The Aberdeen Wings were looking for that elusive weekend sweep inside Mason City Arena Saturday night — and managed to do so in thrilling fashion, climbing out of an early two-goal deficit and finishing the regular season series against the North Iowa Bulls on a high note.
It was the first weekend sweep since Feb. 11-12, when the Wings coincidentally swept the Bulls inside the Odde Ice Center in Aberdeen. And, coincidentally, the Wings won 4-3 Saturday, the same score on all four of those matchups.
North Iowa made things difficult for the Wings very early in the contest off two defensive breakdowns. The first goal came just 1:38 into the game when Justin Mexico beat Wings goaltender Anton Castro, and Carter Rapalje doubled their lead just 38 seconds later.
Down by two under three minutes into the game, Aberdeen came firing back when Mason Kelly found Will Gilson flying into the Bulls’ zone, who fired the puck into the back of the net at the 4:36 mark. Gilson grabbed his ninth goal of the season, while Kelly picked up his fourth assist and Seamus Campbell grabbed his twelfth.
After three goals in the first five minutes of the game, each team killed a penalty and kept firing the puck. When the horn sounded for the first break, North Iowa had the 17-13 advantage in shots on goal and the 2-1 lead.
The Bulls picked up a quick penalty in the opening minute of the second period and the Wings made good use of the man-advantage when Cade Neilson skated in to the North Iowa zone and found Ronan Walsh crashing the net to his right, who fired the puck into the back of the to tie the game at two apiece at the 1:28 mark. Walsh grabbed his sixth power play goal of the season and 21st overall on the year, while Neilson racked up his 45th assist and Gilson got his 23rd apple.
Aberdeen grabbed their first lead of the game at the 9:02 mark in the middle stanza when Neilson passed the puck across the crease to Jacob Bosse, who fired a backdoor shot past Bulls’ netminder Kyle Kozma for his 11th goal of the season and the 3-2 lead. Neilson grabbed his second assist of the game, league-leading 46th overall on the year, while Patrick O’Connell got his fifth.
The Bulls evened things back up later in the period when Byron Hartley dragged the puck around Castro at the 14:36 mark, and despite once again outshooting the Wings 12-9, the teams skated into the final break tied at three.
North Iowa started the final period on their second power play of the night but the Wings killed the penalty to keep the score even. The Bulls killed a penalty of their own later in the period, but neither team could find the back of the net again and the two teams headed to their sixth overtime out of the twelve times they met each other this season.
Aberdeen held North Iowa to just one shot on goal in the game’s bonus hockey while taking three themselves — and it was the last one that mattered. Kyle Gaffney swung the puck around the back of the net to Gilson, who skated through center ice and into the Bulls’ zone, finding open space at the top of the circle and firing it past Kozma to seal the deal. The game-winner was his second of the game, tenth on the season, while Gaffney got his 27th assist and Kevin MacKay got his 13th.
The overtime period was the only time the Wings outshot the Bulls; Kozma denied 27 of the 31 shots he faced, while Castro turned away 36 of 39. The Wings went 1-4 on the power play while once again remaining perfect on the penalty kill, holding the Bulls to 0-2.
“The first two goals came quickly off tough breaks,” Wings head coach Steve Jennings said after the game. “I was concerned the kids would give in to the pressure, but I was happy to see the response from Gilson and the team build off that. It’s so important at this time of the year, that we learn how to push back and push through. Our younger guys really stepped up and gave us honest minutes and contributions. That was important when our older guys needed support.”
Gilson had a banner weekend, grabbing two goals and three assists in the two games, plus scoring a shootout goal in Friday’s match. His Saturday game-winner was his 22nd point in his last 21 games.
“He’s a competitor and wants to win,” Jennings said of his defenseman, who committed to the University of Alaska-Anchorage earlier this season. “He made some mistakes this weekend and when that happens, he works hard to make up for it. He has very good poise with the puck and is confident in his abilities. He has really developed well this year.”
The matchups between these two teams have been fierce. After twelve regular season matchups, the Wings took an impressive 10-2-0-0 record. However, six of those games saw an overtime period and four of them went to a shootout — but the Wings came out victorious in every showing that went past regulation time. And with the series behind them, Jennings said his team is looking ahead to their eight remaining regular season games that feature just two different opponents — the Austin Bruins and the Bismarck Bobcats.
And five of those games are on home ice.
“Six of those eight are against Austin, so we will need to be sharp,” he said. “Playing to our strengths, staying under control. Special teams will need to continue to be strong for us.”
The Wings were the only team to get the weekend sweep in the Central Division, so no one earned an official playoff birth just yet. The St. Cloud Norsemen remain in first place with 67 points while the Wings hold strong in second place with 60 league points. Austin and the Minot Minotauros each hold 57 points — and they’re the two teams with the most games played in the division. Bismarck sits at 51 points in fifth place, while North Iowa managed two points on the weekend and sit in sixth with 50 league points.
The Wings are back home at the Odde this weekend, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday, March 25-26, and the puck dropping against the Bruins at 7:15 p.m. Saturday’s game features two big events — the annual Yelduz Shrine Teddy Bear Toss, where fans can bring teddy bears to throw on the ice after the first Wings goal, and our game-worn jersey auction immediately following the game.
Coach Jennings is looking forward to a busy weekend of exciting hockey and hopes to once again see a packed barn.
“The Austin games are always full of energy, so the hockey is going to be great. We know that,” he said. “The crowd is such a help to us at home; the Odde is a special place to play. When we have strong crowds, they always give energy to the guys. The teddy bear toss and jersey auction are great ways to support an organization that does incredible things to help families and children.”
He also shared a personal connection to the Shrine organization.
“The Shriners are special to me,” he continued. “When I was very young, I was at the beach with my family. As we were leaving for the day, there was a fire pit that was not properly closed over in the sand and I walked into it, burning my feet. I was fortunate to receive treatment at the Shriners’ burn unit in Boston. I have no recollection of it since I was so young but my family has told me the story and I appreciate the care and support. I do whatever I can to support the Shriners and I hope others can join us for a great weekend, and to support them as well.”
Fans can get their tickets online at tickets.AberdeenWings.com or at the door on game nights. Fans can also get $10 general admission tickets at any C-Express location in Aberdeen, with additional purchase. Stay tuned to AberdeenWings.com or follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more game day information.