Wild leaning on past experiences in playoff push

Photo: Tim Garland

📝 by Alec Lessner | AHL On The Beat

With five games remaining in the regular season, the Iowa Wild are closing in on potentially clinching the second berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs in the franchise’s 10-year history. Iowa currently sits in fourth place in the Central Division.

While the AHL postseason is still two weeks away, Wild head coach Tim Army has consistently reinforced the need for his team to develop a playoff mindset over the last couple months. The team responded to the message over the course of March, when it posted an 8-3-0-1 record.

“We’ve been in that mode,” Army said. “We’ve talked about being more desperate, more urgent, and having a sense of what was at stake since February.”

Iowa’s parent club, the Minnesota Wild, places a premium on its prospects picking up playoff experience while with the American Hockey League club. For many of Iowa’s current players, a trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs would be their first taste of a postseason at the professional level.

That isn’t to say that the Wild’s roster isn’t accustomed to playoff hockey. To an individual, the players have been participating in and winning tournaments since they were in grade school.

One player who picked up a memorable childhood tournament victory is Damien Giroux, who won the Brick Tournament with Toronto Pro Hockey in 2010. The Brick Tournament is held in the West Edmonton Mall and is one of the most competitive youth hockey tournaments in the world. Playing in the Brick Tournament is a dream come true for Canada’s premier 10-year-old players, and Giroux remembers his experience fondly.

“It was an unreal experience, playing in a bigger mall where people are walking by and watching games,” Giroux said. “It was the biggest stage I’d played on at that age and I loved it. When the lights go down and the anthem comes on, those are the things you replicate in the basement playing mini sticks. It made me want to keep going and keep striving for more.”

Iowa’s roster is also replete with Americans who rose through the ranks of college hockey and participated in the NCAA Frozen Four tournament. While playing with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Nick Swaney won national championships in back-to-back seasons.

“In the single-elimination format, you can lose in a heartbeat, so you have to stay dialed in,” Swaney said. “In a playoff series, you have to stay with it the whole time, whether it’s game one or game seven.”

The Wild also have many players who represented their countries at the IIHF World Junior Championships. Iowa’s leading scorer, Nic Petan, and highly touted goaltender Jesper Wallstedt are among those who picked up valuable experience at an international level before they turned 20 years old.

Petan and Wild defenseman Joe Hicketts were a part of the Canadian team that captured gold at the 2015 tournament, which was held in the hockey hotbed cities of Montreal and Toronto. For Hicketts and many of his teammates, it was their first time playing in front of a crowd the size of those found at professional hockey games.

“It was unbelievable,” Hicketts said. “Every game was sold out in the preliminary round at the Bell Centre. In Toronto, the buzz around the city was surreal. Everyone knew who you were. Learning how to play through that in front of 20,000 people in a gold medal game sets you up for things to come.”

Hicketts leaned on that experience as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins a couple seasons later when the team won the Calder Cup in 2016-17. With the experience of the 2015 tournament under his belt, Hicketts felt more prepared for the rigor of that playoff run.

“Win or lose, you get the same team again the next game,” Hicketts said of the Calder Cup Playoffs. “You learn to flush the bad things and build off the good things. Whether you lose by one or three goals, it’s just one game and you can look forward to the next one.”

Iowa still has work to do in its pursuit of a Calder Cup Playoff berth this season. Should the team clinch, it will have a bevy of experience to fall back on as it begins its quest for a championship.