RESILIENT WILD HEAD INTO HOLIDAY BREAK IN HIGH SPIRITSDec 23, 2019
By Tom Witosky
Kyle Rau gave a quick and concise analysis of Iowa Wild’s first major skid of the season and why the club recovered, winning four of its last five games before the holiday break.
“It’s the nature of the American Hockey League,” Rau said. “Guys get hurt, guys go up and down. It's just the way it is. We lost three centers in 12 hours so things change quick. Things change overnight.”
But the veteran forward said this year’s club has a level of depth and commitment that makes it capable of overcoming difficult road trips, call-ups and injuries.
“We have good players who sit in the stands every night,” said Rau, who helped lead the Wild’s resurgence by collecting nine points (1g, 8a) in the last five games after missing nine games due to injury. “We're fortunate in that regard, that they can come in and play. They're excited and want to prove something.”
Rau’s scoring surge matched similar ones by second-year forwards Will Bitten and Dmitry Sokolov, who have struggled to contribute much in terms of scoring up until the last five games. Bitten notched two goals Saturday night in the dramatic 4-3 overtime victory against Grand Rapids that ended with Sokolov scoring the winning goal with just 44 seconds left in extra time.
By sweeping the weekend series with Grand Rapids and winning two of three on the club’s recent road trip to Ontario and Stockton, the Wild vaulted itself back into second place in the Central Division after a distressing 3-6-1 slump. It’s a pace that puts the club where it needs to be when the team returns to play after the break, according to Head Coach Tim Army
“The goal is to be in the top four spots at this time in the season and then to make sure we are there in April,” Army said. “We've come out of that stretch and we're playing good hockey again. But every day is a new day. We can't take our foot off the gas. We have to keep executing the way we're executing.”
In some ways, the Wild’s recovery is similar to last season’s late surge in which the Wild came back from an eight-game losing streak to earn a playoff spot in the final three games of the season.
This time, however, Wild goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, forward Gerry Mayhew, and defenseman Brennan Menell were the ones reassigned to Iowa after stints in Minnesota.
Kahkonen turned in three top-notch performances after posting a 3-1-1 record in Minnesota; Mayhew posted four points on 13 shots in the last three games and Menell had an assist while helping to lend veteran stability to a defense that had given up an average of 4.10 goals per game in the 10 games prior to the recent surge.
“You don’t get out of a stretch like that quickly, you have to earn it,” Army said.
Bitten, who spent time sitting in the stands recently as a healthy scratch, is one of those players. Army said Bitten, like the team, responded by simplifying his game and using his speed to put him in better positions to score or get assists.
“He is putting himself in a position to use his speed whether it's an exit or he's picked up the puck is coming out of our end,” Army said. “He's putting pucks in deep but he's in on the forecheck and becoming more available to the puck.”
Bitten, whose second goal Saturday night tied the game late in the third period, gave a lot of credit for his success to Rau and Colton Beck, who are on the same line with him. With his two goals Saturday, Bitten has contributed eight points in the last five games, compared to seven points in his first 21 games this season.
“I’m getting the chances right now on my line with Kyle and Colton,” Bitten said. “We're playing really well and we're really clicking so it's nice to see. It feels so good to tie it up and have a chance in overtime to win it.”
Similarly, Sokolov’s goal Saturday night to win the game was reminiscent of Cal O’Reilly’s overtime breakaway goal against the Chicago Wolves on April 12, 2019 to put the Wild in the playoffs.
After Kahkonen stopped Griffins forward Taro Hirose on a breakaway, the puck came out to Mayhew, who brought the puck down on a 2-on-1 rush with less than a minute on the clock.
“I saw Soky coming and I was 100 percent out of gas, so I slipped him the puck and he buried it,” Mayhew said.
Army said the win, in front of 7,463 fans, provided an emotional conclusion prior to the holiday break. That break ends Friday with the Wild playing the Rockford IceHogs on the road then returning to play Chicago the following night in Des Moines.
Army said the break comes at a good time.
“We need it. We're banged up. We're fatigued,” Army said. “I don't think it will have any impact on the momentum that we built over the last week.”
It will be the third time the Wild has traveled the night before a home game with its opponents already in the city. “That’s pretty unusual,” Army said. “I do think we have the toughest schedule in the league.”
But, Army said, the team’s three-game winning streak shows it can overcome the fatigue to win hockey games.
“There's one general sort of character that we have, we're really resilient and persistent,” Army said, adding that explains the team leads the league in third-period comebacks. “We're difficult to play against and we have a stick-to-it-ness and persistence that allows us to do that. That character is going to be really important as we move forward.”