May 22, 2019

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

When Iowa Wild fans talk about the recently completed 2018-19 season, a discussion about the most important win of the season likely will begin.  

  • Was it the “Cal-Hammer” moment on April 12, when goalie Andrew Hammond sprawled in the crease and deflected what appeared to be a sure goal by the Chicago Wolves that moments later turned into an electric breakaway goal by Cal O’Reilly, the Wild’s team captain, to get a must-win overtime victory in front of more than 10,000 screaming fans?
  • Was it the eight goals scored by the Wild on Dec. 21 in one of highest scoring games in franchise history when rookie defenseman Louie Belpedio’s slap shot from above the circles beat Stockton Heat goalie Jon Gillies for an 8-7 overtime win? 
  • Was it the combination of forward J.T. Brown scoring a tying goal with nine seconds remaining against the San Antonio Rampage on Feb. 9, only to be followed by Carson Soucy’s game-winning goal just 39 seconds into the overtime period?

“When you qualify for the playoffs by two points, it’s a little difficult to say which was the most important,” Wild Head Coach Tim Army said recently. “In fact, it turned out each one was important for us to make it.”

But Army also said those wins, along with the other 39 regular season and playoff victories, provide substantial evidence that “this is not the Iowa Wild of the past.”

“We had a heck of a year because we always pushed the envelope,” Army said when asked whether the team played to its capability. “There's no ceiling on capabilities. We had a game plan coming in on how we were going to play and how we were going to change things. We were going to completely change the culture and the dynamic. And we instituted it from day one.”

Along with qualifying for the AHL playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Wild set a variety of team records, ranging from regular season attendance (243,558 for an average of 6,409) to home victories (23).

O’Reilly, who is now an unrestricted free agent after two seasons with the Wild, still felt the sting of the 4-2 playoff series loss to Chicago, but agreed this year’s team set a standard that others will want to match or exceed.

“It gives the guys who are back here next year a standard,” he said. “It's to get into playoffs and go as far as you can after that. That’s why you play.”

O’Reilly played a significant role in the team’s turnaround over the past two seasons as the team leader and leading point producer – 131 points in 142 regular season games over the course of both seasons. His 131 points are just one shy of Zack Mitchell’s 132 points for the most in franchise history.

“He has been kind of like a dad on the team, especially to the younger guys,” said Brennan Menell, who finished his second full season with Iowa this year as a top-four defenseman. “He leads. He is something special because is one of the most unselfish guys on the team. And, you know, he's always staying positive.”

Assistant captain Mike Liambas said that leadership led to cohesion among the players this season, which became a key ingredient to the club’s success. Liambas was also credited by his peers with helping the team to coalesce into a strong roster.

“We had a really unbelievable group of guys that fit really well together. We all made some really good friends that we’ll probably have for a lifetime,” Liambas said.

Liambas also pointed out that losing in the playoffs provided a clear example to all the players just how difficult it is to win and what it takes to get to a championship round.

“Any failure or negative thing that happens is almost a positive because there are lessons hidden in there,” he said. “Failures are only failures if you kind of walk away from it, thinking about it as a failure, and not really taking something out of it.”

He added that next year’s squad, which could include more than half of this year’s roster, will have experience in playing in a tight regular season when every win had a significant impact on the team’s accomplishments, as well as driving into the second round of the playoffs.

“We learned a lot and we developed as an organization and as a team and as individuals,” Liambas said, pointing out how the team won a tight 3-2 series with Milwaukee and battled hard against Chicago. “All these things are all positives for the individuals and as a team because there's no way to learn those things other than going through it.”

Like O’Reilly, goaltender Andrew Hammond, an anchor in net for the Wild during the playoffs, and veteran leaders Matt Read, Matt Bartkowski, Landon Ferraro and Nate Prosser are all set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Players under contract for next season include Liambas, Will Bitten, Sam Anas, Kyle Rau, Gerry Mayhew, Colton Beck, Mason Shaw and Dmitry Sokolov at forward. Defensemen under contract include Menell, who set an individual club record for most assists in a season by a defenseman, and Gustav Bouramman. Goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, who was an All-Star selection this year, will also be entering the second and final year of his entry-level contract.

Iowa players who are entering into restricted free agency include defensemen Hunter Warner, Carson Soucy, Louie Belpedio and Michael Kapla. As restricted free agents, players have the right to accept offers from any team, but Minnesota has the right to match any offer. 

Rookies signed by Minnesota and likely to compete for a spot on the Iowa club include forwards Conner Dewar, Brandon Duhaime, Alexander Khovanov, Ivan Lodnia, and goalies Mat Robson and Dereck Baribeau.

Last week, Army said it would take him a few weeks and a trip to his summer home in Maine to decompress from the recently ended season. But he also conceded he can’t help thinking about next year.

“We were able to break the door down and make the playoffs,” Army said. “We'll grow from that.”

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