WEDNESDAY'S VICTORY AGAINST GRAND RAPIDS COULD BE A SEASON-DEFINING MOMENTMar 17, 2018
By Tom Witosky
If Iowa Wild needs its defining moment this season, Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 4-2 victory against defending Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids meets all of the criteria.
Down 2-0 just 2:36 into the game at Van Andel Arena, the Wild overcame fatigue, injuries, penalties and the recall of two top players to Minnesota to put an important two points on the clubs’ record in a six-team fight for four playoff spots in the AHL’s Central Division. But, moreover, the Wild’s win likely established the club not only as a credible threat to make the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but potentially go deep into the early summer months fighting for the league title.
Much of the critical part of the season still must be played, with the Wild having 15 games left – nine at home and six on the road. Two of the final road games will be played this weekend in Grand Rapids on Saturday and Chicago on Sunday. The Wild complete a three-in-three weekend with a home game Monday night against Rockford.
“We have got to find a way to keep getting points,” Head Coach Derek Lalonde said, pointing out the team has collected points in eight out of its last 10 games, including the last four. “We keep finding ways to get points. Each game is different, but we’ve been coming back on a lot of teams – all are important points.”
But Wednesday’s two points will likely be remembered as a special moment for the team, the coaching staff and the franchise.
“It was a very rewarding win just with all of the adversity we faced,” Lalonde said. “We talk about handling adversity and dealing with any situation, but this one was really unique.”
What kind of adversity?
- The Wild played in Rockford on Tuesday night, losing 3-2 in overtime. The team then had to travel to Grand Rapids, where they also lost an hour of sleep because of the time change.
- Wednesday morning, Minnesota notified Lalonde they needed to get forward Zach Mitchell and defenseman Ryan Murphy to St. Paul to fill holes on the NHL Wild roster. With defenseman Hunter Warner and forward Kurtis Gabriel already out of the line-up because of injury, Iowa’s bench already was at a minimum when the game began.
- After spotting the Griffins a 2-0 lead, veteran winger Ryan White received a game misconduct on a boarding penalty. Then, the Wild lose both forward Landon Ferraro to an upper-body injury and Matt Caito to a lower-body injury.
Down to 10 forwards and five defensemen, Lalonde said the coaching staff shuffled players on and off the ice simply based on what players had enough gas for the next shift.
“We basically mixed and matched based on energy levels,” Lalonde said. “If someone got stuck on the ice for a while with an extended shift or someone came off still fresh, we would choose that guy to go back in. They all handled it really well. Anyone who was called upon in any of the situations handled it very well.”
Lalonde said a major asset was that the players still able to play were the ones that have shown versatility all season.
“Guys like (Colton) Beck, (Gerry) Mayhew, (Justin) Kloos have been playing in different spots all season,” Lalonde said. “Asking them to kill penalties, then asking them to fill in on the power play. It is a credit to them to have adjusted to so well. At this time of the year, all points are crucial and they all recognize that.”
Lalonde also said the contributions by two rookies – Dante Salituro and Gerry Fitzgerald – were also crucial. Salituro scored his first two AHL goals of the season, while Fitzgerald contributed important minutes at center and forward.
“You can see the confidence growing in Salituro,” the head coach said. “The situation we are in now, he is getting time on the ice with Kyle Rau, Cal O'Reilly, Pat Cannone, so his confidence is growing with that opportunity.”
Of Fitzgerald, who just joined the club this week, Lalonde said the former Bemidji State forward has been impressive.
“He can skate, he has great skill and is smart,” Lalonde said. “There are certain things you need to see at this stage from a young player and he has already checked off a number of the boxes.”
As for the rest of the season, Lalonde said the addition of several more players, including defenseman Louis Belpedio, a third-round draft choice by Minnesota in 2014, and a couple of veterans to fill in the current holes should help the club get through the next week.
“We’ve got six games in nine days coming up, so every point is going to be tough and important,” Lalonde said.
But, he also said the memory of Wednesday’s game is likely to stick with the team.
“The way they rallied and fought through the fatigue, we were so short and up against it,” Lalonde said. “They knew they had to rally and they did.”