In a season filled with success and what seemed to be a comfortable spot atop the Southern Professional Hockey League standings, the Augusta RiverHawks now sit at their lowest point yet.
Midseason call ups and injuries have resulted in back-to-back losses for the first time all season. By the time the team takes the ice in Knoxville tonight, Augusta’s first place lead may have vanished completely.
“Every bump in the road is a cause for concern,” head coach Brad Ralph said. “We had the best team in the league at the start of the year, but we’ve lost a lot of guys and it’s my job to bring in more guys who can help.”
Five key contributors have left the team in the past month. The RiverHawks lost a large chunk of their toughness when defenseman Tyson Gimblett and forward Lucas LaBelle left for the ECHL. The offense took a few blows when Travis Dunstall, Chris Doyle and Dustin Cloutier also left. The three forwards had a combined 73 points (26 goals, 47 assists) through the first 20 games.
The RiverHawks, who scored at least one goal in 17 consecutive periods during a seven-game winning streak, have now lost two in a row for the first time since last February. Tuesday night’s loss came against a Mississippi Surge team that had lost five in a row. The RiverHawks managed just 21 shots.
Ralph has displayed an uncanny ability to find quality replacement talent when scorers left in the past, but the reigning SPHL coach of the year said that part of the job isn’t easy during this part of the season.
“There’s not many guys out there right now,” he said. “It’s funny because there’s the fewest amount of minor pro teams out there ever and everyone said there would be plenty of guys looking to play. But players move on with their lives. It’s not easy.”
The RiverHawks (18-5-1) will battle for control of first place tonight with a road game against Knoxville. The Ice Bears haven’t lost in 11 home games and have beaten Augusta in all three meetings this season.
Hockey returns to James Brown Arena Friday and Saturday with games against the Fayetteville FireAntz and Columbus Cottonmouths. Ralph said the three games in three nights will show just how much fight his players have in them.
“Maybe it’s good for us to face a little adversity here,” he said. “We need to get our team identity back. There’s no magical answer for it. We’ve just got to put our head down and work hard.”
Friday’s game will have a traditional 7:35 p.m. start, while Saturday’s New Year’s Eve game will begin at 4:35 p.m.