Neil Graham saved the game, and Matt Auffrey won it.
The top-seeded Augusta RiverHawks leaned heavily on their veterans for a scary but exciting 4-3 overtime victory over No. 8 Huntsville in Game 1 of the first round of the Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs.
“Certainly you look to your leaders at the end of the game, but in overtime it’s anybody’s chance to step up,” coach Brad Ralph said. “It was nice to see those guys finish it.”
The league’s regular-season champs struggled early against a Huntsville Havoc team playing with little to lose and under the leadership of an interim, rookie coach just six games into his career. The two teams entered the third period tied at 2, thanks to Augusta goals by Graham and Auffrey and Huntsville scores from Dennis Sicard and Rick Schrank.
But a generous bounce of the puck off Huntsville’s Colin Reddin and into the goal put the underdogs up with 8:24 left in regulation.
The Havoc held the lead until the closing seconds, when Augusta pulled goalie Peter Skoggard for an extra attacker.
“It was funny. With 12 seconds left we were still down, but none of us had given up. Nobody,” Graham said.
A desperation shot was blocked by Huntsville goalie Mark Sibbald, but the rebound came to Graham in the slot. His one-timer tucked inside the right post for the game-tying score with just 12 seconds remaining.
Augusta killed off a Branden Kosolofsky boarding penalty in overtime to claim a little momentum. Graham gained possession in his offensive zone and fed to defenseman Chris Wiggin in the middle of the ice. Wiggin’s shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to Auffrey at the side of the net and his chip-in won the game and gave Augusta a crucial 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
“It was stressful, right at the end (of regulation) and in overtime,” Auffrey said. “But that’s what makes hockey so much fun. You live for those moments.”
Sibbald took the loss after allowing four goals on 33 shots. Skoggard made 31 saves, including 11 stops in 15 overtime minutes.
“I thought Peter got better as the game went on,” Ralph said. “He made some huge saves in overtime that gave us a chance.”
The series will shift to Huntsville, Ala., for Game 2 on Friday night.
A third game, if necessary, will be played in Augusta on Saturday night.