VETERAN LEADERSHIP KEY FOR POTENTIAL PLAYOFF RUNJan 28, 2018
Iowa Wild is heading for uncharted territory.
The team sits in second place in the Central Division with a 21-13-7-3 record, good for 52 points and a .591 points percentage. Through 44 games, the Wild’s 52 points and 21 wins are the most in its history. Iowa is currently on track to make the postseason for the first time since moving to Des Moines. But even with the best start in team history, postseason hockey isn’t a given, due to the difficulty of the division.
Leading the division is Manitoba Moose, whose .716 points percentage is the best in the West and the second-best in the league. Trailing Iowa is Chicago, who has a .578 points percentage. In third place is Rockford at .576, just .002 behind the Wolves. The defending champion Grand Rapids sits in fifth place with a .544 points percentage. Milwaukee, who was in second place just 10 days ago, is now in sixth place with a .535 points percentage.
Right now, there’s just a .056 points percentage difference between the second place team and the sixth place team. It’s cliché to say every point matters, but with such a small margin of error, it’s true.
With a historic playoff berth on the horizon, the Wild will have to lean on its veterans.
After seeing a multitude of players called up to Minnesota at the beginning of the season, head coach Derek Lalonde has been able to let his forward lines settle and start to build chemistry.
Recently, the Wild’s first line has consistently been Christoph Bertschy-Pat Cannone-Zack Mitchell, followed Kyle Rau-Cal O’Reilly-Landon Ferraro on the second line.
The line of Bertschy-Cannone-Mitchell has combined for 875 AHL games and 44 NHL games played, with an additional 17 AHL playoff games. Rau, O’Reilly and Ferraro and have combined for 1,050 AHL games and 258 NHL games, with an additional 110 AHL and seven NHL playoff games.
Throw in players such as defensemen Alex Grant (435 AHL games, seven NHL games, 48 AHL playoff games), Ryan Murphy (121 AHL games, 160 NHL games, five AHL playoff games) and goaltender Niklas Svedberg (119 AHL games, 19 NHL games) and the Wild has veteran leadership throughout the lineup.
It’s an added benefit that, as the games get more and more meaningful, the veterans are starting to make significant impacts on the scoresheet.
O’Reilly is leading the charge, as the Wild captain has 13 points (3g, 10a) in his last eight games, which ranks second among AHL Skaters during that stretch. In those six games, O’Reilly recorded two four-point nights, which tied the franchise record for most points in a single game.
Ferraro, who had his own four-point night against Milwaukee on Jan. 20, has recorded 10 points (5g, 5a) during the same eight-game stretch as O’Reilly. Rau spent four games on O’Reilly’s left wing before being recalled by Minnesota on Jan. 18, and one more when he was reassigned on Jan. 26. In those five games, Rau had five points (2g, 3a). Forward Luke Kunin spent two games with the line, recording one assist.
Eight games, 29 points (10g, 19a). That’s leadership-by-example.
Bertschy-Cannone-Mitchell has chipped in with 10 points (5g, 5a) during those same eight games. Grant has four points (1g, 3a) in eight games and Murphy has three points (1g, 2a) in six games. Svedberg, who returned from an injury on Jan. 14, is 4-1-0 with a 2.40 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.
Veteran scoring is paramount on any hockey team, but especially so for teams in the AHL. Having “vets” lead the way with younger players chipping in can build a deep roster. Spreading that scoring out is important as well, so a team isn’t reliant on a single line for production. To the Wild’s credit, the team has seven players with 20-plus points (O’Reilly, Sam Anas, Justin Kloos, Cannone, Rau, Ferraro and Grant). That depth and mixed scoring between veterans and youth help keep the Wild competitive night in and night out.
There’s a lot of hockey to be played between now and Game 76. The Wild will go through peaks and valleys. But the one stabilizing force will be the veterans. Their experience, leadership and scoring will be key for the team to maintain the success and clinch Iowa’s first playoff berth in team history.