LAFAYETTE — A crowd in the standings has raised the stakes for the Louisiana IceGators.
As the ’Gators prepare for a trio of games this weekend, the space between third place and last in the Southern Professional Hockey League is seven points.
Fayetteville has 43 points in third place, the Gators have 40 points (seventh) and 36 points marks the bottom.
“It is desperation time for a lot of people,” IceGators coach Drew Omicioli said. “If we grab six points, we can be in third by ourselves. With three wins, we could also have an 8-to-10 point lead above the bottom teams. This is the most crucial weekend for us this year.”
Those three tests coming up will start with a Friday contest at Pensacola (20-15-3) at 7:05 p.m. The Gators (18-18-4) will return to the Cajundome for the ensuing games, as they deal with Columbus at 7:05 Saturday and Macon at 3:05 Sunday.
Pensacola has a decided series edge over the Gators — the IceFlyers have won all six previous matchups. The Gators received a boost when goalie Brad Barone returned to the squad from loan to Florida of the ECHL. Barone ranks second in the league in goals against average at 2.18. Adam Courchaine is coming off a weekend where he registered a pair of wins over Huntsville that included a 1-0 shutout Saturday. Considering the IceGators will be playing three times in three days for the fourth straight weekend, that depth between the pipes will be needed.
“For a vast majority of the season, we have had Barone, Courchaine and (Eric) Levine called up and we had to bring up young goaltenders from the Federal League,” Omicioli said. “Those two guys (Barone and Courchaine) have proven their worth — not just for me — but for the guys in front of them. It also creates a healthy competition level between those two netminders.”
That duo may have an added importance against a Pensacola club that features the league’s leading goal scorer in winger Corey Banfield (24 goals). Center Adam Pawlick has contributed 17 goals and 18 assists for the IceFlyers. Keeping those scorers from getting power play opportunities ranks high on Omicioli’s wish list.
“We have to play a defensive mentality,” Omicioli said. “If we shut down their neutral zone transition and reverse it, we feel 5-on-5, we can beat any team.”
When the IceGators tangle with Columbus and Macon, they will face a pair of teams that are both four points behind them. “Columbus is a gritty, physical team that has gotten great goaltending from Brandon Jaeger,” Omicioli said. “We have to draw from our crowd, be physical, limit turnovers and be disciplined.”
The Gators are hosting “Star Wars” night and hoping to break the SPHL attendance record on Saturday.
“We have a special team here,” Omicioli said. “We have guys that go to hospitals and schools and visit kids and make sure they are part of the community. I would love to see the fans come out and support guys and I hope we can break the attendance record.”