The Columbus Cottonmouths underwent a complete transformation before their contest against the visiting Mississippi Surge at the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday night.
The result was a solid, 60-minute effort and a 4-1 victory before 4,119 delirious fans.
Gone was the funk from the previous night that ended in a 5-1 loss to the Mississippi RiverKings. Replacing it was a crisp, focused attack and a solid performance in all phases of the game.
The victory couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did it snap a six-game losing streak and launch the stretch run for the remaining five games of the regular season. The win also allowed the Snakes to jump over the Surge and reclaim the fifth slot in the SPHL standings. The Cottonmouths are chasing home ice advantage, which the top four playoff slots earn. The fourth-place Knoxville Ice Bears dropped a 5-2 decision to first-place Louisiana, which leaves them five points ahead of the Snakes.
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Earlier on Saturday, the Snakes waived veteran forward and assistant captain Brett Hammond and signed enforcer Daniel Amesbury. A technicality prevented coach Jerome Bechard from signing soldier Snake Marcel Alvarez to a three-game tryout, so the Cottonmouths again played with a short bench.
Defensemen Tom Maldonado and Chris Bailer are out with injuries, so Amesbury played on the blue line, along with Derek Pallardy.
Defenseman Kevin Kessler picked an opportune time to score his first goal of the season. While his teammates cycled the puck, Kessler was suddenly wide open in front of the net. The goal from a defenseman not known as a scorer ignited the team.
“I think the goalie got screened and I got off a good shot,” Kessler said. “We needed it. It was definitely a great feeling to get on top early.”
Kessler also symbolized the physical style many of his teammates embraced against the Surge. Kessler threw several of his signature hip checks, but he wasn’t the only one hitting.
“Out mindset was to take the bodies,” Kessler said. “The whole team was hitting. Levi (Lind) was really throwing his weight around.”
The 1-0 lead stood until deep into the second period when Jordan Braid scored on the power play to increase the lead to 2-0 at the 12:00 mark. Pallardy and John Sullivan assisted. It was the first of 3 assists for Sullivan, who returned Friday night from two months on the shelf.
“We’ve been struggling so it was nice to see Kevin’s goal,” Sullivan said. “We need goals from everybody. This is probably the best we’ve played all year. It was a 60-minute effort. Maybe it will turn the tide, but it’s just one game. We needed to get the win for our confidence.”
Matt Gingera, the team’s leading scorer with 43 points in 41 games played, added the all-important insurance goals late in the game. After Adam Stuart cut the lead to a precarious 2-1, Gingera put it away with a pair of goals 2:13 apart late in the third.
“It’s about time,” Gingera said with a laugh. “This is the best we’ve played all year. Every single guy played for the full 60 minutes.”
The Snakes won for the first time since Feb. 23 and goaltender Andrew Loewen picked up his first victory since Feb. 16. Loewen thinks the roster shakeup motivated the team.
“We made a couple changes to our roster which brings a little reality in,” Loewen said. “The guys responded well because they know if they don’t, they might be out of a job.”
The team, including the usually laid-back Loewen, played with a lot of emotion. Loewen took exception to a snow shower administered by Brandon Kosolofsky in the third period, chasing Kosolofsky to the corner. Also, Loewen tapped his stick in mock appreciation when a Surge shot sailed high.
“It was a little heated and I was a pretty animated,” Loewen said. “The emotion had built up and we played our hearts out.”
If the Snakes are going to catch Knoxville, they’ll have to do it on the road. They play in Pensacola, Knoxville and Augusta before returning to Columbus for the last two regular season home games. The Cottonmouths host Pensacola on March 22 and Augusta the following night. Game time for both is 7:30.
Mississippi 0 0 1 --1
Columbus 1 1 2 --4
First period—1, Kessler (Lind, Bowles) 11:57. Penalties—Harcharik, Mississippi (hooking) 7:41; Gingera, Columbus (interference) 13:26; Kessler, Columbus (boarding) 18:52.
Second period—2, Braid (Pallardy) 12:00 PPG. Penalties—Amesbury, Columbus (fighting) 2:17; Collins, Mississippi (fighting) 2:17; Sullivan, Columbus (slashing) 4:49; Coccimiglio, Mississippi (slashing) 5:21; Harcharik, Mississippi (tripping) 5:35; VanderMale, Mississippi (boarding) 11:34; Ridley, Mississippi (cross-checking) 17:27.
Third period—3, Mississippi, Stuart (Kudroch, Gordon) :51; 4, Columbus, Gingera (Braid, Sullivan) 16:10; 5, Columbus, Gingera (Sullivan) 18:23. Penalties—Pallardy, Columbus (hooking) 1:37; Kosolofsky, Mississippi (unsportsmanlike conduct) 5:21; Gingera, Columbus (tripping) 7:34; Harrison, Mississippi (hooking) 10:43; Sullivan, Columbus (slashing) 16:10; Hamel, Mississippi (roughing) 16:10; Ridley, Mississippi (fighting, 2nd altercation, game misconduct) 18:55; Amesbury, Columbus (fighting, 2nd altercation, game misconduct) 18:55; Bellamy, Columbus (fighting) 18:55; VanderWale, Mississippi (fighting) 18:55; Aide, Columbus (fighting, game misconduct, leaving the bench) 20:00; Kosolofsky, Mississippi (fighting) 20:00.
Shots on goal: Mississippi 6 9 8 --23; Columbus 8 15 7 --30
Power plays: Columbus 1 of 7; Mississippi 0 of 5
Goaltenders: Loewen (win) 60:00 23 22 1; Smiley (loss) 60:00 30 26 4.
Referee: Reneau. Linesmen: Knapp, Nua.