Feb 20, 2020

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

Iowa Wild fans got a good glimpse last night of the hockey that awaits the team in late April as its 3-2 win against the Milwaukee Admirals got them another two points closer to qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Center Nico Sturm, who scored the Wild’s winning goal with 1:10 left in the game, put it succinctly.

“We knew what it was going to be like. The game was tight. And, it came down to the wire and that's pretty much what it's going to be like in playoffs,” Sturm said, also noting the contest had a playoff-level of physicality.

With Milwaukee in first place in the Central Division, the second-place Wild closed the gap to just five points with 22 games remaining in the regular season. The teams will play each other one more time in the regular season – March 20 in Des Moines.

Sturm said that fact, plus the 7-1 beating the Admirals gave the Wild in their previous meeting before last night, was still fresh in the Wild players’ memories.

“We had it circled on the calendar,” Sturm said. “We've been talking for a while about tracking them down and were looking forward to it. Obviously, they’re the best team in the league standings.”

Iowa spotted Milwaukee a two-goal lead early in the second period, but goals by Kyle Rau and Dmitry Sokolov within the first 10 minutes of the middle frame set up a close checking, intense third period.

Iowa took the lead for the first time in the game when Sturm whacked a rebound from a Matt Bartkowski slap shot that rebounded off the Admirals’ backboard out of midair and into the net. The goal reminded Wild players of Louie Belpedio’s game-winning goal in Game 5 of the Wild’s playoff series win over the Admirals last spring.

“After the game, someone mentioned that the backboards in Milwaukee are nice to us,” Sturm said.

The rookie center also said Head Coach Tim Army had mentioned between periods that the outcome of close playoff games is often determined in the last minutes of the game.

“Coach Army mentioned that in playoff hockey, you might not get a chance for 58 minutes and then you might get one in the last minute of the game,” Sturm said. “That’s how it worked tonight.”

Shaw on playing in Milwaukee

Mason Shaw got an assist Wednesday night on Rau’s goal that sparked the Iowa Wild comeback from an early 2-0 deficit. It came in his first game in Milwaukee since his knee injury last year in a playoff game against the Admirals.

“It feels really good getting a win and really good not walking out of here with crutches. It's been a good night.” Shaw said.

PIM kept to a minimum 

The Wild, the second-most penalized team in the AHL, had only two penalties and its penalty kill units kept the Milwaukee man advantage, which leads the league in power-play goal percentage, from scoring. Similarly, the Admirals blanked the Wild’s power play four times.

Guerin in Des Moines

Minnesota Wild General Manager Bill Guerin made his first visit to Des Moines last Friday and liked what he saw – a lot.

Guerin’s visit, which included Minnesota Wild President Mike Majka, and Iowa General Manager Tom Kurvers, gave him a chance to personally assess Iowa’s facilities and team operation at home for the first time.

“It's impressive,” Guerin said of Wells Fargo Arena, the club’s locker room and the coaches’ offices. “I've been all over the American Hockey League, and this is as good as it gets. From the facilities to the players’ area, to the game operations, it's first-class.”

Gerry Mayhew scored a hat trick in a tight 3-0 win over Stockton that night, and Guerin wasn’t just impressed with the impressive performances of Mayhew and goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, who got his fifth shutout of the season, but also how Army and staff have put together a team capable of going deep in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“They've all bought into what Tim is telling them,” said Guerin, who was general manager at Wilkes-Barre Scranton when Army was an assistant there. “They play together and they communicate. To have success, you have to play as a team and that’s how they're doing it.”

With Iowa now one of the best teams in the AHL along with division-rival Milwaukee, Guerin said he understands not only how well Iowa has played this season, but how it’s likely a contender in the playoffs. The NHL tradeline is Monday, so Guerin could be taking steps that might impact Iowa’s roster.

“We're going to have our own demands in Minnesota, but we fully intend to support the Iowa Wild all the way through,” he said. “Whether that means no player transactions or whatever. If we can make the team better, we'll do it.”

Guerin said he was struck by how tight-knit the team is.

“It is a group of guys that love playing together, for their coach and in Iowa. We just want to support them as much as possible.”

Guerin on the quality and growth of the AHL 

The former Pittsburgh Penguin executive has watched the league’s growth and said its ability to develop players, game officials, and support staffers for the NHL has been remarkable.

“This is the second-best hockey league in the world,” Guerin said. “It's the best development league in the world for a major sport and the relationships between the NHL teams and the American League teams have never been stronger.”

Guerin added the future of the league continues to strengthen as NHL teams focus on using the AHL for player development because those players get good training and often play longer.

“This is is a part of our foundation of what we do in Minnesota, and it's extremely important,” he said. “We know we need this.”

Johnny Gets A Hug 

Wild center Luke Johnson got a hug from Army in the middle of practice Monday as the team prepared for its meeting against first-place Milwaukee and its two-game road trip against the Texas Stars.

But it wasn’t because Johnson has scored three goals and three assists in the Iowa Wild’s last six games.

“He executed a perfect soft-lock,” Army said afterward of a defensive move in which a player poke checks the puck away from an attacking player toward the boards. At times, the move can result in the defender getting a breakaway.

“It’s really difficult to do and that’s why we have the drill. Luke did it exactly right and deserved the hug,” Army said.

Johnson said that was the first time that he’d ever received a hug from a coach in practice.

“Yeah, that was the first,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I guess I did some good out there and yeah, that was pretty funny.”

Johnson, who has 11 goals and 12 assists in 33 games, acknowledged he has struggled some since returning to the ice following an injury in practice on the day before the season started.  But, he added, it’s been about learning the system coached by Army and his staff.

“Looking back through my career, I’ve always been streaky, but it's been up and down coming back from injury and going into a new organization,” he said, adding that learning Army’s system takes time. “This is the first year where it's a lot of system to learn. In Rockford, we were just kind of run and gun. We didn't really have too many systems. It's been different.”

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