With three playoff positions up for grabs in the Central Division, the Aberdeen Wings picked up an important win Saturday night inside the Odde Ice Center, skating to a 3-1 victory over the Austin Bruins and grabbing three of four possible league points in the process.
The win was also in front of a crowd of nearly 1,700 fans who turned out in droves for the annual Teddy Bear Toss in support of the Yelduz Shrine organization in Aberdeen, who will distribute the stuffed animals around the area.
The Bruins were the ones to get on the board first when Carson Riddle broke through to put his team on the board at the 11:07 mark. But from that moment all, the night belonged to Aberdeen.
At the 15:18 mark and with the man-advantage, Patrick O’Connell passed the puck to Will Gilson near the blue line, who skated in and fired through traffic from between the circles to get the Wings on the board. The power play goal, Gilson’s eleventh on the season, was the one to make the teddy bears fly inside the Odde, while O’Connell grabbed his fifth assist and Wings captain Kyle Gaffney notched his 28th.
Aberdeen killed two penalties while going one-for-two on the power play in the opening period, and also edged out Austin in shots on goal, 11-9, and the teams skated into the first break tied at one.
The Bruins killed off a penalty early in the middle stanza and the Wings got a second crack at another man-advantage opportunity before taking a penalty themselves midway through the period. With 39 seconds remaining on the kill, the Wings took a second penalty and fought off a brief but threatening five-on-three attack. Solid special teams prevailed for Aberdeen, however, as they killed off both penalties, even managing to hold the Bruins to just four shots on goal. When the horn sounded for the final intermission, the teams were still tied up at one apiece.
Just over three minutes into the third, Cade Neilson gave the Wings the lead they were looking for when he skated into the Bruins’ zone and fed fed the puck to Ronan Walsh, who passed it through a defender and back to Neilson for a backhand shot past Austin goaltender Klayton Knapp. Neilson grabbed his 23rd goal on the season, while Walsh picked up his tenth assist.
With Austin pushing to tie things up again, the Wings got the insurance goal they needed at the 16:49 mark when Dominic Schimizzi picked up the puck in his own zone and skated in, leading a two-on-one attack — and he fired his shot over Knapp’s shoulder for his twelfth goal on the year. Neilson grabbed his league-leading 47th assist, while Jackson Yee picked up his sixth.
Overall, Aberdeen fired 25 shots at Knapp while Wings goaltender Anton Castro turned away 18 of the 19 shots he faced. The Wings went 1-5 on the power play while holding the Bruins to 0-4.
“I think that special teams is getting consistent production from the power play and being strong on the penalty kill,” Wings head coach Steve Jennings said. “It’s really important for us. We killed off a five-on-three tonight, too, which is hard. Going on the kill is tough and when it gets compounded like that, it’s really tough. I pushed them a couple weeks ago to get back to where they were and they’ve answered well.”
After a tough overtime loss Friday night, Jennings was also happy with Castro’s performance Saturday.
“The kid’s a pro. He comes ready to play and that’s why we get wins like this,” he said. “We have a kid who’s not thinking about last night, he’s just thinking about tonight. And he’s not thinking about anything other than the next save, and that’s the important thing.”
He also lauded the efforts of Neilson, who’s four-point weekend put him at 70 points on the year, tied for third overall in the league. His 47 assists is tied for first among NAHL skaters.
“It’s leadership and it’s production, which is great,” Jennings said of his assistant captain’s consistency on the score sheet. “He pushes through and when it’s time for someone to sep up and generate, he does, and that’s really important for us.”
The win gave the second-place Wings (29-20-3-2) a bit of breathing room in the standings with six games remaining in their regular season — but just eleven points separate them from the sixth-place Bismarck Bobcats. The Wings’ 63 league points is eight points behind St. Cloud, who have clinched the first playoff spot. Austin, who have five games to play, sits in third with 59 points, the same amount as fourth-place Minot Minotauros, who only have four games remaining in the regular season. The North Iowa Bulls are six points out of a playoff position in fifth place with six games left.
“The kids aren’t giving into the pressure and that’s good,” Jennings concluded. “They need to keep building that into the rest of the regular season into playoffs because we’re going to face games where we take bad breaks and we’re going to have to push through. I think they’ve been developing that resilience. It’s been growing steadily all year.”
The Wings face off against the Bobcats on Friday, April 1 at 7:15 p.m. before heading to Bismarck for a 7:15 p.m. matchup on Saturday. Fans can purchase tickets ahead of Friday’s game online at tickets.AberdeenWings.com, or at the door. $10 general admission tickets are also available at any C-Express location in Aberdeen, with additional purchase.
Fans are welcome to join a fan bus heading to Bismarck on Saturday — email Aaron Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot. Any fans that can’t make the trip can still catch the game using their HockeyTV login or at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Aberdeen, the official home for all Wings away games. The game’s audio is broadcast via Hub City Radio’s 94.1 The Rock.