By Randy Beard
Evansville Courier & Press
By the time the Evansville IceMen return home on Dec. 30, head coach Rich Kromm is hoping the season will be headed in the right direction, too.
"Maybe we can find the spark we've been missing," said Kromm. "Sometimes its better to be on the road when you are struggling. There's less pressure. You don't have to push on for your fans. You can be as ugly as you want and as long as you get the two points everyone is happy.
"It's a way for a team to come together and build some character."
Kromm can't quite explain the recent losing skid — eight of 10 games, including seven at home — that has sent the IceMen spiraling toward the bottom of the Turner Conference standings in the Central Hockey League. It's not a comfortable position to be in heading into a stretch in which 10 of the next 11 games the IceMen play will be away from Swonder Ice Arena. But Kromm has faith that a lot of quality time spent in a bus the rest of this month can become a team bonding experience that will produce some answers.
"I know it's going to be a tough stretch for the guys, especially through the holidays," said Kromm. "But if we have success, it's going to build confidence."
The IceMen, now in eighth place in the nine-team division with a 9-11-3 record, have been misfiring off Kromm's preferred pace all season, flirting with disaster every night.
Nearly half of their games have been one-goal decisions, and the fact they are just 4-7 in those contests largely explains the IceMen's predicament as well as anything.
The good news? The IceMen are still just seven points behind co-leaders Colorado and Rapid City in the standings.
You want parity? As Kromm pointed out Thursday, if the IceMen had swept Rapid City last weekend in a pair of games at Swonder, Evansville would be in second place behind Colorado. Instead, Rapid City won 2-1 and 4-2. "The last game was disappointing because we had the lead over Rapid City going into the third period and they scored a short-handed goal on kind of a freaky play," he said. "The puck went off (Niklas) Lindberg's legs and gave the guy a breakaway. Then it was 2-2, and we gave the puck away inside our own line."
Defenseman Mario Larocque, a 13-year veteran who was a first-round draft pick of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning in 1996, agrees that the IceMen remain right in the thick of things. "It just seems like we can't get a lucky bounce or find a way to turn everything around, but we don't have to panic," he said. "We're at the bottom but we are not far from the leaders. A couple of wins in a row and we'll be right there again."
A few more goals would help the cause immensely. Colorado has three players who have scored at least 10 goals this season; Rapid City has two. But Brian Bicek is the only Evansville player with that many goals through 23 games, and he has exactly 10.
Lindberg is the only IceMen player ranked among the league's top 50 scorers, and most of his 27 points have come off 20 assists.
Last year with the Muskegon Lumberjacks, Kromm had a player in Robin Bouchard who scored 60 goals in 68 games. He doesn't have that luxury this season.
"We have to sort of be blue-collar all the way right now," said Kromm. "We knew going in that we were going to have to have pretty good balance in our scoring, and for the most part we've gotten that.
"We have to get over the hump and get those one-goal wins. Our penalty killing has been tremendous all year. Our power play has been average lately, but we scored a couple the other night. That could be a good sign ... If the power play scores two and the penalty killing doesn't give any, then you should be able to win a hockey game."