KALAMAZOO, Mich. – In a back-to-back-to-back series, the Kalamazoo Wings managed a complete weekend sweep, moving them to fifth in the Central Division with a 10-8-2 record. They have a five-point lead on both the Indy Fuel and the Quad City Mallards, with one game in hand on both teams, as well.
“It was nice to get six points, especially here at home and in front of our fans,” said rookie forward Brendan Bradley on Sunday night, who had three points over the course of the weekend.
The homestand started on Friday night, when the Wings faced off against the Quad City Mallards, the ECHL affiliate of the newest NHL franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. It took awhile for both teams to find their feet, but Quad City was able to strike first. Sam Warning set up Chris Francis on an odd-man rush and beating out goaltender Joel Martin.
The Wings took only two minutes to answer back. Brendan Bradley notched his first assist of the weekend when a rebound from his shot bounced off C.J. Motte’s pads and was tapped into the open net by Tyler Biggs. Just over halfway through the period, forward Lane Scheidl gave the Wings a 2-1 lead, waiting out a breakaway chance and converting it to a backhand goal. Impressively, the Wings held the Mallards to only four shots in the first period.
Biggs put up a second goal in the second period after tipping in a shot from rookie defenseman, Aaron Irving. The Mallards came back in the third, with Josh MacDonald pulling the game back into reach by driving a rebound off his own shot past Martin. A one-timer from Jimmy Mullin – only his second goal in his first-year campaign – kept the Wings on top and an empty net goal from Justin Taylor sent this one packing with a 5-2 victory. In all, six Wings players (Biggs, Scheidl, Taylor, Irving, Bradley, and Kyle Blaney) had a multi-point night.
It was a good win to get, but the Wings still had a long weekend ahead.
The next night was a big test against the Toronto Maple Leafs’ affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears, who were in the middle of a ten-game road trip. Exhaustion didn’t seem to be slowing them down; going into this game, they were 7-2-1 in their last ten (compared to the Wings, who had lost seven of their last ten).
It was clear from the get-go that this was not going to be an easy game. The Wings had noticeably cleaned up their zone entries and focused on their patience with the puck, earning quality chances over throwing pucks to the net. It took some time, but it paid off. Once again, Jimmy Mullin found a way to best goaltender Mackenzie Skapski and put the Wings on the board first. The primary assist came from none other than Eric Ylitalo, who had just been claimed off waivers from the Brampton Beast by the Wings. Ylitalo started the season in Kalamazoo, was released after two games and signed by Brampton, with whom he scored his first ECHL goal against the Wings last month.
Both teams continued to exchange chances – or perhaps, more accurately, prevent the other from getting chances. The Solar Bears found a window of opportunity in the second period, J.J. Piccinich burying a short-handed goal after a neutral zone turns over. Tied at one through the third, the game went into overtime.
In just 22 seconds, Brendan Bradley tossed the puck at the net from the middle of the ice like it was nothing, winning it for the Wings.
It was a big game for Bradley and Mullin, who are creating a more significant impact with a shortened Wings bench as the season has gone on.
“I don’t think anything’s really changed for those guys,” said Justin Taylor. “They’re always doing the little things right, getting the opportunities to put the puck in the net. Sometimes maybe, as a young guy, you grip the stick a little too hard, and you go wide or put it in the goalie’s chest, but they’ve kept at it, and they work on it every day in practice. So they’re finally getting rewarded on the stats sheet now.”
Tyler Biggs added, “I think it’s an introduction to pro hockey. There’s always a period of time where you’re in an adjustment. Once things start settling down and you get used to it, I think it’s just a matter of their own talents taking over, and I think that’s what’s happening.”
For Bradley, a recent shift from wing to centre has allowed him to utilize a specific skill: his speed. At six-feet tall, the 25-year-old stands out from the pack by being fast and skating well.
“A big part of my game is being able to skate, just kind of hounding pucks down low and getting some speed through the neutral zone,” he explained. “So recently I’ve switched to centre, which I think has helped a bit. On the wing, you’re kind of standing still a little bit more, but at centre, I’ve been able to generate speed a little more coming through the neutral zone and create some space for my linemates.”
The Wings wrapped up the weekend against the affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, the Wichita Thunder. Though these teams had never played against each other in their history, they’ve now met three times in two weeks, with Wichita handing the Wings embarrassing losses in the first two games. They met again on the third game of a long weekend, with a tired goalie seeing his third start in as many nights, as Micheal Garteig is still with the Utica Comets.
The key for the Wings was to take it one period at a time.
“It’s a fresh start, right?” said Biggs. “So you come in, if you’re up two or down two, it’s like a zero-zero game going into the next period. You just gotta worry about winning that one. I think sometimes that can be easier mentally.”
So with the previous two games behind them, the Wings focused one period at a time. After a scoreless first period, Tyler Heinonen came out strong in the second and sunk a rebound from defenseman Charlie Vasaturo, who had a PTO with the Comets during training camp this summer. The Thunder delivered a late-period push and tested the Wings’ period-by-period strategy with goals from Mark MacMillan and Matt Deblouw less than a minute apart, the latter in the final minute of play.
But the Wings proved their ability to start fresh. Justin Taylor started the comeback effort halfway through the period, tying the game at two. Tyler Biggs took home the game-winner, a bounce going five-hole between the legs of Shane Owen and into the net. With a concentrated effort, the Wings kept the Thunder from tying the game in the following six minutes, giving Kalamazoo their first ever win against Wichita.
With another big weekend coming up, the Wings feel good about where they are.
“We know what we want to do. We know what we’re best at. There’s some things we might change up systematically, but for the most part, we play our way. And that’s kind of our mentality going into every game, whether it’s Wichita or it’s Toledo or whoever it may be,” said Biggs. “We know our identity.”
Brendan Bradley echoed that confidence. “When we’re playing our game, we can compete with anybody in the league. So I think sticking to our game plan and playing our game, we’ll be able to beat anyone in the league.”