As the Central Illinois Flying Aces broke out of a six-game slump by claiming three out of four standings points in a two-game home series against the Lincoln Stars, coach Mike Watt saw his team turning a corner.
“Overall, I thought we had good intensity and for the most part good execution,” he said of Sunday’s 4-3 shootout setback and Monday’s 4-1 victory at Grossinger Motors Arena. “We got some fortunate bounces. We worked pretty hard on special teams and that helped us create some momentum.
“In the Sunday game, just to battle back and get a point I thought we played very well. On the Monday game, I thought we were excellent in the first two periods — especially in the second when we outshot them 17-4 and dominated zone time.”
The Aces got goals from Brady Smith, Calen Kiefiuk and Mike Callahan in bouncing back from a 3-0 deficit Sunday. Cameron Burke, Michael Maloney, Wojciech Stachowiak and Griffin Lunn tallied in Monday’s game as Ryan Snowden stopped 29 shots to pick up his first win since joining the team.
“I think he was very composed," Watt said. "He made some big stops in the first period, didn’t get tested much in the second but in the third he came up very big. He played very methodical, being composed in the net and that has a big influencing factor on the (defensive) corps and the team as a whole."
The Aces now carry some positive momentum along with an 11-18-4 overall record into this weekend. But the light at the end of the their tunnel might just be a freight train in the form of the Western Conference-leading Tri-City Storm (21-8-2), who host a pair of 7:35 p.m. games Friday and Saturday at the Viaero Center in Kearney, Neb.
The Storm are riding a four-game unbeaten streak and have allowed a league-low 59 goals in 31 games. Goalie Filip Larsson, a Detroit Red Wings draftee, sports a 14-4 record and a sparkling 1.45 goals-against average, best in the league.
But Watt insists his team won’t be intimidated.
“We’ve had games where we’ve faced top teams in the league and outplayed them,” he said. “We didn’t get much success in terms of the standings, but in terms of the overall puck possession and zone time in a lot of those games, we outplayed them and that’s something we have to focus on.
“It doesn’t matter who you play now, it’s just the execution. There’s so much parity and the standings are pretty logjammed. You just have to be ready to play every single night no matter who the opponent is.”
Tri-City’s offense has gotten a spark from former Aces center Tyler Madden, who’s picked up five goals and an assist in just nine games with the Storm. Left wing Tyler Ward checks in with nine goals and 11 assists.
“They don’t score a lot of goals but they are aggressive and they don’t give up a lot,” said Watt. “We have to make sure we have that shooting mentality and take advantage of any odd-man situations we can find ourselves in.”