The dream of the Toronto Marlies finishing the season with an 0.800 record is all but over. It was a great run while it lasted, but thanks to a three-game losing streak last weekend, the blue and white would have to win every game they play the rest of the season to accomplish the milestone. Having the bragging rights of being the best team to ever run through an AHL regular season would have been nice (and still not terribly unattainable) but at the same time, feeling a sense of mortality isn’t a bad thing either.
“From a coaching perspective, it’s good news,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said when I spoke to him after Sunday’s loss to Utica. “It’s been a long time coming for us to go through this. It gives us a chance to reflect, and recognize that we need to be humble, we need to be prepared. Teams are coming for us.”
It’s hard to disagree with him. The Marlies had a similar situation under Gord Dineen last year, where the team caught fire in late November and went into the playoffs without losing more than two games in a row. A week and change later, and their season was over. After winning the first two games of a best-of-five against the Grand Rapids Griffins, the tides turned and they dropped the following three.
This year was an extreme version of the same situation. There was no sputter out of the gate; the team dominated from day one and refused to let up. Forget an actual “losing streak” of 3+ games, dropping consecutive games was an extremely rare occurrence up until now. It’s good to see a team show dominance, but if there’s a difference between believing that you can win every game and believing that you will.
When you believe you can win every game, you look at three-goal deficits with twenty minutes to go and keep firing until you’re ahead. You go into the third game of a three and three and shrug off the soreness and fatigue, believing that you can push through it. But when you believe that you will win every game, bad habits form. Your players start goofing around with the puck because a failed play seems insignificant. They start getting a little lazier because a mistake can be recovered. Then, when you lose, you go into denial about what happened and assume you can do the same thing again. That’s what you want to avoid.
As crazy as it sounds, winning teams have to lose. We talk about this in the long term with NHL organizations as they build up their player cores, but it even applies at the season level in this league. The Manchester Monarchs finished first overall and won the Calder Cup last year. They also went on a stretch in January where they lost 7 of 9 games.
The Norfolk Admirals went through a stretch in 2012 where they lost 4 of 6. They won their next 28 and went 15-3 in the playoffs, including sweeps in the last two rounds of the playoffs. Even the 60-17-3 Hershey Bears of 2009/10, considered by many to be the best AHL team of all time, lost 4 of 5 after winning their first 3 games of the season.
Losing a few late in the season is a blessing in disguise. It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate what brought you where you are, and make the changes needed to stay there. As the coach put it, “You find out what you’ve got in your group, and grow a lot through it.”
If last night was any indication, they’re well on their way. Keefe called this weekend the hardest of the season in terms of the quality of competition, and the time span that the three road games would be played in. But to start it off, the Marlies looked like the team we’re all so familiar with, blowing out the 0.569 Portland Pirates by a score of 9-2.
Was there a bit of luck in Toronto’s favour? Of course; the team scored on nearly a quarter of their 38 shots on goal, and both Mike McKenna and Sam Brittain look like beer leaguers rather than the quality goaltenders that they are. Connor Brown and Mark Arcobello each had four points, which is insane even for them.
But the Marlies looking to snap what had been dragging them down in the week prior. Rushes looked like the team was trying to score in a Game 7 overtime. Defensive efforts carried the eagerness of a team protecting an empty net, rather than a more than capable Antoine Bibeau. Team discipline was great, with no penalties against in the last 39 minutes, and at no point did the they stop trying to play.
A three-game losing streak isn’t exactly a near-death experience, but it certainly brought them back to life. We’ll see if that continues tonight when they take on the Providence Bruins at 7:00 PM.