The countdown is on for the Kalamazoo Wings.
With just 19 games to go in the regular season the pressure is on as they battle to retain their hold on first place in the North Division.
“Every point now from now until the end of the year is going to be harder and harder to get,” K-Wings coach Nick Bootland said following his team’s 3-1 victory over division rival the Toledo Walleye on Wednesday morning.
The K-Wings will face-off against division rivals in 14 of their final 19 games.
“We know that this league changes this time of year and it’s going to be a playoff style game all the time,” Bootland said.
With their win, the K-Wings record improves to 30-17-2-4 good for 66 points. The Cincinnati Cyclones are in second place with 56 points followed by the Chicago Express with 54 and the Walleye have 50.
The K-Wings and Walleye meet five more times this season and Bootland predicts that each game will be a battle.
“They are a way better team than they were even a month ago, you could see that,” Bootland said. “You could see how physical they were against us. They did a great job in that first period, fore checking like crazy and making it difficult for us to come out of our zone. That’s the way it is going to be from here on out.”
Trailing the Walleye by a score of 1-0 after the first period and being outshot 9-3, the K-Wings got it together in the second.
Mike Matczak tied the game with his seventh power-play goal of the year early in the period.
Leading all rookies in power-play goals, Matczak is also tied for the lead among defenseman.
Taylor Ellington made it a 2-1 game with his sixth goal of the season later in the period, which turned out to be the game winner.
“I took the puck back, went on a rush and passed it to (Bryan) Haczyk and he made a great play back,” Ellington said. “I wasn’t even ready for it because I didn’t expect that pass to come. He just fed that pass through. A great play by him.”
The two teams battled hard in the third, putting 10 shots on goal each.
With just under two minutes remaining in the game, and Walleye goaltender Alec Richards pulled for the extra man, Kory Karlander sent the puck down the ice, scoring the empty net tally.
The 10:30 AM game was a first for forward Dustin Cloutier. The crowd of 4,835 fans, which is the largest crowd of the season to date for the K-Wings, was made up of children from 18 different schools, including Mendon and White Pigeon.
“It was a little different,” Cloutier said. “It was loud, it was more of a piercing loud than an actual roar of the crowd, I guess you could say. It was good for the kids, they seemed to enjoy it.”
K-Wings players have been visiting the schools in preparation for the early morning games. The K-Wings host the Cyclones on March 7th.
“It is a lot of fun,” Cloutier said of visiting schools. “Yesterday I went with Trent Daavettila and we did an assembly for the kids. They were really excited and had a lot of questions about the game.”
While the K-Wings lead their division, they trail the Gwinnett Gladiators who sit atop the American Conference by five points, something which Bootland said his team is well aware of.
“We know exactly where we stand,” he said. “We want to. I think if there is a goal in mind you really need to. Some people disagree with that. We talk about our steps and where we want to be as a hockey team and I think it is one of the reasons why we are successful.”
K-Wings News and Notes
Upcoming Games: The K-Wings are home for two games this weekend. On Friday they host the Chicago Express at 7:30 pm and the Wheeling Nailers at 4:00 pm on Sunday.
Silver Jersey’s: Forwards Trent Daavettila and Justin Taylor will look a little different during Friday night’s game. Both players were chosen by fans to represent their team in the ECHL Silver Skater Fantasy Team. The two will wear special silver crested jerseys. Goaltender Riley Gill was chosen as a “Golden Goalie” but is currently called up to the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers and will wear his jersey when/if he returns to the K-Wings.
Trade Completed: Last week, the K-Wings traded forward Brett Clarke to the Cyclones for future considerations. Completing the trade on Tuesday, the K-Wings received goaltender Brad Fogal, who was 4-4-1-2 and a 2.78 GAA with the Cyclones. In other transactions, defenseman Harry Young was recalled by Albany of the AHL. Dwight Helminen made his K-Wing debut on Wednesday, earning an assist on the Matczak goal. Forward Prab Rai was moved to the 3-day IR.