A frenzied comeback erased two periods of sluggish hockey, but the Augusta RiverHawks couldn’t finish the job in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Columbus Cottonmouths on Friday night at James Brown Arena.
A prime opportunity to strengthen their grip on first place and a public announcement from owner Bob Kerzner stabilizing the team’s future couldn’t energize them early, but the whistle of referee Christopher Pitsoscia did.
The RiverHawks spent most of the second period in the penalty box and fell behind 3-1 before orchestrating a hectic comeback to tie the game and even take a late third-period lead.
But after Southern Professional Hockey League leading scorer Jim Gehring gave Augusta a 4-3 lead with four minutes left, a defensive breakdown 36 seconds later left Columbus’ Orrin Hergott alone for an easy score to send the game to overtime.
After a scoreless extra frame, the teams went six shootout rounds before Jordan Braid netted the game-winner.
“I’m really ecstatic. The guys executed the gameplan to a T,” Columbus coach Jerome Bechard said. “This is probably one of the hardest places to play in the league with the small ice and the fans right on top of you. We’re happy to get out of here with two points.”
Third-place Columbus (24-13-5) moved to within eight points of first-place Augusta (28-9-5), which also lost ground to second-place Knoxville. The Ice Bears (25-11-4) beat the Mississippi RiverKings to climb to within seven points of Augusta.
The RiverHawks had plenty of chances to extend their five-game home winning streak. After falling behind 3-1, Neil Graham and Gehring scored in 61-second span to erase two poor opening periods of play.
“We got backed into a corner with all the penalties and came out fighting,” Augusta coach Brad Ralph said. “The third period we were gassed. When you have to kill nine penalties, your key guys get exhausted and we didn’t have much in the tank in the third.”
Egor Mironov smashed home what appeared to be the game-winner on a rebound with 4:04 left in regulation, but Hergott’s second goal of the game came on the next shift to force overtime.
In a five-round shootout, Taylor was the only skater to score through the first four rounds. Ed Snetsinger had a chance to win it in the fifth, but his shot flew wide left and Columbus’ Greg Beller kept the game alive by knocking a shot in off the post.
A sudden-death sixth round saw Gehring miss wide right before Braid beat Peter Skoggard.
Columbus’ Andrew Loewen made 21 saves in the victory while Skoggard stopped 25 of 29 shots.
Before the game, Bob and Diane Kerzner and James Brown Arena general manager Monty Jones Jr. announced to the crowd of 1,603 fans that the two sides had reached an agreement for a one-year lease extension to keep minor league hockey in Augusta through 2013.