WILD GETTING TASTE OF PLAYOFF HOCKEY WITH 20-PLUS GAMES LEFT IN THE SEASONFeb 23, 2019
By Tom Witosky
Iowa Wild fans got a good glimpse this week of what AHL playoff hockey is all about.
“It is playoff hockey right now,” said veteran Wild captain Cal O’Reilly following the Wild’s 3-2 shootout loss to the San Jose Barracuda Friday night. “You can tell by the intensity in the games. We are stepping up and that’s good.”
In its three home games this past week, the Wild earned four out of a possible six points in its push to earn the franchise’s first playoff berth since arriving in Des Moines for the 2013-14 season. A 4-3 victory on Thursday over San Jose and combined with points from an overtime loss to Texas on Tuesday and the shootout loss Friday night allowed the Wild to keep pace in the Central Division playoff hunt and remain in second place, three points behind division-leading Grand Rapids.
“We’ve gotten eight games in a row with a point, no one has beaten us in regulation in games that are really tough against quality opponents,” Army said. “These are playoff type of games and I really like the way we are playing.”
It also served notice to the team and to the fans what the next 21 games will be like, Army said.
“It is a matter of will right now,” Army said after Wild veteran forward Matt Read gave the Wild a 4-3 lead Thursday night late in the third period and providing the margin for the club’s ninth win when tied after two periods. “It boils down to who is going to impose their will on the other team. That is what it comes down to now. There is a lot at stake.”
The Wild’s and the Barracuda’s playoff urgency was on display again Friday night. A quick San Jose goal just 29 seconds into the game by Dylan Gambrell set the stage for an intense back and forth match in front of 12,936 fans, the largest home crowd so far this season.
Wild forward Kyle Rau, just back from a five-game call-up with the Minnesota Wild, evened the match at 13:44 in the first period with his 16th goal of the season and his 11th power-play goal. The Wild would take the lead in the second period when Read was able to redirect a shot by defenseman Brennan Menell past Barracuda goalie Josef Korenar.
Gambrell would tie the game later in the period by slapping a rebound past Wild goalie Kaapo Kahkonen after the Wild failed to clear the puck from in front of the goal.
After Friday night’s game, Rau said the team had played well to that point.
“If you look at the goals they got, they were the kind of goals that just ended up in the net. They weren’t coming at us with 3-on-2 waves or making plays. They were just shots on net,” he said.
As the teams battled through the third period, Iowa maintained much of the zone time despite having to kill off two penalties. Late in the frame, the Wild appeared to get a huge break when San Jose’s Alexander True drew a four-minute double-minor for high-sticking Menell with just 14 seconds left in regulation.
Once in overtime, Iowa’s power play expanded to a 5-on-3 when San Jose had too many men on the ice – setting up a two-man advantage for two minutes and 5-on-4 for all but a minute of the overtime. But throughout the entire period, San Jose’s defense kept Iowa at bay.
O’Reilly said simply the Barracudas had the will to keep the puck out of the net and pushed the game into the shootout.
“They were desperate. They blocked everything,” O’Reilly said. “We had good looks but we didn’t get it to the net. We could have had a bit more movement and worked it around better, but give them credit for sacrificing themselves and making some hard blocks on one-timers.”
Army agreed, adding the Wild hasn’t been as effective with a 5-on-3 advantage as it should be.
“They did a good job killing and we were stagnant,” Army said. “We were stationary and they weren’t. They blocked everything, took the lanes away, fronted us very well. They were desperate and they killed extremely well.”
In the shootout, O’Reilly, Sam Anas and Read couldn’t get the puck past Korenar, but Gambrell beat Kahkonen for the 1-0 advantage and the win.
“We have to finish in the shootout,” Army said. “Maybe we will be spending time in practice working on it.”
The Wild now heads to the West Coast and will open the road trip with its third straight game against San Jose, but this time on the road– much like the playoffs.
“It is like a mini-playoff series,” Army said. “Last night, it was more open, but tonight it was tighter, which is to be expected because of adjustments and a little chippier. That is going to happen when you play teams back to back to back. You will get that kind of engagement.”
The Wild will be on the road for 10 of next 12 games – much of it in the West, where the team will play San Jose, Bakersfield – right now the hottest team in the AHL – and Ontario next week, before heading to Grand Rapids and Chicago the following weekend.
“We had been playing much better on the road when we shut out Milwaukee. It will be a tough trip but we will take the first game first and get ready for it on Tuesday night,” Army said.
As a result, Iowa fans will get a 20-game glimpse of the kind of intense hockey is played in the AHL.
“Everything is ratcheting up and every point matters,” Army said. “It is very tight in both divisions. They have good hockey players and good character. They are trying to impose their will on us and we were trying to impose our will on them. It is tough and competitive out there.”
As for the players, Read summed it up best.
“It is a tough man’s sport right now. If you don’t like that, you aren’t in the right sport,” Read said.
Army said defensemen Louie Belpedio will not go initially on the road trip because of a lower-body injury.
“We hope he will get better and be ready for next weekend, but we will have to see,” Army said. “If he’s recovered, we will bring him out.”
Army also said that forward Mike Liambas should also be ready for the weekend three-in-three against Bakersfield and Ontario.
“We’re not sure about Tuesday, but we think he’ll be ready,” Army said.