KALAMAZOO, Mich. – The Kalamazoo Wings went into the Christmas Break feeling pretty good. Their final game saw them sporting Mighty Ducks-inspired jerseys while defeating the Toledo Walleye on home ice, led by a hat trick from Justin Taylor.
The 4-1 victory was following some roster moves. Danny Moynihan was once again recalled to the Utica Comets. Forward Eric Ylitalo, recently picked up off waivers from Brampton, was suspended by the team to pursue opportunities abroad. The Wings also signed Michigan native defenseman, Garret Cockerill. After three and a half seasons with the Northeastern Huskies, Cockerill parted ways with the Boston University.
“So far so good,” said Captain Ben Wilson after Cockerill’s second game, a 5-3 home loss to the Indy Fuel. “Him and Kattsy [Eric Kattelus] played well tonight. I think he’s a good player. He’s smart.”
Though Cockerill looked good in his follow up performance, the Wings as a whole looked gassed against the Fuel coming back after the Winter Break. Michael Garteig faced 43 shots, allowing five goals.
A silver lining – in the second period, rookie defenseman Aaron Irving scored his first career goal. Touted as an offensive defenseman, Irving had been unable to convert those chances earlier in the season.
“I’ve kind of been snakebitten for awhile,” Irving said, grinning a bit. “The boys have been kind of giving it to me, so it’s nice to get that one out of the way.”
“Coming into the season, I didn’t really know anything about this team or the guys on the team. This is my first time playing pro, first time experiencing guys getting called up and put into new positions. I’ve been trying to keep an open mind, and whatever the coach needs me to do and take over, I’m more than willing. I’m kind of learning every day if I’m playing in different positions or different roles on the team. Just keeping an open mind so far.”
But Irving’s goal was a bright spot in an otherwise dark picture. “We just weren’t good enough,” said a dejected Josh Pitt.
“The first game coming back from a Christmas break is always tough,” Ben Wilson explained further. “I think the boys are ready to respond for our next game tomorrow.”
The Wings travelled to Toledo the next night to take on the Walleye again. This was the third time these teams have faced off, and for a third time, the Wings opened the scoring thanks to Jimmy Mullin. The Walleye tied the game just five minutes later.
The game would remain tied at one through the second period and through 17 minutes of the third period. Toldeo broke through and took the lead for the first time in the game with only two and a half minutes left in regulation. It seemed a sure sign that the game was over, but the Wings immediately earned a power play and sent Martin to the bench for a six-on-four that resulted in Josh Pitt tying the game once again. But with less than 20 seconds left in the game, Toledo capitalized on chaos in front of the Wings’ net and kept this one from going to an extra frame.
“As a team, I thought we played pretty well, just a couple things didn’t go our way,” said defenseman Sean O’Rourke.
They took a night off after back-to-back losses to collect themselves for a New Years Eve game on home ice against the Quad City Mallards. Whatever reset they needed, they got, beating the Mallards by a 6-1 margin. A high octane first period saw three goals from the Wings and the lone Mallards goal, as they were held to only 11 shots through the first two periods. The Wings were able to keep rolling and score three more times over the next forty minutes.
Forward Brendan Bradley explained that high offence is reliant on defence. “It starts in our D-zone. Coach always talks about eight-second defence. That means when we get the puck in our D-zone, we try to get it out in eight seconds. And when we do that, we’re a very successful team. Just getting the puck out quick, helping Marty out as much as we can, clearing guys out in front, and moving to transition, moving to offence.
“We’re just trying to win every single period.”
It was a big night for the team. Sean O’Rourke scored his first goal of the season, adding to the offensive talent the Wings sport on their blueline. J.T. Stenglein tallied two goals and an assist. Jimmy Mullin, Brendan Bradley, and Kyle Bushee all remained hot. It was good for the team to close out 2017 with a big win like this, but it was hardly a surprise to any of the boys. This is a team who knows who they are.
“We’ve got a really good group of guys, and we’re playing a really good team game right now. I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” said O’Rourke.
J.T. Stenglien added, “It’s gotta be a full team effort every night like tonight, and we could be a really good team when that happens. I like the way we’re going.”
That was their attitude going into the New Year. The past month has seen a resurgence of the Wings’ early-season successes, going 8-5-0-1 through the month of January. They now sit third in the Central Division with 52 points, ten points back of the rival Fort Wayne Komets, but within two points of the fourth-place Kansas City Mavericks and fifth place Cincinnati Cyclones.
Several players recalled to Utica earlier in the season have spent more time in Kalamazoo this past month. Danny Moynihan, Anton Cederholm, Mackenze Stewart, and Michael Garteig have all been active on Kalamazoo’s roster, while forward Tyler Heinonen has been signed to a PTO with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL. Losing Heinonen is a big blow for this team down the stretch, but the Vancouver prospects are more than ready to fill in the gaps.
Staying in a playoff position over the next two months is going to be a tight won battle, but that’s something this team is used to.
“We’re a hard-nosed team; we work hard. We work hard, and we win our battles. We’re a really tough team to play against,” said Brendan Bradley. “When it gets down to the gritty, it’s gonna be teams that work hard that win these games.”