WILD FIGHTING INJURIES, CALL-UPS WHILE TRYING TO GET BACK IN THE WIN COLUMNDec 9, 2019
By Tom Witosky
When a team hits an icy patch for a while in the American Hockey League, it usually follows a certain recipe: injuries and call-ups combined with a long, tiring road trip puts the team sliding down the highway going sideways.
When the Iowa Wild arrived in Des Moines very early Saturday morning, the team had just traveled a couple thousand miles by airplane and bus over 14 days, dealt with the call-ups of three of its leading players – goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, defenseman Brennan Menell and rookie center Nico Sturm – and were dealing with a list of injured players that at one point had reached 10 players.
The result of the road trip was a disappointing four losses out of five games followed by a 4-1 home defeat to the Tucson Roadrunners, who is in solid command of first place in the Pacific Division.
“When I was walking home after we got back from Milwaukee, it really felt like we had been gone a month,” Head Coach Tim Army said reflecting on the trip after the Wild’s loss Saturday night. “It’s not an excuse, but it was a long trip.”
Don’t think that Army or any Iowa Wild player is using the challenges of the last couple of weeks to rationalize losing five out of the club’s last six games though. While the team enters Tuesday’s rematch with Tucson still in second place in Central Division, it’s not as strong as it was prior to the road trip.
Still, players and coaches have every confidence the team will get back on dry pavement and soon.
“Every team goes through this at some point and it doesn't matter about injuries, it doesn't matter about call-ups,” Mike Liambas, one of the team’s veteran leaders, said. “We got guys who can step in and fill those boots. Just right now, we're not all on the same page. “
At the same time, Liambas reflected on some of the frustration that the team has gone through. “When was the last game we won?” he said.
When told it was just six days earlier when the Wild defeated San Antonio, 3-2, Liambas shook his head with a bit of disbelief.
In losing five of the last six, the team continued its trend of falling behind early. Sam Anas’ goal against Texas in the club’s second game in Cedar Park was the only time during this stretch the Wild had a lead in the first period.
Army said that trend hasn’t concerned him too much so far, because the team has played well and been effective in staging comebacks.
“To me, it is more concerning that we're not dialed into those areas in the first five minutes, which we should be as opposed to kind of going back and forth and playing well,” Army said.
Gerry Mayhew, the team’s leading goal scorer, said he and the rest of the team are also becoming more concerned about giving up goals early then having to fight to get back from one or two-goal deficits.
“We have to come ready to play,” Mayhew said. “I don't know how many games we come out and we're just not ready to play. We give up a one-goal or two-goal lead and then we're always coming back. We got to start scoring first in these games.”
Army acknowledged the team may be looking over its shoulder a bit as they have struggled to get back onto the winning track. While it feels a bit like last year’s losing streak in March, the fact that the schedule says December gives Army a lot of confidence the team will get back on track in plenty of time.
“I actually think it may have started tonight,” he said, pointing out that the team played well in the most of the second period and appeared to find itself in the third period of Saturday’s game. “I thought we played very well in the final 30 minutes.”
One big change was the addition of veteran defensemen Hunter Warner and Keaton Thompson to the lineup following injuries to both players. Minnesota also reassigned Sturm back to Iowa Monday afternoon, which should help the team starting in Tuesday’s game.
“It's a process that we have to follow to get out of it because you're not just going to come out of it,” Army said. “You got to work your way out of it. We got to just keep digging ourselves out. We will come out of it.”
Liambas agreed, adding the team seemed to be “holding the sticks a little too tight.”
“The message right now is that we have to come together as a family even tighter,” Liambas said. “These aren't the times where we start getting after each other. We got to tighten it up even more and support each other and work our way out of this -- everyone from top to bottom.”
One area, Liambas said, is for the team to stop taking penalties. In the last two games alone, Wild players took a total of 95 penalty minutes.
“We are taking too many,” he said. “Our main message is that we got to come together even tighter and work our way out of this because it happens to every team at some point every season.”