The Quad-City Mallards dropped their ninth-straight home opener Friday night with a 6-2 loss to the Fort Wayne Komets.
A disappointment to be sure, especially considering all the fanfare leading up to the night for the team's 20th season celebration. (On that note, the Mallards put together a video celebrating the team's three title-winning teams. It's very well done and looks amazing on the new video board. If that's a sign of things to come, diehard Mallards fans should enjoy that part of the season regardless of the on-ice product.)
Now, as for the on-ice product....
I'll start with the good, because the Mallards started the game doing some very positive things. The Mallards controlled the play for much of the first period, getting some solid chances and scoring the game's first goal with a beautiful breakout and centering feed. Alex Petan hit Sam Warning with a perfect breakout pass and Warning showed his speed that made him so deadly last year, flying down the side boards and finding Justin Kovacs for a goal.
We saw Warning do a lot of that last year, and he looks just as fast as ever and has added some size to fight through checks. That was good.
I think Petan could be an absolute steal for the Mallards, and that play showed why. His vision to hit Warning with that pass was perfect. Kovacs also showed promise, getting a chance for a breakaway in the second period.
The Mallards' first power play also looked promising, as Alex Gudbranson found Mike Monfredo with a great pass for a one-timer that beat Pat Nagle. That power play actually had me thinking the Mallards had moved past their bad habits of holding onto the puck and never shooting that plagued them in years past.
That's the good. Now for the bad.
No way around it, the defensive zone was terrible. Really, the neutral zone trap wasn't good either, allowing the Komets free entry into the zone far too often, and even more too often the Komets had 2-on-1s throughout the night.
Once the Komets got set up in the zone, the Mallards were caught watching the puck far too often and chasing the Komets around the zone.
The third goal was the perfect example of this, as the Mallards got caught puck-watching, and Alex Gudbranson never saw Jamie Schaafsma behind him for the easy backdoor goal. Yes, it was the first game of the season, but man, that just cannot happen.
That goal was the turning point in the game, as Fort Wayne stepped on the pedal and never let the Mallards challenge them the rest of the night.
Can it be fixed?
Absolutely. Again, the Komets had been together in camp for two weeks, with many returning players, and had two exhibition games. The Mallards returned just six players from last year's team, had 10 days of camp, had players coming in Thursday, had their new captain away on bereavement leave, AND hadn't played an exhibition game. That's a lot of factors, and I believe they all played a part in this poor showing.
That said, that doesn't excuse some of the mistakes that were made. As Terry Ruskowski pointed out, many of the mistakes made were things you learn to prevent growing up.
But, again, there is a huge difference between games and practice. It's one thing to work on the systems, even briefly, it's an entirely different thing to try and execute them while the opposing team is trying to stop you.
It always takes a game or two to get into game shape, and by game shape, I mean getting used to taking hits again, to skating as hard as the opponent, going into the extra gear that's impossible to recreate in practice. I'm not sure I expect the Mallards to win in the rematch Saturday, but I expect after this weekend for this team to really show what kind of potential it has.
I'll say this too, Fort Wayne is very good. Shawn Szydlowski is a perennial MVP candidate and Jamie Schaafsma is great player while Pat Nagle is an experienced goaltender. They're going to be good, but the Mallards are going to have to find ways to beat them, with 11 more games left against this team.
There are still questions about the Mallards, including the goaltending, which didn't show me enough to form an opinion on either Adam Vay or C.J. Motte. Vay was left out to dry too many times but also had some bad plays of his own while Motte played okay in limited time.
In reality, the verdict is still out on the Mallards, and probably will be until after they play Rapid City next week.
That said, for fans of this team, it's not time to panic. Ruskowski is a very good coach, and with another week of time to practice, the team should start coming around.