WILD BUY-IN PROMPTS SURGEFeb 18, 2017
Teams Cohesiveness Leads To Winning
By Tom Witosky | Follow @toskyAHLWild
On one level, the Iowa Wild’s mid-season surge into playoff contention can be explained simply.
On Nov. 16, the Wild’s goal against average was 3.79 and ranked 28th in the AHL. At that point, Wild coaches, players and fans began wondering if this season would be much like the ones of the past three.
But since that date, the Wild has posted a .526 winning percentage taking 20 victories compared to 12 losses and six overtime losses, providing the club with enough points to contend for this season’s Calder Cup playoffs. Despite a tough two-game West Coast trip, the Wild’s GAA is 2.68, ranking seventh in the league.
But Derek Lalonde, the Wild’s head coach, evaluated the dramatic change on the ice a bit differently. In November, the first year coach was beginning to question whether the team would be able to recover from its dismal start.
“We were fairly easy to play against because we weren’t defending very well,” Lalonde said. “We had so many holes throughout our lineup. Some of it was on us because of structure, but some of it was because of a young team learning how to compete at this level.”
What changed, according to Lalonde and several Iowa players, is that the club chose to coalesce around a common goal – a winning record for the first time in the Iowa franchise’s history no matter what it might cost any player individually.
“Everyone here wants to play at the next level,” Mike Weber, the Wild’s captain and veteran defenseman with six seasons in the NHL. “Everyone likes winning and that is the question. Are you committed to winning? If you are, you do the simple things right and consistently.”
Lalonde said the Wild’s veterans like Weber, Alex Stalock, Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan and Max Fortunus deserve much of the credit.
“It is our leadership corps,” he said. “It came from the room. They were the ones who had to buy-in first,” he said.
Credit also belongs to Iowa’s goaltender tandem – veteran Alex Stalock and back-up Steve Michalek. For the first time this season, both have winning records. Early in the season, they spent a lot of time simply trying to keep the score close enough to give the Wild a chance to win – a task akin to getting alligators out of the swamp.
“Early on, we weren’t an easy team for any goalie to play for,” Lalonde said. “We were giving up a lot of easy second chances and we were spending too much time in our zone.”
Since then, the defense has improved as it has adopted a structure designed to protect the middle of the ice in the defensive zone and force shots from the outside. Quick puck movement out of the defensive zone also has improved greatly. In addition, the club’s special teams – penalty kill and power play units – have been vital in several games.
“It’s a credit to everyone because they are playing all 200 feet of the ice,” said Stalock, whose record has jumped from a 1-5 start to 15-10-6. “They are buying into the fact that you can’t take shortcuts to winning games. It is good to see guys learning that stopping on pucks makes a difference every night in winning a game.”
More importantly, Lalonde said, the surge began at a time when most teams might have gone the other way as a result of call-ups by the Minnesota Wild and a succession of injuries to several top Wild offensive players. Among the call-ups is Jordan Schroeder, who left Iowa as the club’s leading scorer, defensemen Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson, as well as rookie forward Alex Tuch to name a few.
“We lost Schroeder to the NHL, then Tuch goes down with an injury,” Lalonde said. “Then, we lost (Grayson) Downing to injury and lost (Zac) Dalpe to injury. That’s four of our top six. Because of all of that, we hit rock bottom with our line-up. So to be successful, we had to have buy-in to team defense.”
Weber said that he had noticed a change beginning prior to the slew of injuries, but that the line-up adjusted to the challenge.
“We were beginning to build something when they went out, but that is what has been special about this,” Weber said. “We’ve had guys come up from the East Coast to help us, we’ve had guys come down from the NHL stepping in and playing different roles.”
Weber said that combined with good goaltending from Stalock and Michalek, the Wild has undergone a major shift in confidence and approach. With Steve and Al, both guys have been playing good stand-up hockey for us.
“That is what it takes to win,” Weber said “Look at any championship team whether it is the NHL or down here. It takes a bigger roster than the 23 men you’ve got on it at any one point. It takes 25, 30, some number like that to win a championship.”
With 23 games left on the schedule, the Wild still has major challenges in front of it with 21 of those games against Central Division rivals including six games left with Cleveland, its primary playoff rival, six with Chicago and three with Milwaukee. All three are contending for the playoffs as well.
“Our margin for error is still very thin,” Lalonde said. “But we have gotten great goaltending, we have gotten good special teams, and just good will.”
But Weber said that the locker room has discovered something that was missing much of the three years.
“Winning is fun,” he said.