Three Triple-A call-ups in a 10-day span, plus an injured reserve-list stint for another starter, is the reason Justin Fox found himself joining a shorthanded bunch of Quad City Mallards in mid-January.|
So, there's no way the third-year pro could have imagined scoring a game-winning playoff goal three months later last weekend to give the local minor-league hockey club a chance to claim its first playoff series since 2002-03 in Game 6 tonight.
Fox's Flock leads the best-of-7, first-round match-up with Rapid City, 3-2.
"I've always had confidence in myself that I could play in the CHL," Fox said about his rise from Single-A to QC's Double-A ranks. "But when (Mallards coach) Terry (Ruskowski) called, I left half my clothes in Huntsville (Ala.), brought no belongings with me and left my car there. I only packed half a bag because I didn't know how long I'd be here. So I still have to get back there for my things after this season."
Fox hopes to wait a little longer for that triumphant return trip, though, with the Mallards bidding for a semifinal berth tonight in South Dakota. If necessary, a decisive Game 7 is Wednesday back at Rapid City's Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
"He's been a real pleasant surprise for us as somebody you hope to get back for next season," Ruskowski said about the midseason addition from Huntsville and the Southern Professional Hockey League. "We were looking around for somebody to help us when we gave him the shot, and he's proven he's certainly capable of playing at this level."
Fox figured that was the case after last season, when the just-turned-27-year-old spent the final 23 games with the CHL's Tulsa Oilers.
"At first, there was an adjustment period, and at times, I was a little overwhelmed," Fox admitted. "The first 10-15 games, I didn't see much ice time. But the last 10 games, we had some injuries, so I got a lot of playing time and finished the year strong.
"That really helped me for this year because I played well, got used to the rinks in this league and got familiar with some of the players. I knew if I was given the opportunity, I could make an impact for somebody."
After scoring 11 points down the stretch, Fox returned to Tulsa, but he discovered new ownership opted to sign some big-name stars, and Fox ended up among the Oilers' final training-camp cuts.
"So I went back to Huntsville and the SPHL with a chip on my shoulder," said Fox, a rookie camp cut by CHL Fort Worth in 2011-12. "I knew I had to do things to get noticed and prove people they were wrong, and I think my numbers showed that."
By the time the desperate Mallards called, Fox led the SPHL in points (40), tied for the lead in assists (24) and ranked fourth in goals (16). The Canadian owns 107 points in 104 SPHL games over his three pro seasons.
"I was excited to come here, but I also knew there weren't any promises," Fox said with fellow forward Jim McKenzie among the Mallards promoted to Triple-A at the time.
"It's funny, I'd never met Jim before this series, but I heard all about him from the guys, and our situation was so intertwined, I felt like I knew him. I was here because he was up there, and like me, we didn't know how long he'd be there. But he got a good opportunity up there to show what he can do, and didn't come back until the playoffs, and that allowed me to stick around here, too."
In 33 regular season games with QC, Fox finished with 12 goals and 16 points. The right winger has added three playoff points, including that game-winning, power-play goal Saturday at Moline's iWireless Center.
"Some teams you go to have their scorers already, and so they want you to change your game," Fox said thanking the Flock's balanced philosophy for giving him the opportunity to shine. "But Terry allows you to excel at what you're good at. He wants you to skate regular shifts. He wants you to contribute every night."
And, Fox has certainly done that.
"I know I am a CHL player now, but I think like an SPHL player," Fox said. "I've already been cut twice by CHL teams, so I go out there every night like I have something to prove."
QC Mallards this week
Games: The Mallards visit South Dakota's Rushmore Plaza Civic Center tonight (Game 6) and, if necessary, Wednesday (Game 7) in their best-of-7, CHL President's Cup first-round playoff series with Rapid City. Game time is 8:05 p.m. both nights. The Flock lead the series 3-2.
Radio: WFXN-AM 1230 & wfxn.net & myqcmallards.com. Pay-per-view TV: AmericanOneSports.com. Twitter updates: SteveTappa_DA.
Special: Moline's T.G.I. Friday's and The Lodge in Bettendorf are hosting "watch parties" for Mallards fans. Besides showing the action on big screen televisions, Friday's offers half-priced appetizers, and The Lodge has $1.50 drafts and hot dogs available for a $3 cover charge.
Series notes: Rapid City, the CHL's worst on the power play this regular season, has converted only 1-of-15 man advantage chances against the Mallards. ... QC sports the best goals-against average in the playoffs allowing just 2.40 goals per game. ... The Flock also has limited the Rush to the fewest shots on goal in the CHL playoffs at 27.4 per game. ... Fourth-seeded Rapid City and fifth-seeded QC have combined for more than 41 penalty minutes per game in the series, the most of any of the CHL's four first-round match-ups. ... Rapid City is trying to avoid a third straight first-round ouster since winning the 2011 CHL title.
Next: The winner of this series travels to either Missouri (Arizona leads that series 3-2) or Allen, Tex. (beat Brampton, 4-1).