BY AARON PATTERSON
There has been no doubt in the mind of first-year Danville Dashers head coach Rob Schweyer that his team is one of the best in the Federal Hockey League. The standings show otherwise, but few coaches would argue that playing against tough competition will only prove positive results when the lights shine the brightest.
That time is now, as the Dashers prepare for Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the top-seeded Dayton Demonz. The puck is scheduled to drop tonight at 7:05 p.m. at Palmer Arena.
Though the Dashers finished the regular season 58 points behind the Demonz, and find themselves down 2-0 in the best-of-five series, there is reason for optimism in the Dashers’ locker room. And much of the positive vibe comes from Schweyer’s mindset. His words hold a bit of truth, after all, as evidenced by the schedule. Danville has faced off against Dayton in 23 of its 56 games.
“It’s a Cinderella story for us, but at the same time, they know that by us playing against them almost every other game of the season, we’re the top of the pack,” Schweyer said. “The standings don’t show it. It’s like any dynasty. If you have the first-place team playing the last-place team in every league, everywhere, the last-place team is going to get better. I believe that’s what we’ve done, and I think the rest of the league knows it.
“Whoever comes out of this series should end up winning the entire league. One game is going to tell us whether we’re going to win it, or whether we’re going to lose it and let Dayton take it.”
Schweyer is, more specifically, looking forward to the first five to 10 minutes of tonight’s game to help him gauge the ultimate fate of his team.
The sentiment all season has been that this year’s version of the Dashers has taken its time getting into a rhythm after the puck is dropped. Nearly 40 percent of the team’s goals have been scored in the third period and overtime.
Although the Dashers have had their share of late-game heroics, they’re not willing to take that chance in a do-or-die situation.
“We’re down 0-2 in the series,” Dashers forward Ryan Stern said. “There really isn’t any room for error. We can’t take a minute off of this game. We have to play a full 60. We do have to be ready to go from the drop of the puck. We can’t take a shift off against these guys because when we do, that’s when they capitalize.”
The Dashers realized that harsh truth in Game 1 of the series last Friday in Dayton. Billy Hunt and Phillippe St-Laurent gave Danville a 2-0 lead 14 minutes, 11 seconds into the contest. But a few mental time outs proved crucial when the Demonz scored three unanswered goals within a 3:37 stretch. The Dashers eventually pulled even, but never again led in the game.
Stern believes the disheartening loss and all-in effort led to a lackadaisical performance in Game 2. Schweyer is confident, though, that it won’t carry over to tonight’s contest, and has seen a reenergized team at practice this week.
“As soon as they got the first two quick goals (in Game 2), the wind in our sails deflated,” Schweyer said. “I don’t think that we gave up, but they started getting the bounces. I’ve always told our guys that good luck comes from hard work. As soon as they got the two lucky goals, our work ethic became lackluster, so-to-speak. I feel that they got the bounces because we weren’t willing to win the 50/50 battles. We weren’t willing to sacrifice our bodies and stop shots. They took advantage of that, and they got the momentum on their side.
“It’s going to come down to how we react to that situation, now. Do we lay down and die, or do we come back and fight? All week long, the boys have showed a lot of fight.”
Much of that fight, Schweyer believes, is a result of new blood being injected into the Dashers’ lineup. The loss of key players during the season, primarily because of call-ups, has forced the Dashers’ front office to search for replacements.
“Losing guys like (Darick) Ste. Marie and (Justin) Levac, it’s not easy to replace those guys,” Stern said. “They were a big part of our team and they put up a lot of points. They played key minutes. Once they left, I think some guys who have been around for a couple years now, such as myself and Dustin Skinner and David Lun, Kevin McCready, guys like that, we needed to step up. I think we did a pretty good job of doing that. For the most part, it wasn’t one guy every night. It was a different guy every night, which kind of helps.”
In the last 10 games, the Dashers have seen point production from an eye-catching 17 different skaters. In contrast, the Demonz have had the benefit of playing with the same core players the entire season. But despite any continuity and success Dayton has had in the past, the Dashers believe their overall work ethic and blue collar approach will work to their advantage.
“The hardest thing for Dayton to do is to finish the series out because they know that we’re a tough opponent,” Schweyer said. “It’s just a matter of how we are going to overcome adversity. If we work hard and the bounces don’t go our way, do we give up, or do we continue to battle? I think as long as we’re there to fight and know that we’re there to play on Saturday, I think we’ll come out on top.”