Quad-City Mallards captain Chris Francis called the regular season "72 exhibition games."
The real season starts tonight.
The Mallards open their 2017 Kelly Cup Playoff run against the Fort Wayne Komets at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. After 12 meetings with the Komets in the regular season, it now comes down to who can win four games first.
"This series has the potential to go seven all day long," Fort Wayne head coach Gary Graham said. "I think both teams know each other so well."
With so much history between the teams this year, there won't be many surprises, and though the Mallards were 4-8-0 against the Komets, they've shown potential to knock off Fort Wayne.
To accomplish that feat, and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the Mallards must adhere to these five keys:
Capitalize on power play
The success of the Mallards this season is somewhat surprising considering the struggles of the power play. The Mallards had the second-worst power play in the league, and worst among playoff teams at 12.4 percent.
Though they've compensated by being one of the best 5-on-5 teams — 84.1 percent of their goals have come even strength, the highest mark in the league — the power play must capitalize when the Komets are in the penalty box. Fort Wayne is the fourth-most penalized team in the league, and if the Mallards can score even just two or three power play goals in the series, it could be the difference.
"Whoever’s on the power play has to look at it as being a privilege. You have to work to stay on the power play," Francis said. "We can’t go out there and try to be the Red Army or the Swedish Elite League, we just have to go out there, keep it simple, get the puck to the point, get the puck to the net and just bang away."
Don't back down
When the Mallards were at their best, and most competitive with Fort Wayne, it was because they stuck to their systems and matched the Komets in both speed and physicality.
The Mallards are more reliant on skill than physicality — Jack Nevins is the only player with more than 100 penalty minutes — but the team has plenty of grit to match the Komets, especially when players like Grant Arnold and Brady Brassart are in the lineup.
The team's 4-3 overtime win March 24 was the best example of this, as the Mallards played a fast-paced, tight-checking game and fought back every time Fort Wayne flexed its muscles.
"This team, they take pride in their hitting, they finish every check," forward Nolan LaPorte said. "Whenever you let go of the puck you know you're going to get hit so it's one of those series you've got to go in there and deliver it too just to keep the game even and not let them run around and dictate the game."
Protect the goalies
C.J. Motte and Adam Vay have been the backbone of this team all season, but with so many offensive weapons, including Mike Cazzola who has 30 goals in his rookie season, the Komets will find the back of the net if given enough chances.
The Mallards gave them plenty of chances in the last two games of the regular season as the Komets piled up 85 shots and 11 goals to close out the season series.
"Our D-zone was actually kind of embarrassing the last two games," defenseman Mike Wilson said. "We've got to be better defensively, we know that."
While the Mallards struggled in their own zone, they also gave Fort Wayne too many odd-man rushes and breakaway attempts, forcing their goaltenders into difficult situations to keep the score close.
Though both goaltenders are up to the task, the Mallards can't rely on them to perform the impossible when games could be decided by one goal.
"You never want to rely solely and have a plan to say, 'Oh well, if something happens, we have a good goalie.'" Brassart said. "That's never something you want to do as a team. If you can limit them to 20 shots and you have a great goalie you know you're going to give yourself a great chance to win the game."
Ready from the start
During their eight-game winning streak earlier this season, the Mallards were a great early momentum team, scoring the first goal in each of those games and taking a 2-0 lead in seven of them.
But recently, the Mallards have struggled out of the gate, especially against Fort Wayne. The Komets scored the first goal in each of the last three games in the series, and have controlled play right from the start.
The Mallards were able to withstand the early pressure in their March 24 win, but that sustained attack led to the two blowout losses to close out the season.
The Mallards have to regain that early-game attack they showed back in February, and counter any Fort Wayne rush with counterattacks of their own. They can't take 10 minutes to find their footing once the playoffs hit.
"They're a great momentum team and we've got to be ready right off the hop," Arnold said. "We're playing a best-of-seven series, they're going to have momentum swings, they're going to dominate play for minutes at a time, that's how it is in a best-of-seven series. It's going to come down to our composure on the bench, weathering storms and hopefully punching them back and getting a couple of our own."
Through all the ups and downs of this season, the resiliency and determination of the Mallards has been the biggest constant.
It's what helped them overcome a mid-season coaching change, and it's helped them win the tightest of games when they mattered the most.
The Mallards have a league-high 22 wins in one-goal games and are the only team in the league not to lose a game when leading after two periods, a perfect 23-0-0.
If they can get a lead, they've shown the capability to hold it, but they will have to contend with one of the league's best third-period teams in Fort Wayne, who has outscored opponents 102-60 in the final 20 minutes.
"You see the determination in that room, guys going down to block shots and everything," Francis said. "There’s a lot of grit in that room. I think it’s a pride thing, we don’t want to get scored on and we don’t want to lose. We all hate losing so that’s why we bear down and get the job done when we have to."