One would be hard pressed to find more dramatic peaks and valleys than the ones the Checkers have gone through in the last month.
It was certainly a shock to the system when the team, at 12-3-2 on the season, went from a season-best, six-game point streak (5-0-1) directly into a five-game losing streak, the longest in their three year history. Now, all of the sudden, they’re hot again, having won five of their last six, including a four-game winning streak that marks their longest of the season.
“We’re back on the same page,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
As hard as the ups and downs have been to follow and even comprehend at times, the Checkers are hoping they’ve hopped off the rollercoaster for good.
“We don’t want to be known as a streaky team,” said forward Zach Boychuk.
One cause for optimism that the losing streak will end up as a blip on the radar over the course of a long season as that the team seems to have rediscovered the confidence it had clearly lost at certain moments. It didn’t help that the losing streak, which came entirely at home, was all too similar to one they experienced over the season’s final weeks last April – one that ultimately cost them a playoff spot.
“It got into some guy’s heads,” admitted Boychuk. “We were first or second in our conference for most of the year, and then we got into a slump and couldn’t recover.”
Even if the “here we go again” fears may have contributed to causing a slide that lasted longer than it needed to, it also may have helped them bounce back as well as they have.
“I think the experience helped,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “You can’t hit slumps like that because the league is too good. A lot of teams have gone through those stretches, but you have to weather the tough times.”
Figuring out the mental side of the game has translated to some remarkable performances on the ice. The last three games in their streak set up as one of the toughest stretches of the season – a three-in-three weekend that included a 12 p.m. start, lessening the turnaround time from Friday night – and a one-game trip to San Antonio on Sunday. Prior that weekend, Houston, who the Checkers beat twice, had won seven of eight games to close within one point of the Checkers in the South Division.
“The schedule was against us but a lot of teams can say that,” said Boychuk. “To win all three games was pretty impressive.”
“We’re back to having four lines that can contribute, which is really important when you get into the three-in-threes and the tough schedule,” said Daniels. “It’s crucial to have those match-ups and the energy to just grind it out and wear the other team down.”
To be sure, timely goals, such as Justin Faulk’s with 12.8 seconds left in regulation to force overtime in the first game with Houston and Marc-Andre Gragnani’s on a two-man advantage with just over seven minutes left in San Antonio, have been a big part of the streak. However, unlike the team’s start to the season that saw them pile on goals, defense has risen to the forefront this time around.
During the current streak, the Checkers have given up a total of just four goals, while allowing 23 or fewer shots in goal in each game. Both are the team’s best defensive numbers of any four-game stretch this season. Justin Peters allowed just two goals in three starts as his goals-against average for the season dropped from 3.05 to 2.56 in just six days.
Daniels said that was the result of better execution as opposed to any strategic change.
“It’s a product of doing what we need to do,” he said. “We’ve stressed from day one that we need to be a good defensive team. Lately we haven’t been cheating, we’ve been taking a hit to make the right play and as a result we haven’t spent as much time in our defensive zone.
“We obviously played harder and paid more attention to the details of our system. We got away from it for a while there but now we’re back to doing what we need to do. We responded in a positive way.”