With two months remaining in the regular season, the Augusta RiverHawks sat in first place with a seven-point lead. Going into the final month of play, not much has changed.
Despite the RiverHawks’ inability to convert overtime and shootout games into wins – losing four of their past five such games – rivals Knoxville and Columbus failed to make a move in February and will enter March tied for second.
Considering their schedules, RiverHawks coach Brad Ralph said the Cottonmouths might be set up better than Knoxville to make a late-season run at Augusta.
“They don’t send a whole lot of players up, and that’s why they continue to get better as the year goes on,” Ralph said. “Knoxville has lost a lot of players (to call-ups). So they’re two very different teams.”
Knoxville and Columbus, which have clinched postseason bids, have identical records at 27-13-5 and each face 11 more regular season games. Fourth-place Pensacola sits eight games behind them and 15 behind Augusta, meaning the final month is likely to see a three-team race for the regular season title.
LOCKING IN: Though a month of play remains, the RiverHawks are already beginning to clinch certain guaranteed spots in the postseason.
Augusta can already finish no worse than fifth in the nine-team league. The top four teams will earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The RiverHawks can guarantee home ice as early as Thursday. A Mississippi Surge loss Tuesday would require only one Augusta win to guarantee a top-four spot.
The RiverHawks play at home Thursday and Saturday, with a road trip to Columbus, Ga., in between.
LABELLE BACK: Forward Lucas Labelle returned to the ice in an Augusta sweater last week for the first time in 12 weeks.
The veteran forward played 17 games for the RiverHawks before leaving for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades in early December.
Labelle was released Feb. 16 and came back to the SPHL a week later.
His return came Friday night in an overtime road loss to Fayetteville that saw Labelle on the third forward line with Justin Levac and Jesse Echternach.
“He played well,” Ralph said. “Well, no one played really well in that game, but he’s a guy that’s willing to go to those dirty areas to get the puck.”
TRADED: To make room for Labelle, the RiverHawks traded forward Tyler Fernandez to Louisiana for future considerations. Fernandez, who joined Augusta in late December, tallied four goals, eight assists and a plus-10 plus-minus rating in 22 games.
“He came in and puts some points on the board for us, but I think there are some things that he needs to work on,” Ralph said. “He’s going to a situation where he’ll get some more playing time and more opportunities.”
Fernandez recorded an assist in the first game with his new team Friday night. The RiverHawks won’t face the Ice Gators in their remaining regular season games, but Louisiana will play Knoxville twice this weekend.
ADDED: Ralph bolstered his defensive unit by signing 6-foot-2, 209-pound defenseman Chris Wiggin to a three-game tryout. The 21-year-old Canadian played 17 games for York University earlier this year, posting a goal, five assists and 30 penalty minutes.
BACK TO WORK: Defenseman J.D. Gordon, released by Augusta on Feb. 18, has found a new home with the Huntsville Havoc. Gordon signed last Friday and recorded an assist in a 3-2 win over Knoxville on Saturday night.
ON SALE: RiverHawks postseason ticket packages went on sale last week. The team could play as many as six postseason home games, and packages start at $60. Call the team office at (706) 993-2645 for more information.