Entering the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, the Augusta RiverHawks hope to make the final weekend irrelevant.
The first-place RiverHawks play on the road tonight and at home Saturday with a chance to clinch a Southern Professional Hockey League regular season championship. A pair of wins would do the trick. A win tonight and losses from both Knoxville and Columbus would also give Augusta the league’s top spot.
While work remains to be done, the RiverHawks are pleased with how the season has gone so far.
“If you told us at the beginning of the year this is where we’d be, we’d take it,” defenseman Ed Snetsinger said. “We’ve got a chance to wrap it up this weekend, and hopefully we’ll do that. You don’t want to let anybody hang around longer than you have to.”
The advantages of clinching the league’s top seed this weekend reach beyond a regular-season trophy and a first-round playoff match up with the eighth seed. With first place locked up, head coach Brad Ralph could chose to rest some players for the final two regular season games. The top seed would also enjoy home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
“Home-ice advantage was a pretty big factor last year. We lost to Mississippi in the finals twice at their place by one goal each, one in overtime and one in the last minute,” Snetsinger said. “If we play those games out at our place, who knows how they would have gone? We don’t want to be in that situation again.”
The RiverHawks are currently on one of their longest road trips. They played in Biloxi, Miss. on the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, then traveled north to Southaven, Miss., located just five miles from the state border with Tennessee, for their first and only road game against the expansion Mississippi RiverKings.
The drive back home will bring the team to Augusta by Saturday morning after covering more than 1,400 miles this week.
Snetsinger said such trips late in the season aren’t easy on him and his teammates.
“The travel schedule isn’t easy in this league,” he said. “A lot of the travel days are on game days, and it’s not easy to sleep on a bus. It’s just better to get that sleep in your own bed.”
The rest will come next week, if the RiverHawks are able to clinch first place this week.
Ralph, the reigning SPHL Coach of the Year, led his team to a league-record 18 road victories a year ago. This season’s mark of 13-9-7 is down from the record-setting pace but still ranks second in the league.
Ralph said his team has been “a little more normal” on the road this year. He gave the roster a boost last week by bringing back physical forward Aaron McGill after a stint in the Central Hockey League.
Forward Justin Levac is also expected to return to the lineup after missing last weekend due to injury.
“We had a good weekend last weekend, and I like the consistency,” Ralph said. “We’re moving in a good direction right now.”
The RiverHawks, who have four remaining regular season games, are four points away from tying an SPHL record for points in a season (79).