It might have been difficult at times to tell the difference between the Southern Professional Hockey League’s first- and last-place teams Friday night at James Brown Arena. But the league-leading Augusta RiverHawks came out of their funk long enough to escape with a 3-2 victory over the expansion Mississippi RiverKings.
Augusta’s fifth win in a row didn’t come with the high-energy offense seen in the previous four.
The team was on short rest after returning in the early morning hours on Friday from a road trip to Huntsville, Ala., and then was forced to play on soft ice because of mechanical issues at James Brown Arena earlier in the day.
The RiverHawks (16-3-1) managed just 27 shots and gave the RiverKings plenty of late chances with a pair of penalties in the final three minutes.
“We did what we needed to do to win and not much more,” head coach Brad Ralph said. “I’m sure Mississippi surprised us all with the way they came out and played.”
Mississippi pulled its goalie for 39 seconds of a 6-on-3 advantage with under two minutes to play but came up fruitless after RiverHawks goalie Jon Olthuis turned away 33 of 35 shots for his fourth win in five starts.
Augusta forward Dustin Cloutier extended his points streak to 15 games by assisting on Matt Auffrey’s first-period goal. He also scored the game-winner, even though he didn’t see it.
“Jesse Echternach made a great pass but the defenseman was there in front,” Cloutier said. “I couldn’t see it, so I just tried to go top shelf.”
Cloutier’s back-handed, no-look goal came five minutes into the final period and gave the RiverHawks their first and only lead of the night.
It was Augusta’s only even-strength goal.
The RiverKings (4-9-2) didn’t look like a team that had yet to win on the road.
Forward Robert Sich, who shares the team lead in goals scored, was out serving a three-game suspension, but the visiting team wasted no time producing offense.
Cameron Sault’s pass from behind the net bounced off teammate Tibor Varga and went in for a 1-0 lead three minutes into the game.
The puck found Ken Selby’s stick midway through the second period, and Selby beat Olthuis for another one-goal RiverKings lead.
But Jim Gehring tied the game late in the second with a hard wrister on a power play, and Cloutier’s 10th goal was enough to give Augusta the win in its first-ever meeting with the RiverKings.
Mississippi goalie David Wilson, who started the season in Augusta but was traded for cash in November, allowed three goals on 27 shots for his third consecutive loss.