No team made more noise in the East Coast Hockey League the past few months than the Augusta Lynx, but their storybook run came quietly to an end.
An unforgettable second season in Augusta concluded Friday night as the Lynx fell 4-0 to the Greenville Grrrowl in Game 4 of their ECHL Southern Conference semifinal series.
Led by another stalwart defensive effort, some timely saves by veteran goalie Nick Vitucci and two huge power-play goals by defenseman Neil Fewster and center Justin Cardwell, the Grrrowl captured the hard-fought series three games to one.
Greenville, which finished with the third-best record in the league and defeated Augusta in six of the eight regular-season meetings, advances to face the Louisiana IceGators in the best-of-seven Southern Conference finals series. The winner advances to face the Northern Conference champion, either Peoria or Trenton, in the Kelly Cup Finals.
"We came from a long ways down in January and put on a heck of a run for as long as we did," Lynx coach Dan Wiebe said. "This is difficult to swallow, but I've got 20 guys in the locker room that I'm proud of and definitely respect as people and players."
Though the end indeed was heartbreaking, the crowd of 4,327 fans at the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center gave the Lynx a fitting send-off before they exited the ice for the final time.
After the players saluted the crowd and skated off to a standing ovation, tearful Lynx captain Dan Kopec skated to center ice and saluted them back, knowing that he had just played his final game.
The 27-year-old defenseman said he is retiring to begin a new life with his wife, Candace, in their hometown of Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
"It's time get on with something new," Kopec said, choking back tears. "My wife turned 28 today and wants to get on with starting a family and a new life. It's tough for her to leave tonight, too. I knew this was it.
"I wanted to stay on the ice for as long as I could," Kopec added. "There's a lot of good people in Augusta, and I just wanted to say goodbye to them and thank them for all the excitement they brought me the last couple of years."
Lynx goalie Judd Lambert certainly gave the fans plenty of excitement this season. And on Friday, making his 44th start in 45 games, he again did all that he could to keep his team alive for one more day.
But the magic that had propelled the Lynx to improbable playoff series victories over New Orleans and Brabham Cup champion Florida clearly ran out in Game 4, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop the determined Grrrowl in the series.
"We've got to be proud of ourselves," said the 25-year-old Lambert, who carried the Lynx during the playoff drive and recorded 31 saves Friday to cap a brilliant postseason run.
"That's a good hockey team (Greenville) across the way, and we've got nothing to be ashamed of. They just beat us. We didn't beat ourselves. We didn't leave anything on the ice. They were just the better team in the four games."
In the end, special teams proved to be the Lynx's undoing. Augusta's power play sputtered in the final three games of the series, failing to convert on their final 14 chances, including 0-for-6 in the fateful Game 4.
Meanwhile, Greenville's power play, which led the league during the regular season, went 6-for-20 in the final three games of the series, including Fewster's backbreaking tally late in the first period that turned out to be the game-winner.
The shutout for the 32-year-old Vitucci -- who came out of retirement at midseason to revive a career that includes setting every major ECHL goaltending record -- completed a relentless defensive performance by the Grrrowl in the series.
The Lynx managed only seven goals in the series, two of them shorthanded by Dean Tiltgen late in Augusta's 4-2 loss in Game 2 at the Bi-Lo Center.
"Those two power-play goals dug us a bit of a hole," Wiebe said. "We tried to push, but they played very well defensively and didn't give us a lot of opportunities."
But despite the crushing finale, nothing can take away from the Lynx's accomplishments in 1999-2000.
After losing 21 of their first 32 games to sink to the second-worst record in the ECHL, Augusta won 24 of its final 37 to clinch a playoff berth on the penultimate day of the regular season.
The Lynx then overcame a one-game-to-none deficit in the best-of-three Southern Conference Wild Card series to defeat New Orleans, then came back from a two-games-to-one deficit to shock the Florida Everblades and win the best-of-five conference quarterfinal series after Florida set league records for wins and points this season.
"We've been through a lot this year," said center Lars Pettersen, who enjoyed a breakout year in his third pro campaign, finishing third in the ECHL in scoring. "This is really emotional for me after coming a long way back from the start we had."
Early on in Game 4, it looked as if the magic would continue.
Riding an emotional wave provided by Jonas Soling's goal 3:08 into overtime Thursday night to give them a 4-3 victory in Game 3, the Lynx came out with energy and put the pressure on Vitucci early.
But Vitucci weathered the early storm until Fewster gave the Grrrowl a lead that was never seriously threatened.
With 59 seconds in the first period, Fewster ripped a shot from the left point on which Lambert made the initial save. But the puck trickled in behind him, and the Grrrowl were up 1-0.
Augusta fell behind 2-0 at 4:04 of the second period when Charlie Paquette's wrist shot through traffic from the left point deflected off defenseman Wes Swinson's skate and past Lambert, taking a boisterous crowd that played such a huge role in Thursday's 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 out of the game.
Late in the second, the Grrrowl left the door open for the Lynx to get back into the contest when a Yanick Jean unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at 13:45 and a Jason Kelly boarding call at 14:26 gave Augusta a two-man power-play advantage for 1:21.
But the Lynx couldn't capitalize, failing to manage a shot-on-goal on that crucial power play, and headed off to the dressing room after two periods down by two goals.
For all intents and purposes, that's where the season finally ended for the Lynx. Whatever comeback hopes the Lynx held on to were dashed when Cardwell added an insurance goal for Greenville on a power play with 4:58 left in the game. Sean Ritchlin added an empty-net goal with 34 seconds remaining.
"This hurts a lot, but it was an unbelievable year," Pettersen said. "This was the best time I've ever had in my life playing hockey. It's something I'll never forget."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com
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