South Carolina club ice hockey continues conference play Friday night when the Florida Gators roll into Irmo for a rematch of February's hotly-contested SECHC quarterfinal game.
Florida will enter this weekend's matchup just above .500 at 4-3-1 (2-1-1 SECHC) but riding high on the back of three wins in three nights against Ole Miss, Auburn and College of Charleston at Auburn's home rink in Columbus, Georgia, this weekend. Standing at 5-5-1 after last Friday's loss at Georgia, the Gamecocks (1-2-1 SECHC) could take momentum from a win or two this weekend into their Nov. 17 rematch at Clemson, after which they begin a six-game homestand through Jan. 26.
Injuries are certain to be a factor this weekend as the Gamecocks will be without starting goaltender Bobby Lombardi (broken finger) and forward Jake Tengi (concussion). Forward Sean Davis (concussion) will return Friday for his first game since Oct. 15 at Tennesee.
Even without Tengi, Davis will return to a South Carolina offense perfectly capable of capturing its third straight win over the Gators. Geoff Kostrzebski has four points in his last two games and Mike Borst showed strong lamplighting ability with a pair of goals at Georgia last Friday night. With Lombardi out, Jared Ward will make his first appearance in net since stopping 26 of 32 Tennessee shots in a shootout loss at Knoxville on Oct. 15.
South Carolina took last year's series between these two, splitting a doubleheader at Jacksonville last November but capturing the Feb. 10 rubber match at Antioch, Tennessee, to earn a spot in the SECHC semifinals. Alec Martone's two goals and Bobby Lombardi's 38 saves lifted the Gamecocks to the 4-2 victory that ended Florida's conference tournament bid.
This series will be crucial if South Carolina is going to contend for the best record in the SECHC, but even with Lombardi and Tengi it would be a mistake for the Gamecocks to look past this Florida squad. The Gators nearly upset Georgia in Athens Oct. 20, leading the Ice Dawgs 4-3 going into the third and taking them into overtime. Georgia forward Aaron Phillips ultimately beat Kyler Muruve 1:52 into the extra frame to seal the red and black's 20th consecutive win on home ice.
Far and away the driving factor behind Florida's five wins has been their nearly six-goal-a-game offense. To even hope for victory the Gamecocks must keep quiet top Gator forwards Daniel Clifford, Zane Katz and Brendan Nicholson, who have combined for 26 of their team's 46 goals this season.
Clifford previously skated with the South Shore Kings of the Tier III Empire Junior Hockey League, nearly leading the Foxboro, Massachusetts-based team with 52 points in 37 games in 2012-13. This season he has already equaled his 2016-17 offensive output of 26 points, but in 13 fewer games. Clifford hung three goals and four assists on College of Charleston in an 11-4 rout Sunday.
Like Clifford, Katz is one of Florida's 19 homegrown players. The Palm Harbor native notched 81 points in 41 games with East Lake High in Tarpon Springs before spending 2013-14 with the New York Apple Core of the Tier III Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. A formidable playmaker, Katz leads the Gators with 16 assists on the year and has at least one in each of his first eight games, including three in wins over Clemson and Ole Miss.
Nicholson is in the midst of a breakout season after contributing 31 points in his first three seasons in Gainesville. He also reached his 2016-17 level of offensive output in record time Sunday against College of Charleston when he fed forward Garret Quillen for his ninth assist and 18th point of the season.
Putting the puck in the net is not a problem, but goaltending has been quite another story for the Gators, who have surrendered 5.5 goals per game this season. Head coach Mike Marcinkiewicz has started three goaltenders through eight games but has mostly looked to Mark Finkelstein, who stands at 3-2-0 with a 5.67 GAA on the year.
Muruve has come up big in both of his starts, nearly knocking off mighty Georgia and holding Auburn to one goal on 28 shots Saturday on the Tigers' home ice. Despite covering less net than the 5'8", 200-lb. Finklestein, his performance in those games could earn him the nod Friday night from Marcinkiewicz.
The puck drops Friday at 9:15 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m. at Plex HiWire ice rink in Irmo.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Clifford led the 2012-13 South Shore Kings in scoring. Clifford finished second on the team to forward Evan Jacques (64 points).