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If Golden Knights need motivation, ‘soft’ label should do the job

It’s like accusing a baker of using cheap ingredients.

It’s like suggesting a singer is tone deaf.

It’s like charging an attorney — or, well, football coach — with being honest.

The horror of it.

Professional athletes can be a predictable lot when it comes to what might push their buttons most, certain words or phrases that describe play in a less-than-flattering manner.

None gets their attention more than this: soft.

None is a bigger hit to their collective egos.

“It’s not a good word,” Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.

It’s one Knights coach Gerard Gallant used after a 5-2 loss to Arizona on Tuesday night, the team’s fourth straight at T-Mobile Arena and one that definitely bothered Gallant in terms of how his team did — or, specifically — didn’t compete.

“I don’t like the way we played,” Gallant said. “We played a soft game …”

It was more a critique of the overall performance than any individual, and yet that’s all semantics. He didn’t think they were aggressive enough, tough enough, emotional enough, smart enough, whatever. He wasn’t happy with anyone.

Effort can be a tough thing to gauge in sports, which is why those outside a specific team — fans, media, anyone watching — should temper their immediate desire to condemn.

Players and coaches know who’s playing hard.

Everyone else just thinks they do.

The Knights are stumbling along, which seems to happen to every NHL team nowadays not named Tampa Bay over the course of a regular season. It’s also an 82-game schedule, and to believe players are going to bring their maximum levels of focus and exertion on a nightly basis is to believe the best part of Bill Belichick’s day is a press briefing.

Sometimes, you can get away with not being at your best.

Most times, like the Knights on Tuesday, you can’t.

“We’ve got to get back to what makes us successful,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “There’s just not a lot of jam to our game right now. That’s what we’ve got to get back to in order to win this time of year. Just a little bit more stones. You need a little bit more hard work ethic, go to the hard areas, take a crosscheck, give a crosscheck, punch somebody in the face. I don’t know.

“Whatever it is, we need a little bit more of it. We need something that’s going to get our team going. We don’t have a lot right now of that. Yeah, we’ve got a couple guys going out and hitting guys. We’ve got a couple guys that aren’t getting knocked off pucks. But a couple isn’t going to win you games.”

Highs and lows

I need more jam in my writing.

A few more stones when crafting an opinion.

What great words.

It’s also not uncommon in such a long season, these highs and lows between games 40 to 60, especially for a team that sits in a comfortable playoff position. Lulls are bound to occur, but the key is making sure they don’t extend for long periods so that comfortable becomes tenuous.

One of the best things about Gallant is that he doesn’t belittle his team for the sake of it. He barely speaks to players after wins or losses. He treats them as pros on and off the ice. So when a message such as Tuesday’s is delivered in an extended locker room chat, you know he’s seeing attributes, be it attitude or style of play or something, that isn’t good.

“We have to be better,” Fleury said. “We know where we are at. (Gallant) is awesome. Everybody loves him, and we have a lot of respect for him. He’s very honest with us. He’s not happy. We’re not happy. But we also have some pride, and we’re not happy when we lose games like the (one Tuesday).”

Nothing gets the attention of a team coming off a forgettable loss better than next facing a quality opponent, which the Knights will do against visiting Toronto on Thursday and Nashville on Saturday.

You could sense it at Wednesday’s practice, when more competitive drills than your typical between games workout made for some aggressive play. It was intense. Sticks were slapped against the ice. Voices were raised.

Soft took a maintenance day.

“I thought it was great,” Gallant said. “There was a little more passion, a little more work ethic. Now, we move on.”

Toronto is in town.

Need more jam, man.

Need those stones.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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