SPHL President’s Cup Finals Preview: Rail Yard Dawgs vs. Bulls (4-24-23)

By: Joey Raymond

Headline Photo Credit: SPHL

The Hockey communities of Birmingham, Alabama and Roanoke, Virginia are buzzing with excitement as both their respective teams have made it to the President’s Cup final. Well the answer to that question of “How did we get here?” For both teams I think one simple word could suffice. Resilience. Both the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs and the Birmingham Bulls had to play not just a tough season but two tough teams to get to this point. 

Photo Credit: Katie Lovell-LMS Network Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs vs Peoria Rivermen (4-19-23)

Let’s start with the Bulls. The Bulls finished in second place this year earning themselves a (37-16-2-2) record en route to a 2 seed in these SPHL playoffs. Not only that but their Head Coach Craig Simchuk worked himself into winning head coach of the year. All the while naming 2 players to the All-SPHL team. Once into the playoffs they continued their winning ways by knocking out the Fayetteville Marksman, winning 2 games to 1. After the Marksman came the Huntsville Havoc. The Bulls once again continued to just keep overcoming adversity and winning some tight matchups in route to once again winning 2 games to 1. 

The key for the Bulls to host the President’s Cup? You have to stop Roanoke’s main 3, and get past one of the best goalie in the league, Austin Roudebush. Roanoke’s main three consist of Nick Ford, Mac Jansen, and CJ Stubbs. They are all really good at sharing the puck and distributing points. CJ Stubbs is the lowest point getting of the three and he still has 47 points. For some context the Bulls Micheal Gellespie has 60 points but the next closest player after him? Is Troy MacTravish with 39. Austin Roudebush is the other player the Bulls are going to have to keep in mind. This season Roudebush went (24-12-2-2) with a 0.906 save percentage. That’s one of the best in the league statistically. Lastly, the Bulls need to make the Dawgs emotional. If there’s one thing we’ve seen this year it’s that the Dawgs can be touch and go on the penalty kill this year. If they can get Roanoke to spend some time in the box, it could turn tides for the Bulls in this series. 

Moving over to Virginia and those “Dirty Dawgs” as they like to coin themselves. They finished the year with a (32-19-3-2) record en route to a 4 seed in the playoffs. The Dawgs dealt with both some good and some bad this season, breaking season attendance records, dealing with a lot of players coming and going early in the year, and dealing with suspensions and injuries. The Dawgs love playing the underdog though as they seem to relish in that role. It seems awfully fitting considering their team name. In the playoffs the Rail Yard Dawgs started out by sweeping the Evansville Thunderbolts, 2 games to 0. A feat that even i thought wasn’t possible as I predicted them needing all 3 games to win that series. In the next round we saw the Dawgs play the Peoria Rivermen. A “revenge series” so to speak as Peoria beat the Dawgs in the President’s Cup final last season on Roanoke’s home ice. The Dawgs won game one here and took the momentum into Peoria only needing to win one, losing game two, and ultimately pulling the series win out after game 3, winning the series 2 games to 1. 

Photo Credit: Katie Lovell-LMS Network Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs vs Peoria Rivermen (4-19-23)

The key for Roanoke in my opinion in this series is to control your emotions and stay out of the box. Roanoke this season and especially after game two of the semi final has shown that they can be extremely spotty at times on the penalty kill. The other key to the Dawgs having success is defense. Micheal Gillespie is a prolific point getting and can score really well. This year he gathered 60 total points and scored 27 goals for the Bulls. Stopping him is going to be super important if the Dawgs are to win the President’s Cup. Lastly, we need to see Roanoke’s main three come up clutch. Winning in the playoffs is hard, trying to do it when your big three can’t score? Even harder. Nick Ford, Mac Jansen, and CJ Stubbs really need to gather up some big points if the Dawgs want to win the cup. 

All in all, this has the markings of being a super competitive series. You have two teams who at least on paper, match up fairly well and have strengths and weaknesses that compliment the others. Game one of this series will start on Thursday April 27th in Birmingham, Alabama. They continue on the following Friday, take a travel day on Saturday and Sunday. The Dawgs then take a turn to host game 3 on Monday, May 1st and then if need be, game two on the following Tuesday. If this goes to five games, they’ll go back to Birmingham on a date that’ll be announced later.