Toledo's Davis Vandane collides with Quad-City Mallards forward Sam Warning, during the season opener at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline. The Mallards have dropped three of their first four games, two to the Walleye and look to turn things around starting this weekend against Idaho.

This isn't quite the start anyone envisioned for the Quad-City Mallards.

With a solid core of the offense and all-star goaltender C.J. Motte returning from a 40-win team, the Mallards looked poised to take the next step from perennial playoff qualifier to potential title contender.

But Motte is in the AHL now, with the Chicago Wolves for the foreseeable future due to NHL affiliate Vegas Golden Knights suffering injuries to two of their goaltenders. Sam Warning and Justin Kovacs are scoring but that's about it for the offense. Defensively, the team has struggled to lock up its own zone, allowing 36.75 shots per game.

It's all led to a 1-3-0 start as the Mallards sit in sixth place in the Central Division.

Disconcerting? Yes. But it's just four games in, way too early to hit the panic button.

"We've just got to stick with the course, a lot of us are new to each other, we obviously haven't found the chemistry we wanted," forward Josh MacDonald said. "I think we're overthinking it. We're not going out there and just playing, we're too focused on the little things which is what you want to do but I think we're just overthinking it. We just need to calm down a bit."

It's really been an issue of starting strong for the Mallards. In the first period they've been outscored 8-2 but are much more balanced in the latter two periods, tying teams 7-7 in those final 40 minutes.

While those numbers need to improve across the board, the Mallards really need to concentrate on eliminating those slow starts, which have been putting them in big holes early.

"It's hard when you're behind the 8-ball from the get go because we've shown during the game we can play and take on Toledo and have them on their heels," defenseman Alexander Kuqali said. "It's just preparation, everyone taking it on their own to make sure they're ready mentally, ready physically and ready hours before the puck drops ... as professionals, that's not too much to ask."

The schedule is also tough on the Mallards. They didn't have an exhibition game to prepare for the season, two of their first four games were against last year's regular season champion Toledo and they'll have had nearly a week off before hosting Idaho Friday night.

The time between games gives the team time to heal up and work on its issues, but also hurts the Mallards' ability to try and get into any kind of early season groove.

"I wouldn't mind playing. It is what it is but I think guys just need to get playing. A lot of time to sit and dwell on what happened," head coach Phil Axtell said. "There are positives. We hit two or three posts (on Saturday), one or two trickled across the goal line, right now it's not falling in our direction."

Vegas injuries impact Q-C: C.J. Motte's signing with the Chicago Wolves last week was in part due to Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury suffering a concussion two weeks ago. It was expected that when Fleury returned, Motte would be returned to the Mallards.

Things were made even more complicated when Vegas sustained another injury, this time to goaltender Malcolm Subban, who was playing in place of Fleury. Subban was injured midway through the third period of Saturday night's game and was placed on injured reserve with a lower body injury, expected to be out at least four weeks according to the Vegas team website.

As a result, Vegas has recalled both Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace from Chicago. That leaves Chicago with Motte and Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was loaned to the Wolves from the Toronto Marlies Monday.

Axtell didn't comment on any timetable for Motte's return, but it seems unlikely the Mallards will get their all-star goaltender back until the Golden Knights get their goaltenders healthy.

Ivan Kulbakov and Alex Sakellaropoulos are now the two goaltenders with the Mallards, and Kulbakov has played well in his first two games, going 1-1-0.

New trainer: The Mallards hired Scott McLay as athletic trainer prior to Saturday's game against Toledo. McLay, an Ontario native, spent the past two seasons with the Alaska Aces and was named the ECHL's athletic trainer of the year in 2016.

Bench milestone: Jacksonville head coach Jason Christie broke the ECHL record by coaching in his 1,009th career game on Saturday. Christie broke the previous record set by ECHL Hall of Fame inductee John Marks. Christie already has the ECHL record for most career wins with 547.

This week: The Mallards host the Idaho Steelheads Friday and Saturday at the TaxSlayer Center, both games starting at 7:05 p.m. Friday night is $2 Dogs/$2 Beers presented by 97X while Saturday the Mallards are holding a Halloween costume contest. All young fans who come to the game dressed up can take part in an on-ice costume contest and all kids attending the game will have the chance to trick-or-treat on the ice.

This is the first ever meeting between the two teams.


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times