Well, that was a fun way for the Quad-City Mallards to return home.
Five goals in the first period, and a hat trick from Sam Warning -- in just over 10 minutes of game time -- led to a 5-3 win over Rapid City. The Mallards are now 6-2-0 under interim head coach Phil Axtell, have won four straight and are still tied with Tulsa for third place in the division.
Here's some things that stood out from the game, and from the last two weeks under Axtell.
Big first period for the Mallards, scoring five goals in the first period. The Mallards had been showing offensive capabilities on the road, but this was the first time we'd seen it at home. The Mallards have now scored 23 goals in their last four games, and are averaging 4.5 goals per game under Axtell.
It's a big change from Ruskowski. Winning is one thing -- the argument could be made the Mallards are getting healthy, which is contributing to the success -- but even when healthy and winning like the Mallards were early in the season, they weren't scoring goals anywhere near this rate.
Simply put, the Mallards just look looser, more at ease. They aren't gripping the sticks as tight, and are just playing hard hockey.
Warning's three goals were perfect examples of this, as he skated hard to get a short breakaway, pounced on a wide open net with a nice backhand shot, and then fought hard to get a stick on a loose puck in the crease while he was falling to the ice.
We weren't seeing the Mallards play like this under Ruskowski, at least not in the last month. They're playing hard and loose, and it's leading to success. They're not afraid to make a mistake, and if it pays off, more to the positive.
The Mallards played hard under Ruskowski, but sometimes, and sometimes too often, they'd play safe, or play not to make a mistake, then end up making a mistake in the process. Under Ruskowski, they just seem to play, and it's working.
Now, the one concern is the Mallards not keeping the foot on the pedal in the last two periods. Things changed a bit in the way the team played, too many passes and attempts to put up highlight goals led to nothing, instead of the team continuing to play noses down, which was successful in the first period.
It's something the Mallards need to learn, how to play with big leads. It's something they haven't been able to do all year, and it's fair to reason the team played less intense the final two periods. But the great teams, they keep playing the same way the full 60 minutes, and keep the other team on its heels. Any team in the league can score if the other team isn't on its game, and the Rush showed the Mallards that in the third period.
It's a minor blip, but something the team needs to work on. Playing with the lead is great, but it only matters as long as the lead is intact.
Touching on it more, Axtell really has found something here in the last two weeks. Players are playing hard for Axtell, and every player seems to mention right away about how much fun they're having.
Now, winning will always make things more fun, but players weren't mentioning nearly as often in the first two months about how much fun they're having. Things just seem loose and relaxed, and it's paying off on the ice.
The early returns on Axtell's first eight games as interim head coach are very promising, but it's too early to get too high on this team. It's worth mentioning that the Mallards haven't yet beat a team with a record over .500. The only team they've faced with a winning record was Wheeling, and the Mallards lost 5-2. Now, it's good to see the team putting up bunches of goals against teams near the bottom of the standings, which is something it wasn't doing under Ruskowski, but until the Mallards beat a winning team, it's too hard to say whether this team has potential to go deep in the playoffs.
Next week will be a better chance to gauge this team's potential. Next week's game against Kalamazoo is huge, not just for playoff potential, but also for seeing how good this team can be under Axtell. Kalamazoo has been on a tear recently, which includes wins over Wheeling and Toledo. If the Mallards play against Kalamazoo like they did against Rapid City and end up with the same result, or even a close loss, then there's definitely a lot of reason for optimism moving forward.