DES MOINES, Iowa - We have yet to see playoff hockey in Des Moines, but it doesn’t get much closer than what was seen here this afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena. With just 17 games remaining on the schedule and another four game road trip coming, a home win like this is another shot in the arm for a team that will battle for playoff position until the season ends.
Niklas Svedberg (16-11-6; 2.58 GAA/.916 SV%) made the start for the home side, stopping 11 of 11 of 14 shots before his temper got the better of him - and maybe some great acting on the part of Patrice Cormier as well. Steve Michalek (11-5-4; 2.98 GAA/.911 SV%) came in to finish the game, stopping all 13 of his shots to earn the win for the Wild.
Eric Comrie (17-11-3; 2.56 GAA/.918 SV%) got the nod from Pascal Vincent, though conceded four goal on 28 shots from the Wild en route to the loss.
It’s the early goings of the March gauntlet, but the Wild came out playing some crisp, high flying hockey in the opening minutes of what truly felt like some playoff hockey against the visiting Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets). In the 58th game of the regular season, the hunger displayed by this Iowa squad was something to behold.
There wasn’t a lot of back and forth as Derek Lalonde’s group dominated puck possession in the opening frame and the Wild did well to limit defensive zone time. However, there was the matter of coming up short on the power play - Iowa had three opportunities with the man-advantage and ended the first on a power play as well.
David Cunniff’s unit did well in getting the pucks down close to the crease for the netfront duo of Kyle Rau and Ryan White, but Manitoba’s Comrie had an answer for nearly everything. Iowa also missed out on a great three-on-one opportunity during a line change featuring the quick-handed tandem of Justin Kloos and Sam Anas, but the Wild were unable to light the lamp.
The only goal in the opening frame came as a bit of a fluke. A blocked shot found its way to Michael Sgarbossa in the right circle who was able to backhand a puck into Svedberg’s net who was just a second too slow in sliding to the near post (Beaudoin, Gotovets; 9:38). It was also just one of Manitoba’s four shots in the period.
Iowa remained undeterred in their quest for a gino, but the horn sounded with the Wild playing a solid opening period of hockey; despite the score.
As the season has progressed, calling Iowa a “second period” team comes more and more into focus, and fans definitely got their money’s worth in the middle frame at Wells Fargo Arena today.
Lots of penalties, five combined goals, and an ejection of Iowa’s starting netminder made for a really interesting period as the animosity began to build and eventually over flow.
Entering the second, Lalonde’s guys continued to keep up the pressure, and Landon Ferarro was at the center of a lot of it. Returning to the line-up after a lengthy absence, the Trail, B.C. native was primed for a goal and popped Comrie’s water bottle in the first few minutes, but it was decided that the puck went over, not under, the cross bar.
However, rookie d-man Sami Niku was whistled for interference and Iowa was able to capitalize, finally, on the power play. Captain Cal O’Reilly was the hero, and with the goal he broke the century mark for goals scored in the AHL (Palmquist, Anas; PP - 3:15). Anas got a secondary assist, and with his apple he earned the distinction for most points in a single season by an Iowa Wild player.
A little over two minutes later, it was the Mayhew-Kloos-Anas line coming up with a goal to take the lead as Anas made a beautiful pass from behind Comrie’s cage to Kloos near the crease. The former Gopher buried it for his 19th goal of the season, and the Wild had their first lead of the afternoon (Anas, Mayhew; 5:48).
Unfortunately, the lead was not meant to last.
Following a slew of penalties, there was plenty of four-on-four hockey being played. Less than a minute after the Kloos goal, a surging trio of Cameron Schilling, Mason Appleton, and Kirill Gotovets took off down the ice. Gotovets had just too much speed for Rau to handle and was able to receive a centering pass in the slot close to Svedberg’s crease. The former Cornell d-man was able to chip it in and bring things back to even (Appleton, Schilling; 6:29).
A little over two minutes later, however, Iowa was able to regain the lead after Ryan Murphy sent an innocent wrister fluttering from the blueline that was able to find it’s way past Comrie with Zack Mitchell providing a screen (Mayhew, Lööv; 8:45). Once again, however, the jubilation was met with irritation under two minutes later.
