RiverHawks rookie thrives in pro setting

Taking charge quickly

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Like many of his teammates, RiverHawks forward Neil Graham likes to get in some mid-day slumber before a big game.

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Hard work by first-year pro Neil Graham (right) has led to 10 goals for the Augusta RiverHawks, which leads the team.   Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Hard work by first-year pro Neil Graham (right) has led to 10 goals for the Augusta RiverHawks, which leads the team.

"I'm usually about a two-hour nap guy," he said.

It's a good time to save energy and visualize the upcoming game, but the 25-year-old rookie hasn't needed to dream about hockey success through the first six weeks of the season. He's become the RiverHawks' go-to-guy offensively and will enter tonight's home game against Columbus leading the first-year expansion team in goals scored.

"It's been really good so far," Graham said. "I've been fortunate to get a lot of opportunities and been put in some good situations to score."

The Mercyhurst College product, who entered the weekend with twice as many goals (10) as any other RiverHawk, wasn't always a high-scoring player. He scored 23 goals in 137 games at the collegiate level but has found a new offensive surge in his first year as a pro.

"College is a quite a bit of a different game. I'm not saying this is easier or better, it's just different," Graham said.

"It's a little tighter. So far I've been given a little more room to open up, and I'm trying to take advantage of that when I can."

RiverHawks coach Brad Ralph spotted Graham's play as a pro early and took advantage, plugging him into a variety of offensive roles. Graham has been a regular on power play and penalty kill teams. In both of Augusta's overtime games, he scored the game-winning goals.

Ralph placed Graham on the same line with team captain Matt Auffrey, and the result has been 10 goals and 8 assists for Graham and five goals and 12 assists for Auffrey.

"You start the year trying to find combinations that work, and he looked like the type of player Auffrey needed," Ralph said. "Grahmer works so hard. He goes to the gym even when it's not scheduled, and you can tell he's trying to make a career out of hockey. He's earned every opportunity he's got."

His hockey opportunities have extended beyond the SPHL. Graham picked up a week-long stint with the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays earlier this year. He entered Friday's game at Knoxville tied for seventh in the league in goals scored and tied for eighth in points (18).

The RiverHawks, in the middle of the SPHL rankings, will wrap up their two-game weekend tonight at James Brown Arena. Graham and the rest of the offense will play with added pressure to put up big numbers since the RiverHawks' injury-riddled defensive zone took another hit earlier this week with the sudden retirement of defenseman Brett Dickinson.

Graham had a goal and an assist in Columbus' only other trip to Augusta this season, a 5-2 RiverHawks win on Nov. 19.

"We're trying to get over .500 this weekend," Graham said. "It took us a while to get there, now we want to stay above it."

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