A TALE OF TWO GAMES: THE WILD'S MOST RECENT ROAD TRIPFeb 18, 2019
By Tom Witosky
Apologies to Charles Dickens, but the Iowa Wild’s weekend trip to Rockford and Chicago provided the classic example of the best of times and the worst of times for any hockey team.
Up front, the obvious is that the Wild failed to win either game, but also collected a point in each one to extend its current point streak to five contests. In doing so, Iowa remained in second place in the AHL’s Central Division, though its point margin diminished and the team got no closer to first place Grand Rapids.
On Saturday night, the Wild bolted to a 4-0 lead more than halfway through the second period against Rockford, but a series of undisciplined penalties combined with several defensive mistakes opened the door to a huge comeback win for the IceHogs with a 5-4 victory in the shootout.
After the game, Cal O’Reilly, Iowa’s captain, was succinct in how the team should respond.
“Forget about it, it’s over. We got a point, though it didn’t come out the way we wanted,” O’Reilly said. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
On Sunday afternoon, J.T. Brown’s goal in the second period put the Wild in a 1-1 tie with Chicago that extended the game into overtime, only to have the Wolves’ Eric Brannstrom beat goalie C.J. Motte to deliver a 2-1 victory to the home squad.
But a quick look at the shots on goal told a decidedly different story. The Wild held the Wolves’ vaunted offense, averaging 3.45 goals per game, to just 11 shots in regulation compared to Iowa’s 30. In the final 40 minutes of regulation, the Wolves had only five shots on goal. The Wild only allowed 13 shots all game, setting a franchise record for the lowest mark in a single game.
“When they were in our end, most of the time they got one shot and they were done,” Motte said. “It was nice to see the guys play a great game like that.”
Add on four important penalty kills for the Wild and little explanation was needed for the determined faces that exited the Wild locker room prior to a long, snowy bus ride back to Des Moines Sunday night.
“It’s weird how you can have different emotions but have the same result,” Wild forward Sam Anas said after Sunday’s game. “We are happy with the way we played but frustrated not to get the win.”
Matt Bartkowski, one of Iowa’s veteran defensemen, agreed. The first night was bad, the second night not nearly as much. However, the result was the same.
“We gave that game away last night. Tonight, we played more than well enough to win, but it just didn’t go our way,” he said.
Head Coach Tim Army agreed.
“It’s a good point because we played so well, but it is also disappointing when you play so well and you don’t win,” Army said. “But, it is not discouraging because we did play so well. It is a tale of two games.”
The change may have come partially as a result of watching video of Saturday night’s game prior to Sunday’s match, Anas said. The players could see they had played well for most of the game, but didn’t get the job done.
“We watched video from Saturday’s game and realized just how slim the margin for error is in this league. Things can happen quickly and Rockford is a good team and has an ability to put up goals,” Anas said.
With that understanding, the Wild started Sunday’s contest a bit slow, but by midway through the first period, they had control of the game’s flow. Motte made two critical stops in the first two minutes and kept the club from having to battle for an entire game against a team that doesn’t lose much after gaining a lead.
“In the first five minutes or so, you could tell we were tired and were just trying to get our legs back under us,” Army said. “Motte did a good job of keeping us in there. As our legs started to come back, we began to dominate the game and we kept it for most of the game.”
Army said veterans like Nate Prosser, Brown, Bartkowski and O’Reilly have given the younger players examples to follow. For example, Brown now has five points (3g, 2a) in just four games since being reassigned to Iowa from Minnesota; O’Reilly is tied for the most points on the Wild roster this season, just as he did last year.
Younger players are learning how to win in difficult environments, something the veterans know about, and it won’t always be without disappointing defeats, Army said.
“It goes a long way. It helps in these kinds of games,” he said of the veterans’ contributions. “They have played a lot of hockey and know to deal with it and teach the younger ones. They have invested in the team and are helping to educate them.”
Prosser, who collected his first point in an Iowa sweater with an assist Sunday on Brown’s goal, said the team is learning what it will take to make the drive into the playoffs and beyond.
“The first 40 minutes in Saturday’s game, we were at the top of our game,” Prosser said. “But in pro hockey, if you lift your foot off the gas pedal and start sitting back on your heels, bad things are going to happen. That is what happened – simple as that. You can’t have a let-up, you can’t sit back.”
Prosser, who played in the Calder Cup Finals with the Houston Aeros in 2011, said the key for the Wild to have a successful final stretch is to play consistently and not go overboard when things don’t go well or go well.
“The season goes up and down – injuries, call-ups, a lot of crap is going to be thrown at you,” Prosser said. ”We might lose a few in a row and it’ll seem the world is coming to an end. Hey, just bring a smile to work the next day and make sure you are pushing yourself to get out of that rut and get back to winning.”
There are 24 games left in the season and the next one up is Tuesday night against the Texas Stars. That contest kicks off a three-game homestand at Wells Fargo Arena, culminating with the Dropkick Murphys post-game concert Friday night. Puck drop on Tuesday is at 7:00 p.m.