After closing last year just short of the playoffs, the Birmingham Bulls took that momentum along with key offseason additions to roll off to a strong start to the season. After enduring charges of call-ups and injuries, the Bulls picked up the pace in March, winning seven of eight contests at one point to finish second in the standings to end the regular season.
The Bulls already had experience in Mike Davis, Carson Rose, and Stefan Brucato heading into the season, and the emergence of Mike Gillespie and Jake Pappalardo only helped the Bulls’ cause, helping them to rate third in the league in goals scored. Gillespie does not just lead Birmingham with 60 points but also paces the way with a 24 plus-minus rating.
Combine the quality goaltending of Hayden Stewart and Austin Lotz, two who have seen plenty of time in the SPHL, and it’s not hard to see how things have gotten going for the Bulls this season. Stewart’s three shutouts ties him for third in the league.
The Marksmen steadied things after a 3-7 start to the season, playing around .500 hockey, play that kept them in the postseason window. Fayetteville was not very streaky this season. While the Marksmen did not rip off a long winning streak, they avoided a lenghty losing string at the same time. Special teams gave Fayetteville a jolt as the season went on, with the Marksmen being fifth of all SPHL teams on the power play and third on the penalty kill. Austin Alger stepped up to lead Fayetteville in scoring, placing 12th in the league with 51 points. Experience also helped the Marksmen, with Brian Bowen, Taylor McCloy and Drake Glover wrapping up the season with 43, 36 and 35 points and Carson Vance setting the tone on defense with a plus-minus of 10.
Final Regular Season Records:
Birmingham: 37-16-4, 78 points
Fayetteville: 26-22-8, 60 points
Series Schedule (Home team in CAPS and all times local):
Thursday, April 13 – Birmingham at FAYETTEVILLE, 7:15 p.m.
Saturday, April 15 – Fayetteville at BIRMINGHAM, 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, April 16 – Fayetteville at BIRMINGHAM, 6:00 p.m. (if necessary)
Season Series Recap:
The Bulls gained the upper hand for the most part during the season, winning all but one of five matchups. This was mostly done by relentless pressure, with two of those wins coming with Birmingham having at least 37 shots on goal, a whopping 58 in one meeting. The lone Marksmen win came despite giving up 49 shots on goal, so preventing a repeat of that will certainly be key in this series.
How Birmingham Wins:
The Bulls have been able to stay going on the offensive end by having someone different step up. Lulls will happen in the postseason by default, so Birmingham will need to not take shifts off and let a lower seed think that it has a chance. This is not a series where a goalie would need to take over and go into shutdown mode, but you don’t need lapses either, so the play of either Stewart and Lotz will play a sizeable role.
How Fayetteville Wins:
If the Marksmen have an opportunity in this series, there is no better chance than special teams. The Bulls are rated sixth on the power play and sixth on the penalty kill. The good news if you are a Marksmen fan? The orange and black are third on the penalty kill and fifth on the power play. If the Marksmen can win the spcial teams battle and avoid getting overwhlemed on offense, the chance is there to pull the upset.
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