The last time Judd Lambert started in net for the Augusta Lynx, Dan Wiebe was coach, Dan Kopec was captain, and the Greenville Grrrowl were the opponent.
Nine months and three coaches later, Lambert finally is back.
Tonight at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., the 26-year-old goaltender makes his first start for the Lynx since April 28, 2000 - when the Grrrowl eliminated them from the ECHL playoffs with a 4-0 victory in Game 4 of the Southern Conference semifinals.
The game vs. archrival Greenville also marks the first road contest for coach Jim Burton, who took over the team Jan. 8 and went 1-2-0 in his Lynx debut last weekend.
Lambert began the year with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League, but has been out since mid-November with a high right ankle sprain. Though he's still not 100 percent, Lambert says he's ready to get back to work.
"It feels good enough to give it a try," Lambert said. "You've got to start somewhere. I'm not going to set the expectations too high, but hopefully I can help the team out."
In two seasons with the Lynx, Lambert won 71 percent of the team's games, going 51-43-9 with a 3.07 goals-against average in 105 appearances.
Last season, the former New Jersey Devils prospect posted a 3.09 goals-against average while establishing franchise records in wins (27), games (54), minutes (3,086:21) and save percentage (.913).
Come playoff time, he's as good as it gets at this level. Last season, Lambert had a 2.57 GAA in 12 postseason games, and all but single-handedly carried the Lynx to one of the most stunning playoff upsets in ECHL history with a win in the Southern Conference quarterfinals over the Brabham Cup champion Florida Everblades.
Like last season, Lambert finds himself thrown into the heat of the race for a playoff spot. After the Lynx lost 21 of their first 32 games in 1999-2000, Lambert led the way to a dramatic turnaround, during which the team won 24 of its final 32 games to make the playoffs on the penultimate day of the regular season. He started 32 straight games down the stretch, an iron-man streak even Cal Ripken would be proud of.
Teammates say his presence alone makes the Lynx a better team.
"He's so calm back there and within himself, and he makes a huge difference psychologically as well as what he brings to the ice," Lynx assistant captain Dean Tiltgen said. "Look at any sport. Any time a team can get one of the best players at his position in the whole league back, it's a huge help. It's like a football team getting their starting quarterback back, even if he's not 100 percent."
Said Lynx defenseman John Whitwell: "Everyone's going to be confident with him back there, knowing he'll make the saves he should make. He's also good at controlling the puck, which helps out the defense. I think everyone will be playing with confidence."
For the Lynx (16-18-4), tonight's game is a chance to begin making up ground in the Southeast Division. The Grrrowl (18-20-2) are two points ahead of the last-place Lynx entering the contest, and the Lynx are only seven points behind third-place Tallahassee, whom they meet Saturday night at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center. The Lynx have won three of the four meetings against Greenville this season.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.