It's been primarily days of wine and roses under Phil Axtell for the Quad-City Mallards, but recently there's been a bump in the road, a true test of adversity.
The Mallards have now lost five of their last seven games, and that adversity will get even tougher moving forward.
The Mallards fell 3-2 in overtime to the Kalamazoo Wings, giving up a few tough goals but ultimately falling short yet again against the team chasing them in the standings.
The Mallards came out strong again against the Wings, outshooting Kalamazoo 20-12 in the first period, but faltered after, getting outshot 28-16 the rest of the game. The third period was nearly all Kalamazoo, and the Mallards struggled to get any chances.
At full strength, the Mallards are probably more talented than Kalamazoo, but the Wings never quit. They are relentless for 60 minutes, and the Mallards have often failed to match that intensity no matter the opponent.
This is the biggest thing keeping the Mallards from taking that step from being a good team to a great team. They show flashes of being a team that is capable of going deep in the playoffs, but then in the same game, they also show flashes of a team that could get knocked out in the first round.
Consistency is a process, and one that is hard when new players are coming in and out of the roster. Now, the Mallards have to adjust to losing some key players, as Nolan LaPorte, Adam Gilmour and Jack Nevins are headed to Iowa, while C.J. Motte is headed to Chicago.
LaPorte and Nevins have been big for the Mallards this season, providing a physical presence and some scoring prowess. Gilmour has been solid since joining the team last week but it was never expected he'd be around very long. Losing Motte also huts, but Vay has shown capable of carrying the load, and the Mallards get a struggling Indy team Saturday.
However, the Mallards lose some key depth, though this might be the best time for it, as they have nearly a week off after Saturday's game. There is no indication how long these players will be in the AHL, but the Mallards are learning the cost of success. With success comes the call of the AHL, and now five players who have been key parts, and newcomer Gilmour, are now up in the AHL.
The Mallards have a relatively easy road in the final month. They boast the easiest remaining schedule in the division and their magic number over Tulsa is 19. Tulsa faces one of the toughest schedules as well, so the Mallards' playoff chances still look very good.
However, avoiding a first-round date with Toledo is likely a must for the Mallards, and they can't afford to lose much more ground to Toledo. The Mallards can't expect to get any of these players back, they might come back next week, they might be back for the playoffs, or they might not be back at all. This can be a huge month of growth for the young team, finding more about itself facing this adversity, and if any of these players come back at season's end, they could be a big threat entering the playoffs.
It adds another thing to watch as the Mallards close in on another playoff year, and it will be worth watching how head coach Phil Axtell deals with his first real test of the season.