A routine has taken hold at James Brown Arena as the Augusta RiverHawks continue their strong second season. After posting a win – as they’ve done in 13 of 17 home games – it doesn’t take long for the smartphones and laptops to fire up to check on the Knoxville Ice Bears.
The RiverHawks (21-7-2, 44 points) have spent most of the season in first place in the Southern Professional Hockey League, but the Ice Bears (21-6-1, 43) haven’t fallen back. Augusta holds at least a 10-point lead on the other teams, but Knoxville continues to match the RiverHawks in the win column.
“We definitely check out the standings,” forward Branden Kosolofsky said. “But we know we just have to keep doing what we’re doing, and we know they’re going to slip up.”
The RiverHawks can’t help but think about jockeying for postseason position. A new playoff format will put eight teams in the postseason, but each round will feature best-of-three series, putting home-ice advantage at a premium.
The RiverHawks learned the hard way last season when they had to play the first two games of a best-of-five finals series on the road. They dropped both road games to the Mississippi Surge in an eventual sweep.
“I think we learned a lot last year of what home-ice advantage can do for you in the playoffs, and (the Knoxville Ice Bears) don’t have an easy arena to play in,” coach Brad Ralph said. “You’ve got to take care of your own business. You’re not going to base your play on what another team’s doing. So we know we’ve got to have a strong second half to at least be in the ballgame with those guys.”
Knoxville, which has lost just one of 13 home games, has defeated Augusta in all four of their meetings.
FOUR’S A CROWD: Most SPHL games have a referee and two linesmen policing the ice, but Thursday’s home game against the Huntsville Havoc had a four-man crew with two referees. An extra official was also used for the RiverHawks’ season opener in October, a road game in Knoxville in December and Sunday’s game in Fayetteville.
“We’re trying to do 10 percent of our games with the four-man system,” SPHL president Jim Combs said. “We work with USA Hockey, and they pay for the extra official on the ice.”
Combs said the officials, which come from USA Hockey, use the SPHL as a developmental league similar to the players. Games with an extra referee are scheduled up to a month in advance and are based on travel and availability.
“It seems like with two refs you have two different people with two different philosophies on how to control it,” Ralph said. “You want the players to decide the game.”
RiverHawks games with a four-man system have averaged 10 more penalty minutes than those with the traditional three-man system.
BLAME SHARED: The RiverHawks lost Sunday in Fayetteville, N.C., one night after delivering a 7-2 blowout over the FireAntz in Augusta. Ralph said the loss wasn’t the fault of goalie Jon Olthuis, who was pulled at the end of the first period after giving up three goals on 13 shots.
“The guys weren’t ready,” Ralph said. “We got outworked on the power play and on 5-on-5, and it was disappointing our leaders didn’t step up and lead. I guess with a newer team you’re going to go through some of that.”
SCHEDULE ADJUSTED: The team will play a rare Wednesday home game this week that was added after the original schedule was released. Owner Bob Kerzner said a weeknight game isn’t ideal but was necessary after arena staff made an adjustment to the available dates.
The team was able to get another home weekend game out of the switch. Augusta will play host to Pensacola on Saturday night.