Written by Marinna Stopa
After two tough and thrilling contests at the Savannah Hockey Classic, the University of Florida Gators are Thrasher Cup champions for the second year in a row.
GAME 1: UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA (Win)
From the first shift of Friday night’s game against the University of Georgia, it was apparent the Gators were not going to return to Gainesville without some hardware.
Although the scoresheet doesn’t show it, the first six minutes was all Florida. No matter what Georgia did, no matter how many times they dumped it down the ice to get fresh legs on the ice, the UF defensemen were able to immediately return the puck to the UGA end and put intense pressure on Georgia goalie Ryan Testino.
It took nearly eight minutes for Georgia’s first offensive stint to develop, but they capitalized on the opportunity and put it behind UF goalie Mason Burdick to take a one-goal lead on just their second shot of the game.
This quickly put a damper on a rolling Gator team, who seemed to skate on their heels for the next couple of minutes in response and allowed Georgia to maintain momentum in the UF zone.
Following some heavy, and questionable, hits by the Icedogs, Georgia’s David Eberly laid a hit on Parker Mara, cross-checking him straight in the numbers, sending him into the boards and onto the ice.
After a tense ten or so seconds, Mara recovered, but the hit seemed to light a much-needed fire under the Gators.
Although it took seven minutes and a separate tripping call on Georgia, Vaclav Prospal, in his first game of the season, would finally get Florida on the board after a scramble in front of the net. On just his first shift back after the hit, Parker Mara, as well as Matthew Brkljacic, assisted the game-tying goal.
The second period opened up much faster.
With Connor Nicholson parked in front of the net, a pin-point pass from Nick McCann gave the captain an easy tap-in, giving the Gators their first lead of the night less than five minutes into the second.
Later, with less than seven to go in the period, two off-setting slashing calls on McCann and Georgia’s Lleyton Poole resulted in a four-on-four opportunity, clearing up more room for both teams to work with.
Just four seconds in, Luke Braun would get his first of the weekend off a pass by Quinn Shepard (who, like Prospal, was also making his Gator hockey debut), scoring a goal largely dependent on the pure perseverance by #9 to get it past the Georgia goalie.
An Icedog power play late in the second period resulted in a Georgia goal, after Lleyton Poole ripped a shot from the blue line, which, aided by traffic in front of the net, beat Burdick and got the Georgia team within one entering the last period.
The final frame put a spotlight on the players’ fatigue, evident by messy passes, hits fueled by frustration, and a lack of shot attempts, where both sides combined for a mere eight shots on net.
With twelve to go in the game, Matt Bigda would bring the game to a tie off an insane tip in front of the net, putting the puck in the Gator net. The original shot from Alexander Strauss was nowhere close to going in.
A boarding call on Prospal a minute later put a depleted Florida team in a less-than-favorable position.
However, Brukljacic showed the Enmarket Arena crowd of nearly 4,500 fans that the Gators did not come to lose. With a goal made on a shorthanded breakaway followed by an iconic celebration, made the Savannah crowd mirror one at Amalie Arena.
The game ended in wild, stunning fashion, as Georgia NEARLY scored, but was ultimately one millisecond too late, making the Georgia fan-dominated crowd go crazy.
Ruled no goal immediately, it’s safe to say the Gators were relieved and the Icedogs enraged.
For whatever reason, the newly implemented video review cameras stationed at various points of the ice, used for similar situations for the home ECHL team, the Savannah Ghost Pirates, were not on.
All the referees and fans could go off was the image provided by the goal camera displayed on the Jumbotron. Another indicator was the lights behind the net, that turned red to signify the end of the period, rather than green to indicate a goal had been scored.
Whilst the stripes conversed, the two fired-up teams exchanged some words (and punches), eventually worsened by a reaffirmation of the original call on the ice by the refs, declaring Florida the rightful winners.
GAME 2: FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
Coming off the massive win the night before, the Gators were ready to keep the ball (or puck) rolling against in-state rivals Florida State University.
Following tradition, the team brought out a two-year-old alligator named Aly from the North Georgia Wildlife Park for warmups and the anthem.
Additionally, freshman Jackson Choi skated around in a gator onesie overtop his uniform, complete with a long tail and osteoderms (the bony bumps along an Alligator’s back). He quickly stripped on the bench prior to the beginning of the game, giving himself enough time to return to the ice and take the opening faceoff.
Saturday’s game started on a much better note than the previous, with the first Gator goal coming a little over six minutes in, as a shot by Mara banked in off a stray FSU skate.
A minute later, Max Thellab would take a shot from a tough angle and beat FSU netminder Matthew Silliman’s glove side, giving Florida a commanding two goal lead heading into the second.
Play was contained entirely in the Florida State zone for the whole first period, with the Seminoles goalie being the only reason the Tallahassee-based team was within arm’s reach.
FSU came out of the locker room energized in the second period, evident in the team’s first goal, scored by James McGovern less than 30 seconds in.
However, the Gators just continued where they left off in the first period in response to the early FSU goal, with another goal by Braun, his second of the weekend and first of the game, following a very similar setup to the second UF goal.
With seven minutes to go, McCann, assisted by Nicholson and Brkljacic, once again put it past Silliman’s glove hand side. Off the very next faceoff, seemingly before FSU’s skaters knew play had resumed, Evan Edwards scored, finishing the period with a 5-1 score.
Braun would score his second of the game and the last Gator goal of the weekend thirteen minutes into the third, with assists from Quinn Shepard and Joshua Weinstein.
With his two-goal performance, Braun was named the player of the game and was honored with a gold MVP jersey.
As the Florida state showoff was the first match of the night, the Gators had to wait for the winner of the following game against the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology to know if they were Thrasher Cup champs for the second year in a row.
Coming into play Saturday night, GT had won its previous game against FSU, and Georgia had obviously been bested by the Florida Gators, both on Friday night. With a win against its own in-state rivals, the Yellow Jackets could have potentially taken home the cup themselves, depending on the tie-breaker variables, the first of which was goal differential.
Despite the odds being heavily in Georgia’s favor, with the Icedogs having won all three of the previous matches against Tech throughout the season by a margin of 14-5, the Gators were subjected to a real nail-biter. The contest was close all the way to the final second, with UGA picking up a 2-1 win despite a last-minute goal and continued pressure from Georgia Tech all the way to the buzzer.
With that, the University of Florida Gators completed their conquest to repeat as champions and emerged this weekend as the 2023 Savannah Classic Champions!
Alongside being given the Thrasher Cup for the team to parade around the ice, Matthew Brkljacic was awarded the Greg Stathis trophy, given to the most valuable player throughout the tournament.
With its two wins, the team has moved up to sixth overall in the CHS, one point behind the University of Alabama, with three games in hand.
The next two games are against the undefeated University of Tampa in Tampa, at the Clearwater Ice Arena, about a 2.5-hour drive from UF.
1/27/23: Friday at 8:30 PM, available to stream here.
1/29/23: Sunday at 5:00 PM, available to stream here.
Edited by Makena Winch