This has been bubbling just under the surface for some time now.
I don't quite know how, but the Quad-City Mallards have been able to mask many of their issues for the first half of the season. Some of that has been due to the play of goaltender C.J. Motte, but the 4-0 loss to the Cincinnati Cyclones brought those issues to the forefront. I had thought Wednesday's 6-2 loss to Fort Wayne was the worst loss of the season, but I think this one was even worse.
These are the issues surrounding the Mallards at this point.
We saw it early in the season, but for a while, it looked like the Mallards had figured out their defensive zone. Motte had a lot to do with that, but Vay was left out in the wind so many times tonight in situations where I don't think Motte would have fared any better.
The first, third and fourth goals would have been incredible saves by any goaltender, and were caused by defensive breakdowns. The first goal, the Mallards let Brandon McNally get behind them in their own defensive zone, and Peter Leblanc hit him with an easy pass along the side boards, allowing McNally to walk uncontested to the front of the net and beat Vay.
The second goal was a sharp angle shot that probably should have been stopped, but the third and fourth goals came because the Mallards lost track of net front presence, allowing McNally and Nick Huard to get easily to the front of the net and receive a centering pass from behind the net for the goal. That was the same issue that plagued the Mallards on one of the goals against Fort Wayne, the Mike Embach goal from Mike Cazzola in the first period.
Often this is caused by getting too puck focused, and that was clearly the case on McNally's second goal, as three players crashed in on Shane Walsh behind the net. At the most, one person should take the puck carrier, while the rest should be focused on making sure the net front is secure. That didn't happen here, and the Mallards paid for leaving McNally open in the slot.
I think part of the issues for the defensive inconsistencies has been oddly due to the depth the Mallards have on defense. With as many as eight defensemen at times, Ruskowsk has been rotating players in and out of the lineup, and that makes it hard to find consistency and trust in the back end. With Jake Baker and Dylan Labbe getting called up, the Mallards have just six defensemen until Mike Wilson gets back in the lineup, which could help the consistency return.
At this point it's like beating a dead horse, but the Mallards' power play is atrocious, just 2 for its last 27. It's one thing to have chances and not capitalize, but the Mallards aren't even giving themselves chances. It took a minute for the Mallards to get set up in the offensive zone on their first chance, and pucks very rarely got through to test Mark Visentin.
I thought maybe the power play was making strides on Wednesday, as the first man advantage of the night actually looked dangerous with solid passing and crisp execution. That execution was not there Friday. If the power play operates like it did on that first shift Wednesday, it will score, but too often the Mallards just pass the puck around the perimeter, never getting the puck on net to test the goaltender.
I hear fans yell "shoot" all the time on the power play, and that's only slightly accurate. Yes, the Mallards need to shoot, but they can't just shoot when there's no lane to shoot in. The problem is they too often are looking for the perfect lane, instead of trusting their shot, or the traffic in front to lead to a goal. I don't think the Mallards should shoot the puck just tho shoot it, but there is something to be said for getting the puck to the front of the net by any means possible and trying to clean up the garbage in front.
Watching Fort Wayne, Toledo, Tulsa, they fire the puck a ton, getting the puck to the net and cleaning up the trash, whether it's rebounds, a blocked shot that leads to a bounce or other potential scoring chances. Too often the Mallards pass the puck around the perimeter and don't get the puck down deep, or to the net, and the power play goes for naught.
It will be interesting to see if Ned Lukacevic can provide a spark, because he looks like the type of player that is willing to get to the front of the net and cause havoc. That's something the Mallards definitely lack. Even when they do get shots through, too often there's no traffic in front and it's an easy save for the goaltender. If Lukacevic can be a net-front, greasy type of guy, he could get the Mallards power play kick-started.
This isn't quite fair, because the Mallards actually played one of their more physical games in a while in this game, but for most of the season, the Mallards haven't been a very physical team. I liked the fight shown from the team tonight, but that fight needs to be there in every game. When the Mallards are at their best, they are a hard-hitting, physical, hard-working hockey team. When they've struggled, and it's mainly been at home, they've looked too much like a pond hockey team.
The fight I saw from the team tonight needs to be there every game, it just can't come when the team is down by three or four goals.
Being around Ruskowski for four years now, I can tell you that it's only a matter of time each season that he threatens to make drastic overhaul to his roster. More often than not, these are idle threats, as he's often sometimes too loyal to pull the trigger on a player. This year, I feel he might have to do something.
For most of the first half of the season, the Mallards have looked like a playoff team, but not a championship team. Right now, they don't look like a playoff team, and there isn't that much room for error. There are several players who just aren't producing right now, and that's leading to a lot of issues.
I would be surprised if Ruskowski makes a move in the next week or two, but if production doesn't start coming, I'd expect to see some moves made. This year, I don't think his threats are quite as idle.