By Aileyahu Shanes
Follow on Twitter @a_shanes10
After coming up short in the 2019-20 season, the Gators finally made it to the conference playoffs. With an 8-9-1 CHS record, the Gators came into the tournament as the sixth seed, but looked to play past their ranking and create a big presence.
The first matchup would be against the third-ranked Clemson Tigers. The Gators kept solid pace with them early on. Clemson found the back of the net first, with Connor Brydges scoring off feeds from James Conway and Cade Heinold short-handed. However, Florida was able to convert on a power play with 45 seconds left in the period. Phillip Vanderlaat would get the goal with Harrison Haber recording the assist.
Unlike the first, Clemson took full control of the second. With just under fifteen minutes to play in the period, John McKeon would score, assisted by Jack Owen-Turner and Luke Dobbs, on a power play. Thirty seconds later, Brian Blomquist would extend Clemson’s lead to 3-1, with Cade Heinold getting his second assist and point on the play. Just fifteen seconds later, Herbert Kopf would convert on another Clemson power play, bringing the Tigers’ lead to three. At the end of the period, the Gators started to gain more control. With five minutes left in the frame, Parker Mara would score off assists from John Hunt and Matthew Brkljacic. Parker Mara would then get another goal with just three minutes to play in the second to cut Clemson’s lead to one.
The Gators took that momentum straight into the last period. Three minutes into the third, Haber would get his first goal, and second point, of the game, assisted by John Coltellino, to tie the game at four. Phillip Vanderlaat would then give the Gators their first lead of the Game, with his second goal of the game, five minutes later off a John Hunt assist, his second of the night. John Hunt would take that momentum and get a goal of his own with seven minutes to play. Haber would get his third point of the night and Brkljacic would get his second on the play. Haber then continued his dominant performance with his second goal and fourth point of the game with six minutes to go, giving Florida a 7-4 lead. Assists went to Jacob Horwitz and John Hunt. After wracking up a plethora of assists, Brkljacic wanted to get a goal of his own. The freshman defenseman would score short-handed to give the Gators their final goal of the game.
The 8-2 win meant the Gators punched their ticket to the CHS semi-finals against the University of Georgia, who beat out the Auburn Tigers earlier that night. The player of the game for the Florida Gators was Harrison Haber, putting up two goals, two assists and four points; and the player of the game award for Clemson was given to Brian Blomquist, who put up a power play goal in the second period.
The last time the Gators played the Bulldogs, they beat them in the Savannah Hockey Classic to help secure Florida’s Thrasher Cup victory. They were hoping to build on that momentum coming into the semi-final game, but Georgia was set on settling the score.
The first period started with two Georgia goals. The first one came from freshman Trevor Gutmann off assists from Jack Gannon and Jacob Salaski. Gannon came up with the second goal, with Jackson Katz and George Mesaros both putting up assists. Later in the period, Phillip Vanderlaat put in his third goal of the tournament to cut the Bulldogs’ lead in half. Brkljacic and Mara would put up assists on the play, continuing their dominant playoff performances as well.
The Gators turned things around in the second. Connor Nicholson would tie the game at two followed by a goal by Aidan Muruve to give the Gators a 3-2 lead. However, Matthew Bigda would tie the game at three for the Bulldogs, with Mesaros getting another assist.
The third period saw even more scoring. The Bulldogs took back control of the game with Jackson Katz scoring off feeds by Bigda and Mesaros. However, Brkljacic would tie the game at four, with an assist from John Hunt. From that point, however, Georgia took control of the game. Katz would find the back of the net again, assisted by defenseman Lleyton Poole. Mesaros would score the last goal of the game, with an assist going to Jack Gannon, to bring the final score to a 6-4 UGA victory. Parker Mara would take home player of the game for the Gators while Jackson Katz would get the honors for the Bulldogs.
Although the Gators would not have the privilege of going to the championship game, they still had the chance to play in the third-place game against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama lost their semi-finals game against Florida Atlantic, who would move forward to take on Georgia in the championship.
Alabama came into the CHS tournament the fifth-ranked team. In the first round, they upset the fourth-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but they came up short against the second-seeded FAU Owls. No matter the outcome, both teams would finish the tournament at a ranking higher than what they came into the playoffs with initially, but getting third place would be that much sweeter for both.
The Gators started the game very well. Five minutes into the first, Connor Nicholson would score his second goal of the tournament from Brkljacic and Mara. Alabama would tie the game at one, however, just a minute later, with a goal from forward Dean Angelo. With just over a minute left in the period, Vanderlaat would score yet another goal for the Gators to regain the lead. Hunt and Haber would cash in on assists on the play.
The Crimson Tide flipped the script in the middle frame, however. Six minutes into the period, Ryan Olson would tie the game at two, with assists going to Matt Brown and Max Savaloja. Just over a minute later, Alabama would get their first lead of the game. Joshua Beese would convert on the power play with an assist going to Easton Williamson.
With the Gators down one coming into the final period of the playoffs, it was now or never for them to convert. The first half of the period was evenly matched, and defense controlled throughout, but Jacob Horwitz was finally able to find the back of the net with nine minutes to go. Nicholson would record the only assist on the play. With the way the game was going, it looked like Florida would hold Alabama to overtime; however, with a minute and a half left to play, Easton Williamson would score off a feed from Max Savaloja. The Gators would try hard to tie it up again, but Alabama shut down their defense. The Crimson Tide would take third place in the tournament with a 4-3 win over the Gators. Florida would take fourth place. Jacob Horwitz would take player of the game honors for Florida while Easton Williamson, who scored the game-winning goal, would take the honors for Alabama.
Later that night, the Georgia Bulldogs would beat out the FAU Owls 4-2 in the championship game. The final playoff rankings are as follows: #1 Georgia Bulldogs, #2 FAU Owls, #3 Alabama Crimson Tide, #4 Florida Gators, #5 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, #6 Clemson Tigers, #7 Auburn Tigers, #8 MTSU Blue Raiders.
Although the Gators fell flat in the final two games of the playoffs, this season was still nothing short of a success. They accumulated a great CHS record, finished in eleventh in the CHF Southeast Region rankings, won the Thrasher Cup and placed fourth in the CHS playoffs. It will only get better from here next season. With young talent ready to take bigger roles on the team and with most of the veterans staying for at least one more season, the only direction this hockey team can go is up.