Holding onto first place by a meager three points and facing the longest stretch away from home this season, the Augusta RiverHawks left town nearly a month ago for a daunting tour of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
They’ll finally return to James Brown Arena tonight as conquering heroes with a stronger grasp on first place and a more positive outlook for the final six weeks of the season.
“We started to play with a more consistent effort,” forward Tyler Fernandez said. “When you do that, you’re going to have better results. Coming back now, we feel like we’ve done that.”
Fernandez was part of the reason the RiverHawks were able to secure eight points in five consecutive road games, including three wins and a pair of overtime losses.
The Brown University product scored twice in Augusta’s last game, a 4-1 win over Fayetteville Saturday night. He tallied three assists over the previous four games, and the long stretch away from home saw him double his season totals in goals and assists.
“I’ve started to get more acquainted with everyone,” said Fernandez, who joined the team in late December after starting the season in the Federal Hockey League. “When you feel like you fit in, you get more comfortable. I’m just trying to do my part.”
Despite a few key injuries – defenseman Curtis Megginson is still a week away from getting off the 30-day injured reserve list – and the loss of several scorers to higher leagues, the RiverHawks will step onto their home ice tonight with plenty to brag about to their fans.
Augusta’s seven-point lead over second-place Columbus is the largest the RiverHawks (26-8-4) have seen this season. Their recent success, which includes three wins in four games and four consecutive home victories, has pushed them to the brink of securing a playoff spot. The clinching win could come as early as this weekend.
“It’s good, but we can’t let up,” Ralph said. “It is nice to feel like we’re back on track.”
After playing host to Fayetteville tonight, the RiverHawks will return to the road for what was once a highly-anticipated rematch with the Knoxville Ice Bears Saturday.
Augusta has yet to beat its top SPHL rival in four meetings this season, and the last loss – an ugly 5-1 defeat in Knoxville Dec. 29 – left the RiverHawks vowing revenge the next time they played.
But the Ice Bears entered the week losers of six in a row, falling behind Columbus in the standings. Knoxville no longer represents Augusta’s most immediate threat.
“I came in halfway through the season and everybody was talking about them and saying they’re the ones to beat,” Fernandez said. “We’ve still got to beat them. I don’t think we’ve done that yet.”
The Cottonmouths, the new threat in the SPHL, last-placed Fayetteville and third-place Knoxville will come to Augusta next weekend as part of back-to-back-to-back games at James Brown Arena.