A surging Augusta RiverHawks team took one more step toward its ultimate goal last weekend with two wins in three games, preserving their seven-point lead atop the Southern Professional Hockey League standings.
Augusta, which can finish no worse than fourth place, clinched home-ice advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs. Forward Kyle Watson, who scored twice in Saturday’s 5-1 win over third-place Columbus, said playing as many home games as possible in the postseason is key to the team’s success.
“That’s a huge motivation for us as we try to chase that down for our playoff run,” he said. “We’ve got to give credit to our fans. I know we don’t have as high numbers as some of the other teams in the league, but I say we’ve got the loudest fans in the league. It makes it easy for us to play at home and be as tough as we are in our barn.”
The RiverHawks have posted the league’s worst attendance numbers since its inaugural season last year, but the gap is closing. James Brown Arena saw an average of a little more than 2,000 fans per game in a pair of home games last weekend to raise the season average to 1,872 per game - better than last season’s average by more than 200. Louisiana, ranked eighth in the nine-team league, has averaged 1,992 fans per game this season.
LOOK AWAY: Part of the importance of securing home-ice advantage in the playoffs comes from the team’s lack of success on the road compared to a year ago. The RiverHawks broke an SPHL record last year with an 18-10 road mark. They are just 12-8-3 away from home this season.
“Last year we had an unbelievable road record. This year, obviously we’re a different team,” head coach Brad Ralph said. “I think we’re a little more normal in terms of our record and our consistency.”
The RiverHawks struggled on the road in last season’s playoffs. They went 4-1-0 at home but 0-4-0 on the road.
BIG WEEKEND: The SPHL schedule makers put together a crucial stretch of games over a three-day span this weekend.
The first-place RiverHawks will face second-place Knoxville in back-to-back games Thursday in Tennessee and Friday in Augusta. The RiverHawks travel to third-place Columbus on Saturday.
“I feel like last weekend and this weekend will decide our fate in determining how the teams finish in the standings,” Ralph said. “It’s a big weekend for us to see how our systems play out against Knoxville and then we go to Columbus for our third in three. It’s a big weekend points-wise.”
The RiverHawks can clinch a regular season championship and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs by Sunday if Augusta wins all three of its games and Columbus and Knoxville lose their games.
BROKEN RECORDS: The team does have a shot at breaking a few league marks with its overall record.
The SPHL’s single-season records for points (79), winning percentage (.696) and wins (37) are all within striking distance for the RiverHawks, who boast a 32-10-6 overall record, 70 points and .729 winning percentage with eight regular season games remaining.
IN THE BOX: Augusta also leads the league in categories that aren’t so impressive. The team has racked up 1,125 penalty minutes, including a league-leading 295 minor penalties.
The team has been able to squelch much of the damage from penalties by posting an 87.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill, the second-highest percentage in the league.
BIG SCREEN: A temporary video screen set up underneath the scoreboard in one corner of James Brown Arena is here to stay, RiverHawks assistant general manager Ken Vezina said.
The screen made its debut in Saturday’s game, showing league statistics, highlight videos and newly made RiverHawks commercials. Vezina said the team will use the screen as a trial the rest of the season with the intent to fully use the newly-added technology starting next season.