By Brian Compton
Better late than never.
While the Columbia Inferno have been hit hard with adversity all season long, the team is in the midst of a five-game unbeaten streak and has pulled within 10 points of a playoff spot in the South Division.
Behind some stellar goaltending by 22-year-old Todd Ford (pictured) and the guidance of first-year head coach Troy Mann, the Inferno is coming together as a group, even if the squad did lose one of its best players this week.
Last Saturday, the Inferno pulled out a gritty 2-1 overtime victory on home ice against the Florida Everblades. Less than 48 hours later, forward Anthony Battaglia, who was second on the team in scoring with 45 points in 47 games, told Mann he was leaving for Europe.
Obviously, the news sent shockwaves through the locker room – a room that was finally coming together as a group.
“I think everybody was pretty much in shock in terms of the timing of it,” Mann said. “We had just come off winning a big game against Florida and we’re on a little bit of a roll. It just kind of shocked me and the team. It’s so late in the season to go over there. I just thought the timing of it (stunk). I think as a league we’ve got to do something in terms of guys bolting on you this time of year like that. Where do I replace a point-a-game guy at this time of year?”
The answer is nowhere, but that didn’t stop the Inferno from scoring five times in the first period on Tuesday night en route to a 6-4 win at South Carolina. Ford made 30 saves as the Inferno closed the gap on that fifth and final playoff spot in the South.
“The team responded very well, and I was very concerned about that,” Mann admitted. “At Monday’s practice, there was a little bit of dejection there. We’re not the only team facing adversity. It seems we’ve faced a lot of adversity all year. Every time we got going, winning two, winning three, something would happen. It’s been a battle.”
“We just pretty much knew that we had to come together,” said Ford, who ranks fifth in the ECHL with a .919 save percentage. “He was a big part of our team. The guys really liked him. I guess he did what he had to do. We just knew that we had to bond a little bit. We can’t really replace him.”