Funny how things work out when the special teams units come together. Whether it was a man up or a man down, Iowa seemed to have an answer for everything that the Cleveland Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets) had to throw at them. It also helped that netminder Steve Michalek was able stop damn near everything.
After a solid showing against the IceHogs, Michalek (2-0-0; 2.00 GAA/.940 SV%) got his second start of the season. It took a minute or two for the second-year netminder to settle in, but once he was on, he was on - stopping 29 of 30 shots put on net by the Monsters. Matīss Kivlenieks (1-3-1; 2.56 GAA/.900 SV%) got the start for Cleveland, the fifth start of the season for the rookie from Riga, Latvia. His night was not as fortuitous, as he was only able to stop 21 of 27 shots off of Iowa Wild sticks, including a penalty shot.
It’s easy to win when special teams are showing up, and Iowa is showing that they’re a forced to be reckoned with on both the power play and the penalty kill in these past few games.
It started off slow, and it had the appearance of a long night for Iowa in the first few minutes of the first. The Wild didn’t appear able to get out of the defensive zone, and Michalek wasn’t able to make clean saves on Cleveland’s first few shots.
Shaky at best.
A holding call on Cleveland’s Paul Bittner put Iowa on the power play almost four minutes in, and Iowa looked to continue their success on the power play from the previous match-up with Rockford; a game where the Wild were three of four on the peepers.
They did not disappoint.
David Cunniff returned the PP1 to the 4F1D formation, with Sam Anas and Brennan Menell manning the blueline. And the two helped set up the play that would see Iowa take the early lead. Following a Menell drop pass to a circling Anas, the Quinnipiac-alum hit Zack Mitchell with a pass in stride. Mitchell only needed to make one move at the blueline before launching his shot from the right dot, past Kivlenieks (Menell, Anas; PP - 3:37).
After the goal, it felt like Iowa took all of the momentum away from Cleveland. Monsters passes were missing sticks, and Iowa defensemen were stifling any opposing zone entries. With a little over half the period gone, Iowa struck again.
Once again, it was Anas with some beautiful stick work. After receiving a Nick Seeler pass at the blueline, the winger was able to make some great moves around Cleveland’s Andre Benoit to get the puck in deep. More impressive was his pass to Justin Kloos, who had the easy look in front of the net, extending the Lakeville-native’s point streak to five games (Anas, Seeler - 10:22).
With the two apples, Anas gets credited with his second multi-point game of the season after his three assist effort in Tucson.
After the two goal first, the momentum carried over into the next period, as did Iowa’s success on special teams. It was a very eventful first ten minutes as the physicality also started to build.
Early on, Seeler and Bittner exchanged a few words in front of Michalek’s net and then decided that it was time to dance. Not sure if it was a necessary fight in the end, but off-setting fighting majors were called; Seeler would be the “winner” only because he was able to land a few blows to Bittner’s dome sans his bucket.
A minute later, Michalek was called for delay-of-game as he came well out of his crease, but Iowa was able to kill it off; still boasting one of the AHL’s best penalty killing units.
The referees had a few questionable calls in the second, though one came up in favor of Iowa. Kyle Rau, showed some great hands as a chipped puck by Gerald Mayhew was well-behind the Eden Prairie-native, who was able to glove it and get it down on his stick with two Cleveland defenders in tow. They both gave a couple of whacks, and Rau went into the boards, but was awarded a penalty shot.
It didn’t look like much, but somehow the biscuit was able to find it’s way between the pads of Kivlenieks and trickle into the back of the net for the 3-0 lead (Penalty Shot; 4:23).
About five minutes later, Cleveland defenseman John Ramage ran into Michalek, who did a good job selling the interference as the two sides met in the corner to have a lively conversation. Iowa headed to their second power play of the night.
The best way to describe it? Ugly, but effective.
With players running into one another, and failing to even get the puck into the zone, it looked as if Iowa’s power play was taking a step back. However, the ugly 1:45 was negated once Kloos was able to hit Rau with some sauce in front of Kivlenieks, who then got it to Mitchell in the slot. With Dean Kukan surrendering position, Mitchell was able to get his second power play goal of the night (Kloos, Rau; PP - 9:51).
The Wild didn’t get many scoring opportunities in the period, managing just eight shots. However, by the second horn, four members of Derek Lalonde’s squad had already solidified their status as multi-point performers.
Iowa had a commanding lead heading into the third, but rather than park the bus, Lalonde and the Wild kept up the pressure to really send a message to Cleveland with the synopsis being “if you don’t want us to run up the score, don’t let us put pucks in the net.”
A little over five minutes into the final frame, the below net play of Mitchell continued to be superb. The Wild can definitely count themselves as one of the better teams in terms of forechecking, as another battle won behind Kivlenieks turned into a pass to Pat Cannone in the slot, where he was able to get his sixth goal of the year (Mitchell, Bertschy; 5:17).
With the 5-0 lead, Michalek was working hard on a shutout. Unfortunately, when you start framing your post-game as such, the Hockey Gods tend to intervene.
If there was a way to end a shutout, Terry Broadhurst provided a good example of one. While being absolutely mugged by Menell and Alex Grant, the Cleveland winger was able to corral the puck with one hand and get a chip shot over Michalek’s blocker to thwart the goose-egg on the board.
The Wild weren’t done scoring though.
With the game winding down, both teams spend some time throwing the puck around. Christoph Bertschy had been flying around all night and showing great skill with the stick on defense. There was a lot of commotion in front of Kivlenieks net, and Bertschy was able to join the long list of Wild members with goals next to their names tonight (Cannone, 17:05).
Number of the night: 100. Iowa was 100% on both the power play and the penalty kill tonight, a first this season for the club. Tonight with the lead, Lalonde and Cunniff were able to use a lot of different looks on the PK as it felt like everyone was getting involved; moving up to 89.6% on the kill.
The power play also continues to climb, and as it does, it’s keeping Iowa in games and leading to wins. With the win, Iowa has gone five for six in the last two games on the peepers and move to 17.7 percent efficiency on the season; a long ways away from how the season started off.
In Coach’s Words: As both Minnesota and Iowa are starting to get healthy, line combinations are becoming more concrete and players are getting more comfortable with one another. The result has been wins and goals.
“We didn’t have our team early on. I think it starts to battle with your mental psyche,” coach said. “You start to second guess the process a little bit. I’m just glad we’re playing the right way.”
That right way has included limiting the opportunities for the opposition in getting grade-A chances, something that could be pointed to as the magna culpa of a young, inexperienced defensive unit. Now, it appears the game is slowing down, and the mistakes are down as well.
It got a bit chippy, and nobody enjoys being on the down side of a blow out. Expect another physical game tomorrow between these two clubs as they wrap up their first back-to-back of the season. Puck drop is scheduled for 5:00 CST, and it’s my favorite game of the season: Pucks & Paws.