The Columbus Cottonmouths have begun their 2014 playoff push with a sense of urgency and only 15 games left in the regular season.
The Snakes control their playoff destiny.
Currently, Columbus is hovering on the line between getting into postseason play and beginning the off-season early for the first time in 10 Southern Professional Hockey League seasons. With five weekends left, the Cottonmouths are in eighth place of 10 teams, with only the top eight teams being playoff bound. At 37 points, the Snakes are ahead of Fayetteville (36 points) and Bloomington (34). The positive news for Columbus is that the Snakes go head-to-head with Fayetteville three times and Bloomington twice in their remaining slate of games.
This weekend continues a key stretch for the Snakes in which they play Fayetteville three consecutive times. They dropped Game 1, 3-2, in Fayetteville on Tuesday night. Game 2 is Friday night at the Columbus Civic Center. The FireAntz and Snakes return to Fayetteville to complete the series on Saturday night. The Snakes still have the opportunity to grab four points from the Antz and put a little cushion between themselves and playoff elimination.
The Cottonmouths wrap up the weekend with their fourth game in six days, a Sunday matinee at home against the third-place Mississippi RiverKings. The Snakes are 0-1-2 against the Kings this season, all of which were one-goal games. Game time is 4 p.m. Sunday.
"There are no words big enough to describe how important all three of these games are," Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard said. "In two weeks, we've gone from the hottest team in the league to the coldest. I've challenged the guys to go back to the basics and do what made us successful. Our sense of urgency has been going into panic. We're so aggressive that we're creating our own nightmares."
During the home stretch of the regular season, the Snakes face eight of their nine SPHL opponents. They've concluded the season's series with Peoria, going 1-3 against the Rivermen. During the next five weeks, the Cottonmouths face the FireAntz, Mississippi Surge and RiverKings three times each and Bloomington twice. They have one game remaining against Pensacola, Knoxville, Louisiana and Huntsville.
The quirky SPHL schedule sees Pensacola make its one and only visit to Columbus on March 13. The Snakes have been to Pensacola only once, a 6-2 loss on opening night, Oct. 25.
The Cottonmouths face every SPHL opponent between two and 10 times each. Pensacola is the least familiar opponent, which could end up being significant come playoff time. If the season ended today, the Snakes and Ice Flyers would square off in the first round.
The Snakes and Peoria met four times. Columbus plays Louisiana and the Surge five times each and Bloomington and the RiverKings six times. The Snakes square off against Huntsville eight times and Fayetteville and Knoxville 10 times each.
The Cottonmouths have a winning record so far against Fayetteville (4-3), Huntsville (4-3) and Bloomington (3-0-1). They are winless against the RiverKings (0-2-1) and Pensacola (0-1).
The Cottonmouths are under .500 on the road and at home. After Tuesday night's contest, they are 9-12-2 on the road and 8-9-1 at home. After a solid January in which they posted a 7-2-1 record, the Snakes have slumped to 1-5-1 in February. Their only win this month came 4-1 over Knoxville on Feb. 14. Five losses this month came by a single goal, one in a shootout and four in regulation.