By Chris Walker | Image: NM Ice Wolves
It may have seemed like there were new Ice Wolves playing, but it was just mere commitment from young men.
It’s hard to not make this seem like a piece about the maturation of boys into young men, but it’s exactly what’s taking shape in New Mexico and I’m sure, around the North American Hockey League as well.
New Mexico’s Ice Wolves finally got tired of losing games as individual hockey players and have ushered in a new era of winning games together as a pack.
These young men made good decisions on the ice and it came from “buying-in”, a phrase that escaped the lips of every player Seek & Strike Hockey Legion talked to that weekend.
Assistant Coach Keenan Kelly spoke more to what each Ice Wolves player bought into the week leading up to the games. “Our culture. Our commitment to a team game. Guys playing in specific roles and buying into the game plan, “ he said. “Getting pucks through and getting in on a forward check. We’re a tenacious group, we gotta play within our abilities and I thought we did a great job of that this weekend.”
This past Sunday, Topeka’s Pilots were seeking to raid The Ice Den and zero in on a win after losing 2-1 the night before in front of a nearly sold-out crowd at Outpost Arenas. Though, it wouldn’t go that way as the Ice Wolves hunted the puck all night. The Ice Wolves defeated the Pilots 4-2 in front of a roaring crowd of fans.
The Ice Wolves scored in every period. It was nearly a shutout until they allowed Pilots’ Forward Dominic Sandoval to gather a couple of pucks with less than a minute to go in the 3rd Period to split the deficit in half. Clearly, the game was over in the Ice Wolves’ minds, but the shutout would’ve been nice for rookie goaltender Henrik Laursen.
The Ice Wolves swept their first opponent in franchise history. There are still more tough challenges on their schedule this month.
The month of November has featured the Midwest Division No. 1 Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the South Division No. 2 Pilots so far. Coming up on the Ice Wolves’ schedule is South Division No. 3 Amarillo Bulls, South Division No. 1 Lone Star Brahmas, and South Division No. 5 Corpus Christi IceRays.
From a statistics-driven standpoint, November is the Ice Wolves’ best performance on the ice. Through four games, they have only allowed 13 goals and scored 10 so, the differential is at a -3 for the month, but a -45 overall. The Ice Wolves are 3/13 on power plays meanwhile, they’ve killed 19/20 penalties against them allowing only 1 goal to slide through.
Small tweaks were made to make the offense potent. Philip Ekberg and Spencer Rudrud scored on two of the power plays. “Well, our coaches did some scouting so, they knew that these guys were passive,” Rudrud said: “So, we kind of used that when we were running the diamond, which operates like an overload and we just find the open guy.” The Ice Wolves are winning face-offs now, which ultimately gives them more opportunity to play the puck forward instead of defending against it all of the time.
The Ice Wolves have been stellar on defense, as well as, in and out of short-handed situations. They are limiting teams to perimeter shots on goal and leading scorers for the opposition are coming up empty. “Our PK worked well in our last game and I think we just built upon it,” Keegan Langefels said. “They had three power plays so each time we just tried to keep them out of the zone and get pucks out.”
The defense is made up mostly of rookies. So, goaltender Josh Graziano has really helped neutralize the backline adding experience. “I mean it’s definitely been a steep learning curve for the season,” Kelly stated. “But it all comes back to us buying into the team concept and playing within our structure.”
Alex Gomez found the top shelf by flicking the puck over the shoulder of Topeka’s goaltender in the 2nd Period. Gomez came upon a puck that was popped loose and he was on a breakaway. He was tailed by two defenders, but the view was his and his alone.
Head Coach Phil Fox and his coaching staff continue to graft a team concept into Ice Wolves through roster moves. Emil Gabrielson, Ekberg, and recent addition, Finn McClain are from the NAHL East Division’s Maryland Black Bears. Gabrielson and Ekberg, native-Scandinavians, both feature on the Ice Wolves starting lineup while, McClain features in the third line.
Zack Frisk skated down a puck in the 3rd Period to keep it from icing that he could have shot himself, instead he passed it back to Michael McCosh for the easy empty netter shot. This stuck out to Kelly the most because he understood that the commitment to team success had drilled in with the players. “With team success comes individual success,” Kelly added. “I think right now the guys aren’t worried about who gets the credit.”
The Ice Wolves latest roster moves see the following players as released: Forward Andrew Kozol, Forward Creighton McMahon, and Forward Peter Philippov. Goaltender and University of Maine commit Josh Langford was traded to Topeka Pilots this week. So Fox is sculpting the roster to accent strengths and minimize weaknesses.
Friday, the Ice Wolves (3-15-0-1) return to center ice to face division rival, Amarillo Bulls, as they seek to extend their win streak to 3 games in this seasons series-opener between these two teams. The Bulls are 13-7-1-1 and their leading scorer is Matt Allen with 10 goals and 9 assists. Their goaltenders are both rookies and boast a goal against average of 1.78 and a save average of .919. Results this weekend could potentially slide the Ice Wolves out of last place overall, which is the sort of progress the team is after.
Friday’s game is at 7:30 pm at The Ice Den at Outpost Arena. For more information, visit nmicewolves.com