Officially, it was John Whitwell Night at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, as the Augusta Lynx paid tribute to the durable defenseman for becoming the first player in club history to log 250 games of service.
But when the puck dropped, it became Zac Bierk's night, by far his best in a Lynx sweater.
A long and frustrating year for the former NHL goalie took another turn for the better Friday, as Bierk pulled off something few goalies have managed this season: He shut down the red-hot Greenville Grrrowl.
Bierk recorded his first ECHL shutout, stopping 33 shots, as the Lynx picked up a 2-0 victory over the first-place Grrrowl. The win snapped Augusta's five-game winless skid and handed the Grrrowl just their second defeat in 12 games.
And with just 24 games for a Lynx (21-19-8) club that began the night eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Southeast, every win at this point is significant.
"I think it has a lot to do with the team, because we've all reached a point where we've dedicated ourselves again to refocusing," said Bierk, who improved to 2-5-1. "I'd like to think the last four games or so, I've felt pretty good and started to turn the corner. Me playing well is what the team needs right now."
The Lynx also gave Bierk plenty of support, turning in one of their best defensive efforts this season. The Grrrowl (29-16-5) outshot Augusta 33-32, but had only a few good scoring chances. Only twice did Lynx breakdowns lead to odd-man rushes, and Bierk came through each time.
They also are one of the few teams to shut down Greenville rookie sensation Simon Gamache. The Atlanta Thrashers draft pick entered the game with 16 goals in his first 15 games with the Grrrowl since he was reassigned to the club from Chicago of the American League.
"That's what we needed," Whitwell said. "We played solid defensively and didn't give up many scoring chances. And Zac played really well tonight for us."
Wes Mason provided the only scoring the Lynx would need, picking up his 16th goal of the year on a power play at 4:18 of the second period. The score remained 1-0 until Guy Larose iced it with an empty-net goal with 31 seconds remaining.
"It was a hard-fought game against a team that's been playing very well of late," Lynx coach Jim Burton said. "We didn't give them very many chances, and Zac stepped up when they did get chances. It's good to see Bierky playing better. I think he's turned the corner. I think he's ready to play the way he's obviously capable of playing."
A veteran of 27 NHL games, including one with Minnesota last season, Bierk struggled after the Phoenix Coyotes assigned him to Augusta in November. The 25-year-old missed most of training camp and the first six weeks of the season after hip surgery in September.
"It (the hip) is still nagging me, but it's less of an issue than not playing all summer and then not playing the first two months of the season," said Bierk, who went 24-18-5 with a 2.89 goals-against average for AHL Cleveland last season. "It was also a situation of not playing consistently enough to get consecutive starts. But I've felt a lot more comfortable the past couple of weeks. Hopefully, I can get on a roll here."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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