The Iowa Wild’s key to ending to the Tucson Roadrunners’ three-game win streak Wednesday night at Tucson Arena: Don’t let the suddenly resurgent Roadrunners do exactly what’s kept Tucson’s playoff pulse beating.
En route to a 2-0 midweek shutout, the Wild, for one, didn’t just shut down a successful-of-late Tucson power play; they barely even let the Roadrunners get the man advantage at all as a player wearing a white-and-green Iowa sweater ended up in the penalty box just twice for a grand total of two minutes and 47 seconds.
The Wild also succeeded at clearing pucks and keeping Tucson’s shot totals down, with the Roadrunners registering just 24 shots against Iowa goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen.
The Roadrunners carded at least 30 shots in nine of their last 10 contests, while scoring five times on 15 power-play situations over the last two games — which included a 5-2 win over Iowa on Tuesday night — prior to Wednesday’s defeat.
“Average. That’s what I thought we were. We were average,” Tucson head coach Jay Varady said. “We went through the game and we didn’t have enough bite.”
After a scoreless first period, the Wild (34-19-7-5) opened the scoring five minutes into the second period when Mitch McClain’s second, third and fourth effort helped bat a loose puck into the goal while a sprawling Adin Hill tried to jump on top of it amid a bevy of bodies in his goal crease.
Iowa’s second goal came 10 minutes later off the stick Will Bitten. Bitten read the traffic jam in front of Hill as all five Roadrunner skaters were positioned in the slot to some degree not far from the Tucson net.
Hill made multiple acrobatic saves on his way to stopping 24 of the 26 shots he faced, but it wasn’t enough to turn the tide for the Roadrunners (28-23-5-2).
“I don’t think we were all there tonight. We thought we’d be better,” said Tucson forward Michael Bunting, who had scored at least one goal in four straight games coming in. “You just kind of have to scratch that and move on.”
Varady said his Roadrunners were lacking a skip in their step from the get-go.
“We weren’t quick enough. I thought we played slow at times with the puck. We had plays to make, and we didn’t execute those plays. So we’ve got to be a little more crisp than we were tonight. It just wasn’t there,” Varady said. “I think we missed the net in some key areas in the second period where we got into some pretty good spots. But if you don’t hit the net, you don’t get the shot, you don’t get the scoring chance and you don’t get the momentum.”
Down the stretch, the expected late-game urgency seemed to be missing for the Roadrunners. Tucson managed just four shots in the game’s final 10 minutes — two of those coming in the last two minutes of play with Hill pulled in favor of the extra skater.
The Roadrunners continue their critical stretch of four games in six days (and six in 10 days) when San Jose visits Tucson Arena at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, and 4:05 p.m. Sunday. The Barracuda — one of the American Hockey League’s top teams for most of the season — and the Roadrunners have split six games so far. Tucson still sits seven points out of the final playoff spot in the AHL’s Pacific Division.
“We have a quick turnaround here. Day off (Thursday), Friday practice, and Saturday we’re playing San Jose — a team we’re actually chasing,” Bunting said. “We know how big those two games will be on the weekend. I think we’ve just got to prepare for those and get ready to play because it’s playoff hockey now.
“Gotta win. Win, win, win. That’s it."