Eleven straight playoff seasons. That's what hangs in the balance for the Columbus Cottonmouths beginning today against in-state rival Macon at the Columbus Civic Center.
The Cottonmouths enter the final month of the regular season with 14 games remaining, just enough time to decide whether they will be watching the playoffs in person or at home. Today's meeting against Macon will be the first home game in 20 days for the Snakes. Currently sitting last in the nine-team SPHL standings, Columbus is a mere four points behind Macon, which currently occupies the final playoff berth.
Although they have played three fewer games, the Cottonmouths' opportunities to beat the Mayhem are down to just two final regular-season meetings, one today and another on April 1 at the Civic Center, the next to last home game of the regular season.
Having played only two games over the past two weeks, the Cottonmouths enjoyed a break in the schedule allowing time for some wounds to heal just in time for the playoff run.
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"It's a gift and curse," Columbus coach Jerome Bechard said. "While it's nice to finally be healthy, taking a week off can throw us off rhythm, which hurts because I feel like we are playing our best hockey of the season."
Prior to their 3-1 loss last Saturday to Louisiana, Columbus was on a season-long four game winning streak. Now 0-3-1 this season against the Ice Gators, following today's contest against Macon, the Snakes will hit the road Sunday to face Louisiana for the second time in eight days.
"We just didn't have a whole lot of jump, took us almost 1½ periods to wake up," Bechard said. "I figure we need to win 10 of our final 14 games to make the playoffs, a feat that won't come easy."
Beginning today, the Cottonmouths will play a string of 14 games in 36 days. With Peoria being the only team to clinch a playoff berth, the SPHL standings remain largely open with nine points separating second place from seventh place. In hopes of extending their streak of reaching the playoffs to 12 seasons, Columbus need only worry about playing one opponent at a time.
"In our winning streak, we were goal scorers fighting, fighters lighting the lamp," Bechard said. "Reaching the playoffs isn't going to take one individual doing what they do best, but all 18 guys doing things that fall out of their norm while continuously making sure they play quick, move the puck, and be physical."
Macon has won three straight against Columbus and 5-of-7 this season. Four of the games have been decided by one goal.