RiverHawks were energized by big school-night crowd

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Many owners of minor league teams don’t see much value in a game scheduled on a school night. Augusta RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner saw an opportunity.

Kerzner and his staff gave away thousands of tickets to last week’s Wednesday night home game. Though the team rarely, if ever, hands out free tickets, the prospect of an empty arena on a night when few people are looking for entertainment forced the staff’s hand. But Kerzner said he used the “throwaway night” as a chance to welcome potential new fans and give Augusta the chance to see head coach Brad Ralph lead the first-place RiverHawks.

“You’ve got to use these nights during the week sometimes to just get people in the door,” Kerzner said. “Ralphie and the boys provided more excitement than he or I liked, but it was a thrilling game for the fans. My comment to myself thinking in overtime was, ‘If we can win this, the fans will walk out of here ecstatic.’ ”

The RiverHawks delivered an overtime victory that saw Jim Gehring smash home the game-winner with under a minute to play in the extra period.

Instead of a season-low in paid attendance, the RiverHawks played in front of 2,103 fans, the fifth largest hockey crowd at James Brown Arena this season.

Ralph said the boost in attendance translated to a true home-ice advantage.

“The more fans you get, it creates an atmosphere,” he said. “It gives the players energy. It really does. It’s exciting to play in front of and you get energized.”

MOVING ON: The River­Hawks will have to savor the memory of the home-ice advantage. Their schedule includes five consecutive road games over the next three weeks as James Brown Arena transitions from a hockey venue to the home of the Augusta Futurity.

An extended road trip didn’t seem such a daunting task earlier in the season when the RiverHawks’ win in Fayetteville, N.C. on Dec. 22 put them at a league-best 8-1-0 on the road.

But Augusta has since lost five consecutive road games by a combined score of 24-9. The skid has allowed second-place Knoxville to climb within three points of the RiverHawks (23-8-2) with the Ice Bears (22-7-1) holding three games in hand.

“There’s some serious concern for me on the type of team we have,” Ralph said. “Our returning guys should have learned a lot about what home-ice advantage will do for you in the playoffs last year. We’ll figure it out, but obviously we’ve got to come to play on the road.”

EXPECTATIONS: Ralph called out the team’s veteran leadership last week, calling on them to be the catalysts over the looming time away from home. Forward Neil Graham, who scored two goals in Saturday’s win, recognized the responsibility he and his fellow second-year teammates face.

“Whenever you travel it’s tough, so it’s always important when you can capitalize on these home games,” he said. “We’ve lost five straight road games, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve just got to make sure we’re prepared like we prepare for our home games. We’re just going to have to step it up, everyone is.”

Graham scored two goals in Saturday’s home win and said he feels comfortable as a part of the team’s most veteran line. Linemates Matt Auffrey and Egor Mironov were together with Graham for much of last season.

DEFENSELESS: The River­Hawks lost defenseman Curtis Megginson for an indefinite period of time last week when he was injured in Wednesday night’s game.

Two teammates had to help him off the ice after he was injured early in the second period.

“He went to the hospital,” Ralph said. “He got hit from behind, and I think they were worried about his head and neck.”

Megginson was kept out of the team’s two weekend games. Ralph said the defenseman is considered day-to-day and could be back as early as this weekend.

UPCOMING: The extended road trip will take the RiverHawks to Pensacola this week for back-to-back games Friday and Saturday. The team will play just once - at Huntsville next weekend and will play at Columbus and Fayetteville over the first weekend of February.

Augusta will play host to Fayetteville on Feb. 10.


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