MOLINE, Ill. – On Saturday night, Quad City Mallards fans didn’t want the game to end. It was the ultimate Mallards game, the final farewell from a franchise that had seen the community through 23 years. In those 23 years, there were three Cup parades, six seasons of 50 or more victories, and a whole lot of memories. Everyone came together to give the team that had done so much through the years one last hurrah – 7,014 people watched the final game at the TaxSlayer Center.
The energy of olden days, when there were sellout crowds so often, returned one last time to the Marsh on Saturday. Last season, for the alumni game that was put on to celebrate 20 years of Mallards hockey – for two years the Quad City Flames of the AHL held court in Moline – the energy had returned as well. But on Saturday, the energy held a bittersweet edge. It was more than just the end of the season; it was the end of an era.
The Cincinnati Cyclones came to the TaxSlayer Center to help the Mallards pack their bags, and it was a game that wouldn’t be quickly forgotten. No love was lost between the two teams, as they played a bout of physical hockey that had oftentimes been absent this season from the Mallards’ play. The home team wanted to give fans the best send-off possible, playing their hearts out one final time. It was the best hockey the team had played all season, and it was more than hockey.
The Mallards dominated the shots on goal through the first period, the count after 20 minutes being 23-8 in the Mallards’ favor. Everything went the Mallards’ way, but getting on the scoreboard wasn’t that easy. In his first professional game, goaltender Joseph Raaymakers shined for Cincinnati. When the final horn sounded, he could claim 45 saves on the night. The Mallards went on three straight power plays, but the extra man wasn’t proving helpful. The passing was crisp, but always they were searching for the perfect opening in the crowd from their diamond formation. A few shots on goal, but none found twine.
It was only on the fourth consecutive power play for the Mallards that a shot finally lit the lamp. Chris Izmirlian passed the puck from the left dot up to Willie Raskob at the high slot. Raskob sent a slapper towards Raaymakers, the puck going bar down to start the train whistle blowing in the rafters. It was the Mallards’ 22nd shot of the night. Eight seconds had remained in the power play; exactly five minutes were left in the opening period.
The second period was a back and forth frame, no team holding the lead for long. Myles Powel ended C.J. Motte’s shutout bid at 7:13 after the puck had squeaked out from under the goalie as he dove to cover it. Motte dove out of his crease to his right to stop play, but the puck bounced out from under him. A pass from behind the goal line to Powel waiting on the doorstep in the left corner couldn’t be stopped by Motte.
Quentin Shore gave the lead back to the Mallards a few minutes later with a rocket past Raaymakers. He was midway between the left dot and the blue line in front of the Mallards’ bench, taking the pass from Matt Pohlkamp and Raskob.
A delayed penalty on the Mallards cost them a goal, Brandon McNally finding an opening in the screen in front of Motte while Raaymakers was on the bench. McNally was perched between the hash marks to beat the Mallards goaltender.
Cincinnati took their first lead of the night three minutes after McNally’s marker, Dominic Zombo lighting the lamp. A coast to coast pass from right to left just in front of the blue paint was too fast for Motte to corral, Anthony Florentino and McNally picking up the apples on the goal.
The Mallards began the comeback early in the final period, Stanislav Dzakhov tying the game 58 seconds into the frame. He out-deked the defense from right to left, shooting from the near edge of the left circle. Five minutes later he scored again.
Dzakhov won a battle in the right corner, passing it up to Jake Bolton at the blue line. Bolton sent a one-timer towards the net, Dzakhov getting his stick on it to deflect it into the twine.
It was then that the Mallards defensive corps and Motte shined. After Dzakhov’s second goal, Cincinnati had only six shots on net the final 14 minutes; they had nine the entire period. Tensions had been high throughout the game, but with just under two minutes remaining, things came to a head.
After a shot on Motte, a scrum broke out in front of the crease. Bolton and McNally wanted to drop the gloves, but the officials kept them apart. The scrum seemed to dissipate, only to rematerialize a little farther from the crease. McNally was escorted from the ice after earning not only a minor for holding, but one for roughing as well; Shore went to the box for cross-checking.
Raaymakers had been pulled with two minutes and 23 seconds remaining on the board, but an empty net goal wasn’t in the cards for the Mallards. Try as they might, the Mallards couldn’t get the puck into the wide-open net.
When Raaymakers was pulled, it was announced over the PA that Jamie Tardif and Kyle Follmer would be retiring at the end of the game, and that there would be a ceremony before the jersey auction.
Fans began to stand during the final ten seconds of action and did not sit down again. Mallards players flooded the ice as usual as the last horn sounded, swarming around Motte in net. They then began to skate down the ice slowly, saluting the crowd.
As the players began their trek down ice to wave to the crowd one last time, Follmer pumped the crowd up as you would after a fight – arms raised with a grin as he went from blue line to blue line. A crowd gathered at center ice, sticks raised intermittently in salute amongst the chaos. The PA said the three stars would be announced in a moment, and it seemed that that was it for the players.
Then Follmer turned towards the penalty boxes, where Goose, the PA announcer, separates the offenders. He said something, tapping his stick on the ice. The Mallards gathered around the logo in a perfect circle, giving a stick tap to the crowd in one more true salute, their sticks rising after a moment and hanging in the air. A box was brought onto the ice, and players grabbed the rolled up t-shirts hidden inside to throw to the crowd.
Executive Director of the TaxSlayer Center Scott Mullen addressed the crowd after a moment, Kerry Toporowski, Carl LeBlanc, and Steve Gibson behind him.
Mullen told the crowd, “We’ve had 23 consecutive years of hockey here and we want to keep this going. We will have hockey in the future here; I guarantee it.”
Gibson, Toporowski, and LeBlanc all said the Mallards had the best fanbase they had ever seen. All three settled in the greater Quad Cities area after their retirement from hockey; Toporoski’s face is still seen on the ice at every Mallards home game, as Lynch, Toporowski, and Associates, investment advisers sponsor the Mallards and have a dasherboard.
A tribute video was played on the videowall following the ceremony, showing highlights from 21 years of Mallards hockey. It was hard to find a dry eye in the house after that.
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Until next season.