The road to an ECHL playoff berth for the Augusta Lynx goes through the Sunshine State once again.
The annual late-winter trek to Florida begins tonight as the Lynx play the first of back-to-back games with the Florida Everblades at TECO Arena near Fort Myers. Augusta closes out the trip with a showdown with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks on Sunday before returning home for a Tuesday contest against the Mississippi Sea Wolves.
"Those games are going to be huge," said captain Scott Morrow, whose Lynx had their seven-game winning streak ended Tuesday in a loss to Roanoke. "We can't afford to lose too many more games, especially against teams ahead of us in the division."
For the third straight year, the Lynx are making a late-season push to secure a spot in the postseason. Augusta enters the game 24-24-5 for 53 points, just four points behind Baton Rouge for the 10th and final Southern Conference playoff berth.
Each year, the schedule has taken them to TECO Arena for consecutive games in late February or early March, but the Lynx haven't fared well in the past.
Last season, they were bounced by the Everblades 4-2 and 4-1 on Feb. 18-19, which threw a major wrench into their playoff run. The first defeat killed a five-game winning streak, but after the second defeat, the Lynx recovered to win their next four and 13 of their final 18 games to clinch a playoff spot on the next to last day of the regular season.
During their inaugural season of 1998-99, the Lynx had one of the top records in the Southern Conference during the first half and were in the hunt to secure one of the top five spots in the conference and a first-round playoff bye. They ended up falling 7-2 and 3-1 to the Everblades at TECO on March 10-11, 1999. Those losses were at the heart of a seven-game winless skid (0-6-1) that cost them the first-round bye. The Lynx ended up with a wild-card bid and were swept by Baton Rouge in their playoff series.
TECO Arena was the site of the greatest victory in Lynx franchise history. The Lynx defeated the regular-season champion Everblades 4-2 in the decisive Game 5 of the Southern Conference semifinals on April 19, 2000, completing the third-greatest upset in ECHL playoff history.
But the Lynx never have won there in the regular season, going 0-7-1 entering tonight's contest. Before Saturday, the Lynx never had beaten the Everblades in regulation during the regular season. Florida was 14-0-2against Augusta all-time entering that contest.
Everblades coach Bob Ferguson says the series might seem lopsided, but that the Lynx always pose a threat to his team.
"Augusta always plays some great games against us," said Ferguson, named the ECHL's coach of the year in each of his first two seasons with Florida. "You know what they did to us in the playoffs last year, and all the games we've played against them have been close. Those two games in our building are going to be huge games for both teams because we're fighting for a playoff spot just like they are."
Battling for the playoffs is uncommon ground for the Everblades. Last year, they set ECHL records for wins and points. Ferguson has had a tough go this year, as the Blades enter tonight's contest at 26-21-5 for 58 points, which is good for fourth in the Southeast Division and ties them for eighth in the conference. Their lead, however, over 11th place Jackson is only three points. The top 10 teams in the conference make the postseason.
For most teams, five games over .500 is a great year. For the Everblades and their demanding fans - which pack TECO Arena to the tune of 7,100 a night - it's an aberration.
"We've been underachieving all year," said Ferguson, whose Blades have won seven of their past 10 games. "We've had guys who just haven't been performing. It's been better lately, though. We've started to turn it around and have been on a bit of a roll, and hopefully we can keep that going."
The Lynx also have to worry about Tallahassee, which enters tonight's games with a 30-19-5 record. With 65 points, the Sharks are only two points behind South Carolina for first place in the Southeast Division and three points behind Louisiana for the best record in the Southern Conference.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com.
|Southwest Conference playoff picture|
Here's where the Augusta Lynx stand in the Southern Conference playoff entering tonight's game at Florida. The top 10 teams in the conference make the postseason.
1. Louisiana 31-18-6/68/17
2. South Carolina 31-17-5/67/19
T3. Tallahassee 30-19-5/65/18
T3. Pee Dee 30-20-5/65/17
5. New Orleans 27-20-8/62/17
6. Mississippi 28-22-4/60/18
7. Arkansas 24-18-12/60/18
8. Mobile 27-26-4/58/15
9. Florida 26-21-6/58/19
10. Baton Rouge 25-20-7/57/20
11. Jackson 25-22-6/56/19
12. Greenville 26-27-3/55/16
13. Augusta 24-24-5/53/19
14. Birmingham 24-26-3/51/19
15. Pensacola 23-26-4/50/19