The Quad-City Mallards left their sweat and their blood splattered across the ice Saturday night.
It wasn’t enough.
The Mallards fell 3-2 to the Fort Wayne Komets in Game 5 of the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, ending their season, falling four games to one.
"I'm extremely proud of this group, they never quit, even to that last face-off," head coach Phil Axtell said. "Guys are hurt, they're not in pain. There's a few guys that played tonight that are hurt. I couldn't have asked for a better group in my first run in playoffs and as a head coach."
After taking Games 3 and 4 to overtime, the Mallards fell behind 3-0 Saturday. That could have been the end of it, but the team once again showed the resolve that got it through a six-game losing streak and a mid-season coaching change to clinch its fifth straight playoff berth.
"It's disappointing that it came to an end. I think a couple bounces here or there and this series could be totally different," captain Chris Francis said. "The character in that room, the guys in that room, when we had injuries, we were shorthanded, they battled every game, all season. I'm really proud to be a part of a team like that."
Francis' goal — his first of the series — came 1 minute, 46 seconds into the third period, cutting the score to 3-2, and putting thoughts of another rally into the works.
This time, it fell one goal short.
With 18.1 seconds left, Axtell drew up a play with C.J. Motte on the bench. The initial look just failed to convert, and a last chance shot tipped off Brady Brassart's stick into the glove of Komet goaltender Pat Nagle as the horn sounded.
Brassart left the game in the second period after taking a puck to the head and bleeding from his ear. But he returned in the third after getting 12 stitches in a game where numerous players were cut, hit big, and slow off the ice.
"It's funny how hockey works, it seems all the little injuries add up and they come right at you at the end of the year," Brassart said. "Hockey is a tough sport, and it's physical, that's part of the game and you're going to take bumps and bruises. You've got to be willing to put your body on the line every night in order to win. I think that's the kind of stuff, we had so many guys playing through stuff, it's pretty cool to see."
The key to the series was special teams. The Fort Wayne Komets scored two power-play goals Saturday and were 6-for-15 in the series. Meanwhile, the Mallards — who entered the postseason with the second-worst power play in the league — were 2-for-18, though did get a power-play goal from Grant Arnold with 15 seconds left in the second period.
In a series where four of the five games were decided by just one goal, the season-long futility on the power play finally caught up to the Mallards.
"Their top unit was really good, you could tell they were the same unit all year," Francis said. "Those five guys really knew where each other were and for our unit, we kind of just put them together right before playoffs. They had a lot of time to work and give them credit, they moved the puck around well and they scored the timely goals when they needed them"
Fort Wayne moves on to the second round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year under head coach Gary Graham, and though the series was the first one over in the league, it was tight the whole way through.
"They never quit and that's what you want to see," Graham said. "I know the feeling for sure, I've been on the wrong side of those things. You saw them in the third, they came out with nothing to lose, extremely aggressive and that's what you want to see. A couple of games could have gone either way.
"These last games here on home ice were really all coin flips in my mind."
Though the Mallards are out, there's no underselling the play of goaltender C.J. Motte, who showed throughout this series the play that earned him an all-star selection in his second professional season.
Motte went 1-3-1 in the playoffs with a 3.03 goals against average and a .912 save percentage but also won 20 games in the regular season and Axtell feels he did plenty to get a chance in the AHL next season.
"He's an elite goaltender in this league," he said. "I would hope he gets a chance. He played some minutes this year and did well, an all-star selection this season, 21 wins. It's pretty awesome stuff."
It's the end of a season that wasn't without its ups and downs. But there were more ups following the mid-season coaching change. The team went on a decade-best eight-game winning streak and finished with 41 total wins, all under the guidance of Axtell in his first year as a head coach.
"It was a lot of fun," Axtell said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity and extremely proud of the way they rallied around each other and performed the way they did."