DEFENSE SHINES AS THE WILD CLIMBS BACK INTO CENTRAL DIVISION FINALMay 6, 2019
By Tom Witosky
Sometimes, it’s the little plays that make a big difference.
Late in the second period Sunday, Daniel Carr, the AHL’s Most Valuable Player and the Chicago Wolves’ top scorer, made a perfect dot-to-dot pass to a wide-open Brooks Macek inside the Iowa Wild zone. With no one covering him, Macek, the Wolves second-leading goal scorer, wound up for a slap shot to bring Chicago even with Iowa.
But, just before Macek’s stick got to the puck, another stick came from underneath and behind him. Macek lost control of the puck just long enough to thwart one of the best chances to score the Wolves would have all afternoon.
Jordan Greenway’s defensive play may not have been THE difference in the 2-0 win Sunday before 5.619 fans, but it was just one of the unnoticed highlights made by Wild defenders in helping the club get back into the AHL Central Division Final with its first win in the best of seven series.
Goalie Andrew Hammond, who had his second shutout of the playoffs, noticed each and every defensive play.
“We defended really well tonight and had a lot of big block shots tonight,” the 31-year-old veteran netminder said. “For the most part I thought we didn't give them the autonomy they needed by making some adjustments that I thought definitely helped.”
The win now sets up a critical Game 4 at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena with the Wild looking to extend its five-game home winning streak, going back to its final two home victories in the regular season. A win would also even the series at two games each. The team now has a 3-0 home record in the playoffs after posting a franchise record 23-9-5-1 record in the regular season.
Head Coach Tim Army and several players gave credit to the rally-towel waving Wild fans for helping to bolster their energy throughout the difficult, close-checking match that has been the hallmark of every game between the Wild and Wolves this season.
“If it was 5,600 then they acted like there were 12,000 in here because they were outstanding. It was loud. The towels are awesome,” Army said.
Veteran forward Matt Read, who scored an empty-net goal in the final minute with an assist from Greenway, said players notice when the crowd is with them.
“That was fun,” Read said. “When someone has a strong hit and you hear them cheering is great. Obviously, it's when you're playing at home, you have a good crowd you want to perform for them.”
For Greenway, who was sent down to Iowa at the end of the Minnesota Wild season, the playoffs have meant extending his hockey season to nearly 100 games. He played 81 games in the NHL this season and has 13 under his belt with Iowa.
After Sunday’s game, Greenway acknowledged that so many games in a single season are a new experience for him.
“It's definitely not something I'm used to,” the 22-year-old forward said. “The last couple of years have been seasons with 35 games or so. It’s a lot different.”
Greenway, Luke Kunin and Ryan Donato, who were sent down after the Minnesota Wild’s season ended, have been key cogs in every facet of the Wild’s game since arriving April 8. The three are on the same power-play unit and had often been on the penalty kill, which has given up only one goal in 32 opponent opportunities in the playoffs.
Although he has yet to score a goal, Greenway has five assists in eight games, including his chip to Read to clear the Iowa zone in waning seconds of Sunday’s match. His play to Read was another example of how he is becoming a force on Iowa’s defensive end with his ability to clear the puck from the zone when a shift is under duress.
Greenway said that playing in the AHL playoffs helps to offset any fatigue he may be feeling.
“A gentleman's high, you know, it is fun,” Greenway said. “We're in the playoffs, so it's not as hard as you would think to get up for a game like this one or any game in the playoffs.”
Although he, Kunin and Donato have been with the team for only three weeks, Greenway noted that the team’s cohesiveness is what makes them face them adversity well.
“It’s a great group of guys with everyone pushing in the right direction,” Greenway said. “There's going to be times where, you know, there are downs, there's a lot of great characters in the locker room that allows the guys to overcome the adversity.”
Army said the team, faced with going down to a nearly insurmountable 3-0 deficit to Chicago, simply pulled together as it has all season at critical moments.
“The team has always found a way to pull together,” Army said. “It is a really tight-knit group. They look out for each other, they stick up for each other. They take care of each other. When they need to, they get it done.”
The team got Monday off and would practice long enough on Tuesday “to get up and running, move the puck and get our legs going. Then, we'll be ready to go Wednesday night,” Army said.
But Army said they also need to forget Sunday’s win and focus on getting the series back to even on Wednesday.
“Everybody's held serve right now. They won their two home games, we won our home game and have two more to go,” Army said. “Wednesday’s game is the only thing that matters right now.”