Wings clinch playoff spot with 3-2 Friday win

The Aberdeen Wings officially clinched a spot in the Robertson Cup playoffs with a 3-2 victory over the Bismarck Bobcats Friday night inside the Odde Ice Center.

It wasn’t the quick start the Wings wanted, but three goals were enough to hold off the Bobcats en route to Aberdeen’s 30th win on the season, which solidified their second-place standings in the Central Division.

Despite being outshot early in the opening period, the Wings got on the board first when Parks Wallace fired from the blue line and Hugo Gustafsson was camped out near the crease to tip the puck into the back of the net on the Wings’ fourth shot of the game at the 10:36 mark. Gustafsson grabbed his fourth goal on the year, while Wallace got his fifth assist and Wings captain Kyle Gaffney notched his 29th.

The Wings picked up the pace later in the period and eventually surpassed the Bobcats in shots on goal, taking eleven while holding Bismarck to nine. Each team killed off a penalty in the opening stanza and Aberdeen skated into the first break with the one-goal lead.

The Bobcats tied things up at the 5:01 mark in the second period when Owen Michaels got one past Wings goaltender Anton Castro. But just under three minutes later, Cade Neilson got the puck in the middle of the circle in Bismarck’s zone and centered it to Jackson Yee, who fired from between the circles to put his team back up by one at the 7:59 mark. Yee grabbed his 13th goal on the season, while Neilson racked up his league-leading 48th assist and Will Diamond grabbed his fifth. The assist was also Neilson’s 150th career point as an Aberdeen Wing, which comes from 143 points in the regular season and seven more during last year’s playoff run.

The Wings doubled their lead later in the period when Yee dumped the puck into Bismarck’s zone on-goal; Bobcat netminder Oskar Spinnars Nordin stopped the puck, but it bounced out in front of him in the crease and Mason Kelly came crashing in to pick up the rebound and put it into the back of the net. Kelly grabbed his first goal wearing the Wings’ sweater, while Yee got his seventh assist and Diamond got his second apple of the game and sixth overall on the season.

The Bobcats got one back later in the period on a power play goal from Jake McLean. Aberdeen killed one penaalty in the middle period and outshot Bismarck 15-10, and skated into the game’s final intermission once again holding onto a one-goal lead.

Bismarck knew they needed one more goal to tie the game again but the Wings’ defense prevailed in the final period. In fact, Aberdeen even killed off a late penalty in the game’s final minutes, fending off a six-on-four attack when Spinnars Nordin was pulled from between the pipes with 1:23 remaining on the clock. And when the final horn sounded, Aberdeen maintained their 3-2 lead for the victory.

“The first ten minutes, we were okay. We have a lot of kids who aren’t super healthy right now, so the guys were pushing through and making it happen,” Wings head coach Steve Jennings said. “The guys bought in and saw that we weren’t playing great offensively, so they buckled down defensively and and made sure that we weren’t giving momentum while weren’t gaining momentum. It’s big.”

Overall, the Wings went 0-2 on the power play while giving up a power play goal in four chances. And while Jennings said he never wants to give up a goal shorthanded, he was still happy with his league-best penalty killing unit.

“Our power play had good momentum,” he said. “The kill was really good; we gave up that rush goal but it was tough and we missed an assignment during a line change, so I’m not excited about that, but that’s different. I think in zone, during the play, we were shutting them down. And they’ve lived off that over the last few weeks.”

Anton Castro denied 26 of the 28 shots he faced and grabbed his eighth win between the pipes Friday. The Wings improve to 5-5-0-1 against the Bobcats this season while securing a coveted playoff spot with 65 total league points.

“It means a lot,” Jennings said of the team’s win. “It’s recognition of what the kids have done and what we have in front of us, so it’s a really big deal. We went through our phases earlier in the year when we were trying to talk about growth and development, and you could see it tonight.”

And it’s that growth and development that excites Jennings about a strong finish to the season and being able to officially plan for a playoff run.

“The guys have gotten better,” he continued. “When you look at what’s going on, it’s not the same people always having the scores, it’s not the same people having to play in the D spots. We’re seeing really good development of the group, and that’s what’s important at this time — the group.”

The Wings (30-20-3-2) hit the road for Round Two against the Bobcats (24-27-1-3) Saturday night at the VFW Sports Center. Fans can watch the game using their HockeyTV login or live at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Aberdeen, the official home for Wings away games. The game’s audio is broadcast via Hub City Radio’s 94.1 The rock.

And Jennings said the coaching staff is ready to hit the ice hard.

“We haven’t won home-ice advantage yet, so it doesn’t really change a lot,” he said about Saturday’s road game. “The group has been growing and developing and we need to keep pushing. We can’t rest on our laurels because if we do, someone else passes us.”