyle Soper, whose goal just 2:18 into the game beat Hayden Stewart as Aaron Aragon and Nippard assisted. Nippard also had two points, both on assists.
That was before the Bulls, despite being depleted to a degree, surged to end the opening period, scoring twice within 1:44 to lead 2-1 on goals by Nick Fea following a scrum near the Macon goal and another side-angled wrist shot by Zac Masson that beat Mayhem goalie Cam Gray to his right at 17:48 of the first.
“They’re banged up, but they’re deep and extremely well coached. Coach (Craig) Simchuk and Coach Kerr, they are a phenomenal two-headed monster in this league. No disrespect to the other coaches around the league, but they have a great thing going,” Niedert said of the Bulls. “They had a game plan, stuck to it, and played a heck of a game. They dressed, I think, eight d-men. They threw everything at us and were very structured. That shows you what kind of team they have.”
The Bulls wouldn’t score again the rest of the evening, with Gray making big save after big save, including multiple ones down the stretch in stopping 25 out of 27 shots.
“Since being here and getting to know these guys, I just wanted to be able to play behind them and get them a win,” Gray said. “They played a heck of a game in front of me, blocking shots and getting goals. It was a good team win.”
But Macon needed timely goal scoring to complement Gray’s play in net, and the Mayhem generated just that. Ironically, the Mayhem’s second goal of the game came from a penalty against Macon. Seconds after a penalty to Matt Stoia for cross-checking expired, he flew out of the penalty box just in time to take the up-ice pass from Soper along the left side. Stoia flew in, beating Stewart to tie the score at 2-2 14:56 into the second.
Fans had barely gotten back to their seats when Devin Brink found a crease along the left side, slapping the puck past Stewart for the go-ahead goal 15:50 into the second period.
In the rare position of being in front protecting a late lead, the Mayhem closed the deal, killing off one Bulls power play starting at 12:35 as well as digging in within their own zone as Gray and company closed out the win with Aragon’s empty-net goal with 51 seconds left setting the final margin for a team whose in-season adversity has included a lack of practice time. This week marked the 22nd time this season that the Mayhem has been able to practice due to ice availability.
“I put it in our group chat that I get frustrated because we’re so close, but all truth aside, when I’m yelling at guys, it’s because it’s usually nitpicky things because we don’t have the practice reps,” Niedert said. “But for what every single player here has accomplished this year, the place we are in at this standings does not come near what kind of team this is. I could not be prouder of this group and how much adversity these guys have battled through. It’s a remarkable group; we’ll get better.”
Birmingham goes to Pensacola Friday, with Macon playing at Pensacola on Tuesday.
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