Zach Palmquist was sitting for a trip, and while Iowa claims the AHL’s best penalty killing unit at home, the grouping of Hunter Warner, Menell, Beck, and Ferraro came up just one second short. Michal Špaček let loose an absolute bomb that was clipped by Svedberg’s pad, but still went through the five-hole and the game was back even (Niku, Robinson; PP - 10:11).
And then we saw Niklas Svedberg do some Niklas Svedberg things.
Always defensive of his crease, there have been several instances where he’s put a blocker in the back of somebody’s head or given a brutal cross-check to a screening forward. This time, he went a bit too far after having been jawing with Manitoba captain, Patrice Cormier, during breaks in play.
With the puck exiting the zone, Cormier decided to hang out near Sveddy’s crease for a few more moments. As the opposing captain turned around to verbally spar with the Swedish netminder, Svedberg almost immediately cross-checked Cormier with his paddle right in the mouth.
There was some discussion amongst the referees as Cormier headed to the locker room to amend his face, and the verdict was reached that Sveddy was guilty of a match penalty, and Steve Michalek would have to come on and finish this game out. Svedberg didn’t hesitate to exchange a few more words with the Manitoba bench as he skated off.
However, Lalonde did hint that it might have been a hell of an acting job on the part of Cormier, who gave a sly smile to the Iowa bench as he skated to the box to serve his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Stevie didn’t get much time to settle in, taking his first shot against off the dome, knocking his mask off, but to a standing ovation from the fans sitting behind him.
The second period ended with 10 penalties, including Svedberg’s ejection.
Going into the third period, the numbers from the season looked to be against the Wild. The Moose came in with a daunting +20 differential to Iowa’s -3. However, Iowa has also recently been mounting some third period comebacks to earn points the hard way. With tempers flaring and tensions building, a tied game heading into the final frame was nothing short of great theater.
Both sides were jawing with one another and the atmosphere of playoff-style hockey was palpable. With Michalek coming in cold, and with the ping-pong nature of the second period, it came down to who would blink first. And it was known agitator Brendan Lemieux that opened the door with the only penalty in the third period - an unnecessary cross-check to the back of Zach Palmquist in pursuit of a loose puck.
It was back to the power play, Iowa’s eighth of the afternoon, and it was O’Reilly and the assisting duo of Anas and Palmquist that made the difference. Anas skated towards the net, flashing the hands has he does and drew in the Manitoba PK unit. A well timed pass found the stick of O’Reilly who had a wide open net to get Iowa’s fourth goal of the night (Anas, Palmquist; PP - 8:27).
The final ten minutes of the game was played amongst a lot of gasps, but Michalek answered the call making 13 of 13 saves - a multitude of them in the final minutes with Comrie on the bench for an extra attacker. It didn’t feel as if Iowa outlasted Manitoba, and Lalonde gave plenty of credit to Brett McLean’s studious attack on the 6-on-5, goalie pull situation.
The scoring race in Iowa has been heavier this season than in ones past, and with his three assists tonight (two primary), Anas has set the franchise record for points in a single season and will look to break the 50 points plateau as Iowa heads back out on the road for a Tuesday night tilt with the Rockford IceHogs. He has five points in his last two games and has 14 multi-point performances this season.
It was a solid win after a long road trip, though Lalonde didn’t want to pump the tires too much, saying that the Moose today wasn’t the same team that Iowa beat in their tilt back on March 4th. The Moose were entering this afternoon’s game less than 24 hours removed from a hard fought, 2-1 win in Chicago, and Newsy noted that Manitoba definitely didn’t have the same legs as Iowa had - coming in a bit more fresh as they wrapped up their road trip on Friday in San Antonio.
Still, it felt like playoff hockey, and this team is continuing to answer the bell and fight hard for points. The win gives Iowa a bit more of a grip on that third seed in the Central, though only by a small margin - just .003 percentage points ahead of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit).
Iowa will practice tomorrow and ride the bus to Rockford where the IceHogs (Chicago) are trying to claw their way into the postseason - they bested Chicago (Vegas/St. Louis) in overtime this afternoon.