Augusta RiverHawks coach Brad Ralph has spent the early part of the season experimenting with a variety of forward lines. The options have been wide open, with such talent as reigning Southern Professional Hockey League MVP Matt Auffrey and All-SPHL rookies Neil Graham and Branden Kosolofsky.
But a line of two rookies and a second-year player who struggled offensively last season has been a surprise for the league’s top team.
Jim Gehring, who managed just nine goals in 31 games as a rookie, holds a share of the league lead with 14 goals through 16 games. His linemates, Chris Doyle and Dustin Cloutier, have also contributed. Doyle leads the league’s rookies with 26 points, and Cloutier is second with 22.
“It’s funny how it works out sometimes,” Ralph said. “You don’t expect any line to explode like they have. But what they bring to the line complements each other.”
Doyle, a fifth-round draft pick by the New York Rangers three years ago, was the star last weekend, scoring three goals and three assists in two games. He has the league’s second-longest scoring streak, with at least one goal in his past six games.
“I have to give credit to my linemates, for sure,” Doyle said after Friday’s 5-2 win over the Mississippi Surge. “They’re giving me
a lot of opportunities to score.”
DEFENSIVE CHALLENGE: The RiverHawks have a five-point lead atop the league standings with a league-best 63 goals scored. But the defensive end has continued to be a struggle, with assistant team captain Jason Price still out nursing an injured hand. The situation worsened last week with the loss of enforcer Tyson Gimblett, who left for the ECHL.
Ralph brought in defenseman Nick Wheeler, but the team still skated shorthanded defensively Friday after Kyle Watson was given a game misconduct for inciting an opponent early in the second period.
Earlier in the game, defenseman Drew Baker took a five-minute major after fighting with Mississippi’s Colin Reddin, who injured Gehring by driving him into the boards.
“In situations like that, it’s good to see your team rally behind you,” Ralph said. “Guys are making team-first decisions. I thought it was great to see Bakes stepping up in there. Yes, we were fortunate to have Tyson here. He was a force back there, and it’s very tough to lose a player like that. So the (defense) has to get better, but it’s a team game, and we’re seeing that.”
Ralph did say there is a hole in the lineup at the enforcer position.
LOOKING AHEAD: The RiverHawks (12-3-1) play two more home games this week, starting Thursday against the Huntsville Havoc (7-6-3). Saturday’s home game will come against seventh-place Pensacola (4-6-2).
Augusta has beaten Huntsville in two of three meetings this season and has yet to lose to Pensacola in two games.