Friday, 27 December 2019

Szabados' Best Boxing Day

I was glancing at Twitter casually over the last week with us being in the midst of the holiday season, and goaltender Shannon Szabados had posted the picture to the left while talking about her favorite ugly Christmas sweater. It got me thinking about her history, and yesterday is perhaps one of the biggest days in her and in hockey's history as December 26 marks the anniversary of Shannon's first shutout in professional men's hockey, making her the first woman to record such a feat! Who was the opponent? What team is she playing for? What were the details? Let's take a look at why this day is significant in hockey history!

Back in 2015, Shannon Szabados was a member of the SPHL's Columbus Cottonmouths. Having lost in the opening round of the 2014-15 SPHL Playoffs, there was hope on the horizon that the Cottonmouths could take the next step and return to the glory that they had celebrated back in the 2011-12 season when they won the President's Cup. The league, in 2015-16, also opted to expand to Macon, Georgia to include the new Macon Mayhem franchise, making them the ninth SPHL team in the league.

Off the top, things were going to be different in Columbus, Georgia when the team's top two scorers in Matt Gingera and Bryce Williamson both opted to leave the team. Andrew Loewen, Szabados' goaltending partner for the last year, also stepped back from the game as he retired from the sport. The defensive unit also saw departures, so there was seemingly a rebuild happening in Columbus. This, of course, left a couple of gaping holes in the Columbus lineup that GM and head coach Jerome Bechard had to fill.

He did fill those spots, albeit this was going to be a much different team after Bechard brought in ten players without any SPHL experience with nine players being professional rookies. Joining Szabados in the crease for the 2015-16 season was one of those green players in Brandon Jaeger, a netminder straight out of the collegiate ranks where he played with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Jaeger's numbers were good there - never posting a GAA above 2.69 nor a save percentage below .881 - but the step to professional hockey is a big one. Jaeger would have to be better than he had been in college to keep those kinds of numbers in Columbus, and spectacular if he hoped to replace Loewen's 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage at the pro level. Bechard believed in the incoming kid and trusted his remaining netminder in Szabados, so it seemed that everything in the blue paint was set.

Bechard told The Canadian Press, "She's proven herself. She's only the proven commodity I have right now. She's going to get the same amount of ice time, if not more."

The Cottonmouths opened the season with seven-straight losses, going 0-4-3 in those games as the team worked to find chemistry and figure out each other's playing styles and tendencies. After beating Macon 3-2 in shootout in their eighth game, the team won four of its next six games to give themselves some life at 5-6-3. A 1-3-1 run would carry the team into the December 20 week at 6-9-4 before a 4-1 win on December 23 would send the Cottonmouths into the two-day Christmas break at 7-9-4. While not at the top of the standings, the Cottonmouths seemed to be poised for better times post-holiday break after shaking off the seven losses to start the season with a 7-5-1 run.

That leads us to the next game they would play on December 26 where Shannon Szabados was named the starter in a road game in Huntsville, Alabama against the Huntsville Havoc. Huntsville, to that point, has assembled a roster that was finding wins over good teams as they went into the Christmas break at 13-7-0, but having lost their final game before the break to Peoria by a 3-0 score, snapping a four-game win streak. It should be noted that goaltender Kevin Genoe handled the majority of the workload for the Havoc in the first half of the season, and he would be who got the nod for the Havoc in the December 26 game to square off against Szabados.

6256 fans made their way down to PharmacyFirst Ice, the home of the Huntsville Havoc, to catch the post-Christmas game between the hometown Havoc and the visiting Cottonmouths. I don't think it matters in the scope of this article, but I'll make a note here that James White was the referee for this game and he was joined by linesmen Brian McAvoy and Trevor Atkinson on the lines as they were part of this historical day.

The opening period saw both sides test the other's goaltender as the Havoc outshot the Cottonmouths 10-6. There were no goals scored in the opening frame as both Szabados and Genoe denied all chances. Perhaps the only highlight that the fans cheered about was the fight between Columbus' Al Graves and Huntsville's Jeremy Beirnes with five minutes left in the period, but the teams would head to the intermission still locked at 0-0.

The second period opened with the same feel as the first period as the two teams looked for chances, but it would Columbus would found the first opportunity. After some sustained offensive-zone pressure, Ben O'Quinn sniped a shot past Genoe at 2:19 of the second period to put Columbus up 1-0 on their ninth shot of the game with helpers going to Andy Willigar and Kyle Brodie. That goal seemed to light a fire under the Havoc as they applied some serious pressure through the remaining 17 minutes that included a five-minute stretch to close out the period where they outshot Columbus 7-0. As you're likely aware, none of those shots would get by Szabados as Columbus went to the second intermission up 1-0 despite trailing in shots by a 27-15 margin.

The third period saw the Cottonmouths up the pressue on the Havoc, recording the first eight shots of the period. Three of those shots came from Chris Rial in the opening 2:30 of the frame, but it would be a pass that got Rial on the scoresheet when he found Louis Belisle open, and Belisle fired the puck past Genoe at 4:36 to put the Cottonmouths up 2-0!

Huntsville would use a shortened power-play to record their first shots of the period, but it would be Columbus would make their next shot count after that power-play as Chris Rial's fourth shot of the period found the back of the net at 9:39 to put Columbus up 3-0 off assists by Andy Bathgate and Belisle! Huntsville would see their chances at trying to find anything to build on decimated by back-to-back charging penalties assessed to Will Aide that also earned him an early trip to the showers with a ten-minute misconduct for his second charging indiscretion. With just four shots in the final ten minutes of the game, Huntsville could not solve Szabados on this day as the Columbus Cottonmouths skated to the 3-0 victory over the Huntsville Havoc!

With this being Szabados' first shutout of her career in men's professional hockey and the first by a woman in men's professional hockey, it goes without saying that Shannon Szabados was named the game's first star. What might be missing are the numbers: 33 saves on 33 shots, holding a Huntsville team that averaged three goals-per-game in their first 20 games to zero as they were shutout for the first time in 2015-16, holding the Huntsville power-play to oh-for-three on the night, ten first-period saves, 17 second period saves, and six third-period saves. Not a bad Boxing Day at all for the Edmonton-born netminder!

What didn't help Columbus is that the team went on an eight-game losing streak from January 22 until February 7, and dropping nine of eleven games to close out the season after winning two games to snap that eight-game losing streak. If you're doing the math, that's four wins in their final 21 games of the season. In a 56-game SPHL season, losing 17 games in 21 opportunities, combined with a seven-game losing streak to start the season, are vital ingredients in a recipe where one misses the playoffs, and the Cottonmouths did indeed miss the playoffs in 2015-16 after finishing the season 19-29-8. In fact, they were the only team to miss the playoffs as the other eight teams all qualified for the newly-constructed SPHL playoff format.

There weren't a lot of highlights in the 2015-16 season for the Columbus Cottonmouths, but December 26, 2015 stood out as perhaps the best and brightest day of the season that year as Shannon Szabados added another page to the history she's writing as a part of this game. The boxscore is linked here for those who like historical boxscores, but Boxing Day will always be special for Shannon Szabados as she did something no one else had ever done on that day.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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