KALAMAZOO, Mich. – As the regular season winds down, teams are heating up at just the right time, making the final few weeks a grind for bubble teams like the K-Wings.
One of the teams they’ve struggled against is a team they’ve battling for crucial points in the division – the Cincinnati Cyclones. The Wings travelled to Cincinnati and found themselves in a tight scoring affair, with only three goals between both teams. Tyler Heinonen cashed in the only goal for the Wings after the Cyclones were already up by a goal and they couldn’t buy a tying goal to take a point home.
“Every time we seem to play these guys lately, goals have been at a premium,” said forward Josh Pitt. “They just seem to have our number lately. They’ve been shutting us down, not giving us the second chances.”
The loss came before a five-day break that allowed the Wings a chance to reset before a home-and-home series with the Brampton Beast, but they were once again on the wrong end of a 2-1 game. Heinonen kept the Wings in the game with a tying goal, but the Beast kept Joel Martin busy in net. Despite his 38 saves, the Beast were able to get one more past him.
There was no chance for rest after this one. They made the trip back to Kalamazoo to play the Beast the next night at home.
The Wings wasted no time putting the pressure on Brampton. Five minutes into the game, a pass from defenseman Eric Kattelus was redirected by Josh Pitt to put the Wings on the board first. A minute later, a face off in the offensive zone led to a breakaway by Stefan Fournier, tying the game at one. Halfway through the period, Kyle Bushee took a penalty for slashing on David Vallorani, and a tic-tac-toe play led to a power play tally from Vincent Dunn, a former Ottawa Senators prospect dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the NHL trade deadline, giving the Beast their first lead of the game. Less than a minute later, Brandon MacLean widened that gap to two.
As the period wound down, the Wings were given a power play opportunity of their own after Jordan Henry was called for interference. Josh Pitt ripped one past Daniel Spence for his second of the night and league-leading 12th power play goal of the season, keeping the Wings within one going into the second.
Both teams exchanged power play chances early in the second, but with 12 minutes left in the period, it was Josh Pitt who broke through, getting an initial shot on Spence that bounced off his pads and back to Pitt’s stick, where he was able to bury his own rebound, completing the hat trick and tying things up at three goals apiece.
“He got a stick on me, I think at the end there, but I fanned on it, and the rebound happened to come right back to me,” Pitt said of the third goal. “So that was a nice treat.”
Spence was injured a few minutes later and replaced by T.J. Sherwood. The first shot he faced was from Lane Scheidl, who beat Sherwood far-side. Scheidl’s goal gave the Wings their lead back, and Brampton amped up their game in response. Vallorini got a breakaway goal past Michael Garteig, tying the game at four.
The third period was all Wings. The first shot of the period came from Kyle Blaney in the slot, giving the Wings a 5-4 lead. Josh Pitt tried to go for four, but Brandon MacLean slashed his stick on the play, earning the Wings a four-minute power play for the slash and unsportsmanlike conduct. Brendan Bradley had a beautiful deke that Sherwood was able to stop.
Just over the halfway mark, Tyler Heinonen got tied up in Jordan Henry’s skates after knocking off Brampton’s net. Henry went after him after play stopped and the two were given minors for roughing. While neither team scored on the resulting 4-on-4, the Wings built momentum, and just as the penalties expired, Eric Kattelus went between Vincent Dunn’s skates with the puck and netted an insurance goal.
Heinonen was called for holding with 1:49 left in the game. A power play goal could’ve brought the Beast within one, so they pulled Sherwood for a 6-on-4 advantage. The Wings were down, but far from out; Justin Taylor threw the puck past Brampton skaters and down the ice for a shorthanded empty net goal. The 7-4 victory was much-needed.
That kind of offence wasn’t sustainable. The next day, the Cyclones were in town, and the Wings fell back on their heels as they were forced to play a defensive game. The lone goal for the Wings came from Justin Taylor, but three from the Cyclones sealed the deal.
Pitt explained that special teams didn’t work in the Wings’ favour, but that wasn’t the only reason they weren’t able to pull out the win. “Their power play outscored ours two to nothing. I think that tells part of the story, as well. In the end, we just didn’t get it done.”
Going into the final months of the season, the biggest thing this team faces isn’t other teams, but themselves.
“We have to get out of our own way,” said Pitt. “Turnovers have been a big talk of our team for awhile, and we’re still making some bad blueline turnovers. We just need to be able to get the puck deep and work teams down low, that’s where a lot of our strength comes from as a team. We’re a great team in the offensive zone; we just need to play to that strength and stop feeding other teams’ offences.”
Justin Taylor agrees. “The chances we’re giving up are the ones that we’re doing to ourselves. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot there, giving up two on ones, breakaways, stuff like that, and they make good on those chances.
“Find that way to win every night. Every game is like a playoff game, right ’til the end. We’re in a hunt where third place to eighth place in the final rankings of playoffs is separated by five or six points, so any weekend can put you top of standings or can put you right out of playoffs. So we gotta have the playoff mentality starting now.”
“We need to play the right way for sixty minutes,” added Tyler Heinonen. “We need to play a playoff style game the rest of the way.”
They’ve got a big weekend to make up some ground, facing off against the rival Fort Wayne Komets twice in three days, sandwiching another division rival in the Indy Fuel. There’s no room to let the points on the line go in the opposite direction.