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Kunin morphing into Iowa's Badger State bully

Iowa forward -- and former Wisconsin Badger -- has made life difficult for the state's AHL team

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe /

DES MOINES -- Luke Kunin was the first sophomore captain in more than three decades at the University of Wisconsin. In his two years as a Badger, Kunin became immensely popular in Madison. 

But after a two-goal night in Game 2 on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Arena, Kunin is breaking hearts in the Badger State. 

Iowa's 5-1 win over Milwaukee assured the Wild of a home-ice hold in the first two games of the first-round series and means Iowa will take a 2-0 series advantage to Milwaukee with a chance to close out the Admirals Thursday at UW-Panther Arena. 

Video: Iowa: Game 2 Highlights vs. Milwaukee

Kunin now has three goals in the first two games of the series, as Iowa improved to 5-0 since he, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway joined the team with three games remaining in the regular season. 

In addition to Kunin, Donato had a three-point night ,while Greenway had the primary helper on Kunin's second, a beauty of a tally that showed off his rifle of a shot. 

"It's not an easy thing to do; you play all year in the NHL and then you gotta come down and play in the American League and it's not what their expectations were," said Iowa coach Tim Army. "Obviously, we'd like to see them playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now, but they've come in and they've been great. 

"And the other piece of it is, as you begin to win games, and you gain some momentum, everybody kind of feels that excitement and that energy and I think they've caught up with the wave. With everybody's push right now, they're right in the middle of it."

Kunin got Iowa on the board late in the first on a nifty pass from Donato, connecting on a one-timer from the top of the left circle, giving the Wild a 1-0 lead.

Milwaukee scored its first goal of the series moments later before Matt Read scored a crucial goal with 10 seconds left in the second period to give Iowa a one-goal edge after 40 minutes.

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With the game still very much in doubt, it was Kunin -- this time from the top of the right circle -- kickstarting a three-goal barrage that pushed Iowa's lead from one goal to four. 

"The one thing that he does that's elite is finding the areas to get goals. He puts himself in good positions to get his shot off," Donato said. "The fact he gets to those areas where the other guys aren't and cant defend him, that's something elite that he has in his bag of skills."

In all, Kunin played just 28 games with Iowa during the regular season, spending the rest of his 2018-19 campaign with Minnesota. He's returned to Iowa rather seamlessly because of his knowledge of the dressing room and the personalities in it. 

"It's a great group of guys down here," Kunin said. "Everyone's close, everyone likes each other. When you have that, usually you find success. So it's been an easy transition."

Army became the next in a long line of current and former coaches to laud Kunin's leadership ability, something that was on display on the ice Tuesday, but off the ice ever since he arrived back here a couple of weeks ago.

"He has that kind of personality and he wants to be in that position," Army said. "He's the type of guy who, when you challenge him, he elevates because of it. He plays hard, he's committed and he wants to be a difference-maker, and that's what a leader is."

Where Kunin has found comfort is playing in the middle. A wing for much of his career -- and for most of the season in Minnesota -- Kunin got a taste of the position in the NHL down the stretch. 

Ultimately, he moved back to wing, but since coming to Iowa, he's played in the middle between Greenway and Donato.

"I feel more comfortable at center," Kunin said. "The more and more I'm playing it, just kind of fitting into that role. I like it right now."

Kunin played sparingly with Greenway this season in Minnesota but did not get a chance to skate on a line with Donato. In Iowa, the three have managed to find great chemistry right from the beginning. 

The hope now is that the trio can help Iowa to another bit of playoff history: its first series win.

"Greener's just a big body, can make a lot of space for you down low and he sees the ice great. [Donato's] skillset, he can see the ice and also shoot and score," Kunin said. "[I] just try to get open and make plays with these guys and have fun with it."


Video: Iowa: NHLers providing fuel for playoff run

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