Despite being the Columbus Cottonmouths’ farthest rival geographically in the Southern Professional Hockey League, there is no love lost when the Snakes tangle with the Peoria Rivermen. Although the games have been fewer than those against established rivals like Huntsville or Knoxville, the Snakes’ tangles with the Rivermen have been just as bitter.
The two teams renew their unique rivalry Friday and Saturday night in the Civic Center. Game time is 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Peoria has taken 12 of the 16 regular-season games between the two teams over the past three seasons, but the Cottonmouths defeated the Rivermen when it counted, shocking them two games to one in the first round of the 2014 SPHL playoffs.
Head coach Jean-Guy Trudel and the Rivermen, now in their fourth year in the SPHL after Peoria hosted an American Hockey League franchise under the same moniker, have been one of the most successful teams in the league since their entrance, setting league records for wins and points last season, but lack one elusive prize — a President’s Cup championship.
“I haven’t talked to Jean-Guy since last year, I guess, when it comes down to it,” said Snakes coach Jerome Bechard. “It is what it is.”
The Rivermen started 0-2 at home and were outscored 11-2 by Huntsville in their opening weekend. Since then, Peoria has made more than 50 roster moves, including releasing former Cottonmouths goaltender Shannon Szabados after the first weekend.
“They’ve had a rough start,” Bechard said. “They’re a different hockey team than they were last year. They’ve made some moves over the past couple of weeks to get guys back in the lineup they had last year. The one thing they’ll do is take the puck to the net all the time. The bottom line is, the four points up for grabs are the biggest part of the weekend. We need to get to our winning ways at home.”
For Bechard and the Cottonmouths, the weekend series with the Rivermen will be the perfect opportunity to pick up that elusive first win of the season. Columbus is 0-5 at home, scoring just five goals in the friendly confines of the Civic Center.
“I need my guys to come out and play the way they can, play hard, play confident, play our game and not worry about (Peoria’s) game,” Bechard said. “If we can do that, good things are going to start to happen. We’ll finally start getting some breaks with pucks that maybe shouldn’t go in the net that start going in the net.”
The Snakes have also made a couple of roster moves in advance of the weekend slate, picking up forwards Chad Brears from Pensacola and Vadim Guskov from Macon.
“Chad’s a Division I college player who’s a good player and fits into our game plan,” Bechard said. “He’s maybe the skilled guy we’re lacking, and he may bring a different style from Pensacola. He’s a strong skater and a big body, so I’m looking for some big things from him to maybe get some other guys going.
“Guskov is a hard-working guy who’s going to create energy, be physical, scrap if we need him to, and be consistent.”
Out of the 12 games so far this season, Bechard points to only two — a 3-0 loss in Huntsville on Nov. 4 and a 4-1 home loss against Mississippi on Nov. 25 — as games where he feels the Snakes were completely outmatched. In the others, he gave his Cottonmouths a fighting chance.
“The Friday game against Mississippi, I wasn’t very happy with our effort,” Bechard said. “In Macon on Saturday (a 5-1 loss), the effort was there, but we were chasing our tails. We created some chances offensively, but we gave up way too much.
“I think we need to stick the gameplan, take care of our end, and offensively, bear down around the net and put the puck in.”