A week ago tonight, just after seeing his pointless streak stretched to 13 games, the longest of his hockey career at any level, St. John’s IceCaps right winger Spencer Machacek was feeling, as you might expect, frustrated.
He was also feeling grateful.
So instead of stewing in his locker-room stall at Mile One Centre, contemplating a minus-two performance that left his overall season rating at a team-worst minus 12, Machacek chose to act on the latter emotion and went to see IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge to say thank you.
Thank you for putting him on the ice in the late stages of the third period and overtime of the just-completed game against the Providence Bruins. Thank you for including him among the IceCaps’ five shootout choices in a what would turn out to be a 3-2 Providence win.Thank you for sticking with him during the slump.
“Especially the shootout,” said Machacek. “I really appreciated being in for that … I really thought I was going to get one there. I didn’t, but I felt confident, which I guess was a good thing, considering how things were going.”
You might notice the “were” in the last line. That’s because Machacek’s comments actually came Sunday, after he ended his points slump by collecting three assists in a 6-0 win over the Bruins in a rematch at Mile One. What’s more, Machacek was on the ice for all six IceCaps’ goals and finished plus-three for the game.
He followed up with two more helpers in a 3-2 win against the Adirondack Phantoms Wednesday night in Glens Falls, N.Y., and while he still hadn’t scored a goal in 15 games heading into St. John’s Friday-night contest against the Albany Devils, there was some sense Machacek was at least bouncing back from the surface of hard times.
And the player says the coach had a great deal to do with that.
“He was talking me through a lot of this slump and not just me, because other guys have been in there as well talking to him about the same thing, not scoring,” said Machacek.
“I think that was part of why things were tough, why it was harder to stay calm through all of this. It’s easier to go through adversity when the rest of the team is playing well, You don’t feel like you’re letting them down so much.
“But I wasn’t scoring, we weren’t winning like we should and other guys were in slumps, too.”
Not the sort of shared experience teams are looking for.
McCambridge’s counsel helped. His staying with Machacek as a lineup choice, game in, game out, helped, too, if only because that it was another kind of statement — perhaps the strongest one — of faith in his player.
“Because you know you have to earn what you get from him,” said Machacek, who has appeared in all 20 of St. John’s games this season, with three goals and seven assists for 10 points.
Some of that payout may have come from a credit account. McCambridge counts Machacek among the players who “have money in the bank with me” from last season, when the 24-year-old Albertan led the IceCaps in scoring (17 goals, 47 points in 59 games) and helped lead St. John’s all the way to the conference final.
McCambridge also pointed out the practicality of staying with Machacek and Ben Maxwell, another IceCap veteran who has struggled to put up points this year, and of using them in crucial situations.
“We need them to find their games. It’s my job to put them in the right situations so they can build up some sort of confidence, some sort of positive,” said the St. John’s coach.
“You’re looking for something to happen right away, which would be good, but the big thing is what that might mean down the road, to the player and the team.”
Machacek has appeared in 25 NHL contests with the Atlanta Thrashers and parent Winnipeg Jets, 13 of them coming last season during an impressive stint in Winnipeg that saw him score two goals and seven assists and play the gritty, two-way game that surely will be his NHL role.
And there was every reason to believe he’d be performing that big-league part this season; Machacek was widely viewed as a top candidate to fill a vacancy on the Jets roster.
That was, of course, before the NHL lockout that left him starting in the AHL for a fifth straight year.
“You try not to (think about the lockout), but you hear so much about it and see so much about it on the (sports channels),” said Machacek. “And yeah, it added to everything I’ve been feeling. You’ve got the frustration of not playing well, but then you’re also thinking about what happens if the lockout ends at the same time you’re not playing well.
“You try not to think about it, but you can’t really help it.”
And as McCambridge noted, Machacek is a “thinking” player.
“Mach really is a cerebral hockey guy,” said the coach. “He thinks the game. He thinks about the game. Maybe sometimes, he can think a little too much, but that’s not really going to be a problem.
“It was nice when he thanked me for helping him. I’m not surprised, knowing Mach, but it was nice anyway because I was just doing my job.
“A coach is there to help. Coaching is helping. But Mach will mostly be the one who gets himself through this.
“He’ll think his way through. He’ll figure it out, and I think we’ve been seeing that lately.”