The Columbus Cottonmouths started Saturday night’s game against Roanoke with the same intensity they had in their 4-2 win over the Rail Yard Dawgs the night before, cashing in on the game’s first goal in the first period.
However, the Rail Yard Dawgs had other ideas for how the night would transpire.
Roanoke scored seven unanswered goals to win going away 7-1 before a reported crowd of 7,194. It was the largest announced crowd at the Columbus Civic Center since 7,436 attended a 2-1 loss against Peoria on Jan. 23, 2016. Saturday night’s crowd was bolstered by a large presence of soldiers from Fort Benning and also by a Waffle House-sponsored ticket special that gave fans free breakfasts and Cottonmouths souvenir blue hats in addition to discounted tickets.
Putting his general manager hat on before discussing the outcome of the game as head coach, Jerome Bechard was pleased with the crowd.
“The military guys bring so much energy into it,” Bechard said. “The office did a great job putting people in here with the Waffle House package, and there were a lot of blue hats in here. It’s been crazy all week with the bus accident and the ticket package. The office was a zoo all week, but my office staff did a great job.”
The Cottonmouths cashed in on the energy in the building early. Veteran defenseman Tom Maldonado, one of the local residents and former Cottonmouths who pitched in to fill the roster as players recover from the Jan. 19 bus crash in Illinois, fed a perfect cross-ice pass to Jonathan Turk, who buried the puck behind Roanoke netminder Ryan de Melo to give Columbus a brief 1-0 lead.
“Again, the guys had the energy we needed,” Bechard said. “We got rolling and got into a really good cycle. We hadn’t had a goal like that all year. We got the first one, and it was great.”
After the opening goal, Roanoke tied the game late in the first period and scored three goals each in the second and third periods. They took advantage of the power play, scoring two goals in their six chances with the man advantage. Many of their chances came in a third period that saw frustrations boil over, with the two teams combining for 95 total penalty minutes in the final frame alone.
Roanoke head coach Sam Ftorek was ejected late in the third period after voicing his displeasure with referee Andrew Bruggeman on how the game was being handled, refusing to put his players on the ice until he conferred with him.
“You have to give Roanoke credit,” Bechard said. “They played their game plan. They were shorthanded and kept everything to the outside. The first half of the game, we controlled most of the play, but we were down 3-1. We had our opportunities, but their goalie made some really good saves, and we came away with nothing.
“They got three pretty good bounces in the back of the net. That was pretty much the game. Frustration kicked in since we were cycling, getting our opportunities, and nothing was going in. Old Cottonmouth hockey came out…if we’re not going to beat you on the scoreboard, we’re going to beat you up.”
De Melo was stellar in net for Roanoke, stymieing the Snakes on all but one of their 44 shots on goal. On the other end, Curtis Martinu, who played for the Cottonmouths two seasons ago prior to the arrival of Shannon Szabados, made 28 saves on 35 shots. Ironically, Saturday’s game saw Martinu’s goals against average decrease on the season. He allowed five goals in two periods of a game at Peoria as a member of the Macon Mayhem in the only other action he has seen this season.
“Marty would probably like to have a couple of those back,” Bechard said. “Most of their goals were scored off the rush. They went to the net, had their sticks on the ice, and got the rebounds and deflections. You can’t blame it all on goaltending, but he’d probably like to have one or two of those back.”
Saturday’s game was the 28th game played by the Snakes this season, the halfway point of the 56-game schedule. They have played the fewest games of any SPHL team so far, in part due to schedule, in part due to two cancellations: a Jan. 7 game at Fayetteville postponed due to adverse travel conditions from a winter storm, and the Jan. 20 game in Peoria cancelled as the Cottonmouths recovered from the bus accident the day before.
Despite the current 8-18-2 record, they are still within striking distance of the two expansion teams in the league, Evansville and Roanoke, in the standings. Despite the loss to the Rail Yard Dawgs on Saturday night, Columbus is seven points behind them with three games in hand. They trail ninth-place Evansville by six points, but the Thunderbolts have played six more games than the Snakes, giving the Cottonmouths a realistic chance to climb out of the basement once those games are made up.
The Cottonmouths play three games in three nights during the upcoming week, hosting Fayetteville on Thursday night and Knoxville on Friday before traveling to Tennessee on Saturday for the back end of a home-and-home weekend with the Ice Bears.
Bechard hopes to have his roster back to a sense of normalcy heading into the crucial three-game set.
“It’s too soon to tell,” he said. “I’d like to think I can get a couple of guys back in the lineup, but I probably won’t know until Monday or Tuesday. I think we can get a couple of defensemen back for sure, and I’d like to think we’ll almost get back to normal at forward.
“At home Thursday and Friday, we can get some help with the local guys, but (Saturday), I don’t think those guys will be able to travel to Knoxville. We’ll play it by ear and see what happens.”
Saturday at Columbus Civic Center
First period – Scoring: 1, COL, Turk (Maldonado, Simchuk) 5:18; 2, RNK, Vernace (Turner, Tesoriero) 15:33. Penalties: Gingera, COL (roughing double-minor) 2:56; Turner, RNK (roughing double-minor) 2:56; Stahl, COL (roughing) 4:57; Babenko, RNK (roughing) 4:57; Mueller, RNK (interference) 5:48; Stahl, COL (roughing) 9:25.
Second period – Scoring: 3, RNK, Murray (Turner, Vernace) 9:36; 4, RNK, Lamacchia (Gandara, Schneider) 15:16 PP; 5, RNK, Bronner (Chegrintsev) 19:06. Penalties: Kromm, COL (slashing) 3:01; Maldonado, COL (cross-checking) 13:28.
Third period – Scoring: 6, RNK, Lamacchia (Babenko, Walsh) 5:58; 7, RNK, Murray (Lamacchia, Schneider) 15:36 PP; 8, RNK, Chegrintsev (Moroso) 18:22. Penalties: Lamacchia, RNK (slashing) 1:36; Babenko, RNK (slashing) 9:00; Simchuk, COL (instigation, fighting) 9:35; Chegrintsev, RNK (fighting) 9:35; Gingera, COL (slashing, roughing, 10-minute misconduct) 14:29; Vernace, RNK (roughing, 10-minute misconduct) 14:29; Turk, COL (slashing, 10-minute misconduct) 14:50; Turner, RNK (10-minute misconduct) 14:50; Lamacchia, RNK (10-minute misconduct) 15:36; Stahl, COL (cross-checking, 10-minute misconduct) 15:57; head coach, RNK (abuse of officials, game misconduct) 15:57.
Shots on goal: Roanoke 7-16-12—35; Columbus 16-17-11—44.
Power plays: Roanoke 2-6, Columbus 0-3.
Goaltenders: Roanoke, de Melo (win) 60:00, 44 shots, 43 saves; Columbus, Martinu (loss) 60:00, 35 shots, 28 saves.
Referee: Bruggeman; Linesmen: D’loughy, Lorenz.