The Aberdeen Wings started the weekend in a three-way tie for third place — and after a 4-3 win over the North Iowa Bulls Saturday night inside the Odde Ice Center in Aberdeen, they stand alone in third place, creating a bit of difference in a very tight Central Division.
It was the tenth time the two teams have faced each other this season. With two games remaining, the Wings are 8-2 over the Bulls — and this weekend’s points could prove to be very important as the regular season winds down.
Saturday’s matchup was very similar to Friday’s — Wings captain Kyle Gaffney scored first, the Wings had a very heavy advantage in shots on goal in the opening stanza and the final score was identical.
It took a bit longer for that opening goal Saturday, however. Aberdeen carried the puck into the Bulls’ zone and created a bevy of action in the goalie crease, but Gaffney was there to find the puck and tip between a Bulls player’s legs to get his team on the board first at the 10:25 mark in the first. It was his seventh goal on the season, second on the weekend, while Kevin MacKay picked up his tenth assist and Anthony Galante got his fifth.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Hunter Bolger got the equalizer just 48 seconds later. But the Wings took the lead back once again two minutes later — North Iowa goaltender Hunter Garvey made a save, but the bouncing puck was fed out to Devon Carlstrom, who fired it from the blue line through traffic and into the back of the net at the 13:14 mark. Carlstrom notched his third goal of the season, while Patrick O’Connell grabbed his fourth assist and Hugo Allais notched his 13th.
The Bulls responded once again exactly five minutes later when Byron Hartley got past Wings netminder Anton Castro, playing in his first game in front of his home crowd. Despite outshooting the Bulls 18-6, the teams headed into the first break tied at two apiece.
It took less than five minutes into the middle stanza for the Wings to get back on top over the Bulls — that’s when Owen DuBois took possession of the puck at the center line, skated into the North Iowa zone through the circle and moved into the crease, juking out Garvey to give the Wings the 3-2 lead at the 4:40 mark. He picked up his seventh goal on the season, while Will Gilson notched his 13th assist.
Once again, shots on goal weighed heavily in the Wings’ favor, outshooting the Bulls 13-7 in the middle period and preventing North Iowa from tying the game again. North Iowa killed two penalties in the period, but the Wings skated into the final break with the one-goal cushion.
That cushion doubled to two at the 11:11 mark in the third period. Cade Neilson fed the puck to Gilson at the blue line, who skated in and fired from the middle of the circle to give the Wings the 4-2 lead. The eventual game-winner was Gilson’s second goal on the weekend and seventh overall on the year, while Neilson racked up his 35th apple and Mason Kelly grabbed his second.
The insurance the Wings gained was quickly dashed when Hartley got his second goal of the game just 16 seconds later. But the Wings’ defense prevailed, shutting down North Iowa’s offense and denying an extra-man attacker for the last 31 seconds of the game to skate to the 4-3 victory and the weekend sweep.
When the dust settled, ten different Wings players recorded points in the contest, with both Neilson and Gilson grabbing three-point weekends. And for Wings head coach Steve Jennings, the diversity is important.
“When three different lines have three goals, it’s not an option for a team to focus on one group and one person,” he said after the win. “We had an opportunity to spread the wealth and make it harder for them to play against us.”
In addition to a spread out offense, he was quick to credit the team’s defensive game as well, and felt the secret to tonight’s win was a simple one.
“Our guys running our structure,” he said. “The guys understood what we want them to do, getting the shots we want. Defensively, especially in the first period, they did a good job getting back on pucks and shutting it down.”
Overall, Aberdeen outshot North Iowa 38-22, killing off three penalties along the way. Garvey stopped 34-38, while Castro denied 19 of the 22 shots he saw.
The Wings improve to 22-17-1-2 on the season — while North Iowa grabbed a point, they fall to 19-17-2-4 and sit in fifth place in the division. St. Cloud moves alone into first place after sweeping the Austin Bruins, who also grabbed a single point on the weekend after a Saturday overtime loss. Minot and Bismarck grabbed two points each after a weekend split, which means the standings look a bit different compared to the start of the weekend.
And Jennings knows how important the league points are going to be as the regular season starts to wind down, using a single word to sum up his team’s effort to take four points against a tough team.
“Incredible,” he said. “We gained a little bit of breathing room, but also closed the gap with the teams in front of us. Every game at this point is critical.”
The next chance at those points comes next weekend when the Wings hit the road to Minot, the start of a four-game stretch against the Minotauros that ends at home the last weekend of February.
“The guys have to understand the important of these games,” Jennings said of the upcoming series. “It’s a chance to take points from a team that we have games in hand on. It’s a chance to create separation in the standings. It’s important.”
The Wings face the Minotauros on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18-19 in Minot. The puck drops at 8:05 p.m. on Friday and at 7:35 p.m. Saturday. Fans can watch the games using their HockeyTV login or catch the action live at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Aberdeen, the official home for all Wings away games. Listen to the game’s audio broadcast via Hub City Radio’s 94.1 The Rock, or download The Rock app on your mobile device.
February wraps at home with a 7:15 p.m. puck drop Friday and Saturday, Feb. 25-26. Stay tuned to AberdeenWings.com or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for game updates.