Riverhawks win big to take regular season title

Even an overtime loss on Saturday night would have given the Augusta RiverHawks the point they needed to finish the Southern Professional Hockey League season in first place. They weren’t going to settle for that.

Branden Kosolofsky turned in his second career hat trick and the RiverHawks emerged from their recent offensive funk for a 6-2 blowout victory over the Columbus Cottonmouths. The win clinched a regular season championship, the first in the 12-year history of minor league hockey in Augusta.

“We had a good crowd here, and I think it pumped up the boys,” Kosolofsky said. “Everyone’s playing well. It wasn’t a matter of us getting a tie and one point. We wanted to win this one and keep winning and go into the playoffs with some momentum.”

Kosolofsky scored the first of three RiverHawks first-period goals to take a commanding early lead. The home team endured its typical second-period struggles with the penalty box and saw it’s large lead shrink to one after Columbus netted a pair of power play goals in a 21-second span.

But RiverHawks leading scorer Jim Gehring got a goal 27 seconds into the third period, and Kosolofsky added two more in the final five minutes to thrill the announced crowd of 2,256 fans with Augusta’s sixth consecutive home win.

Goalie Jon Olthuis stopped 19 of 21 shots for his 15th win. Columbus’ Ian Vigier gave up six goals on 36 shots. Augusta had scored just four goals in its previous three games combined.

“I just can’t say enough. I’m so proud of the guys,” head coach Brad Ralph said. “We’ve clinched first place. That was one of two of our goals this year. That’s a great feeling to already accomplish one of the goals.”

The other goal is a President’s Cup championship, which could come when the postseason begins in two weeks. Saturday night’s win ensured the RiverHawks will enter the playoffs as the top seed with home-ice advantage throughout the three-round tournament.

The William B. Coffey Trophy, awarded to the SPHL’s top regular season team, was not in Augusta but league president Jim Combs said the team will get its trophy at the final home game of the year next Friday.

“I’m completely excited for (coach) Brad Ralph and the whole team,” Combs said. “Those guys work hard night in and night out, and you see what happens with the right leadership.”

The RiverHawks (36-11-7) have already guaranteed themselves an SPHL record for winning percentage and tied a league record with 79 points and two regular season games remaining. Columbus (32-16-5) and Knoxville (31-15-7) remained tied in the standings and will spend the final week of the season competing for second place.

AUGUSTA 6, COLUMBUS 2

PLAY OF THE GAME: In a sign that the linemate chemistry has returned, Aaron McGill skated ahead and took down two Columbus defenders to open a hole for Branden Kosolofsky’s third goal of the game late in the third period.

STAR OF THE GAME: Kosolofsky recorded his first hat trick of the season and has scored five goals in the last four games.

NEXT: Augusta RiverHawks vs. Knoxville Ice Bears, Friday, 7:35 p.m.

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