Staff writer Rob Mueller grades the Lynx's performance at the midway point of the 1999-2000 season.
The Lynx can score goals in bunches, as evidenced by the 18 they scored in two big wins last weekend. Two Augusta players are among the top 18 in the ECHL in scoring (Lars Pettersen and Wes Mason) and seven players have notched at least 20 points.
Their problem is consistency.
Remember that abysmal November, when they went 3-10-0, scored just 30 goals and were outshot 2-to-1 on some nights? Remember how they averaged 4.25 goals a game during their seven-game unbeaten streak in December, then sank back into the tank the next six games, when they managed a mere 2.6 goals a night and forgot how to shoot the puck?
On some nights, like in Friday's 12-5 outburst vs. Greensboro, the Lynx are an offensive juggernaut. All three lines are working. Passes are tape-to-tape. They win one-on-one battles. On other nights, they don't stick to their system, they fail to play two-way hockey, they can't break out of their zone, they skate haphazardly into the offensive zone and cough up the puck, and they refuse to do little things that add up to victories.
Last weekend proved how explosive this club can be. While Pettersen and Louis Dumont, a perennial 40-goal scorer acquired in November, continue to produce, others who had not yet lived up to their billing -- including Jonas Soling, Dean Tiltgen, Sandy Lamarre and Andrei Chouroupov -- provided a glimpse of their offensive prowess. They hardly missed Mason, now with Orlando of the IHL. It's the type of balanced attack the Lynx will need the rest of the way to get back into the playoff hunt.
Captain Dan Kopec would probably admit he doesn't have the skill to be a No. 1 defenseman on the depth chart. But that's exactly what the 26-year-old has been for the Lynx this season.
This is not a good thing.
Where would the Lynx be if Kopec wasn't having his best all-around season? Coach Dan Wiebe doesn't want to know.
From Day 1 last season to the midway point of Year 2, the Lynx defense has been a liability. At the start of the year, Wiebe didn't expect this to be the case, with veterans Kopec and Mark Desantis anchoring the backline; with solid stay-at-home defenseman John Whitwell back after a solid rookie year; with the physical yet skilled Clint Cabana assigned by the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, and the offensive-minded Ken Ruddick back from a stint in Europe.
But DeSantis didn't pan out, and was dealt to Toledo. Cabana was recalled to Syracuse of the AHL and is now out for up to two months with a broken jaw. And no one, with the exception of Kopec, has played up to his potential. Rookie Alex Johnstone, under contract with the NHL's New Jersey Devils, and 5-foot-8 converted forward Corey Smith are still learning the position and are prone to mistakes.
The Lynx allow more than 36 shots per game (26th in the league out of 28 teams), while the 3.97 goals-against average this season is 25th in the ECHL. Enough said.
The situation (and grade) should improve dramatically with the addition of Wes Swinson and the signing of Sam Ftorek. Both will provide much-needed grit, intelligence and puck skills on the blueline, though Ftorek has missed time this season with a shoulder injury suffered while playing in Switzerland.
Judd Lambert held things together during their miserable start, covering up defensive shortcomings while keeping his team in games despite being peppered by rubber at an alarming rate.
All along, he never complained when forced to split time with New Jersey Devils' No. 1 draft pick J-F Damphousse earlier in the season, and has become an integral presence in the dressing room. A 7-12-2 record isn't the barometer to go by when judging the steady Lambert's performance in the first half.
Lambert's efforts are worthy of high marks, but Damphousse did not live up to his billing the first six weeks of the season. And even Lambert at times surrendered some soft goals.
That's being nitpicky, however. They call goalies the last line of defense. And on some nights, the Lynx netminders have been their only line of defense.
The Lynx rank 20th in the league on the power play and 24th in penalty killing. Their problems in both areas have cost them several games, and it simply doesn't make sense, given the caliber of talent on this club.
The power play has improved the past few weeks, but still, the Lynx have a difficult time sometimes even setting up in the offensive zone, and have also allowed four short-handed goals against.
After ranking near the top 10 in the ECHL earlier in the year, the Lynx penalty-killing unit has struggled lately, allowing opposing team too many second and third chances from close range.
After an ugly first month, the prevailing attitude was one of negativity. Insiders say finger pointing ran rampant behind closed doors.
Chemistry has improved with some of the personnel changes, but something is still missing. The players seem to get along OK, but there isn't that sense of unity or willingness to go to battle for each other that championship teams are made of. Hockey is more about emotion and desire than it is about talent. The Lynx simply lacked spark in the first half.
They Lynx are also undisciplined and take too many foolish penalties. So often, it's the result of selfish players getting caught taking retaliatory whacks at opponents or running their mouths at the officials. They keep it up, they'll be taking plenty of whacks on the golf course in April.
Dan Wiebe set high goals at the start of the year and didn't come close to reaching them. The best coaches maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses, and Wiebe couldn't do that consistently enough during the first half.
There may not be a more dedicated coach in the league than Wiebe, who spends countless hours working to get things turned around. But he seems to have trouble assuming the role of disciplinarian, which old-school coaches like Hampton Roads' John Brophy have proven effective at this level. Wiebe tried the tough-love approach in November, when he skated the Lynx at 2:30 a.m. after a demoralizing road loss to Greensboro, but the players didn't respond, losing their next seven games.
Wiebe fared well on the trade front, making several deals to upgrade his talent, not to mention the club's work ethic and attitude. Though it appears the Lynx are finally headed in the right direction, they hold the third-worst mark in the league, and the coach must ultimately be held accountable for an underachieving club.