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With time running out against Tulsa two weeks ago, Jacob Graves laid his body on the line to block a shot in the final minute.

The block helped the Quad-City Mallards grab their first win of the season and also spoke volumes about the competitive drive of one of the youngest players on the team.

"It’s just for the guy next to you in the room, get the win for everybody," Graves said. "Just do what it takes to win."

The Mallards are hoping to get Graves back this weekend for their two games against Idaho after the defenseman missed last Saturday's game with an upper body injury sustained on that blocked shot. 

With a defense that's allowing nearly 37 shots per game through a 1-3-0 start, the Mallards know they need to shore up play in their own zone and Graves — one of four Mallards with a plus rating — would be a welcome addition.

"He’s good in the D-zone, he’s got some strength there and stability and confidence among his teammates," Mallards head coach Phil Axtell said. "It would be a great addition for us this weekend."

Graves is with the Mallards after being reassigned from the AHL's Cleveland Monsters prior to the start of the season. It's his second stint in the ECHL after playing nine games with the Cincinnati Cyclones last season.

It's admittedly disappointing for Graves to be back in the ECHL after playing 19 games with Cleveland last year, but he understands how the business works and is set on giving it his all while down with the Mallards.

"It’s awesome getting confidence, so that part is night and day unreal, but there were a lot of defensemen up in Cleveland so you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got," he said. "I think I’ve got a little more confidence here. They’ve given me some ice, and it’s really awesome."

The attitude has been a welcome asset for Axtell, who understands the effect coming down to the ECHL can have on a player. The coach commended Graves with doing everything the right way through the first two weeks.

"You have to have the right mentality, the mental toughness, to go from an NHL camp to an American League camp to the ECHL and keep the right mentality and stay positive, work hard every day to get better every day," Axtell said. "Make the most of your time, whether it’s here or there or somewhere else, it’s just getting better every day.

"His attitude has been spectacular. He’s had a pro mentality from the get-go, and we couldn’t ask anything more from him."

Graves is just 21, the third-youngest player on the Mallards roster, but his maturity comes from being up around AHL- and NHL-caliber players. He signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets last year and spent most of that season with the Monsters.

His time in the AHL last year was beneficial in learning how to carry himself as a professional and also keep mentally engaged when not in the lineup. 

"It’s a little different; it’s an adjustment. If you’re sitting a shift, you’ve got to be able to keep the mentality to stay in the game," he said. "I think that was the biggest thing for me, trying to get that consistency of even if you’re not playing, just when you get in, make sure you’re giving it your all and be consistent every shift. That’s what they want to see."

It was a big adjustment from juniors, where Graves won a championship in his final season. While playing in the Ontario Hockey League he was traded from the Oshawa Generals to the London Knights in the 2015-16 season and helped the Knights win the Memorial Cup, awarded to the Canadian Hockey League champion.

"I think we really clicked as a team," Graves said. "We knew what we had so let's just go do it, let's just go get it."

It's two completely different teams, but Graves sees similarities between that London team and this Mallards team, at least in the chemistry of the locker room.

"I've only been here a couple weeks, but it's a good group of guys in the locker room, and that's where it starts," he said. "Everyone is there for each other. ... There's definitely winning to be had here."

Even that championship team endured a rough patch similar to the one the Mallards are experiencing right now. In late January, the Knights went 1-3-0 but responded with four straight wins.

That adversity can sometimes be the best thing for a team.

"When you’re on a championship team, people forget you go through tough stretches," Mallards assistant coach Mike Leone said. "You find a way to get better in those games, and you find more guys on that team buy in to what you’re trying to do, and it speaks volumes about the kid."

The Mallards are hoping they can enjoy a similar response to their early season struggles, starting tonight against the Steelheads.

"I feel like this is a big weekend," Graves said. "It would be nice if we could get a couple wins this week, get to 3-3 and get everyone a little off their back, off their toes, just calm down type of thing. Hopefully we can get the ball rolling."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times