Are the playoffs here yet?
Though nothing is certain yet, the Quad-City Mallards' playoff future feels more like a when and not an if at this point. The Mallards have a nine-point lead over the reeling Tulsa Oilers with 15 games remaining, and have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league.
At this point, it's about shoring up certain things, staying healthy, and hoping the AHL doesn't come calling for too many more players.
After a rough stretch where the team had lost five of seven, it was refreshing to see the Mallards come out Saturday and take it to the Indy Fuel, winning 6-1. These games against the division's bottom-feeders could end up being trap games if not taken seriously, and excluding a slow start, the Mallards took care of business and kept the pressure on all game.
This win is good, because it's what the Mallards were supposed to do. Five goal differentials are always good, but I won't say this win is impressive. It's simply what a team of the Mallards' caliber should do against teams like Indy. If the Mallards want to grab the No. 2 seed, they can't drop these games to Indy and Wichita, because Fort Wayne sure won't.
As the playoffs approach, the team is still figuring out some things, but showed Saturday night that when it plays simple, smart hockey, it can be a pretty imposing foe.
Here are a few other thoughts from the game:
-- The Mallards' net-front presence was as good as I've seen it all year. The Mallards had multiple screens, redirects and rebounds, most they took advantage of. This team can show signs of flash and style but is ultimately at its best when it plays simple, physical, puck possession hockey. The Mallards dominated nearly the entire game and kept Indy from getting any offensive pressure going. It's hard to lose when you don't let the other team in your own end, and that's what the Mallards did to Indy Saturday. Granted, Indy is not one of the more skilled teams, and it's tougher to keep the Toledos and Fort Waynes out of your own end, but it's a mindset the Mallards need to try and permanently adopt, because they're much tougher to beat when they play this way.
-- It was a slow start, with Indy getting the first real pressure and a quick early goal. I suspect some of this was due to having Friday night off -- a rarity in this sport -- and getting back into the groove. It was disappointing to see the start, but the response was great. The Mallards didn't let the early goal get to them, instead they used it to fuel them forward, and dominated the game from then on out. You'd like to see the team come out fast from the start, but if that doesn't happen, at least it didn't let an early goal become a deflating one.
-- It's a good sign for the Mallards that Chase Lang got his first two goals of the year. Lang had wrist surgery in November and has been sidelined nearly all year. His first few games you could see the talent but he's also young and getting used to playing games again. Saturday he worked hard to get to the front of the net and was rewarded with a pair of tip-in goals. There's no way of knowing how long Lang will be down here and what Iowa's plans are for him, but he showed Saturday that if he's down here, he can be a contributor down the stretch.
-- It's hard to do Adam Vay's second-period save justice. Vay wasn't tested most of the night, but stopped a weird bounce from ending up in the back of his net. I've seen that bounce in other games before, and normally it goes off the goalie's back and into the net. To have the presence of mind to react and stop the puck from going in and giving Indy a fluke goal was impressive in an otherwise normal night. Vay continues to develop and is a much better goalie than he was at the beginning of the year. There's still a lot of growth left, but he has shown he is more than capable of leading this team to wins in C.J. Motte's absence.
-- Now the Mallards have to carry this momentum forward into next week's games against Wheeling. I thought their 6-4 win over Wichita might get them back in business, but they dropped the game Wednesday to Kalamazoo. The Mallards have nearly a week off before Wheeling, but have to try and get another run going. Fort Wayne is up eight points, and that is going to be hard to make up in 15 games, even though the teams play each other three more times. The Mallards can't rely on the Komets to drop a game or two before their last series on the last weekend, and can't afford to drop many more games. The Mallards' fate isn't quite in their hands, but they can definitely help themselves with one or two really good runs to close out the season. It can start next weekend against Wheeling.