A season that nearly never happened came to a gut-wrenching end Saturday night.
The Quad City Mallards were unable to stave off elimination for a second straight night, losing their third one-goal decision in the playoff series clincher, falling to Fort Worth 1-0 at Moline's i wireless Center.
Shawn Sydlowski tapped in a crossing pass from Adam Hogg with 10:01 remaining in the third period for Game 5's only score, giving the third-seeded Brahmas a 4-1 opening-round series victory, and sending the Texans to the CHL playoff semifinals against No. 2 Wichita next week.
The shutout was just the third of the season, and the first since New Year's Eve at top-seeded Allen, for the sixth-seeded Flock. QC's last playoff series win remains in 2003, during a UHL runner-up campaign.
"This was a sad way to finish,'' QC scoring leader Mickey Lang said. "We had such high hopes coming into the playoffs, and we could have won this series if we'd have gotten a couple of bounces.''
However, the "UnderDucks'' were facing long odds after falling behind 3-0 in this series with overtime losses in Games 2 and 3.
CHL teams are now 23-0 in 21 seasons of playoffs when gaining that advantage.
But then, long odds were nothing new to a team that suffered through training camp and regular-season starting delays before the CHL and arena stepped in to take over for a non-performing new owner.
The Mallards also started March out of the playoffs, but posted a league-best 11-2 closing month, including five straight victories and eight consecutive home wins to end the regular season.
"This is not the end; this is only the beginning,'' QC coach Terry Ruskowski repeated in his office, after saying the same thing to a departing crowd of 3,586."What I meant was, while it's too bad we lost, we've got a lot of things moving in the right direction. There's a buzz on the street now. People are talking about hockey again. This group overcame so much this season, and they gave this franchise new life. Now I can't wait to have a full off-season to recruit.''
Ruskowski, one of the CHL's winningest coaches, who was hired six weeks before this season started, said the toughest pill to swallow was knowing how close these Mallards came to booking a return trip to Fort Worth, or even a semifinal trip to Wichita.
"Two overtime losses and a 1-0 decision,'' Ruskowski lamented. "If we can get that close after what we went through this season, imagine what we'll do next season.''
However, Fort Worth played its usual staunch defense, a turnaround from QC's lone series win, 5-2 on Friday night.The Mallards bolted to a 4-0 first period lead in that victory, with 19 shots on goal by the first intermission.
Saturday, the Brahmas again choked off QC's scoring chances, allowing only 19 shots for the whole game.
"They played their game,'' Lang said. "They're not easy to beat when they do that.''
Yet, the Mallards nearly did that, with QC goalie John Murray claimed First Star honors, turning away a whopping 38 shots, and preventing Fort Worth from scoring on six power-play chances with save after great save.
"John played fantastically again,'' Ruskowski said. "He was tremendous. He stood on his head and gave us a shot to win this game. Too bad we couldn't get him a lead.''
Trouble is, Kristofer Westblom matched Murray until the late goal, and then the Mallards were prevented from mounting much of a challenge with a pair of late elbowing penalties.
"They just took away our last chance,'' said Anthony Perdicaro, who was ejected for protesting the second call. "That's (bleep), pardon my French.''
The Mallards had eight penalties for 24 minutes in the box. Fort Worth was whistled four times for eight penalty minutes. The most-obvious miss was former Mallards defenseman Jared Lavender throwing a punch at the Mallards bench after crashing into the boards in front of the team in the first period.
"This whole series was called that way,'' Perdicaro complained. "It's (bleep), because if I play bad over a series of games, I lose my job, but they have no accountability.''