It’s far too early for the Quad-City Mallards to be glancing at the standings in the Central Hockey League. But after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Arizona Sundogs, it was hard to view Tuesday night as anything but a lost opportunity.

The Mallards ultimately waited until the second period to play their style of hockey, spotting the Sundogs a two-goal lead after 20 minutes. Although Q-C recovered to force overtime, the slow start ultimately came back to haunt the Mallards when they could not put anything past goaltender Adam Russo in the shootout, giving away a crucial point to the team directly above them in the CHL standings Tuesday night at i wireless Center.

“This was such a big game for us,” Mallards coach Terry Ruskowski said. “This could have put us up above them by a point, and we came out really flat. If the players don’t understand that this is such a big game, what do you do? We played so well last game against Denver, and now we want to take that next step, but it’s just dump it in, dump it in. I praised them in practice, but it just seems like, ‘OK, I guess he’s satisfied with one game.’ I’m not satisfied with one game.”

Instead of building off their strong effort from Friday’s win, the Mallards (14-15-4) reverted to their previous directionless play that had plagued them at the start of last week in the first period. That slow start allowed the disciplined Sundogs to take full advantage.

“We started soft,” said Mallards forward Patrik Levesque, who managed to get Quad-City a point with an equalizer in the third period on the power play. “Like Terry said, we’ve got to be more intense and finish our checks. You get more time and space when you start hitting, but we just started really soft and they scored two goals. That made the game, pretty much.”

The biggest mistake that came back to bite the Mallards came at the 8-minute mark of the first period, when defenseman Mike Glaicar took a shot from the perimeter, a seemingly harmless blast as the Sundogs (15-16-4) attempted to set up an attack.

However, the puck struck the stick of Sundogs forward Kevin Petovello and drifted out of sight of both the Mallards’ defense and goaltender John Murray, settling right on the goal line against the post. The officials judged it to be across the line, giving Arizona the two-goal lead that forced the Mallards to play catch-up.

Ruskowski termed the marker a “sucky goal,” but his real frustration was with the Mallards’ lack of physicality and consistent play. Throughout the season, Q-C has bounced back and forth between great efforts and off nights, a large reason why it sits in ninth place.

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“I don’t know what kind of team is going to show up every night,” Ruskowski said. “I thought we had good practices and we were ready to go. Then there’s times where we have a horrible practice and I don’t think these guys are ready at all, and we come out flying. We took shots at the point, but had nobody in front of the net. Let me be goalie and I can make those stops.”

More than 10 weeks remain between now and the end of the season, but Levesque warned that the Mallards are running out of time to start playing consistent hockey.

“January and February are big months,” he said. “You don’t want to end up in March being out of the playoffs and in desperation. It’s really important we focus on being ready when the puck drops and keep going all game.”