PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s an unbelievable feeling, Birmingham Bulls head coach Craig Simchuk said. Yet, he noted the team has some unfinished business to do. 

For the first time since 2019, the Bulls are in the President’s Cup Finals. They will face the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs in a best-of-five series that starts Thursday night at the Pelham Civic Complex. The Bulls haven’t won the President’s Cup since joining the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2017. 

The Bulls entered the 2023 President’s Cup Playoffs as the No. 2 seed and downed the seventh-seeded Fayetteville Marksmen in the first round. Then, Birmingham matched against its in-state rival, the Huntsville Havoc. 

Like against Fayetteville, the Bulls split the first two games versus the No. 3 seed Havoc before closing out the series in game three. Simchuk said he’s been impressed with his players’ resiliencey. 

“There’s going to be a roller coaster of emotions, there’s going to be penalties, there’s going to be injuries and sickness that we have and it’s just keep going forward,” Simchuk said. 

Though Simchuk said it’s been a team effort throughout the playoffs, he emphasized the club’s goaltending. After the Bulls dropped the first game of the opening round to the Marksmen with Austin Lotz in the net, Hayden Stewart replaced him. Birmingham won the next two games, with Stewart earning a shutout in the series finale. 

But Stewart couldn’t compete in the semifinals because of illness. So, Lotz stepped up for him and played 194 minutes and six seconds over three games. The Bulls won the contests in which he surrendered only two goals. Simchuk said both goaltenders are healthy for the finals.

Because the No. 4 seed Rail Yard Dawgs upset the first-seeded Peoria Rivermen in the semifinals, the Bulls hold home-ice advantage for the finals. The Bulls will host game two Friday before the series shifts to Roanoke on Monday. If a game four is needed, it will be at the Berglund Center on Tuesday. An all-deciding game five would take place May 4 in Pelham.

“That was a big thing I was pushing for,” Simchuk said. “I think home-ice advantage is huge, and to play in front of this building with these fans, they’re the sixth man on the ice that’s going to give us that extra boost, and hopefully we can jump out to a quick start when we start. Roanoke’s only played here one time this year, so it’s a pretty unfamiliar building for them. So we got to take advantage of that.” 

In the opening round, Roanoke swept the No. 5 seed Evansville Thunderbolts in two games and outscored them, 8-2. In their semifinals series against the Rivermen, the Rail Yard Dawgs won the first game in Virginia before dropping the next game at the Peoria Civic Complex. They clinched the series with a 5-3 victory Sunday on the road. 

Over four contests, the Bulls and the Rail Yard Dawgs split their 2022-23 regular-season series. Birmingham won their last meeting, 5-4, in overtime March 3. Roanoke scored 15 goals against Birmingham, while the Bulls put up 14 versus the Rail Yard Dawgs.