When the Golden Eagles turned fortunes around in the third period Saturday night with two goals that became their margin of victory and gave them a 2-1 series lead in games, it seemed semifinal momentum had moved over to their side.
Then the best-of-seven series took a 31/2-day break, resuming Wednesday night at the Bradley Center against the homestanding Milwaukee Admirals.Can the Eagles keep a good thing going? Was the time off enough to give the Admirals renewed enthusiasm?
That's what makes Game 4 pivotal. If Milwaukee wins, the series is tied. If Milwaukee loses, the Eagles would have a possible three more games to get that fourth series win. If the Eagles win, they could wrap up the series in the Bradley Center in Thursday's Game 5.
"What we accomplished Saturday night," said Eagle left wing Stu Grimson, "was a confidence builder, a reminder of the things we're capable of doing when we really want to play our game.
"I think we're capable of those things again, regardless of the three-day layoff."
In Grimson's opinion, the Eagles weren't accustomed to a team playing as well against them as Milwaukee has - the last month of the season and the first playoff series, they played easier teams. "Now we've adjusted our game pretty well, and we're starting to dictate the pace again. The first two games were at times even up, and at times they took it to us, but now we're setting the tempo," Grimson says.
He said Saturday's third period was, "one of the best periods we've played through both series. We came out of our end better, and our forwards were getting back for our defense, and we had a little more open ice in the zone and were able to get the puck out quicker."
The defense, he said, "was airtight" that period.
In fact, the third periods of all three games have been good for the Eagles. They've allowed a total of 19 shots on goal and two goals in the three third periods, following a trend they established during the last month of the regular season.
Eagle Coach Paul Baxter declines to say whether momentum is on the Eagles' bench for sure. "I don't know how much you can talk about short-term momentum in a series like this that flip-flops and almost goes shift to shift," he says.
But Baxter, too, looks at the long-term benefits of that third period. "Our success in that third period makes us feel better over the days off," he says, "but we have to attack with the same zeal we had in the third period and keep the door open."
In practices this week, the Eagles have worked on keeping the puck in the Admirals' zone more. They didn't do that well the first two periods Saturday. Penetrating the zone, says Baxter, was the problem. "I don't think we made great decisions at the blue line," he says. "We've got to attack their zone with a little more speed and decide a little earlier whether to carry it in or put it deep."
He adds that some of the Eagles' finesse players may have to think about dumping the puck in and going after it rather than stick handling it in, mainly because this is the playoffs and the opponents are playing that much better.
Of the Eagles' 11 goals in this series with Milwaukee, three were scored by defensemen, two were scored by Martin Simard, who's more a checker than a scorer, and two were scored by newcomer Bryan Deasley. The Eagles' usual scoring leaders have just four goals in the three games - two by Paul Ranheim, one by Rich Chernomaz and one by Peter Lappin. Randy Bucyk and Jim Johannson are without points in this series.
"We'd like to get more offense from them, but they're doing a lot of things defensively and helping the team," says Baxter. "You know they'll snap out of it, and it'll make it nice when they do because we'll have three balanced lines."
Milwaukee Coach Rick Ley placed the blame for Saturday's loss - the Admirals' second straight and sixth in the last seven games to Salt Lake - squarely on his veterans, saying the youngsters worked hard.
The Admirals skated with spirit in Tuesday's practice at the Wilson Park arena, and word around the Milwaukee offices is that the veteran Ley won't stand for anything less than a full effort.
He won the IHL Turner Cup championship three years ago with Muskegon and took the Lumberjacks to the runner-up position two years ago when the Eagles won the first of their two titles. But last year, Muskegon, which won a league-record 58 regular-season games, bombed out in the quarterfinals, and Ley moved on to Milwaukee.
EAGLE NOTES - Peter Lappin is tied for second in playoff scoring with 12 points, same as Milwaukee's Dan Hodgson and one behind Muskegon's Mark Recchi and Scott Gruhl. Milwaukee's Jeff Rohlicek is tied with Muskegon's Dave Michayluk and Salt Lake's Jim Leavins for sixth with 10 points each. Lappin leads the playoffs in goals with seven. Leavins is the highest-scoring defenseman in the playoffs.