The two points gained in the losses have kept the RiverHawks atop the Southern Professional Hockey League standings, but coach Brad Ralph wasn’t satisfied after Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Huntsville, Ala. – the team’s only game last week.
“I thought we had the better scoring chances, but we spent too much time in the (penalty) box and didn’t play smart hockey with a 2-0 lead,” Ralph said. “So it was a disappointing loss. We’ve been out of our home rink for so long now that to me it doesn’t feel like home and road games. It’s just wins and losses at this point, and we need to do a better job.”
The RiverHawks haven’t played at home since Jan. 14 and won’t return to James Brown Arena until Feb. 10 because of events booked there. Ralph said playing exclusively on the road isn’t an easy task this time of year thanks to injuries and call-ups.
The competition hasn’t helped. Augusta will play road games against Columbus and Knoxville over the next two weekends. Those teams are tied for second place, five points behind the RiverHawks.
“Columbus has been a great team all year,” Ralph said. “They’re on a pretty good run right now. We’ll need to play disciplined hockey.”
RISING STARS: The Cottonmouths, who play host to Augusta on Friday night, have won four of their past five games, with two of the wins coming against Knoxville. The surge allowed Columbus to catch the Ice Bears in the standings.
Part of the Cottonmouths’ success has come via a strategy at odds with the way Ralph runs his team. The RiverHawks have seen six of their players loaned to teams in the Central Hockey League or ECHL this season. Columbus has allowed just one player to leave for another league.
Ralph has said allowing players to move up can help attract more young, rising talent – a theory proven true over the past two seasons with his numerous quality midseason signings.
Columbus has found success by hanging on to its players.
“They’re one of those teams that just doesn’t have call-ups,” Ralph said. “That can really give a team an advantage this time of year.”
Columbus’ strength comes in its defense. The Cottonmouths are the only SPHL team to have allowed fewer than 100 goals. They also lead the league with a penalty kill success rate of 91 percent.
PLAYOFF POSITIONING: When the RiverHawks return home, they could greet fans by clinching a playoff spot.
Last-place Fayetteville (12-22-3, 27 points) has allowed a league-high 159 goals in 37 games and will face Augusta, Knoxville and fourth-place Pensacola in its next three games.
If the FireAntz lose all three and Augusta wins its two games this weekend, the RiverHawks (24-8-4, 42 points) will play host to Fayetteville on Feb. 10 at James Brown Arena with a chance to clinch a spot in the postseason.
Eight of the league’s nine teams will reach the playoffs this year.