An expansion Augusta RiverHawks squad shocked the Southern Professional Hockey League last season by reaching the league finals.
A year later, a return trip wouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, it’s expected.
“I think we’re one of the favorite teams this year, and if you look at it that way it adds a little pressure,” goalie Jon Olthuis said. “But at the same time we’re in first because we’ve been playing hard all season, and we don’t expect anything different.”
The top-seeded RiverHawks are expected to breeze past No. 8 Huntsville in the opening best-of-three series, which starts tonight at James Brown Arena. Coach Brad Ralph said his team spent the final week of the season focusing on the Havoc.
“The best-of-three (format) is not ideal for a first-place team, but we worked hard to get home-ice advantage and I hope that pays off,” Ralph said. “I know it did last year, and our record here is pretty good this year.”
The RiverHawks posted the best home record in the league at 22-3-3, including three wins in four meetings with Huntsville.
Last year’s RiverHawks surprised opponents with a rookie-filled squad led by a rookie coach, and many of the same stars returned.
Three returning players, Jim Gehring, Ed Snetsinger and Matt Auffrey, have already received recognition for their work this season. Gehring and Snetsinger were named to the All-SPHL first team, while Auffrey, last year’s league MVP, landed on the second team.
The accolades add to Augusta’s reputation as the team to beat. The RiverHawks posted a league-best 36-13-7 regular season record and played only three games without holding at least a share of first place.
“I don’t know if I’d say we’re supposed to win it, but we definitely feel a little more pressure being in first place,” forward Neil Graham said. “But it’s good pressure. We wanted to be in first. … Now we’ve just got to live up to the hype and do
what we’re supposed to do.”
Despite meeting in the regular season seven times – Augusta won five – the Havoc will take the ice tonight as an unfamiliar opponent. After struggling in the middle of the season, coach Randy Murphy stepped down three weeks ago and a player was elevated to interim coach.
The Havoc were the last team to make the playoffs, splitting their final six games under the new leadership.
“We really don’t know what to expect,” Ralph said. “So the focus here this week is on our team, making sure we’re working hard on all cylinders, and if we have to adapt at all I think our systems are adaptable to whatever we might see.”
Game 2 will shift to Huntsville on Friday night, and Game 3, if necessary, will be Saturday night in Augusta.