With two Carver Arena games in the books, the Central Illinois Flying Aces believe they have adapted to their temporary home in Peoria.
“We definitely had to feel out the boards, the bounces and stuff like that. It was definitely a little more comfortable on Sunday,” said forward Calen Kiefiuk, who scored a breakaway goal in a 5-1 win over Waterloo that halted a four-game slide. “We’re definitely ready and we know the rink like it’s our own now. It’s definitely an advantage.”
The Aces will hope to develop that advantage into two more victories this weekend as they entertain the Des Moines Buccaneers at 3:07 p.m. Saturday and the defending champion Chicago Steel at 4:07 p.m. Sunday to close out their Carver Arena stay.
“It’s one of those things where you have to play in a building to understand there’s little quirks and nuances,” said first-year coach Mike Watt, whose team is back at even ground at 4-4-0. “Are the boards lively or are they dead? How’s the glass and the stanchions? How’s the ice?
“It’s a learning curve but once you’ve been there, you understand it. We noticed some things and we’ve made some adjustments.”
Kiefiuk believes Central Illinois is “back on track” after beating the Black Hawks in a game that saw forward Jakub Lacka break out with two first-period goals and the assist on Kiefiuk’s tally.
“We loved it,” Kiefiuk said of the players’ reaction to Lacka’s display. “It’s always good to see another guy on your team have success like that. We were all excited for him.”
While the offensive production was a boost, Watt felt improved defense keyed the victory. The day before, goalie Zach Stejskal got hung out to dry and allowed four goals in less than 15 minutes of action in a 6-3 loss to Dubuque.
“To be quite honest, they had the four goals but they were all grade-A shots. Those were quality chances and one was tipped,” said Watt.
“We need to make sure we’re defending and protecting the house and it’s something we didn’t do for Stej. I can’t fault him on all of the goals, but getting him back in is definitely important.”
While the defense looked better, the Aces’ power play continued to struggle. The unit went scoreless in three advantages against Waterloo, 0 for 10 over the three-game weekend and is converting at a league-worst rate of 6.1 percent (2 for 33).
“That’s something that can win or lose you games,” said Watt. “Five-on-five, I’ve been very happy with how we’ve played and how much we’ve created offense, scored goals. But that (power play) is an added bonus if we can start to creep up in terms of the percentage and start getting goals out of that situation.
“It’s something where it’s communication, but it’s (also) timing, it’s having the guys on the ice that can play with each other and have that sync together. They can understand where the puck is and where they need to be so they can start to find areas.”
Des Moines (3-5-0) suffered back-to-back losses to Omaha and Fargo. The Bucs’ top scorer is Czech center Nicolas Werbik (3 goals, 5 assists) while Ryan Snowden (3.30 goals-against average) and rookie Jake Kucharski (3.24) have shared time in net.
“He’s big, he’s somebody who can protect pucks and he can also finish. We have to be aware of him,” Watt said of Werbik while also touting the German tandem of right wing Julian Napravnik and defenseman Nico Appendino. “We just have to limit their puck touches, make sure that we’re getting pucks behind the defense and challenging them with our speed.”
The Steel (6-1-0) have gotten their title defense off to a hot start, with a 34-24 scoring advantage despite a 10-5 loss to Team USA. Jack Dugan (8 goals, 2 assists) and Blake McLaughlin (3 goals, 7 assists) are part of a five-way tie for the league scoring lead. Oskar Autio, a rookie from Finland, boasts a 2.34 GAA and has won all six of his starts.
“They’re very deep,” said Watt. "They’ve got a really good back end with a lot of experience coming back from last year. They’ve got a younger group but a very talented group up front that’s very dangerous.
“We have a game plan set up for both teams and it just comes down to execution after that.”
Kiefiuk believes the key to victory is fairly simple.
“Continue to do what we did right on Sunday: get pucks north, get pucks deep and take pucks to the net,” he said.