After the intense meeting between Toledo and Indy, the Swamp Rabbits were ready to return to home ice for a back-to-back series against division rivals Florida Everblades and Savannah Ghost Pirates. The two games at home were an opportunity for the Rabbits to potentially clinch their playoff berth and retain first place in the South Division. It has been years since Greenville has had a first-place lead in their division, with the standings fluctuating so much with their rivals. However, for that lead to stand, they’ll have to battle against their rivals head-to-head to keep it intact. Without a doubt, the South Division is the most competitive in the ECHL; there is so much action and fluctuation in the standings between the seven teams. Even if the teams are in last place in the South, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have something to show. Take the Savannah Ghost Pirates, for example: for most of the season, they’ve been struggling to stand out, but ever since the major call-ups to the AHL, the team had to regrow, calling up and signing new players who might have never played in the ECHL before. Despite the new players to the team, it seems to be working in their favor, but perhaps too late to render a playoff berth. The Stingrays had the same dynamic roll-up last season, as they struggled throughout most of the season in last place until a coaching change and player signings turned them into the well-known Kelly Cup champions. With the Swamp Rabbits, they’ve stood out by gaining first in the South, indicating that this postseason will differ from last year. But, their performance during their back-to-back homestand last week may disagree with that notion. Playing against your division rivals may be nerve-racking for both teams, especially when both of those teams are pretty much head and head in the division. Oh yes, we’re talking about the Everblades and Swamp Rabbits playing against each other on Friday, March 31. This game was highly anticipated to watch; if the Rabbits were to win, they’d be one win away from clinching, being the first team to clinch in the South; but, if the Everblades won, they’d rise in the standings and bring down the Rabbits 1st place ranking.
The first period started out well for the Rabbits as they spent most of their time in the Everblades zone. They put up nine shots on goal but did not score. The Everblades put up just seven shots and had one PP advantage. Greenville had Hrenak in net, with Ryan Bednard being called up for another PTO; Florida had their star goalie Cam Johnson in net. Although the game was tied after the first, the eager competition was about to erupt, and so it did… For the Everblades… At 2:01, Florida opened up the scoring with d-man LeBlanc scoring a sharp-angle goal.
After over 20 minutes of hockey, Florida would be first to score, leaving Greenville in the wild to get back and score. However, they wouldn’t, and neither would the Everblades again. Despite the trail of one goal at the end of the second period, the Rabbits were far from aggressive. They were on fire with 12 shots on goal and a lot of offensive zone pressure. Even though the Everblades haven’t been performing well in the recent weeks, they’ve certainly stepped things up against the Rabbits, as the race to playoffs continues.
Rolling down to the final 20 minutes of the game, things became desperate for the Rabbits, and for good reasons. Greenville got their first power play four minutes into the period, putting only a few shots on Johnson. Florida’s defense activated to stop the Rabbits’ chances of tying the 0-1 game. Later on, at 13 minutes, Alex Ierullo was called for tripping, giving the Everblades a chance to extend their lead on a PP. However, that chance would also be denied by the Rabbits’ defense. Tendy Hrenak has seen quite a lot of action, playing his third game in a week and making great stops on Florida. His overall performance has improved as a goaltender in recent weeks, and really living up to the drafted LA Kings prospect.
Nearing the end of the third period, the head coach of the Rabbits, Andrew Lord, pulled Hrenak for the extra attacker to try to tie up the game. With 40 seconds left in regulation, Ierullo would make a pass at center ice in the Everblades’ zone to Martin to one-time it. Martin’s powerful o-timer would go right through Johnson, and finally, they would score. The crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena loved that, so many cheers and claps were heard for Martin and the team for pushing this game to OT.
