As the hourglass continues to drip down toward zero-hour (Christmas,) Dakota Johnson and I give you our three takeaways from the last week in the ECHL, plus tell you who we would choose as the league award winners for the week.

Let’s get ‘er rollin’!

3. Is Wichita Finally Coming Back Down to Earth?

After the rip-roaring start to the season, one had to wonder how long the Wichita Thunder would keep up their torrid pace before “regressing to the mean.” Since their 7-3 thumping of Kalamazoo on December 2, Wichita has gone 2-5 and still has six games with Kansas City (two; both home this weekend) and Allen (four straight times in seven days) remaining this month.

There are some warning signs that Thunder head coach Malcolm Cameron would like to steer fans away from seeing.

First, the Thunder have allowed the first goals in five of their eight games this month, including spotting the Colorado Eagles three before storming back in that contest — only to lose — on December 13. When allowing the first goal this year, Wichita is 5-5-2. Conversely, when Wichita scores the first goal, they are 12-2-0. It is clear that Wichita, like many good teams, like to dictate the terms of the game once they score first, but, it is somewhat concerning that they have problems climbing back into games once they allow the first marker.

Second, the offense since December 2 has dried up. The Thunder have been held to three goals or less in six of the seven games since then and are averaging just 2.43 goals per game. On the power play, considered one of the league’s best, the Thunder have gone 3-20 in the same stretch. Mark MacMillanRalph Cuddemi, and Dyson Stevenson each have just three points in their last seven games, with a sizable chunk of the team’s offense coming from the blueline where Travis Brown and Jeremy Beaudry have chipped in four goals and eight assists over the same span.

Finally, the defense since the beginning of the month has been porous. The Thunder have allowed more than 40 shots in a game three times — an average of 33.7 per game — which has equated to goaltenders allowing an average of 3.57 goals per game.

With Greg Chase and Matt DeBlouw gone, likely for good, the void left on the offensive side of the puck needs to be picked up by someone or a collection of players and in a hurry.

The good news for Thunder fans is that even though the team has gone on this skid, they still sit near the top of both the division and conference. Cameron has connections that span the world of hockey and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to win games, as he’s often quick to point out. So, until the wheels completely fall off, Thunder fans should have faith in their man behind the bench.

2. What Will it Take for the Quad City Mallards to Turn Things Around?

From the “this is not what we envisioned” file…we bring you the Quad City Mallards, who are in the midst of a potentially season-defining stretch where they play Central Division foes Fort Wayne and Cincinnati exclusively seven times between December 15-30 (Cincinnati won the first two games of that set this past weekend.)

The season could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Mallards, who lost their captain, Chris Francis, to an upper-body injury for the first nine weeks of the season. From there, netminder C.J. Motte spent a month-plus in Chicago and the help the Mallards have received from the Vegas Golden Knights/Chicago Wolves has been very minimal, with Kenney Morrison the lone affiliated player on the roster right now.

The lack of affiliation help hurts because it doesn’t free up money for coaches to spend on other areas (NHL/AHL contracted players are paid $525/week in ECHL.) Last season, the Mallards had eight contracted players on their roster from Minnesota/Iowa.

Offensively, the Mallards rank dead last in the ECHL, scoring a paltry 2.21 goals per game. Sam Warning and Brayden Low, among others, have played outside of where they usually would on a team that is at full strength, and have filled in admirably, but need help.

Defensively, the Mallards are one of the worst in the ECHL, allowing 3.58 goals per game through 24 games this season. One of the major weaknesses for the Mallards has been the lack of a player(s) who can break a teams forecheck.

With owner Jordan Melville looking for a new President/General Manager to take the franchise to the next level, it is clear the franchise is entering a critical phase. On the ice, it will take some time for the affiliation with Las Vegas/Chicago to mature, so it is not likely to help the Mallards significantly in the short term. This will mean that head coach Phil Axtell, or whoever his successor will be, will have to do a great job recruiting and managing the team’s cap.

In the front office, the team will have to do a better job of selling tickets. The Mallards are seeing ~500 fewer fans this year over last. While not a huge slide from year-to-year, the trend downward over the last several has been noticeable.

1. Separation in the South

You may have had a fleeting thought about the two best teams in the south division being somebody not named Florida or South Carolina, but that should be long gone. This past weekend, the two teams put on a three-game series that could very well be a preview of the South Division Finals in early May. The series featured physicality, great goaltending, and offense.

It seems that the Stingrays and Everblades are playing for the division title, while Greenville, Orlando and Atlanta are just fighting to make the playoff field.

The Swamp Rabbits’ chances of hopping into late April took a significant hit on Tuesday when Allan McPherson was placed on team suspension. The league’s leading scorer, Caleb Herbert, is currently with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack (an affiliate of Greenville.) Atlanta has been scuffling significantly of late, losing six-straight games; while Orlando has had trouble breaking the .500 mark.

It appears the three-teams-for-two-spots race for the playoffs in the South could well go down to the final week of the regular season.

Time to hand out some virtual “hardware!”

If we were given award ballots, here are our choices for the league’s weekly awards.

Harding’s Awards

Goalie of the Week – Michael Houser (FTW): The 25-year-old went 2-0-0 with a 2.57 goals-against average and a save percentage of .931 last week. He turned aside 31 shots in a 5-2 win against Indy on Friday and made 45 saves in a 5-2 victory over the Fuel on Saturday.

Player of the Week – Matt Leitner (MAN): The Manchester Monarchs forward was in the giving mood last week, collecting seven assists in three games (had five in a game Friday night). On the season, the third-year forward is second on the Monarchs’ roster with 25 points in 26 games (5G, 20A) and for his ECHL career, he has 127 points in 128 games played.

Johnson’s Awards

Goalie of the Week – Jeremy Brodeur (ALN): The rookie netminder picked up two more wins since the last Tuesday Takeaways piece. He is now 7-1-2, with a 2.75 GAA and a .932 save percentage since Riley Gill left with an injury.

Player of the Week – Matt Leitner (MAN): See above

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