Mar 16, 2019

By Tom Witosky

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Gerry Mayhew calls it “mucking it up.”

“We are a speed team, but we also like to ‘muck it up’ and that is beginning to show,” said the second-year forward, who ranks second in goals this season with 22, prior to Friday night’s 6-3 win against the San Antonio Rampage. “We’ve even had a couple of fights lately with small guys like me and Brennan Menell. I’m not a fighter but they seem to get really frustrated at times when we are playing well.”

That’s just what happened again Friday as the Iowa Wild got into the face of the much bigger Rampage with a swarming forecheck and speedy attacks that drew 10 penalties from San Antonio and set-up Iowa for a franchise record five power-play goals by Mayhew, Sam Anas and Kyle Rau.

Overall, the members of Iowa’s top power-play unit, which also includes Menell and center Cal O’Reilly, collected a total of 15 points Friday. Menell himself had four assists, his third game with four or more helpers and gave him 37 points on the year, tying the Wild record for points by a defenseman in a single season.

“I have been on some good power-play units but that was as much fun as it could be. It seemed like every pass was on the tape and every bounce came our way, Most importantly, we put the puck in the net,” said Anas, who had two power-play goals and two assists on the man advantage.

With the victory, Iowa took sole possession of second place in the Central Division, two points ahead of the Grand Rapids Griffins and just one point behind first-place Chicago. The Griffins have two games in hand on Iowa and Chicago one, but that didn’t stop Head Coach Tim Army from talking about the upstart Wild’s goals for the rest of the season.

“We need to clinch the playoff spot, then win the division and then, hopefully, the conference so we have home ice throughout the playoffs. That is what is at stake,” Army said. “We’ve talked about it and now we need to put the foot on the gas and keep plugging.”

For a team that has yet to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs in five seasons, such talk might be considered a bit premature. But O’Reilly, who has collected 13 points (3g, 10a) in the club’s last six games, said his major concern this week is to make sure the team doesn’t let up.

“We can’t get complacent because we are a few points ahead,” he said. “You can lose a few games and suddenly that lead is gone. We just have to stick to it and make sure we come out better each night.”

If Friday night was any example, complacency won’t be a problem.

Despite giving up an early goal to the Rampage on a redirect by Joey LeLeggia, the Wild went about "mucking it up" with forechecking, close checking in the neutral and defensive zones and steady goaltending by Andrew Hammond, who would tie a club record with his fifth consecutive win.

Prior to its first goal, the Wild pressured the Rampage defenseman constantly as they attempted to move the puck out of the zone. Army said that kind of pressure forces opponents to cope with Iowa’s speed and can negate much of the opponent’s size advantage.

“It’s called grind it out, mucking it up, playing in the trenches,” Army said. “That is the other side to our five-on-five game. We play fast and draw a lot of penalties that way because they end up hooking, holding, interfering or slashing. We attack open space and put pressure on them by doing that.”

Mayhew, who had not scored a goal in three games, got the Wild’s first marker after the Rampage’s Niko Mikkola was called for slashing after a Wild rush on goalie Ville Husso.

The play started with Menell knocking down a San Antonio clear on his backhand, then he shuttled the puck to Anas on the right point. Anas skated down low then kicked the puck into the high slot for Mayhew, who blasted a one-timer past the goaltender.

“Sammy and I actually practiced that pass yesterday,” Mayhew said of his 21st goal.

In the second period, the continual pressure drew three Rampage penalties in a matter of just more than five minutes. Iowa responded with two goals by Anas and Kyle Rau’s league-leading 16th power-play goal of the season and, overall, his 23rd of the year to take a 4-2 lead.

“They are feeling right now,” Army said. “That is what happens when skill guys get going. You see them start to thread passes through skates, they are patient and hold on to pucks, they find seams. They get one and they want more.”

Army also said each power play is different, as the unit tries a variety of attacks on each one.

“They are feeling it, they have a lot of poise and they play well together,“ Army said. “And they have all sorts of things they are using to move the PK. They are finding the open man.”

As a result, Army said the power play is likely to act as an additional deterrent to opponents getting out of line with the Wild.

 “It’s almost like having 'Bus' on the ice,” Army said referring to the Wild’s hard-checking Mike Liambas. “When the power play works that well, the opponents don’t want to see it on the ice.”

The Wild now gets ready to depart on its final extended road trip of the season with two games against the Tucson Roadrunners and two more versus the Stockton Heat. The Wild returns to home ice for three games beginning with Grand Rapids on March 26 and a back-to-back series against Texas on March 29-30.

Mayhew said the club is looking forward to its final 13 games.

“It’s going to be an all-out battle all the way through,” he said.

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