With yet another record in sight, the Golden Eagles started off Friday's game against Denver "almost over-ready," said Coach Paul Baxter.
They got down 2-0 as Denver, loser of six straight, came out flying.But the Eagles rectified things with a four-goal second period and went on to win 6-3, their 14th straight victory to tie the IHL record.
They have the chance for No. 15 tonight as the Rangers visit again for what will be the Eagles' final regular-season home game.
Friday's win, before 8,944, moved the Eagles to within two points of the overall IHL lead as No. 1 Muskegon lost to Milwaukee. The Eagles now have 53 wins, most in the league. Seventh-place Denver remained four points ahead of Peoria, which also lost.
"The guys were almost over-ready at the start and made some mistakes I thought were unusual," said Baxter, "but Denver really took it to us."
Baxter said the Eagles got better as the game went on and, by the third period, they were "dominating offensively and defensively," although the only goal was an empty-netter by Randy Bucyk with one second left.
"I didn't sense any panic," Baxter said of the 0-2 deficit, "but there was a realization that we were over-reacting and doing each other's jobs and that led to two of the three goals."
Peter Lappin, who scored two goals and now has 46 for the season, added, "We came out very aggressive and got running around and made mental errors that they capitalized on."
Lappin doubted that the overzealous start had anything to do with the streak that is now just two short of the minor-league record. "I don't think many guys ever thought about that," he said. "This team (Denver) always comes out hard and the games are physical and usually very fast-paced, and we just made mental lapses.
"It made us give our heads a shake."
After Denver's Paul Broten scored on a wrist shot sliding across the slot at 4:06 of the first period and Ron Shudra scored on a wraparound :56 later, the Eagles played Denver better for the rest of the period, outshooting the Rangers 17-8, although Coach Doug Soetaert disputed the number of official Eagle shots, thinking it was lower.
With a minute left in the first, Rich Chernomaz snapped off a shot through traffic that found a hole between goalie Mike Richter's legs.
"That was a big goal," said Baxter. "For our effort, we deserved at least a goal."
It started a run of three straight by the Eagles by 7:50 of the second.
Lappin handed Jim Johannson the puck at the blue line and busted for the net, turning just in time for Johannson's pass to settle on his stick and flicking it past Richter 1:17 into the second.
It was the kind of play Lappin was involved in all night, zipping in on Richter. "He was tenacious. He was all over the place. If he does that, he's going to score," said Baxter.
Lappin said Johannson's so good at laying the puck on a moving stick that they try to work that play; Friday, it happened to be open.
Soetaert said he was unhappy with at least two of the Eagle goals and mentioned both of Lappin's. The other one, to make it 5-3 at 17:48 of the second period, Soetaert blamed on Richter, whom Baxter voted for on the IHL All-Star team.
Paul Ranheim came around behind Richter's net and stood at the right-wing goalpost. Lappin, next to Ranheim, picked up the puck as Richter dove toward Ranheim, and Lappin had an open net. "Our goalie should have been standing up," said Soetaert.
After Jayson More tied the game at 3-3 just 12 seconds after Brian Glynn's Eagle power-play goal, Ranheim came up with his 64th at 9:36 to give the Eagles a 4-3 lead. He rebounded a Randy Bucyk shot while diving over Richter.
Meanwhile, the Eagle defense was concentrating on keeping Denver forwards out of the offensive zone.
Baxter said Ken Sabourin and Chris Biotti were particularly good and "it could be the finest game Biotti has played."
"It felt good," said Biotti. "We were stepping up and playing their forwards before they got over the zone; it seemed like the best place for them." Biotti and Baxter expressed admiration for Broten, Kevin Miller and Simon Wheeldon, the Rangers' high-scoring trio.
"We've got to get more out of other guys," Soetaert said.
Denver isn't playing like a loser. "We've been playing good hockey the last 2 1/2-3 weeks," said Soetaert, "but we haven't had many wins. We don't play 60 minutes. In the second period, they got that quick one, and we fall to pieces."