WEST VALLEY CITY — After a full month of living in hotels on the road with his hockey team, after a full month without a victory, Utah Grizzlies coach Pat Conacher still says good things about his players.
Not about how they play. But about them being upstanding people who are trying to find their way. "They do care. They show that to me every day. You couldn't find a better group of people than we have in that room," he said outside the Grizzlies' dressing room at the E Center Thursday following practice.
Utah is finally home tonight against 18-20-1-3 Cleveland at 7 in the E Center after losing eight games in 30 days on the AHL trail, mired more than ever in the 28-team league's basement with a 9-27-0-2 record — but with the resolve to refuse excuses and somehow get better.
"We're rock bottom. We've got to put those shovels away," said winger Fredrik Sjostrom. "It's time to be professionals and start playing hockey like we should.
"The joke's over. We've got to get going."
Utah won four of its last six home games, but it still has the same 20 standings points and only seven more goals than it had when it left home 30 days ago. It was shut out 6-0 twice and 2-0 once, had three one-goal games and never scored more than two in any game on the trip.
The eight-game losing streak is a franchise record, as is a nine-game road-losing streak.
"That stinks," Sjostrom said of the 6-0 losses. "We were just bad, real bad. You've got to be a little bit desperate" in situations like that. "We can't forget about it. We've got to learn from our colossal mistakes."
"I don't think I ever lost eight in a row in my career," said defenseman Terry Virtue, who will be honored prior to tonight's game for playing in his 800th AHL game during the trip. "It was like we weren't as hungry" once Christmas came. "We're not hungry enough for the puck, and it's hurting us. We've got to work harder than other teams. Right now, we're getting outworked."
Like his players, Conacher does not sugarcoat anything. "It doesn't matter, home or road. We're not winning," he said, hoping being at home will help a team that at times on the road came very close to turning the corner, as in the last game, a 3-2 loss at Rochester Sunday. "At the end of the day, it's not good enough. It's frustrating for everyone," he said.
Conacher still likes his team. "I believe the people we have — we should be better, should be competing for a playoff spot," he said.
Utah will be without winger Jeff Taffe, tied with Sjostrom as Utah's No. 3 scorer with 19 points, for another month or more. He suffered broken bones about the eye socket during the 6-0 loss Dec. 28 at Manchester and had surgery in Phoenix. He is to begin skating again in mid-February.
Cleveland plays the Grizzlies tonight and Saturday, Chicago visits the Grizzlies Wednesday, Manitoba is in town Jan. 28 and 29, and Edmonton closes out the Utah homestand Feb. 1.