Ah, the unpredictability of junior hockey.
One weekend, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles go three-for-three on the road, beating a couple of the league's top contenders along the way. The next, they shock their fans by losing two of three home games against the expansion cousin Saint John Sea Dogs and St. John's Fog Devils, continuing a disturbing recent trend of playing down to the level of weaker opposition.
Cape Breton dropped a 2-1 decision to the extremely young Sea Dogs on Thursday night and lost 2-1 to the second-year St. John's Fog Devils on Sunday afternoon. They also came dangerously close to losing to the Sea Dogs again on Friday night, before managing to come up with a big third period and turn an otherwise ugly performance into a 4-1 win.
The Screaming Eagles, near the top of the league in goals scored for most of the season, had an incredibly hard time scoring in these games. Goaltenders Travis Fullerton of the Sea Dogs and Ilja Ejov of the Fog Devils both came into C200 and absolutely stood on their heads, limiting Cape Breton to just six goals on 134 shots for the home stand. If you take away the three-goal third period outburst against an out-of-gas Sea Dog team on Friday night, the Eagles were held to three goals on 118 shots in the other eight periods.
It would be easy to simply write it off, using "The team just ran into hot goaltenders" as an excuse, but it's not quite that simple. The Eagles were not themselves; their chemistry seemed off, they were panicking around the net, and they were making poor shot selections that led to a lot of blocked shots, pucks going wide of the net, and wasted shots right into the goalie's chest. To almost oversimpify it, they simply couldn't score. Despite the large shots on goal advantages the Eagles held in each game (41-14, 44-31, 49-21), you couldn't really say they deserved to win.......... the opposition made their chances count, and Cape Breton didn't. As well, all three games (even the win) saw the opposition come into our rink and get the Eagles away from playing their own game, sucking them into playing theirs.
The powerplay, which struggled even on the three-win road trip of last weekend (1-for-19 on that trip), continued to sputter. The Eagles went just 1-for-21 with the man advantage on the three-game home stand, leaving them at a ghastly 2-for-40 in their last six hockey games. This is the same Eagles team that has thrived on the powerplay for much of the season! On the plus side, Cape Breton's penalty kill was successful 14 times out of 15 on the home stand, and has allowed just two powerplay goals against in 30 enemy powerplay attempts in the last six games.
A lot of the offensive struggles do have to do with the key forwards currently missing from the Eagles' lineup. Cam Fergus and Scott Brannon have been out with injuries for fairly extended periods of time now (Jonathan Laberge also missed the last game and a half of the home stand), and their absences have forced the Eagles to go with makeshift line combinations - impromptu, unproven combinations that have been hit and miss in terms of chemistry. One would hope that things will be a bit back to normal once these injured players return to the lineup, most of them ready to return relatively soon.
With the surprising results of this frustrating home stand, and with Lewiston having won their weekend games, the Eagles now fall all the way back to six points behind the MAINEiacs for first place in the division; they were just two points back as recently as Thursday. Lewiston also continues to hold a game in hand. Cape Breton's hopes of finishing first certainly took quite the hit on this home stand, with the chances of making up six points on the MAINEiacs over the final ten games being rather slim.
Not much else to say about a frustrating trio of hockey games. Stretches like this are not the end of the world, and could very easily be pretty much forgotten by the time the dust settles on the season.......... heck, maybe in a way it's best that the team gets these kinds of games out of the way now rather than have them happen come playoff time. But dropping unnecessary games here and there will likely be the difference between first and second place for the Screaming Eagles this season; 10 of the team's 19 regulation losses have come against teams with sub-.500 records. I know, the President's Cup isn't handed out to the team that finishes first overall in the regular season, but it is frustrating to see the team miss out mostly because of these unnecessary losses to bottom-dwelling teams.
The best medicine to break out of this little funk would likely be a big challenge against a top-of-the-standings team. However, thanks to this year's wonderful Q schedule, next up are two more games against the Fog Devils - Thursday and Friday night from Mile One Centre in St. John's- making it three in a row against the Devils and five in a row against the expansion teams. What a way for a team to gear up for the playoffs down the stretch drive! Excuse my sarcasm.
Although it could be so easy for staleness to set in playing against the same team three games in a row, maybe the Eagles can use their 1-6 all-time record in Newfoundland as a source of motivation for the upcoming two games. Hopefully the few days off between now and the Newfoundland games will be enough for some of our injured forwards to get back into the lineup. There are only ten games left in the regular season, and we need to get everyone back into the lineup to find the proper line combinations with which to start the playoffs.