Augusta RiverHawks fans stood and cheered as their regular season champions were presented with the Southern Professional Hockey League’s William B. Coffey Trophy before Friday night’s game.
There wasn’t much else to applaud the rest of the night.
The RiverHawks didn’t need a win and it showed in a 5-1 loss to the Knoxville Ice Bears. The final home game of the regular season was irrelevant to Augusta after the team clinched the league’s top seed last week. But Knoxville came to town wrapped up in a season-long battle for second place with Columbus. Trailing the Cottonmouths by one point with two games left, the Ice Bears knew they faced a must-win situation.
“It was 100 percent must-win,” Knoxville coach Mike Craigen said. “Anytime you can get two points out of Augusta it’s a positive for a lot of reasons. It’s hard to win here. They’re the best team in the league, and we can definitely take some momentum the way we played tonight.”
After Knoxville (32-15-7) took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, Kevin Swider scored a pair of power play goals to put the Ice Beears up by four with 10 minutes to play.
Augusta head coach Brad Ralph didn’t see Swider’s second goal. He was ejected for verbal abuse of an official earlier in the third after Knoxville goalie Kyle Rank flopped to the ice and Augusta forward Aaron McGill was whistled for goaltender interference.
Though the loss meant nothing in the standings for the RiverHawks, Ralph said he was still unhappy with his players’ effort just five days before they open the
“We have periods (like tonight), but we usually fight out of it,” he said. “I know we’ll be ready to go Wednesday, but I certainly didn’t want to take a night off, which we did tonight.”
Augusta (36-12-7) narrowly escaped what would have been their third shutout when Matt Auffrey found Neil Graham at the side of the net for the RiverHawks’ lone goal with two minutes left. Rank, Knoxville’s surprise midseason pickup, had stopped the previous 39 shots and got his second win over Augusta.
“I knew he was good,” Craigen said. “I didn’t know he was this good.”
Augusta goalie Peter Skoggard allowed five goals on 23 shots for his second loss in three starts.
Columbus knocked off last-place Fayetteville to keep its slim lead over Knoxville.
The teams will decide the second-place race when the regular season wraps up tonight. Knoxville will play host to Fayetteville, while Columbus returns home to face Augusta.