For Checkers coach Jeff Daniels, the warning signs were already there.
Even during his team’s club-record five-game winning streak that preceded its subsequent run of four losses in five games, there were a few things that didn’t sit quite right. He said as much following a few of those wins, most memorably uttering the phrase, “We got lucky,” after ending Milwaukee’s AHL record 23-game road point streak on Nov. 26.
If it seemed as though Daniels was being harsh at the time – after all, no other team had been lucky enough to defeat Milwaukee on the road in nearly an entire calendar year – it now seems as though he may have had a point.
“We weren’t sharp,” he recalled of the team’s earlier winning streak. “We got good goaltending that probably stole us a couple of games, and in some others we were doing just enough to get by on our skill.”
Whatever propelled the Checkers to win those games hasn’t happened since, as the team’s current run of losses marks just the second time they’ve dropped three or more in a row in their two-year history, with their recent 163-minute goal drought setting a new team record.
That had Daniels, three days removed from his team’s last game, a 4-1 loss to a sub-.500 San Antonio club, still showing the blunt, direct assessment more typically seen in his initial meeting with the media minutes after the final buzzer.
“We just weren’t good,” he said.
Though the Checkers’ coaching staff may have seen an inevitable lull coming, the challenge now will be getting out of it. With the team playing its next four games at Time Warner Cable Arena, a building in which it’s posted a league-best 19 points, it will have an opportunity to do so on its terms.
“We need to have a good character weekend,” said Checkers captain Brett Sutter, who attempted to ignite his team with a first-period fight last Friday night in Texas. “It starts in practice with our structure and team defense. At times we’ve gotten away from it, but we’ve seen what can happen when we stick to it.”
Sutter added that he felt the Checkers responded in the latter half of the San Antonio game, out-shooting the Rampage 33-12 over the final two periods, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-0 first-intermission deficit against top NHL goalie prospect Jacob Markstrom.
Though they may not have been rewarded by that effort outside of Jared Staal’s consolation goal that broke up Markstrom’s shutout bid with just 32 seconds remaining, it may prove to be something the Checkers can build on. If nothing else, after a few hard practices and several days to stew on their slump, it’s a good bet they’ll bring a sense of urgency if they didn’t have one already.
“As much as you talk about it and show them on video, maybe this was the wake-up call this team needed,” said Daniels.