Mar 13, 2019

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

Iowa Wild goalie Andrew Hammond moved quickly to the near post of his goal as San Antonio forward Jordan Kyrou chipped a shot at him from just outside the crease.

Hammond blocked then cleared the puck to the other side of the ice in a continuous motion, thwarting Kyrou’s attempt to give the Rampage a quick 1-0 lead in the opening moments of the Wild’s crucial contest against San Antonio Tuesday night.

Iowa defenders had opened the game with a turnover near their goal, but Hammond’s alert play transformed a potentially major mistake into nothing more than his first save on a night when the Wild didn’t play their best game, but still took a 4-1 victory in their first game on home ice in nearly three weeks.

“When the goalie makes that kind of save, it is a lot like scoring because the game stays at 0-0 or you maintain a lead,” Iowa Head Coach Tim Army said after the game. “That is what he did tonight.”

The Iowa victory recharged the Wild’s push for a Central Division regular-season title despite a disappointing loss to the division-leading Chicago Wolves on Saturday. The win put the Wild at 76 points, tied with the Grand Rapids Griffins for second place and just three points behind Chicago.

Moreover, with just 14 games left in the season, the Wild now finds itself nine points ahead of the Texas Stars, which sits in the fourth and final spot for playoff eligibility.  Army is optimistic about the Wild making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and going deep in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“Most importantly from here and to the end, we are expecting to play into June; all of these games are against good teams and everyone is fighting for something,” Army said. “We are going to have to battle to find a way to win and that is what we did tonight.”

Hammond, a six-year veteran with NHL playoff experience with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche, is likely to play a big role in whether the Wild makes the playoffs and how far the team will go.

The 31-year-old Surrey, B.C., native has compiled a 15-7 record this season and has won four consecutive games since returning from an upper-body injury on March 1. Signed by Minnesota initially to compete for the NHL backup goalie position with Alex Stalock, Hammond has shared goaltending duties with rookie Kaapo Kahkonen, giving the Wild its most solid goalie combination in its six seasons in Iowa.

“There is a lot riding on each game and it definitely helps to have a top goalie and we happen to have two good ones,” Army said. “But to have someone with playoff experience at the NHL level in goal is not only good for the whole team, it’s good for Kaapo to be able to learn from him. He is competitive, but he is poised.”

Hammond’s poise has become a key element for the team in its playoff pursuit. The key to his composure in crucial games, Hammond said, is based on focusing on what’s happening at the moment, not so much the outcome.

“You try to stay more level headed and just focus on the details of the game,” Hammond said, adding that communication between players is most essential to winning. “The closer you get to the end of the season, good communication becomes even more important because it is small plays that decide games.”

Tuesday night, Iowa’s first goal showed just how a small pass can turn a game around. Cal O’Reilly picked up a loose puck along the right dasher boards in the San Antonio zone. Skating toward the blueline, O’Reilly noticed Nate Prosser skating toward him and simply left the puck for the onrushing defenseman.

“I saw him coming down so I just left it and he skated right into it,” O’Reilly said.

Prosser took the puck a couple of strides then snapped a pass across the ice to Will Bitten standing just inside the left circle by himself. Rampage goalie Ville Husso blocked the first attempt but failed to contain the rebound, giving Bitten a second shot that he drove into the net.

“Cal is the master of the chessboard. He knows where the pieces are and he makes everyone better around him,” Army said.

The veteran coach added that O’Reilly, who also scored a power-play goal to put the Wild into a 2-1 lead in the second period, delivers the same kind of composed leadership that Hammond provides.

“He is the right voice in the room,” Army said. “He is completely invested and has the demeanor that is needed. When he thinks something needs to change, he says so and the guys follow what he says.”

Even with the win, Hammond and O’Reilly agreed after the game the team didn’t play as well as it can.

“It was pretty clear we didn’t have our best stuff,” Hammond said. “But the big thing was that we were able to control the game still by playing the puck into the right areas and defended against their rush pretty well, even though it’s given us problems in the past.”

O’Reilly agreed and pointed out all that matters is winning.

“When we made mistakes tonight, we had guys stepping up with a block or chipping the puck out of the zone or checking the puck away or Hammy making a save,” O’Reilly said. “That is what you need to do when you don’t have your best game going. The bottom line is we found a way to win.”

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