With the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs coming into full swing in the coming weeks, some teams in the league have already punched their tickets to the biggest race in minor league hockey, with more clinches due to be announced soon. The Cincinnati Cyclones and Toledo Walleye are the first teams to clinch the playoffs. But, the race to settle might be challenging and exciting for many teams in the east, including some in the south. In the south division, the Jacksonville Icemen lead the division in 1st place with 57 goal points, 36-17-3, and 76 points in total, as of March 13, 2023—according to ECHL standings. Along with the Icemen, the last season Kelly Cup Champs, Florida Everblades, are in 2nd place with 72 points and 32-17-4, and the Swamp Rabbits are in 3rd with 58 goal points, 32-18-7, and 72 points.
The Greenville Swamp Rabbits returned home for a two back-to-back home stand on Thursday, March 9, and Friday, 10th, against the Jacksonville and Savannah Ghost Pirates. Now the game on Thursday against the Jacksonville Icemen was critical to get the Rabbit’s points up and drive them up the division standings in the hopes of getting close to punching a ticket to the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Regardless of the Icemen being the best team in the south and 5th in the league, the Rabbits were well prepared to put up a solid fight to win on home ice. But, things didn’t go as planned…
For the Rabbits, goaltender Ryan Bednard would get the nod from Head Coach Andrew Lord, and Jacksonville would call on Gahagen to be in the net. The 1st period started well, with both teams showing some physicality but mainly turnovers after turnovers. Passing on shots, the Rabbits had some close chances in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd periods, but nothing would go through past Gahagen. One thing to point out is that Jacksonville’s defense has been excellent against Greenville, with Greenville putting plenty of close shots on net only to get blocked or saved. Despite all the chances from Greenville, the first period would conclude scoreless at 0, with the Rabbits throwing nine shots on goal and Jacksonville throwing only two. Jacksonville even got a power play at 16:53, as Rabbits defenseman Bobby Russel was called for slashing.
Moving past to the 2nd, Jacksonville must’ve gotten an Intense message from their coaches as they would enter the period with rough physicality, 14 shots on goal, and three goals. It was insane with the performance by Jacksonville; they were taking the game seriously. Although with the tremendous performance by Jacksonville, the Rabbits were also putting up shots on goal by nine and forechecking on Jacksonville’s zone. However, that would not pay off. Greenville would still end the 2nd period scoreless, at 0, with the Icemen leading by 3. But there were still 20 more minutes for the Rabbits to play and more than a minute of a power play left. Though Jacksonville might have had many more goals scored if it wasn’t for Ryan Bednard and the Rabbit’s defense working on par, Bednard would make some tremendously significant pad saves that would keep the Icemen in line from scoring more.
Entering into the 3rd period, the Rabbits would use the minute and a half of PP time for a few moments before abusing it and letting Jacksonville clear it repeatedly until the penalty time expired and get back to full-strength hockey. But, things seemed to have gotten a little better for Greenville because they received another power play at 4:23. Into the offensive zone, the Rabbits would do pass by pass and shot by shot; however, nothing would go through past Gahagen. After that power play, nothing interesting would occur—just turnovers, overpasses, and some shots on goal that would get blocked by both tendies. At 13:08, the Icemen would get their first PP of the 3rd. But they would not convert on that and remain at 3-0.
Towards the end of the 3rd period, the Rabbits would dump the puck into Jacksonville’s zone and pull Bednard, hoping to score and muster their way up to tie or get the point. Plenty of shots would fire into the Icemen’s net, with Greenville holding their edge down to keep Jacksonville away from the empty net. However, with plenty of shots and excellently connected passes in Jacksonville’s zone by the Rabbits, nothing would go through. Gahagen would make some impressive saves to keep the puck out of the net, not even hesitant.
With that, the game would end 3-0 Jacksonville; Greenville would end with no points and go home empty-handed, despite putting up a tough fight. The shots were 11 GVL and 10 JAX, and 32 GVL and 26 JAX.
The next day on a Friday would be Greenvilles last of its home games of the week against the Savannah Ghost Pirates. Before Friday’s game, the Ghost Pirates had won three of their previous five games. Despite their division and league standings and stats, the Ghost Pirates have been putting up a tough fight to potentially get a playoff spot or end the season on a high note. However, Greenville wanted to win, especially since what happened last game against Jacksonville.
