Four times the Augusta RiverHawks had traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., this season and played in front of an average crowd of almost 4,000 hostile fans. Four times the RiverHawks had lost.
So when more than 3,000 fans poured into James Brown Arena on Sunday for another showdown between the top teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the RiverHawks knew the advantage was finally on their side.
“It was amazing – like an extra player in the end,” goalie Peter Skoggard said. “With the military guys screaming and really getting into it, it helped us, for sure.”
Skoggard made 32 saves in a wild 6-5 RiverHawks win in front of one of the most active home crowds of the season, fueled by the energy of hundreds of soldiers from Fort Gordon on Military Appreciation Night.
Augusta took a three-goal lead in the first period and seemed ready to cruise, but second-place Knoxville scored four consecutive goals for a one-goal lead in the third period.
Augusta coach Brad Ralph said the large crowd brought a spark to his team when it was needed most.
“It’s unbelievable when you’ve got a crowd that’s into the game and they’re that loud,” he said. “We killed off a penalty there in the third period and came right back and scored and the place erupted.
“It’s a huge lift, especially for a team that blew a 3-0 lead in the third game in three nights. You get down, you’ve got nothing left and you’re wondering if you can pull it out. The crowd lifted us.”
The official count of 3,034 fans was the third-largest in franchise history. The record of 3,715 fans was set in October in the season opener.
Last season’s Military Appreciation Night drew an announced crowd of 3,411 on Jan. 8, 2011.
OVERWORKED WINGS: As part of Military Appreciation Night, Mark Kunkle, who skates around as RiverHawks mascot Gus, pledged to do 25 push-ups for every fight during the game, 35 for every Augusta goal and 45 for every Augusta power play goal.
Kunkle trudged off the ice at the end of the night soaked in sweat and had to pause between gasps for air before he could say how many push-ups he’d done.
“It was 275,” he said.
The RiverHawks scored six goals – two on power plays – and got into two fights.
TOP SPOT: Augusta became the first team to clinch a postseason spot last week with a Valentine’s Day win in Fayetteville, N.C.
Second-place Knoxville and third-place Columbus secured postseason bids later in the week. Eight of the Southern Professional Hockey League’s nine teams will qualify for the playoffs.
The first-place RiverHawks (30-9-5) picked up seven points in four games last week to pull away from the rest of the league. Knoxville (26-12-4) sits nine points behind with two games in hand, and Columbus (25-13-5) is 10 points back with a game in hand.
IN AND OUT: Defenseman Curtis Megginson returned to action Friday after sitting out more than a month because of a head injury. Defensemen J.D. Gordon and Chad Bazin were released.
UPCOMING: The RiverHawks play just once this week – a road game Friday at Fayetteville. Their next home game is March 1.