The magic number is down to two.
For the Columbus Cottonmouths to punch their ticket into the postseason in the Southern Professional Hockey League, it’s a simple task. Any combination of two wins or two Roanoke losses will secure the eighth and final playoff seed for the Snakes.
The team plays its final two regular season home games this weekend, with Mississippi coming to the Civic Center on Friday and Evansville playing the Cottonmouths on Saturday. Game time is 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Last-place Evansville is nine points behind the Snakes with five games left to play for both teams, but it would take perfection on the part of the Thunderbolts and the Cottonmouths to lose all five games in regulation for Evansville to be in.
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Columbus is 12-8-2 in its past 22 games after an 8-19-2 start.
Head coach Jerome Bechard said he is pleasantly surprised by the turnaround.
“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “I kept preaching to the guys to do the right things. A couple of acquisitions we made because of some injuries has made all the difference. It’s the effort the guys have put into it that has really helped us turn the corner.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. For everything we’ve been through with the accident, the ongoing search for new ownership, all that stuff … the guys are locked in and focused. They’re having fun coming to the rink. It’s night and day from before. It’s really awesome to be around and involved in, just to see how far they’ve come, what they’ve put in, and what they’ve got from it.”
An injury to captain Kyle Johnson thrust the C on the sweater of Craig Simchuk. Bechard has been happy with the effort.
“Simmer’s been great,” Bechard said. “The biggest thing with Craig is making sure that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed, and play by example; play that physical style and people will follow. Everyone’s bought in and doing their jobs. The goal scorers are scoring goals and chipping in with being physical, and the physical guys are chipping in by putting the puck in the net. It’s everyone doing everything, and that’s what championship teams are made of.”
The key to the Cottonmouths’ turnaround also has been physical play from the entire team. Rather than finding one or two players as enforcers, Columbus has relied on a stable of players to play a physical style.
“Obviously, if you can find one of those guys who can contribute and play the game, that’s great, but with Simmer, Alex Kromm, Jonathan Turk, who’s a pint-sized guy who plays hard and willing to do whatever it takes. Alex Taulien, Derek Gingera, Guskov, Mike Dietrich, they all play a physical style,” Bechard said.
“It’s been a team concept of playing tougher,” Bechard said. “If the fight’s there, it’s there, but we’re not going to look for it. For the most part, the guys are playing hard, playing physical, and that’s the brand of hockey that wins in the playoffs. It’s so nice to watch. The confidence of everyone in that room, it doesn’t matter if we’re up a goal or down a goal, we know we’re going to win that game. It’s really nice to see.”
As for the ongoing ownership search, Bechard said he has had positive interaction with local groups and some outside Columbus looking to purchase the team. An announcement may come as early as next week, according to Bechard, if all the pieces fall favorably.