Throughout this season, the Quad-City Mallards have been subject to plenty of ups and downs.
There was the strong 18-10-2 start, followed by a six-game losing streak. Then came a coaching change and a decade-best eight-game winning streak. The team weathered injuries and call-ups, those peaks and valleys so common to a 72-game season, as well as the additional ones this somewhat uncommon year provided, coming out with its best record since 2006.
All those moments of resolve, of resiliency and character-building were just practice for the team's biggest test so far this season — trying to climb out of an 0-2 series hole against the Fort Wayne Komets, starting in Game 3 tonight at the iWireless Center.
"We’re not down, we’re not out," captain Chris Francis said. "Yeah, we’re in a tough spot, we’ve got to win four out of five, but with the character we have in this room, and the compete level, I think everyone cares and that’s why I’m confident right now."
The confidence is expected and will continue to be there until the final horn of the season sounds, whether that be this weekend or in June. But it's the same confidence that helped the team climb out of that six-game losing streak, and make a mid-season coaching change a positive rather than a negative.
"You lose (six) games in a row in any sport, it’s tough to think about how your team is going to get out of it," forward Grant Arnold said. "We came out of it and put together that eight-game winning streak. We’ve been through a lot and it gives us a lot of confidence we can come back in that series."
The Mallards certainly know they can hang with, if not beat, the Komets. They won four games in the regular season series, including a stretch of three straight. They came out in Game 1 and jumped all over Fort Wayne, taking a 3-1 lead before the Komets answered back with three straight goals.
Despite getting outplayed and outshot 37-13 in that game, the final score of Game 1 was 4-3.
"I thought we came out at the start of the series and we were almost just not thinking and we were just playing, and playing simple and playing hard," said Arnold, who had a goal and an assist in Game 1. "That mindset of it’s playoff hockey, let’s get the puck in and get it deep.
"When you get a two-goal lead, for whatever reason, people want to get away from that and I think that’s what hurt us."
In Game 2, the Mallards fell behind from the start and had a handful of miscues that led to a 3-1 Fort Wayne win.
"That's mental breakdowns," head coach Phil Axtell said. "We've got to be mentally tough and that's part of buying in. I'm marking that off to being inexperienced, young in the playoffs and now we've given them two games, we've learned from it."
Fort Wayne certainly has the benefit of experience, with 11 players back from a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last season. Meanwhile, 10 Mallards made their professional playoff debuts last week, but they've shown their potential all season and have earned the trust of Axtell and the few veterans on the team.
"We trusted each other and we battled for each other, game in, shift in," said Francis, who was a member of the Las Vegas Wrangler when they lost in the Kelly Cup Finals in 2012. "I’ve never been a part of a team where everyone is on board. This locker room, everyone is on board."
But there's many things the Mallards need to do to try and get back into this series. They have been outshot 74-31 in the first two games of the series and have also spent too much time in the penalty box, 10 minutes per game.
"We need to hold them more accountable. We’re letting them get under our skin with the way they play, the style of game they play and you’ve got to hand it to them, they’re good at what they do," Francis said. "For about 10 minutes in each game, they got under our skin so for us, we need to play harder between the whistles and after the whistles skate away and laugh."
The Mallards also have to avoid the breakdowns, the miscues, and focus on getting pucks out of their zone, and spending more time on the attack in Fort Wayne's.
"We just have to stick to the gameplan for 60 minutes," Axtell said. "We have to be committed as a group, buy in as a group. All 16 skaters have to buy in. We all have to be on the same page and play and execute for one another for the ultimate goal. That's what needs to change."
The biggest bright spot has been goaltender C.J. Motte. Though saddled with both losses, Motte has been stellar in his first career playoff series. He's made 67 saves so far and the team is confident that if they can flip the ice and play more in the Fort Wayne zone, Motte will do his part in net.
"I can’t give enough credit to Motter, he’s played awesome," Arnold said. "He’s done a great job for us back there being a brick wall. We’ve got to answer for him. He’s really given us the opportunity to win two games and we’ve got to answer the bell for him."