Over the last week, the Quad-City Mallards have battled flat tires, illness and fatigue.
Sunday, they came together for one of the best wins of the season.
The Mallards played a complete game from start to finish, grabbing a 4-3 win over the Toledo Walleye, who have the third-most points in the league.
"We played a team we know on paper is head over heels better than us, on paper," defenseman Jake Bolton said. "I think we came into this game thinking, this is ours. We all bought in as a team, we were blocking shots, we were making smart plays with the puck and that's what happens. Right now, we're hot."
Bolton scored the game-winning goal, burying a shot from the blue line that put the Mallards up 4-2 at the 5-minute, 13-second mark of the third period.
Erik Bradford cut the lead to 4-3 at 18:47 after the Walleye pulled goaltender Matej Machovsky for an extra attacker but the Mallards shut the door in the closing minute.
Over the last 10 games, the Mallards are 7-3-0, tied for the third-best mark in the conference over that span. In the past eight days, the Mallards have wins over three teams currently in a playoff spot in the Central Division. It started last Sunday with a shootout win over Fort Wayne after a flat tire delayed their arrival in Indiana, but that required C.J. Motte to make 60 saves in net.
Against Toledo, Motte was no less stellar, making 34 saves, but he was given plenty of help from those around him.
Tristan King scored the game’s first goal, burying a rebound 5:23 into the first period. King has been battling an illness and missed Saturday’s game in Fort Wayne but has now scored five goals and added one assist in the last four games he’s played.
Keegan Kolesar put the Mallards up 2-0, deflecting a shot from Greg Amlong past Machovsky at 9:49 in the period.
"We knew we wanted to come out of the gate hard and we definitely did that," forward Brayden Low said. "I definitely thought we played a very full 60 minutes tonight."
Toledo finally broke through against Motte in the second period. A shot from Charlie O’Connor caught Motte up high and he was unable to corral the rebound. Former Mallard Kevin Gibson found Austen Brassard on the backdoor for a wide-open goal at 13:39.
A.J. Jenks tied the game with a power-play goal at 15:33, again taking advantage of a rebound from Motte to send the game into the third period tied 2-2.
Low gave the Mallards the lead back, burying a rebound just 1:18 into the third period, then Bolton's goal gave the Mallards the needed insurance.
The Mallards were perhaps at their best midway through the third period, having to face 1:12 of a 5-on-3 from the Walleye.
Motte stood tall, Amlong and Jamie Tardif blocked shots, and as a whole, the team killed off both the 5-on-3 and the rest of the second penalty. It bought enough time to close out the game.
"You've just got to do what you can do to help your team win," Amlong said. "Shot blocking is a specialty of mine, I've gotten really good at it over the years and I'm doing what I can to help the team win."
Despite all this recent good play, the Mallards are still looking at a mountain in front of them. They're 15 points out of a playoff spot with 21 games remaining, but they're playing with a renewed confidence that figures to make them a difficult foe to close out the season.
"Everyone in the league, if we lose this by five or six goals, nobody's batting an eye but we as a team know that we can win that game," Bolton said. "So to be able to go out there and get that win and not have to rely on Motter to stop everything he faces, that's big for us. I think it was an all-around team effort and going into the long stretch to finish the season, that's a win that's going to give us a lot of confidence."