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Rail Yard Dawgs Clinch First-Ever Playoff Spot

Roanoke’s Nick Schneider is sandwiched between a pair of Peoria defenders during the final regular season weekend series at the Berglund Center.

The Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs and the Peoria Rivermen both had clinching nights at the Berglund Center over the weekend.

Peoria came through the front door Friday night, knocking off the Dawgs 2-1 to clinch the regular season title in the Southern Professional Hockey League. Saturday night, despite a 5-2 loss to the Rivermen, Roanoke clinched a playoff spot in the SPHL playoffs when the Birmingham Bulls lost at Pensacola 3-0, ending any chance of the Bulls catching Roanoke for the final 8-team playoff spot.

The stage is now set for a pair of seemingly meaningless regular season matchups in Peoria between the Dawgs and Rivermen April 6-7, where Peoria can take a further look at deciding whether they want to play Roanoke in the opening round of the new SPHL playoff format.

Roanoke still has an outside chance of finishing seventh in the final standings if the Mississippi River Kings collapse in their final two regular season games, including the finale against doormat Fayetteville and the Dawgs sweep both games in Peoria. Even if both of the River King loses come in overtime, Mississippi still takes the seventh seed.

Regardless, in the SPHL “Challenge Round” playoff format, Peoria, as the first place team, gets to pick its opening round best-of-3 game opponent from the teams that finished 5th through 8th. Considering the Rivermen are 3-0 against Roanoke heading into the final two, that pick may be the obvious choice.After the Peoria selection, the second place team selects from the remaining 3, the third picks from 2 and the fourth seed will play whoever is left.

The four teams that advance out of the “Challenge Round” will have their second round matchups determined by original seeding. The Dawgs watch party for the selection show will take place in the Berglund Special Events Center beginning at 6:30 on Sunday, April 8th. Players will be in attendance and all fans are welcome.

Roanoke had put itself on the doorstep of a playoff berth Thursday night with a 6-2 thumping of Fayetteville in North Carolina. The Dawgs inched closer Friday night despite the loss to Peoria when the Bulls lost the first of two straight in Pensacola.

The Dawgs needed the win Saturday night to celebrate in front of the home crowd at the Berglund Center. While that didn’t happen, Roanoke definitely entertained when the gloves dropped at the 8:05 mark of the third period.

Roanoke had taken a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on Maxime Guyon’s power play goal, but Peoria gave a hint of things to come when they peppered Roanoke goalie Brad Barone in the final minute with no success.

In the second, Peoria tied things at the 10:31 mark on a doorstep chip by Mike Gurtler, and went ahead 2-1 one minute, twenty seconds later when Alec Hagaman floated a writer past Barone from the right circle.

2:36 into the third Joe Kalisz added a power play goal and just over 3 minutes later Cody Dion scored to make it 4-1 Peoria. Things were just getting started.

The frustration pot finally boiled over with 11:55 left in the game when Roanoke’s Chris Porter and Peoria’s Geoff Fortman dropped the gloves, both earning 5 minutes for fighting. Before the puck dropped in the subsequent face-off, three more fights erupted as the mayhem had the Roanoke faithful howling with approval. Dion scrapped it up with two more Dawgs before the game ended, finally getting a game misconduct and early trip to the showers with 3:07 left.

Roanoke’s Max Beer took advantage of Dion’s shenanigans with a power play goal with 1:44 left, but Peoria’s Ben Oskroba netted an empty netter 24 seconds later to settle any doubt of the outcome.

Less than an hour later, Birmingham lost, but not without a third period tirade of their own, getting penalties for charging, roughing, fighting, unsportsmanlike conduct and verbal abuse of officials.

Let the playoffs begin.

Bill Turner

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