Refreshed and reinvigorated, the Quad-City Mallards are hoping to turn things around.
With five days off, four of which were spent away from the ice over the ECHL's holiday break, the Mallards look to snap a franchise-worst eight-game losing streak tonight when they host the Cincinnati Cyclones at the TaxSlayer Center.
They're hoping a win can start a special run that can get them out of the cellar of the Central Division, currently 15 points out of a playoff spot. It's not how anyone envisioned this season starting.
"We thought we were going to come into this season and be one of the toughest teams to play against," forward Josh MacDonald said. "We've shown we've been in games, we've had leads, I think we just get away from our game. We get too fancy, I think sometimes, and it bites us in the butt."
MacDonald's season so far has had some parallels to the Mallards' start. MacDonald put up 15 points in 22 games after being acquired last year in a trade with Rapid City and expectations were high for this year.
The London, Ontario, native started off on the right foot, with five points in his first six games, and the Mallards followed suit, in third place in the division at the time. But he followed that up with scoreless efforts in his next eight games and through his first 24 games had seven goals and five assists for 12 points.
MacDonald had plenty of chances over that stretch — he leads the Mallards this season with 77 shots — but too many had gone off the post, off the crossbar, off the goalie. The Mallards also had chances, taking Mountain Division contender Wichita to overtime and holding several leads over Central Division rival Fort Wayne in the last month.
But, like MacDonald, the Mallards couldn't find ways to close and plummeted down the standings.
However, just before the holiday break, MacDonald found a groove, with six points in the last four games before the holiday break. It's a trend the Mallards are hoping to follow in the second half of the season.
"We've just got to stay positive, we have a pretty good group in there," MacDonald said. "Guys like to work hard, I think we have a lot of skill up front. It's just, the top lines, we're not really getting on the board in the same games, it's always just kind of one or two guys here and there. It's a process but right now it's biting us, we're digging ourselves a pretty big hole."
There have been small positives here and there in the first 28 games. Sam Warning roared out to start the season with 10 goals in his first 11 games. Brayden Low had a surge of five points in five games. Willie Raskob is third among rookie defensemen with 17 assists after being acquired in a trade from Worcester.
The problem is all those surges seem to come at different times, leaving the Mallards too dependent on one player or line to carry the load from game to game.
"It's been frustrating for all of us, the team, coaches, it's not easy but I think it's a matter of coming back and working hard," Raskob said. "Wins aren't going to come easy, not in this league so (you have to put in) the right mentality, work hard."
If the Mallards are going to make a climb, there are plenty of things they have to fix. Their offense ranks last at 2.26 goals per game. Their defense isn't much better, allowing 3.89 goals per game, third-worst in the league. The power play is below average and an abysmal streak of five goals allowed in seven attempts has dropped the team's penalty kill to 24th in the league at 79.3 percent.
The roster was also in flux all during the first half. Twelve different defensemen have played at some point. Last year's leading scorer Chris Francis missed the first 20 games due to a herniated disk, then the other top point-man from last year, Justin Kovacs, departed for Europe earlier this month.
C.J. Motte, last year's all-star goaltender, has only played nine games with the Mallards. Motte is still up with the Iowa Wild, leaving Matt O'Connor and Eric Hartzell — who have a combined 5.50 goals against average — as the options for this week, in which the Mallards play three games in three days, including a 2 p.m. game in Kalamazoo on New Year's Eve.
Everything is daunting, but the Mallards, like MacDonald, plan to keep putting their heads down and grind.
"So many excuses to try and lean on but at the end of the day, it's time to put it together," head coach Phil Axtell said. "We needed that break to go home, get away from the rink and come back refreshed, recharged and hungry to play again."