And so 3-on-3 overtime came. This was Greenville’s time to shine and take the game to retain their division lead and get closer to their playoff clinch. For almost six minutes, Greenville battled hard, putting up five shots on goal and having a PP at 1:58 to work with. However, none of that paid off, and the Everblades took the game. Florida’s Calverley passed the puck to defenseman Leblanc, and he got into a near breakaway on the left wing end of Greenville’s zone to wrist the puck at Hrenak. The puck went past Hrenak, and the game was over. It was an unfortunate loss for the Rabbits, a little turnover and poor defense at the near end of OT resulted in a loss. However, despite the loss, Greenville would still keep the 1st place rank in the South Division thanks to Martin’s goal, which gave the Rabbits one point.
There were still two games left, one at home and one on the road in Savannah. Both games would be against the Ghost Pirates, a team that, as previously mentioned, has put up an impressive show compared to the last few weeks.
Regardless of this, Greenville remained confident to win and be super close to clinching in Savannah. It was Saturday, April 1—ah, yes, April Fools—almost 5k fans showed up for Sustainability Night at Bon Secours. It was a night to win and celebrate getting closer to punching a ticket to the playoffs. The optimism was strong for this team, but Savannah had a different mentality. The first period was neutral for both teams, with lots of turnovers in both zones with plenty of scoring opportunities. Greenville would put up nine shots on goal, and Savannah would put up 11. David Hrenak would get the nod from Coach Lord to make his second back-to-back game in net, and Micheal Bullion for Savannah would also make his second back-to-back game in net. Savannah would get their first scoring chance in the period by going on the PP at 3:57. However, Greenville would kill that off. After the penalty kill, neither the Rabbits nor Ghost Pirates would score. Late in the first period, at 16:23, Alex Swetlikoff was called for hooking, and the Rabbits would get their first PP. It took nearly the full two minutes of having the man advantage, but Greeneville did it, they scored. Ben Freeman would one-time the puck in with full strength with only 14 seconds left of the PP. And that would close off the first: 1-0 Greenville.
The second period rolled out pretty well for the Rabbits, they put up 15 shots on goal and had a PP to work with. Savannah seemed to struggle a bit in the second, despite the effort on their two power plays, they only had 10 shots on goal, and yet were shy to score after 40 minutes. The Rabbits would also be shy of scoring, despite putting up 15 shots on Bullion, and would maintain a small 1-goal lead.
Entering the final 20 minutes, Savannah’s game changed significantly. There were no power plays for any team, but Savannah made do with this. At 4:17 into the third, Carter Long sniped the puck in on the right wing side from a pass by Matt Brassard.
This would be Long’s first-ever goal in his professional career. Just like that, the game would be tied and remain tied for several more minutes until Savannah scored to gain a lead. A face-off win by the Ghost Pirates would allow them to motor down to the Rabbits’ zone, and Troy Lajeunesse would make a pass on the left-wing side for Alex Swetlikoff to hard-wrist the puck past Hrenak.
Things became desperate for the Rabbits, trailing by one goal needed to end. After the goal, Greenville attempted to shoot as many times as possible on Bullion, but so many passes would get intercepted, or shots would get blocked despite the rebounds. In the final two minutes of regulation, Coach Lord decided to pull David Hrenak to bring out the six-man attack for the Rabbits in the hopes that they would tie things up and be able to repeat the same dynamic from the last game against Florida. Things seemed to work out well for the Rabbits in Savannah’s zone as the final minute was upon them. So many clean shots and passes would go by, and so many rebounds with opportunities for the Rabbits to score. But it didn’t work out in the Rabbits’ favor, and the game would end 2-1 Savannah with no overtime. Two back-to-back games at home ended with a loss, and because of that, it would leave Greenville with a stickier fight to clinch a playoff spot the next day in Savannah.
The game in Savannah would end with another Ghost Pirates dub 5-3 on home ice. That game alone was the Rabbits’ first clinching opportunity: if they had won in any fashion with an Atlanta loss or lost in OT/SO with an Atlanta loss. However, that would be put on snooze. Savannah and Atlanta would win in regulation, resulting in Greenville’s chances of clinching being put off until Thursday, April 6. Regardless of the three losses, the Rabbits will be rested up to face off for the third consecutive three back-to-back games for the final time this season on, attempting to take back first place in the South and punch their ticket to the playoffs.