The Central Hockey League playoffs are now a reality, but there weren't any smiles in the Quad-City Mallards locker room Saturday night.
Despite losing 5-2 to the Missouri Mavericks on Saturday night at the iWireless Center, the Mallards clinched a playoff berth for the second straight year thanks to the Tulsa Oilers' 5-2 win over the Wichita Thunder.
"Obviously it's great to clinch a playoff spot but that's not what we're concerned with," goalie Ty Rimmer said. "We're concerned with winning hockey games."
There hasn't been much winning lately as the loss Saturday drops the Mallards to 3-6-2 in March.
"I just want to say right off the bat, I apologize to our fans," coach Terry Ruskowski said. "I'm embarrassed of our team, how they played today. I apologize."
More than 5,800 fans came out to try to will the Mallards to a win over the league-leading Mavericks, but Missouri jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Dave Pszenyczny and Tyler Currier.
Vladimir Nikiforov pulled the Mallards to within one at the 14-minute, 49-second mark of the first period with a breakaway goal, beating Mavericks goalie Shane Owen with a deke to the backhand as the Mallards trailed 2-1 after the first period.
"I got a lucky break," Nikiforov said. "I've done that move before in practice and it works. If you do it the right way, you can make the goalie bite."
The Mavericks pulled away in the second period with two early goals. Norwegian Olympian Henrik Odegaard scored his first career goal at 1:30 and Anders Franzon added a shorthanded goal at 6:50 to put the Mavericks ahead 4-1.
"It was like a bunch of pros playing against amateurs tonight," Ruskowski said. "It was embarrassing. Absolutely embarrassing."
Gabriel Levesque scored late in the period thanks to a stroke of good luck. Levesque whiffed on a forehand opportunity in the high slot but was able to recover and get off a backhand that beat an out of position Owen at 19:47 to narrow the gap to 4-2.
"He got lucky, but it comes to the fact of, put the puck on net," Ruskowski said. "You never know what happens."
League-leading Missouri, which is 7-1-0 against Quad-City this season, again closed the game out in the third period on a goal by Evan Vossen at 6:03.
"Clinching doesn't really mean anything," captain Darren McMillan said. "We have to figure out how to win games, close games ... games tonight where we were behind. In the playoffs, you're going to be behind. We need to figure out how to win games."
Owen made 25 saves for the Mavericks, while Mallards goalie Ty Rimmer made 24 saves in the loss.
The Mallards now have five games left in the regular season — two against Missouri, two against league-worst St. Charles and one against playoff-bound Allen.
With no chance to clinch home-ice in the first round, the focus is now on making sure the team that hosts Missouri in the final game of the regular season on March 30 is better than the one that took the ice Saturday, or the Mallards stay in the playoffs will be a short one.
"We have to improve on everything," Rimmer said. "I don't think we're playing hard enough. We're not playing playoff hockey and other teams are."