Feb 17, 2020

By Tom Witosky

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Head Coach Tim Army had a bad feeling last Tuesday night that the San Antonio Rampage would give the Iowa Wild club a lot of trouble.

After all, the Wild had just finished a tough and heated two-game clash with the Stockton Heat, which had resulted in two wins but had been draining just two days before the Rampage contest. The first period alone lasted 55 minutes as a result of several fights and other calls. The game also ended with high emotion as the teams were confrontational after the final horn until cooler heads prevailed.

“I kept it to myself, but it felt like this was one of the games when we might not have enough,” he said. “It was an ugly win, but we got it done.”

The Wild’s 2-1 victory over the Rampage at the time extended the Wild’s record winning streak to seven games and set up the club for an extraordinary 8-1 final record during its longest homestand of the season and in team history. The Wild closed out the stretch with a split against the surging San Diego Gulls, another team striving to make the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Gerry Mayhew, who leads the AHL in goals, made the difference against San Antonio when he scored an “NHL goal” off a great centering pass from the boards by Nico Sturm midway through the third period of a 1-1 tie. Mayhew drove to the net at full speed and tipped the puck into the cage over goalie Ville Husso’s shoulder.

Game referees initially called no goal, thinking Mayhew interfered with Husso as he rushed past the net. Replay showed Mayhew never entered the crease as he lifted his left skate off the ice when deflecting the puck into the net.

The goal caught Iowa General Manager Tom Kurvers’ attention and praise.

“That was an NHL goal on an NHL pass. It was so good, the referees couldn’t believe he did it and that’s why the ruled the way they did at first,” Kurvers said.

As the winning streak moved toward the final weekend of the homestand, it also illuminated just how difficult it can be for a team to keep its edge. Army acknowledged that “keeping the edge” has been helped by the club posting a 19-4-1-1 record of its last 25 games, but also said it isn’t as easy as it seems.

Sloppy play – defined as passes missing their targets, stickhandling leading to turnovers, and complacent execution in the various zones – is what can dull that edge every team needs to play winning hockey.

“It is like a golf game,” Army said recently. “There is always something to correct or to work on. We’ve played well without a doubt, but things slip for a lot of reasons and those details can hurt you.”

On Thursday, Army even stopped practice to reiterate that mentality with the team after becoming unhappy with their focus.

“The message was this,” Army said. “We've established a standard here – an expectation – of what we do daily. We prepare for games and to be a winning hockey team. It's a commitment every single day. It's why so many teams can’t do it. It's hard to be a committed team to winning, you got to do things right all the time.”

For players, the key to keeping the edge is not looking too far ahead or behind, according to veteran forward Kyle Rau.

“You look at three-game segments or five-game segments. What we do during those segments keeps us focused on what is in front of us,” he said. “We know you can’t win every game and that helps to keep things perspective.”

The veteran forward also said the depth of the team is something that keeps everyone competing for ice time. Players like Colton Beck, Kyle Bauman, and Mitch McLain have filled in at crucial moments and continue to provide strong competition in practice.

That depth is about to be expanded with the return of center Gabriel Dumont, forward Cody McLeod and defenseman Hunter Warner, who have been injured during the club’s surge. Dumont and Warner have been cleared to play and McLeod could be ready by early next month.

“I’ve seen in practice how it helps to have guys pushing each other,” Rau said. “You aren’t really looking over your shoulder, but you just know that any couple of bad games you could be out of the lineup. So that’s healthy.”

Goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, who now leads the AHL with 21 wins, has played an integral part in the Wild’s surge. In his 18 games since Dec. 18, Kahkonen owns a 14-3-1 record with a 2.00 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Combined with Mat Robson’s 5-1-1 record with a 2.57 GAA and a .935 save percentage, the duo has provided consistency and at times outstanding play for the club.

“They have both played very well and have kept us in every game,” Army said.

Kahkonen, who experienced a difficult second half of the campaign last year, said the difference this season is his experience and the fact he is playing more games.

“It was a bit of a learning experience as well and a little different culture in the different amount of games in a really short period of time, especially this time of the year; January, February, and March,” Kahkonen said.

He added the winning streak and the fact he is playing in most of the games has kept him sharp.

“I always feel I played better when I when I play a lot,” he said. “You can trust your game more and then you know the coaches’ trust you and you know they’ll put you out there again even if you have a bad game.”

On Friday, Bill Guerin, who took over as Minnesota’s general manager last summer, visited Des Moines for the first time to see the Wild defeat San Diego 3-0 on a hat trick by Mayhew Friday night.

Guerin said he was impressed with just about everything he saw on his visit, including how the Wild is competing this season.

“They're an impressive group of guys,” Guerin said when asked for an assessment of the overall team. “They play as a team, they communicate, and they’ve really bought in. To have success, you have to play as a team.”

That precisely is what kept the Wild playing at its best in critical moments.

“There's an expectation here now that we come to work every day and hold each other to that high standard that we are now achieving,” Army said. “It’s hard, but if you want to maintain this level of play, you have to keep working at it every day.”

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