There's been a noticeable change the past two weeks in the play of the Quad-City Mallards.
Following the dismissal of Terry Ruskowski, the Mallards are 5-2-0 and are averaging 4.4 goals per game under interim coach Phil Axtell. Under Ruskowski, the team was 19-16-2, and averaging 2.89 goals per game.
While it's been a change that's affected the entire team, it's most evident in the play of rookie forward Pavel Jenys.
In 35 games under Ruskowski, Jenys had scored just five goals. In seven games under Axtell, Jenys has scored seven times. He now has 12 goals and four assists in 42 games.
"To be honest, when Terry was here, I had a couple of chances per game but couldn't score," Jenys said. "I did my best, I'd shoot the puck, but couldn't score. Now, I just get the puck, try to shoot, get it in the net and it works. I don't know what's the difference."
Jenys isn't the only Mallard on a scoring tear since the coaching change. Chris Francis has put up 12 points (six goals, six assists), Michael Parks has nine points (four goals, five assists) and every game the Mallards are getting key contributions from players they weren't before.
"I think everyone has had an attitude change," Axtell said. "I think we all just looked in the mirror and had to find another gear and when you find that gear and start getting results, it’s more fun. Everyone realizes when you play hard, good things happen."
What makes Jenys' run even more eye-popping is he's truly making the most of his opportunities. With plenty of depth among the wingers, Jenys isn't seeing regular shifts, mixing in with Jack Nevins and Justin Kovacs to flank center Brady Brassart. Though Jenys is part of a rotation, that line has combined for six goals and eight assists over the last three games.
"He's been a great 10th forward, I wouldn't even call him the 10th forward," Axtell said. "I mix him and Jack and Kovacs in and some guys might not be happy but how can I argue with results?"
With Alex Petan up in the AHL, Jenys will be getting a regular shift today when the Mallards host the Rapid City Rush.
Jenys, a Brno, Czech Republic native, was drafted by Minnesota in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and played eight games with the Iowa Wild, registering three assists. He returned to juniors last season, scoring 15 goals and adding 22 assists in 66 games split between the Sudbury Wolves and the Niagara IceDogs, but his time with Iowa left an impression.
"That was the best (experience) I've had," Jenys said. "I had a couple chances but couldn't score. I didn't know what to do in the last couple seconds when I had the chance to score."
If the last two weeks are any indication, he's figured out what to do in those final seconds of each scoring chance.
"That's how I have to go, that's how I have to play every game," Jenys said. "I want to show Phil I'm the guy who can score, who can play the body and in the future can play power play ... sometimes there's a situation where I screwed up but that's hockey, right? Everyone can screw up, I've just got to learn from that and be better."
That's perhaps the most telling thing about the coaching change. Ruskowski's old-school, critical style, which, compounded with a six-game losing streak, put a lot of stress on a team that consisted mainly of players in their early 20s.
Now, the guidance of Axtell — and the five wins — has led to a different feeling.
"Terry is a great guy, a great coach. Yeah, I for sure felt pressure on me more than now," Jenys said. "I think I've found the game I need to play here and I'm trying to do what I think is going to work and it does.
"Guys are more comfortable now. I think everyone can feel it. Everyone lost the stress and we just play our game, play the system and it works."
Jenys is the youngest player on the team, only 20 years old and still developing. He was ranked as the 21st-best international skater before the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and given time, could develop into his potential.
"He’s a new-era power forward," Axtell said. "He’s got to learn to use his body more. He’s 20 years old, he needs to figure out that he’s 6-foot-3, 200-plus pounds and when he runs into people, they’re going to fall down and it’s going to create even more space for him to be successful around the net and on the walls."
Axtell is in a similar situation to his rookie forward. He's only been at the helm of the team for two weeks, and the interim tag puts a lot of pressure on him to prove his potential.
So far, the early returns are positive, and he seems to have the support of his team.
"We feel more comfortable with Phil because he's the kind of guy, he obviously is the younger guy, he knows what's going to work and how it's going to work for us," Jenys said. "It's Phil's first time as head coach so it's new for him and it's new for all the players. I like it and I hope it's going to stay like this.
"It's a lot more fun now."