The 1st period would open with turnovers into both zones, with Greenville showing more physicality than last game. Upon reaching 5 minutes into the 1st, the Rabbits would put up shots on Ghost Pirates goalie Bullion. And that would pay off! Alex Ierullo, the team’s current leader in points and assists, would score at 5:56, with the assist by Joe Gatenby and Tanner Eberle.
It had seemed refreshing for the team to score again, mainly first in the period and game. However, that would end less than 5 minutes after the goal by Ierullo. Savannah would enter the Rabbit’s zone and net the puck in the past David Hrenak by #13 Swetlikoff, and assisted by #12 Guay and #74 Tuzzolino, at 10:11. The game was tied, but not for too long. Again, about 5 minutes later, the Rabbits would score and grab the lead, scored by Ethan Somoza and assisted by Bobby Russel and Brett Kemp at 15:57. The Rabbits would hold that lead for a few more minutes remaining in the 1st.
At 19:01, however, the Ghost Pirates would avenge their tie again, as forward #27 Shadowy scored. The 1st period was exciting and would end in a tie of 2-2.
There was a lot that Greenville needed to work on entering into the 2nd period: eliminate the turnovers, score more, and up and maintain physicality. But that didn’t happen for both team… The Rabbits would enter in the 2nd period by forechecking on Savannah, with nine shots on goal. However, that would not help them convert to scoring. The game would remain tied at 2-2 until 19:05, when the Ghost Pirates would enter the Rabbit’s zone and score. A pass by forward #11 Aragon would go to forward #29 Jeffers to one time it past Hrenak. This goal would give the Ghost Pirates the one-goal lead with less than a minute left in the 2nd.
Despite the unfortunate last-minute goal from Savannah, the Rabbits were able to recoup and get things together for the 3rd period. At 5:08, the Rabbits went into Savannah’s zone, and Carter Souch could net his 8th goal of the season from a pass by Ben Freeman. This put the game in a tie once again!
But the Rabbits weren’t done yet with scoring. Fifty seconds after the goal by Souch, Brandon McManus would net in his 9th of the season from an assist by Justin Nachbaur and Max Martin.
The Rabbits were on fire with the goals and now would lead the game by one dream of 4-3. However, Savannah noted this and scored at 6:25, 27 seconds after the goal by McManus. The goal was scored by defenseman #7 Estes and assisted by foward #19 Armour.
It took a few minutes for the Rabbits to end the tie as they battled through Savannah’s zone with some physicality. So at 9:25, Joe Gatenby would feed the puck to Justin Nachbaur near the neutral zone to score. Again, the Rabbits would hold the one-goal lead for the remainder of the 3rd period.
Until Savannah’s bench decided to pull goalie Bullion at 18:00 in the hopes of tying the game; although Savannah would hold the man advantage on the ice, they couldn’t convert on Greenvilles zone. Max Martin would get the puck in his zone, pass it to Somoza, who was in the neutral zone, and Somoza would give it to Josh McKechney. McKechney would rush through the neutral zone with two Ghost Pirates players approaching him to poke the puck away. However, McKechney had enough space to wrist the puck into the empty net and got an empty netter goal.
The crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena was loud and large for first responders night, and the six goals scored by the Rabbits amplified the loudness as a whole. With the empty netter, the Rabbits would win 6-4 and conclude the back-to-back home games. The next game would be Sunday, March 12, at Enmarket Arena in Savannah. A rematch would spark up against the two division rivals, with a dire message for the Rabbits amplifying to gain more points since the cusp of clinching for a playoff spot was approaching… Heading into the game on Sunday, the Rabbits would put up a tough battle to win, with physicality, a fight, goals, and excellent tendy saves. But, the game would end in a shoot-out, and the Ghost Pirates would get lucky with their shots to take the home dub.
Even with the loss, the Rabbits will head to Atlanta on Tuesday, March 14, hoping to get more points and hopefully a win to get closer to punching a ticket to the Kelly Cup Playoffs. According to the team, they are currently two points away from clinching, so it’s evident that the epic playoff spot is coming—perhaps very soon…