WILD FACES BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF SEASON AFTER TOUGH LOSSES TO TUCSONApr 4, 2019
By Tom Witosky
No one said it would be easy.
The Iowa Wild has four games left in the regular season and, as a result of losing six straight games in regulation prior to last night’s 4-3 overtime loss to Tucson, finds itself in the midst of its biggest challenge this year.
Gerry Mayhew, who notched his first AHL hat trick Wednesday night, put the Wild’s current woes succinctly.
“We need to play 60 to 65 minutes of hockey,” said Mayhew, whose three tallies allowed him to tie the franchise record for goals in a season at 26. “The last 10 games, we haven’t been doing that and so that’s why we haven’t been winning games. We need to figure out how to play 60 to 65 minutes and go from there.”
Mayhew and other members of the Wild team know that may be a lot easier said right now than done. Still in third place, four division rivals – Manitoba, Milwaukee, Texas and Rockford – are coming on strong to knock the Wild out of the playoff picture. Two points separate Iowa from the Moose and the Admirals; the latter will be on home ice to face off with the Wild Saturday.
Ironically, the Wild also remain within striking distance of second place, as the Grand Rapids Griffins have dropped four straight and must play a back-to-back in San Jose this weekend.
Left on the schedule for Iowa are games at Milwaukee and Grand Rapids and home contests against division-leading Chicago and rival Rockford.
“We don’t have a lot of time to get out of this,” said Tim Army, the Wild’s head coach, following Wednesday’s game. “This isn’t December when you have time to work your way out of a slide.”
Bedeviled with injuries and call-ups to Minnesota, Iowa has struggled to finish several games when the opportunity to win was there. In Stockton, the Wild tied games late in the third period only to give up winning goals. Similar outcomes in games since then have the coaching staff and team looking for ways to discover what made them almost unbeatable in the third period earlier in the season.
“For the first 65 games, falling behind never really fazed us,” Army said. “We didn’t let it bother us. We were winning and in those games we fell behind by two goals, it didn’t impact us because as the game progressed, we were always the better team in the third period for the most part.”
In some ways, Army said, the struggle here at the end is something every team must go through if they are to build a culture of winning.
“You have to be a good hockey player to play at this level,” Army said. “But it is also true, you have to learn how to win and the only way to figure it out is to do that.”
The veteran coach acknowledged he saw signs in the Wild’s 5-4 loss to Tucson that the team may be coming out of its slump. It began right after the Wild gave up four second period goals on Tuesday night and appeared to be a beaten team.
Veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowski started a three-goal rally when Mason Shaw made a crisp pass to him from the half-boards to the blueline. Bartkowski’s shot sailed just under the crossbar and the Wild had gotten itself back into the game.
“We played like crap for most of the game and at that point, it was just ‘go and play and work hard.’ We were getting outworked all over the ice,” he said afterward.
Despite falling short of tying the game, Army said the rally was an indication the team was beginning to get its confidence back. On Wednesday, the Wild took a 3-1 lead against the Roadrunners on the strength of Mayhew’s goals and a steady stream of strong forechecking.
But another mistake – a too many men on the ice penalty -- at the end of a successful penalty kill in the third opened the door for Tucson.
“The too many men on the ice penalty was the key,” Army said. “You can’t have that. The changes had to be sharper. We had a 3-1 lead, had killed off the first penalty but then we put them right back on the power play.”
Not to say that Iowa didn’t have chances to put the game away either. Near misses by Kyle Rau in regulation and overtime. plus two key saves by Tucson goalie Hunter Miska, kept the Wild from getting a full two points.
“I do think we built off the third period from the other night and played a really good 40 minutes,” Army said. “We don’t just don’t have the time to get us out of this by taking our time. It needs to be a quick curve.”
Army said a six-day road trip may be very helpful in getting the club to focus on its final four games.
“Sometimes you play better on the road,” Army said. “They will be tough environments, but we get a couple days between games to sort things out. Sometimes you struggle at home and the best thing to do is get on the road.”