When team owner Bob Kerzner brought minor league hockey back to Augusta, this was the type of atmosphere he had in mind.
Energized by the roars of more than 3,000 fans at James Brown Arena, the first-place Augusta RiverHawks held off a frenzied comeback from archrival and second-place Knoxville to claim a key 6-5 win Sunday.
On the same weekend that Kerzner officially announced he would bring the team back for another season, the RiverHawks extended their lead in the Southern Professional Hockey League to a season-high nine points.
A tired RiverHawks team – skating in its third game in three nights – enjoyed the help of the third-largest home crowd in franchise history, spurred by hundreds of soldiers from Fort Gordon attending on Military Appreciation Night.
“There was a real electricity in the building tonight,” Kerzner said. “I don’t think there was a person in here tonight – whether they were a hockey enthusiast or just coming for the first time – that didn’t walk out of here going, ‘Wow.’ ”
Rookie Brendan Taylor turned in his first professional hat trick, helping the RiverHawks (30-9-5) beat Knoxville (26-12-4) for the first time in six meetings this season.
“To be honest I think today I felt more tired than the last two games,” Taylor said. “But the fans were chanting and they were unbelievable. I’ve never heard our rink that loud.”
The home crowd was rewarded early with a strong first period that saw the RiverHawks take a 3-0 lead. Taylor scored two of the goals and Egor Mironov netted the other.
But the high-quality first period was followed by a sluggish second that allowed Knoxville to tie the game.
“It was a typical third game in three nights,” Augusta coach Brad Ralph said. “It was sloppy both ways, and when you’re tired you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You hope your leaders are going to make smart plays and lead by example and we didn’t have that tonight, but at the same time our leaders did show a lot of heart and guts. To me that means more than always making the right decisions.”
League leading scorer Jim Gehring answered Bremner’s game-tying score with a goal of his own 40 seconds later to send the RiverHawks into the second intermission with a 4-3 lead.
Olauson and Segal each scored within six minutes of the third to give Knoxville its only lead of the game. Neil Graham scored on a breakaway and the game-tying goal with 13:46 left.
Taylor’s game-winning score came on the rebound of a Matt Auffrey shot with just 2:49 remaining.