WILD DOMINATE IN MUST-WIN AS NHL REINFORCEMENTS SPARK LINEUPApr 11, 2019
By Jacob Born
Stepping on to the ice at Van Andel Arena, the Iowa Wild faced a must-win.
Having lost eight consecutive games, the team was outside the playoff picture for the first time since late October. They faced a Grand Rapids team who was on their own losing skid, dropping their last six contests. Leading up to puck drop, the Wild received little help from other teams in the division to lessen Iowa’s magic number over the past two weeks.
A win and Iowa’s playoff hopes were very much alive; a loss and it would have been a bleak final two games at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Wild didn’t just get a win Wednesday night. They won convincingly. Iowa pummeled Grand Rapids by a score of 7-3, aided by NHL reinforcements Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin.
Kunin recorded his second career hat trick Wednesday night, becoming the first player in a Wild sweater to score three goals multiple times. Donato, making his Iowa debut, logged his first career five-point night, netting two goals, one the eventual game-winner, and assisting on three others. Greenway, in just his third game with Iowa, notched a multi-assist effort, giving him six points (3g, 3a) in his three AHL contests.
Head Coach Tim Army summed up their efforts best.
“They were game breakers,” Army said. “They’re very talented hockey players. They gave us a good shot in the arm and we needed it.”
It’s fitting Iowa received Greenway, Donato and Kunin in its lineup after being on the outside looking into the playoff picture for the first time since Oct. 27. That day, Iowa woke up in fifth place with a game against the Colorado Eagles later that evening.
That night, the Wild cruised to a 6-1 win, aided by the Wild’s first hat trick of the season. Scored by none other than Greenway.
All season, Iowa has played a fast-paced brand of hockey, with tenacious forechecking, skilled passing and determined puck possession. All three of those facets were on display against the Griffins, helping reverse Iowa’s recent fortunes. In its last 10 games, Iowa averaged just 2.3 goals per game after averaging 3.29 goals per game before that stretch. The Wild potted seven Wednesday, just the third time this season the team has scored seven or more goals in a game.
The trio of Donato, Greenway and Kunin certainly added the offensive spark both the Minnesota and Iowa brass was hoping to bring to the club. Like their time in St. Paul, the three players played together, serving as Iowa’s first line against the Griffins.
“They’re good together,” Army said. “They acclimated so quickly, it was like they were with us all year long.”
Their impact was felt immediately, as all three factored in on Iowa’s first goal of the game, tying the contest at 1-1 at 11:04 in the first period. Greenway cycled a puck to Donato down in the right corner, who then feathered a pass to Kunin in the slot, serving up an easy one-timer for Kunin’s 10th of the season.
Kunin kicked off a three-goal second period with a laser past goaltender Patrik Rybar’s blocker at 3:41, with Donato picking up the secondary assist. A goal by defenseman Louie Belpedio, giving Donato his third assist of the game, pushed Iowa’s lead to 3-1 and then Donato capped off the period with an unbelievable breakaway attempt.
Donato broke loose from the Griffins defense thanks to a pass from Greenway and unleashed a series of dekes, causing Rybar to fall to the ice before he roofed the puck off his backhand. The breakaway tally ended up serving as the game-winner and highlighted just the kind of skill the young forward has in his arsenal.
Kunin sealed his hat trick with a deflection early in the third period, knocking down a shot from defenseman Brennan Menell on the point, marking his first four-point game of the season. If a goal from Cal O’Reilly at 16:18 didn’t clinch the game, Donato’s second goal and fifth point at 19:56 surely did.
“The talent that they have, capitalizing on their opportunities, it paved the way for a big road win,” Army said. “They were terrific; intelligent players, picking things up quickly. Just outstanding.”
Along with the Wild’s offensive dry spell preceding the contest in Grand Rapids came an uncharacteristically tough stretch of hockey for the Wild defense. Previously allowing just 2.92 goals per game, that number ballooned to 4.20 goals per game in the last 10 games.
Wednesday night though, goaltender Andrew Hammond weathered 41 shots, including 23 in the final period of play, to earn his first win since March 15.
If there was any indication Wednesday was going to be different than recent games, it was how Iowa responded to adversity. Just 38 seconds into the game, Grand Rapids took a 1-0 lead. Instead of a “here we go again” mentality, the Wild pushed back, eventually evening the game with Kunin’s goal.
In the third period, Grand Rapids cut Iowa’s lead to 4-2. Kunin netted his hat trick 40 seconds later. At 13:26, the Griffins once again moved within two on a goal from Wade Megan. Less than three minutes later, the captain O’Reilly sniped a wrist shot into the top right corner, essentially icing the game for the Wild.
Now Iowa returns to Wells Fargo Arena in a much more favorable and manageable position. With just two games to go, Iowa sits in sole possession of fourth place in the Central Division with a magic number of five. The team still does need a little help, as Manitoba has a game in hand and the tiebreaker on the Wild.
“All you can do is take care of what you can take care of,” Army said. “The first step was tonight, winning the game here in Grand Rapids. The next focus is getting ready for Chicago on Friday.”
Wednesday’s game was a must-win. Friday and Saturday are essentially the same. After the performance Wednesday night though, the team showed there’s still plenty of fight left in them.
“It’s ‘we, not I,’” Army said. “Everybody contributes, we’ve been like that all year long. We just got to go back home and play the same game we played against Grand Rapids. We got to put the wins on the board and then we’ll see where it takes us.”