GRITTY WIN PUTS WILD ON THE DOORSTEP OF SERIES WINApr 24, 2019
By Tom Witosky
The gritty side of the Iowa Wild’s 6-1 playoff win over the Milwaukee Admirals Tuesday could be found on Mason Shaw’s face.
Cuts and dried blood around the 20-year-old rookie center’s mouth – thanks to taking Milwaukee forward Cole Schneider’s stick blade in the mouth – reflected just how playoff hockey is played by the members of Iowa’s third line, made up of Shaw and veterans forwards Matt Read and Kyle Rau.
Veteran defenseman Nate Prosser has had a ringside seat watching the three work during the Wild’s remarkable two playoff games, during which the Wild outscored the Admirals 13-1. The Wild also became the first AHL team in 30 years to defeat their opponent twice by more than five goals in the first two games of a playoff series.
“They’ve been playing unbelievably,” said Prosser, an NHL veteran of nine seasons. “Reader is hard, banging everything. Shawsy is the same way, getting bloodied up. And Rau fights. That’s playoff hockey.”
The Wild’s win now puts the club in the driver’s seat in the best-of-five series that now moves to Milwaukee, where it will end sometime between Thursday’s Game 3 and a fifth game Monday, if necessary. Game 3 will be played at 7:00 p.m. and followed by Game 4 on Friday, if necessary.
Head Coach Tim Army said the two-game advantage has been the product of the Wild playing to the potential it showed throughout most of the 2018-19 season, emphasizing speed, a defensive grittiness and a high level of goaltending from veteran Andrew Hammond and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen.
“Everyone is contributing and they know what they need to be successful,” Army said just before he and the team boarded their bus for the six-hour trip Tuesday night to Milwaukee. “We have only won two and now we’ve got to go in and win it.”
Tuesday night’s game, unlike the 7-0 drubbing Milwaukee took Sunday, had the hallmarks of a tight playoff game with the two teams exchanging goals in the first period. Wild center Luke Kunin got the Wild on the board first when he ripped a shot from inside the left circle past goalie Troy Grosenick on the short side.
Ryan Donato, who was sent to Iowa from Minnesota along with Kunin and forward Jordan Greenway, made the pass to set up his linemate.
“The one thing that (Kunin) does that’s elite is finding the areas to get goals,” Donato said. “He puts himself in good positions to get his shot off. For example, the one where I hit him across in the seam on the one-timer, he was the one who put himself in that spot.”
Milwaukee, which scored only one goal in three regular season games played in Wells Fargo Arena, broke its playoff goalless streak just a minute later when an Iowa turnover gave Admirals forward Anthony Richard a chance at a wrap-around. Hammond blocked the initial attempt but couldn’t stop the rebound from getting on Justin Kirkland’s stick and into the goal.
“They are a good team and they came back on us,” Army said. “We gave the lead back.”
Much of the second period was played in Iowa’s zone with the Admirals outshooting the Wild, but not getting the lead thanks to Hammond and Wild defenders blocking shot after shot. The tide changed at the end of the period after Mathieu Olivier was called for high-sticking with just 20 seconds left in the period.
After winning the draw, a Donato slap shot from the right side clanked off the post, but went right to Read, who put the rebound into the net and set-off a high-stepping celebration by the veteran winger.
“It had been a while since I had scored,” Read said afterward. “I had multiple chances in both games, but hadn’t been successful. It felt really good tonight to see it go in.”
Army called Read’s goal with 10 seconds left in the period the turning point of the game.
“It was the turning point because we came out in the third period very energized,” Army said. “That goal was the springboard for us tonight. It was huge.”
The Wild would score four more goals in the third period and shutout Milwaukee to coast to the 6-1 victory.
The combination of Iowa’s two top scoring lines and solid play by both the Wild’s third and fourth lines in both games have put the team in a strong position for the club’s first playoff appearance since moving to Iowa.
Since the arrival of Kunin, Donato, and Greenway with three games left in the regular season, the club has a 5-0 record. But, Army said the contribution of the three is deeper than just scoring.
“They are dynamic on offense,” Army said. “But what they’ve really helped is getting us to slot the rest of the team with the right amount of time on the ice.”
Shaw, who would score the team’s fourth goal before getting pasted by Schneider’s stick a couple minutes later, said the line accepted Army’s decision to match-up in both games against the Admirals top line made-up of Schneider, Yakov Trenin and Colin Blackwell.
“Our line takes great pride in playing in the d-zone,” Shaw said. “It is a tough match-up going against their top line, but it is something that we have embraced.”
Shaw said his linemates not only provide strong defensive play but can score too.
“They are great forwards who probably get overlooked on how well they played defensively,” Shaw said. “They do some many little things so well that often go unrecognized and obviously they are great offensive players and they show that a lot.”
Read said the combination of a veteran like him, a rookie like Shaw and mid-veteran like Rau has developed into a strong unit, mostly because of their ability to communicate with each other.
“We have been communicating well with each other after every shift to create more turnovers, more shots on goal and how to structure it defensively,” Read said. “Shawsy is 20-years-old and he plays the game so well. He has a ton of skill, but he is very smart and gritty. Same with Ronda. This is a lot of fun.”
Prosser said he likes the fact that the team has become so close that each line has the ability to score goals and play well on defense. The club will need that to close out the series successfully, he added.
“It is a good mold. This kind of camaraderie doesn’t come along too often,” Prosser said. “Everyone has blended in together and we are playing for each other. That is the fun way to do it and why we are having success right now. We will keep it tight on the ice and go from there.”