BLOOMINGTON — While Mike Watt did not identify which adjective he would use to describe the Central Illinois Flying Aces’ power play, the team’s first-year coach felt one word was too flattering.
“I wouldn’t even call it ‘struggling’ right now,” he said of a special teams unit that’s produced just three goals in 57 opportunities, a league-worst conversion rate of 5.3 percent.
“We’ve went back, we’ve changed personnel, we’ve changed our structure in zone, our setup in zone. We don’t want to overthink it too much.”
The Aces (7-8-1) will try to break out of their season-long funk with a man advantage and snap a three-game skid Friday when they host the Sioux City Musketeers for a 7:07 p.m. faceoff at Grossinger Motors Arena. The team then travels to Michigan on Saturday for a 6:15 p.m. (CST) game against the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
“Five-on-five, we’re getting the chances,” Watt said. “When the power play comes up, it’s a mental aspect. We have a bit of a mental block and it’s something as a group we have to get over.
“Everybody hears it from coaches at every level, but it’s getting pucks to the net, having guys that are shooters not trying to be too cute. When you have guys that have offensive creativity, they sometimes try to force plays and force passes. We just have to let the puck do the work.”
In the second game of the season on Oct. 8, Matt Gosiewski and Jakub Lacka netted power play goals in a 5-1 win at Youngstown. Since then, the Aces’ only conversion in 48 chances came on Calen Kiefiuk’s first-period tally in a 6-5 overtime win against Dubuque on Nov. 11.
“Especially when you’re dealing with young men like this, they’re still trying to find their game and they still have some habits from youth hockey that they have to get out of their system. As a staff, it’s our job to get them out,” said Watt.
Central Illinois dropped both ends of a two-game home series with Youngstown last weekend. The Aces were whistled for 51 minutes of penalties that helped the Phantoms score four power play goals and another during 4-on-4 play.
“We had a bit of a letdown and it was all special teams that really put us in a bad spot,” said Watt. “We’ve kind of worked on that stuff this week in terms of the (defensive) zone and the discipline and rectifying that.”
A pair of last-place teams might be just what the Aces need to bust their slump. Sioux City (4-8-3) finds itself in the Western Conference cellar while Muskegon (5-9-2) occupies the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference. But Watt knows his team cannot afford to overlook anyone.
“This is probably the deepest the league has been in a long time,” he said. “It comes down to executing and it comes down to that mental mindset of knowing what we’re supposed to do against each and every team. We need to make sure we have focus for 60 minutes each and every night so that we have an opportunity to win hockey games.”
Injuries will keep defenseman Charlie Raith and winger Drew Elser on the sidelines. Elser has six goals on the season, two behind Lacka’s team lead.
“We’re fighting the injury front like everybody,” said Watt. “It seems like every week, somebody comes off (the injured list) and somebody goes on. It’s something where it gives guys an opportunity to step in and play those spots, maybe play bigger minutes than they have in the past.”