The saying goes that the state of Virginia is for lovers.
The Columbus Cottonmouths also hope Virginia is good for four points in the standings this weekend.
The Snakes are on the road in Roanoke, Va., for a crucial pair of games Friday and Saturday night at the Berglund Center against the Rail Yard Dawgs. Columbus enters the weekend a solitary point ahead of Roanoke for the eighth and final playoff position in the Southern Professional Hockey League standings.
“These are definitely the two biggest games of the year right here,” head coach Jerome Bechard said Thursday evening. “But I think we’ve been playing playoff hockey here the past couple of weeks. We just need to continue to play the way we’ve been playing and worry about our game and not anyone else.”
The way the Cottonmouths have been playing of late is in stark contrast to the way they began the season. After a Feb. 2 home loss to Fayetteville dropped the Snakes a season-high 11 games under .500 at 8-19-2, the team has gone 10-7-2 since. Included in that turnaround are three three-game winning streaks after failing to win consecutive games in the first half of the year.
The offense has also come around. At the midpoint of the season, the Cottonmouths were on pace to break their own SPHL record for offensive futility, set last season when they mustered just 125 goals in the whole 56-game campaign. Since the Groundhog Day turning point, the Snakes have found net with more regularity; after scoring five or more goals just once in their first 29 games, they have lit the lamp five times or more in five of their past 19 contests.
“Everybody’s bought into the team concept,” Bechard said. “All three lines are contributing. Our first line (Andy Bathgate, Chad Brears, Keegan Bruce) has been flashy, and the other two are grinding out and giving us the energy and physical play we need to sustain pressure in the other team’s end. All the defensemen are moving the puck well, and we have good goaltending. As a whole, everyone’s bought into doing their jobs and playing the way we need to play.”
The Cottonmouths have also leaned on two solid first-year goaltenders in the turnaround effort. After dropping his first three professional starts, Spencer Bacon has allowed three goals or fewer in six of his past nine games, including a 50-save effort in a 4-3 shootout loss at Pensacola on Sunday. Fellow rookie netminder Mavric Parks is on a personal three-game winning streak, stymieing the first-place Macon Mayhem in three consecutive games.
“They both have been doing a good job,” Bechard said of his goaltending tandem. “Parks beat Macon three times in a row and kind of had their number, so we rolled with him against them. The Sunday game in Pensacola, Spencer played phenomenal to give us that one point we needed. Both those guys are making the big saves and making the little ones they’re supposed to. I’m pretty happy with both of them.”
The latter part of the season in the SPHL is one in which teams bring in newcomers fresh out of their college careers that ended in late February or early March. The Cottonmouths have made three such acquisitions, nabbing forward Mike Dietrich (University of Wisconsin-River Falls) and defensemen Scott Milnthorp (Marian University) and Nick Owen (Salve Regina University). While the team can still go after more college graduates, Bechard says he is content with his current roster.
“Right now, I think we’ve got what we need,” he said. “I’m still in contact with some college guys, but unless something catastrophic happens, knock on wood, everyone here deserves to be here. They’ve given me everything they’ve got and have earned the right to be here. I’m pretty happy with what we have. The locker room is important, and I don’t want to mess anything up when it comes down to it.”
Bechard also continues to pull double duty as both head coach and salesman for the Cottonmouths franchise after team owner Wanda Amos last month announced her intention to sell the team at the end of the season. He hopes to have something in motion sooner than later.
“We’ve had some really good inquiries and discussion, so that’s moving along,” Bechard said. “We have some more meetings early next week, so things are progressing. I don’t know how long it’s really supposed to take, but anyone looking into us is doing their due diligence and homework on what has gone on and what needs to go on moving forward. We’re taking it in stride, but we need something on the go in the next couple of weeks for a good transition period.
“The next two to three weeks will tell the tale. I’m really confident in the groups who are interested. There are a lot of good things happening.”