In a matchup of two of the top teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the first-place Augusta RiverHawks and third-place Columbus Cottonmouths got a healthy reminder that home-ice advantage matters.
The teams met twice this weekend – once in Columbus, Ga., on Friday and again Saturday in Augusta. The home team won both times, including the RiverHawks’ decisive 5-1 victory at James Brown Arena.
“We had a lot of motivation to avenge (Friday’s) loss,” Augusta forward Kyle Watson said. “We came out and had a complete 60 minutes from all of our guys.”
The RiverHawks, who extended their first-place lead to seven points, knew all too well the importance of home-ice advantage after losing twice in Mississippi last postseason on their way to a finals sweep. Saturday’s win improved Augusta’s league-best home record to 20-2-3 and guaranteed home-ice advantage in the first round of the SPHL playoffs.
The RiverHawks (32-10-6) plan on advancing past the first round and the team with home-ice advantage in the semifinals and finals will have an edge in the two best-of-three series.
“There’s no doubt I understand the importance of it, and I think the guys do as well,” coach Brad Ralph said. “That’s why we came out with such a good effort. We played one of our smartest games of the year.”
Friday night’s 4-2 road loss, combined with wins from second-place Knoxville and Columbus, was a temporary setback for Augusta. But Saturday’s win at Columbus’ expense and with Knoxville off repaired the damage in the standings.
“It was nice to just let those guys know, ‘Hey, we’re in first place for a reason,’ ” Ralph said. “This was a game we felt like was a must-win, and we had an all-around great night.”
Jim Gehring reclaimed the league lead in goals Saturday night with a pair of scores. He converted a pass from Egor Mironov four minutes into the second period for a 3-1 Augusta lead, then got his 39th of the season a minute into the third when he blocked a shot from Tom Maldonado for a breakaway chance.
Watson also scored twice, driving home the first goal of the game with a minute left in the first period only to see Columbus’ Greg Beller answer with a goal of his own 14 seconds later.
Augusta scored two goals each in the second and third period, including Watson’s deflection of an Ed Snetsinger shot.
Goalie Peter Skoggard took care of the rest, allowing just one goal on 31 shots for his third consecutive win.