By Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer (Staff photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)
A battle for first place ought to be intense.
It was that and more Friday night at the Crown Coliseum, where Pensacola and Fayetteville parried for 60 minutes in a hockey game of playoff-like intensity rather than regular-season game 20 of 56.
At the end of those 60 minutes, the FireAntz remained atop the Southern Professional Hockey League standings, nipping visiting Pensacola, 2-0. Josh McQuade's goal late in the second period held up as the game winner, and Marco Emond stopped all 28 Ice Flyers shots to send a crowd of 4,014 home happy.
Fayetteville (15-5-0, 30 points) and Pensacola (12-6-2, 26) will stage a rematch tonight at 7:30 at the Crown.
"That was definitely playoff hockey right there," said McQuade, who upped his league lead in goals (18) and points (32). "That was a battle for first place, a test for our guys, and we succeeded. And now we need to do it again (Saturday) night."
Both teams played up to their status as the league's leaders. Ice Flyers goalie Ross MacKinnon came into the game with the SPHL's top goals-against average and saves percentage, and he matched Emond save for save - until late in the second period.
That's when McQuade collected the puck and raced toward the net, unleashing a shot just inside the circle to MacKinnon's right. MacKinnon got leather on the puck, but not enough to keep it out of the net with only 31 seconds left in the period.
"He was out of his net a little too far to the right side, so the whole far side was wide open," McQuade said. "It hit off the inside of his glove. It was kind of a lucky goal, but it was a hard shot."