The two areas most often pointed to when players and staff discuss what’s gone wrong during the team’s seven-game slide, the longest regulation losing streak by an AHL team since Manchester did the same during the 2011-12 season, are confidence and goal scoring. In many regards, the two go hand-in-hand, putting the Checkers in something of a “chicken and the egg” type of predicament.
The confidence level has had its ebbs and flows during a perfectly imperfect month of November, with the team able to take heart it in its effort at times, particularly in four one-goal losses that include their most recent game, a 3-2 setback in Toronto on Tuesday. However, there were also larger defeats sprinkled in at random, including an 8-1 rout on home ice that invoked the dreaded use of “rock bottom” by coach Jeff Daniels.
Where does the team consider itself to be right now, heading into a pair of home games against the Rockford IceHogs this weekend?
“It’s a tough time right now as a group, but I think we’re turning the corner,” said Daniels, who has stressed the need to stay positive throughout this extended funk. “We’re in games, but the mental part is a huge part of the game right now. We get down a goal and you can feel it on the bench. We’ve got to get rid of that part of our game.”
“I’ve been on a couple of losing streaks worse than this one, and it was always the veteran guys that led the way and persisted through it,” said defenseman Mark Flood, himself one of the more experienced players in this particular group. “I’ve played with a lot of good leaders and players in my career, and those were always the guys I leaned on in times like this. It’s tough when we’re in a funk like this and I think we’ve just got to stay even-keel.”
It’s the right mentality to have, but at some point, results are going to have to reinforce it. Flood spoke of the team’s belief that it will win each game it plays, no matter how bad things have gotten, but to Daniels’ point, it doesn’t take much for that belief to wane during adverse periods of those games.
If there’s a spark that could get things going, it’s a struggling offense that has produced two or fewer goals in five of its last six games. In the game where it broke that plane with three goals, the third came with 81 seconds left in a game that fell out of reach in the second period.
“As a group, scoring one or two goals a game puts a little more pressure on you to be so good defensively, and the one mistake is getting magnified,” said Daniels. “We’ve just got to go out to play.”
In Tuesday’s loss, the Checkers took a season-low 17 shots on goal, including seven in the second and third periods combined. It wasn’t exactly the season’s high point in terms of generating chances, leaving them with more to work on for this weekend.
“We’ve got some guys that can produce a little more than they have right now, and the other guys have to understand that the way they’ve scored the goals this year are all from the top of that crease area,” said Daniels. “We’re not going to get a lot of goals with style points and going end to end, so we’ve got to do a better job of funneling pucks to the net and getting to the net to find them.”
Despite scoring two of the Checkers’ last four goals over a three-game period to take over the team’s scoring lead, forward Zach Boychuk said that he considers himself as one of the players who needs to help get things going.
“I always pressure myself to score and make plays, so when it’s not going the way I like it, it gets a little frustrating at times and it doesn’t help that the team’s losing too,” he said. “This team’s got some veteran leadership, and it’s going to take some guys to really step up.”
Another loss would put the Checkers in even more exclusive company, with no AHL team having lost eight consecutive games in regulation since Adirondack, Bridgeport and Springfield all hit the nine-game mark in the 2010-11 campaign. A defeat against Rockford on Saturday would also be the Checkers’ seventh straight regulation loss at home, which would be the league’s longest streak since Grand Rapids did the same back in 2009-10.
The closer the Checkers get to that kind of history, the more history they’ll have to create to salvage their season, though they don’t believe they’re reached that point just yet.
“We’ve got 60 games still to play and a lot can happen in those games, but it’s got to start with this group,” said Daniels, who endured one other seven-game losing streak as a head coach in the aftermath of the Albany River Rats’ bus crash nearly five years ago. “It’s such a hard-working group, and that’s how we’re going to get out of it.”
“We could easily win seven in a row, that’s the thing,” said Boychuk. “I don’t think we’re out of it yet because it’s still early in the season and there are a lot of games to be played.”
- For the first time this season, the Checkers had three goalies at practice – John Muse, Rick DiPietro and Mike Murphy – on Thursday. Daniels said that he did not have immediate plans for that to change.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said. “There’s no timeline or decision to be made right away. At some point one of these guys is going to step up and grab that No. 1 role, and we’ll let that play out.”
- Michal Jordan, who missed Tuesday’s game after suffering an injury on a play from Saturday’s game that resulted in a suspension for Toronto’s Jamie Devane, did not skate Thursday. Daniels said that he will likely miss the games against Rockford, with the All-Star defenseman’s target return date coming sometime next week.