Continental Champion Carolina Readying for Round 1
Last Saturday night, the Carolina Thunderbirds took home the Continental Division crown in Columbus by virtue of a thrilling shootout victory over the River Dragons. That also locked into place a first round playoff matchup with the Port Huron Prowlers.
While they may be two of the longer-tenured franchises currently in the FPHL, familiarity isn't a factor in this series. The two teams haven't even met this calendar year. All four meetings during the regular season came during October and December respectively. Both teams have changed drastically in many ways since they last met on December 3. That was a 6-5 overtime win for the Thunderbirds, and the rosters and records for each squad have undergone significant change since.
While December 3 is an important date when previewing this series, the real turning point of the season overall came on December 16th. At that time, the Thunderbirds were in fourth place in the Continental Division, over 30 points back of Columbus for first place. Port Huron was in second at the time, with the Prowlers just a handful of points behind the River Dragons for the top spot in the division. Now, both have flip flopped.
The Thunderbirds have the best record in the division since that date, thanks in large part to the contributions of league MVP Gus Ford, Rookie of the Year Lucas Rowe, and Young Stars Joe Kennedy and Mario Cavaliere.
Carolina's depth has shown through at all levels this season, with 6 players topping the 50 point plateau, and eight topping 40 points overall. Ford leads all with a single-season franchise 114 (46 goals, 68 assists). Josh Koepplinger and captain John Buttitta have provided timely, clutch scoring along with veteran leadership in each of their 70-plus point campaigns. Justin Pringle (32 pts) and Dawson Baker (42 pts) have brought youth and speed to the mix, rounding out Carolina's concoction of success: youthful exuberance and elite experience.
The "Czech Line" of Petr Panacek, Jan Salak and Jiri Pestuka has been lights out as well, with 151 combined points between them since Panacek and Salak returned to Winston-Salem in November.
Port Huron has had a roller coaster ride since December. However, a few things have remained constant and consistent. Dalton Jay, Joseph Deveny, Matt Graham and Evan Foley have carried the load scoring wise as the only 4 Prowlers to top 50+ points. That quartet has also carried the torch of veteran leadership, as the trio Sam Marit, Alex Johnson and Liam Freeborn have provided depth scoring with all surpassing 40 points on the season.
The addition of Ian Wallace to the Prowlers goaltending trio proved to be a game changer. Wallace came from Mississippi midseason, and the former Sea Wolf stabilized what was a revolving door behind number one netminder Wyatt Hoflin.
Carolina had a quartet of midseason additions which helped round out its roster down the stretch. Defenseman Vinnie Susi added depth and dependability to the defensive core, and contributed offensively as well by scoring on his first shift as a Thunderbird. The former Mississippi Sea Wolf has been technically sound in his work on the blue line thus far and brings experiences from Danbury in the FPHL.
Matthew Bazarin was acquired from the Delaware Thunder via trade in February, and immediately added an imposing physical presence with size and skill as a tenth forward in the lineup night in and night out.
The Hussey brothers, forward Brendan and goalie Greg were claimed off waivers from Watertown in March, and their championship experiences from Watertown a year ago have shown through in their performances thus far in Carolina. Brendan scored a key goal in Elmira during his first weekend with the Thunderbirds, while Greg carried the Thunderbirds in goal to the division-clinching shootout win in the final game of the regular season against Columbus.
The two teams do know each other well, and with both having not met since December, it should make for one of if not the most exciting series of the first round of the 2023 FPHL Commissioner's Cup Playoffs.
Game 1 will be Friday night at 7:05PM ET from McMorran Arena in Port Huron. Game 2 will be Saturday afternoon at 4:05PM ET from the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex. Game 3, if necessary, would be held on Sunday, also at 4:05PM ET.
Fans wishing to purchase tickets for Game 2 and/or the if necessary Game 3 can visit the Annex box office, open daily from 10AM-5PM, head online to ticketmaster.com or carolinathunderbirds.com, call Hannah Russ at 336-748-3949 or email her at email@example.com
Special playoff rally towels will be provided to all fans at the Annex for Game 2 on Saturday afternoon.