It was as close as the Augusta Lynx have come this season to a 60-minute performance. They skated with verve. They finished their checks. They played with a purpose and, more importantly, they played with passion.
But against the ECHL's elite teams, such as the Pee Dee Pride, 55 minutes on and five minutes off simply won't cut it.
In the wake of Tuesday's heartbreaking 5-3 loss to the Pride, center Lars Pettersen said moral victories no longer cut it, either. Not this deep into what has been a disappointing season.
"We've already had moral-type victories against top teams, but we can't pull it out in the end, and it gets frustrating," said Petter sen, who continued to shine for the Lynx, scoring his 16th goal while adding a pair of assists.
"We at least hoped to get one point out of this game, and not to get any is real disappointing. We worked hard, played a good game, but still make too many mistakes. You can't do that against these teams. They'll bury you."
Pride all-star center Dany Bousquet did the most significant burying, notching a hat trick with the game-winning goal on a break away with 1:11 left to play.
With the game tied at 3 and seemingly headed for a shootout, Bousquet raced down the right wing and took a cross-ice pass from Peter Geronazzo. The 26- year-old Bousquet then skated in on Lynx goalie Judd Lambert, beating him with a nifty move that left the sparse crowd of 3,404 fans at the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center stunned and Lynx coach Dan Wiebe furious.
At first, Wiebe and the Lynx thought it was a two-line offsides pass. It appeared Bousquet was over the red line at center ice when he received the feed from Geronazzo, who was a foot inside his own blue line.
But replays showed Bousquet was straddling the red line when he received the puck and was indeed onside. That fact mattered little afterward.
With Lambert pulled for an extra skater, Ryan Petz added an empty-net goal with 11 seconds remaining.
Louis Dumont scored a pair of goals and an assist and continued to jell on the top line with Pettersen, while Lambert again turned in a valiant effort, stopping 30 shots.
But it wasn't enough, and it certainly wasn't the way the Lynx hoped to open the second half. Coming off two straight convincing wins last weekend over Greensboro and Mobile, this was a victory they desperately wanted to have. It was their chance to prove once and for all they will indeed make a run over the final three months of the season and scratch their way back into the Southern Conference playoff hunt.
The loss ended the Lynx's modest two-game winning streak and dropped their record to 12-22-2. Augusta entered the game 12 points behind South Carolina for the 11th and final playoff berth in the conference.
"You can take away positives from tonight; you look at the opposition, and you say that you showed you can play against one of the top teams in the league," said Wiebe, whose Lynx face the Florida Everblades -- who won their 12th straight game Tuesday night over South Carolina -- on Friday, and Baton Rouge on Saturday.
"We proved to ourselves we can play at a high level against good teams, but the bottom line is we can be better."
After a tight, well-played first period yielded a scoreless tie, the Lynx broke the ice on their first power play chance of the second period with Dumont's first goal of the game at 2:42.
Pee Dee tied it on Geranazzo's 14th goal of the year at the five- minute mark, then took a 2-1 lead on Bousquet's first tally of the night at 12:08.
But the Lynx never hung their heads and battled back 1:08 later on Pettersen's goal, which knotted it at 2 heading into the final period.
Just 1:13 into the final period, after Lambert stopped a Casey Kesselring blast from the point, Bousquet corralled the rebound in the slot and fired it into an open net to give the Pride a 3-2 lead. There wasn't a Lynx defender within eight feet of Bousquet.
Dumont then delivered on the power play for the second time in the game, tying the game at 3 with his ninth goal of the season with 5:42 left in regulation.
Their jubilation turned to dejection moments later, as the Lynx remained winless (0-3-1) against the Pride this season.
"We already knew we could play with the top teams," Petter sen said. "Now we have to figure out how to beat the top teams. We can't just keep coming close. It's not enough."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com.