After another frustrating loss, the players decided that enough was enough.
Tuesday’s 5-2 setback to Peoria marked the third time in five days that the Checkers had suffered a convincing defeat in their own building. It just so happened that all of those losses, which were part of a longer stretch that included just one victory in nine games, occurred when the team could least afford them in an ever-tightening Western Conference playoff race.
The latest result triggered a first this season – a players-only meeting behind closed doors immediately following the game.
“We just talked it out,” said forward Chris Terry. “Obviously, no one was happy with the way things were going.”
The unplanned gathering began when alternate captain Nicolas Blanchard, who in his fifth full season as a pro is one of the more experienced players on the team, promptly shut the door to the locker room after everyone had entered. He then said a few words, with others in the team’s leadership group joining in.
The message itself wasn’t necessarily anything different than they’d been used to hearing, but the method of delivery was.
“Getting it from the coaches is one thing, but hearing it from other players comes with a little more pressure,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Guys don’t want to let each other down.”
Checkers captain Brett Sutter said that much of the frustration on that particular night stemmed from the fact that they thought their effort deserved a better result. After all, they had out-shot the Rivermen by a count of 44-24 for the game and led 2-1 at the first intermission.
When they went on to surrender four unanswered goals, it wasn’t that they stopped working. Rather, the confidence needed to respond to a goal against or to finish a scoring chance was still missing.
“We used to come to the rink with that swagger that we thought we were going to win every night,” said Sutter. “When you’re losing, that starts to go away. The message was just to bring that excitement back to the rink.”
In the following night’s rematch, the swagger was clearly back. It took a bit of a strange goal to get the ball rolling – Sutter fumbled the puck on a breakaway, only for a trailing Chris Durno to tap it in – but from there, a team that previously couldn’t find a way to doctor its offensive woes began to put on a clinic.
Not only did they score a total of six goals to tie a season high before the night was over, but they did so in style. Riley Nash’s toe-drag around a defenseman and top-shelf finish, Terry’s weave through three Rivermen and a pair of beautiful odd-man rushes executed by Evgenii Dadonov and Zach Boychuk rank among the more impressive goals the team has scored all season.
Did that outburst result from the team’s meeting?
Does it matter?
“I think the result speaks for itself,” said Terry.
The scene following that game could not have been more different than the one before it. For the first time in a long time, players and coaches were upbeat and their excitement obvious. From that alone, never mind what anyone can see in the standings, it was clear how much they needed that exact performance.
“For morale it’s huge,” said Sutter. “It’s amazing what one win can do.”
Should that be the end of the team’s slide that put it dangerously close to the cutoff between getting a chance to build on last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final and missing the postseason entirely, that game, and perhaps that meeting, will have been the turning point.
Of course, they still have some hurdles to clear in their last 12 games, beginning with two road games against a Hershey team that has won four in row. Facing a team on a roll is standard for the Checkers these days, as they hit Peoria on a four-game streak and Norfolk on a 16-game streak, the latter of which was on its way to an all-time AHL record.
The difference this time is that, if the Checkers can continue the way they did on Wednesday, it may not matter what the other team does.
“Every team goes through funks,” said Terry. “Hopefully, that was ours.”