Way Down on the Farm: IceMen Need A Break

The Evansville IceMen, Columbus' ECHL affiliate, have endured a terrible couple of weeks and now must fight for every point down the stretch. They need a break - and not the kind that involves bones cracking.

While the Blue Jackets have a quartet of Olympians representing Team Russia over in Sochi, the rest of Columbus' players are enjoying some hard-earned time off before the mad dash to the finish of the NHL regular season.

And while the Springfield Falcons have a pair of defensemen (Jackets prospects Cody Goloubef and Frederic St. Denis) participating in tonight's 2014 AHL All-Star Classic, the rest of the Falcons are getting some rest during the AHL's All-Star break.

Down in the ECHL, the beaten and battered Evansville IceMen could sure use a break, but continue to trudge along in pursuit of a playoff berth. That ultimate goal now seems far from guaranteed, after the team suffered through an incredibly rough two-week stretch.

Two weeks ago, the IceMen were riding high - leading the 5-team North Division, second in the 13-team Eastern Conference, and fourth in the 21-team ECHL. Five games into a season-long 11-game homestand, Evansville was 4-0-1 at the Ford Center - raising its overall home record to a league-best 15-2-4. And going back a bit further, the IceMen had earned at least a point in 14 of their last 16 games.

It was Wednesday, Jan. 29. The sixth game of the homestand featured a visit by the Toledo Walleye, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. The IceMen were 4-0-0 at home against the Walleye, averaging 5.5 goals per game in those contests. Evansville's roster was also as healthy and deep as it had been in weeks, with Head Coach Jeff Pyle able to actually dress a full lineup of 10 forwards and 6 defensemen with 2 healthy scratches to spare.

And then, it all fell apart. Quickly.

The full lineup didn't even make it through the first period against Toledo, with forwards Nathan Moon (broken wrist) and Tristan King (concussion) both exiting early. Captain Josh Beaulieu (broken foot) was hurt later in the same game, blocking a shot while killing a penalty.

During the next game on Jan. 31 against the Reading Royals, forward Peter Sakaris left with a groin strain. By game's end, the third forward line consisted of a pair of defensemen and forward Louke Oakley, who had been one of the aforementioned healthy scratches just two days prior.

On Feb. 1, the IceMen hosted the Royals again. Evansville's third forward line featured defensemen Loren Barron and Jacob Johnston on the wings, and the IceMen were down to just 5 defensemen actually manning the blueline.

The next day, veteran defenseman Guy Lepine - who had been the team's acting captain since Beaulieu went down - was loaned to AHL Utica.

Three days later, Springfield recalled forward Tim Miller and defenseman Joe Lavin, who was subsequently traded to AHL Providence.

Pyle quickly signed a couple of free agents in an effort to piece together a lineup for 3 games in 3 days this past weekend. He also regained the services of forward Dylan Clarke, who had missed 32 games after having hip surgery.

Still, Evansville had just 9 forwards and 5 defensemen going into the 3-in-3. The roster then took another hit on Saturday, when Oakley sustained a foot injury.

Going into Sunday's homestand finale, the IceMen had lost 5 games and 8 players in a span of 11 calendar days.

Evansville did manage to wrap up the homestand with a hard-fought 4-2 victory over division rival Cincinnati, but the damage had been done.

Two hellacious weeks.

The IceMen now find themselves in 3rd place within the division. They are 7th in the conference and 11th in the league. In the super-tight East (the 2nd and 9th place teams are currently separated by just 5 points), Evansville is just one point ahead of the first team that is on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

And looking ahead, 19 of Evansville's remaining 28 games are on the road. (The IceMen have won just 6 times on the road, fewest in the ECHL.) To make matters worse, 21 of the 28 remaining games are against current playoff teams.

The stretch run begins with another 3-in-3 this weekend, at Elmira and Reading (twice). Friday's game starts a brutal stretch of 14 games (11 on the road) in 24 days, with no break longer than 2 days.

To his credit, Pyle has refused to let the roster woes become an excuse for losing. He maintains that the active players are still capable of winning games if they play smart and within the system, as they proved on Sunday.

On the plus side, reinforcements are on the way. Defenseman Dustin Hopfner, who played 5 games for the IceMen earlier this season, has rejoined the team via a trade with Bakersfield. Evansville should also soon benefit from the returns of Sakaris, King and Oakley - all perhaps as early as this weekend.

Regardless, the bottom line is simple. Whoever is able to suit up for Evansville on any given night must now "bring it." The upcoming schedule allows little time to breathe, and the past two weeks have all but eliminated any breathing room the team built up over the first three months and change.

It won't be easy - road games against quality opponents never are, under any circumstances. But wars are won in the trenches, and the next two months will be one hell of a war.

One thing is for certain: If the Evansville IceMen do manage to qualify for the playoffs, they'll damn sure be battle-tested and ready to face whoever stands in their path to a Kelly Cup championship.

AFFILIATE PLAYER NOTES:

• Springfield-contracted rookie forward Jeremy Langlois is currently Evansville's acting captain, with captain Josh Beaulieu on the shelf and fill-in captain Guy Lepine on loan to AHL Utica. Langlois is tied for the team scoring lead with 39 points in 35 games. He is also tied for 13th in overall league scoring, and leads all ECHL rookies.

• Springfield-contracted goaltender Mike Clemente started 10 straight games for the IceMen after returning from the Falcons in early January. He went 4-4-2 with a .923 Save Percentage during that stretch, surrendering more than 3 goals only once. Clemente is now 14-6-4 on the season, with a 2.39 GAA and .911 SV%.

• Springfield-contracted rookie forward Peter Sakaris has missed Evansville's last 4 games due to a groin strain. He had been one of Evansville's hottest players, with 7 goals and 7 assists (and a +7 rating) in his last 17 games prior to the game in which he was injured.

• There are currently no Columbus-contracted players assigned to Evansville.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

IceMen Maniac is Michael Shockley, a.k.a. "Shocker" to IceMen fans
Michael provides JacketsCannon.com with monthly IceMen updates
He is also the Webmaster and Senior Writer for IceMenManiacs.com

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