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Down on the Farm: Iowa Mounts Postseason Push

After enduring three difficult seasons in Des Moines, Minnesota's AHL team is in the mix for a playoff spot,

by Tom Witosky @toskyAHLWild / IowaWild.com

DES MOINES -- On one level, the Iowa Wild's mid-season surge into playoff contention can be explained simply. 

On Nov. 16, the Wild's goals-against average was 3.79 and ranked 28th in the American Hockey League. At that point, Wild coaches, players and fans began wondering if this season would be much like the past three.

But Derek Lalonde, Iowa's head coach, evaluated the dramatic change on the ice a bit differently. In November, the first-year coach was beginning to question whether the team would be able to recover from its dismal start.

"We were fairly easy to play against because we weren't defending very well," said Lalonde, whose team is 26-22-5-2 and in fourth place in the Central Division heading into a pair of road games this weekend against the Chicago Wolves. "We had so many holes throughout our lineup. Some of it was on us because of structure, but some of it was because of a young team learning how to compete at this level."

What changed, according to Lalonde and several Iowa players, is that the club chose to coalesce around a common goal -- a winning record for the first time in the Iowa franchise's history -- no matter what it might cost any player individually.

"Everyone here wants to play at the next level," said Mike Weber, the Wild's captain and a veteran defenseman with six NHL seasons on his resume. "Everyone likes winning, and that is the question. Are you committed to winning? If you are, you do the simple things right and consistently."

Lalonde said the Wild's veterans like Weber, Alex Stalock, Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan and Max Fortunus deserve much of the credit.

"It is our leadership," he said. "It came from the room. They were the ones who had to buy in first."

Credit also belongs to Iowa's goaltender tandem, veteran Alex Stalock and backup Steve Michalek. Early in the season, they spent a lot of time simply trying to keep the score close enough to give the Wild a chance to win -- a task akin to getting alligators out of the swamp.

"Early on, we weren't an easy team for any goalie to play for," Lalonde said. "We were giving up a lot of easy second chances and we were spending too much time in our zone."

Since then, the defense has improved as it has adopted a structure designed to protect the middle of the ice in the defensive zone and force shots from the outside. Quick puck movement out of the defensive zone also has improved greatly. In addition, the club's penalty kill and power play units have been vital in several games.

"It's a credit to everyone, because they are playing all 200 feet of the ice," Stalock said. "They are buying into the fact that you can't take shortcuts to winning games. It is good to see guys learning that stopping on pucks makes a difference every night in winning a game."

More importantly, Lalonde said, the surge began at a time when most teams might have gone the other way as a result of call-ups by the Minnesota Wild and a succession of injuries to several top Wild offensive players. Among the call-ups; Jordan Schroeder, who left Iowa as the club's leading scorer, defensemen Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson, as well as rookie forward Alex Tuch to name a few.

"We lost Schroeder to the NHL, then Tuch goes down with an injury," Lalonde said. "Then, we lost [Grayson] Downing to injury and lost [Zac] Dalpe to injury. That's four of our top six. Because of all of that, we hit rock bottom with our line-up. So to be successful, we had to have buy-in to team defense."

Weber said that he had noticed a change beginning prior to the slew of injuries, but that the line-up adjusted to the challenge.

"We were beginning to build something when they went out, but that is what has been special about this," Weber said. "We've had guys come up from the East Coast to help us, we've had guys come down from the NHL stepping in and playing different roles."

Weber said that, combined with good goaltending from Stalock and Michalek, is why the Wild has undergone a major shift in confidence and approach.

"That is what it takes to win," Weber said "Look at any championship team whether it is the NHL or down here. It takes a bigger roster than the 23 men you've got on it at any one point. It takes 25, 30, some number like that to win a championship."

The Wild still has major challenges in front of it with nearly all of its remaining games against Central Division foes, including Cleveland, its primary playoff rival, Chicago and Milwaukee. All three are contending for the playoffs as well.

"Our margin for error is still very thin," Lalonde said. "But we have gotten great goaltending, we have gotten good special teams, and just good will."

And Weber said the locker room has discovered something that was missing much of the three years.

"Winning is fun," he said. 

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