CEDAR PARK, Texas – H-E-B Center had been no friend to the Iowa Wild, as they had not won there since March 11, 2017. That included a tough, last minute loss on Friday night. However, Saturday night was a different story, as Kaapo Kahkonen stopped all 30 shots he faced in the 4-0 victory over the Texas Stars. That snapped a nine-game losing streak against Texas.
As with Friday night’s contest, the Wild dominated early, but the Stars had the better scoring opportunities. Two power play chances helped to generate some early chances for Texas. Just after the midway point, Oula Palve took a pass from Reece Scarlett that allowed him to move down the slot on a partial breakaway, but Kahkonen made a great save with his blocker.
The Wild led in shots 9-8 after one in a solid tempo first period. However, the second period was one for the ages, as it was great end-to-end action that saw both teams produce at least six good scoring chances in the frame.
The first came 1:22 into the period when Iowa took the lead on a beautiful tic-tac-toe play. Kyle Rau had the puck in the corner of the Texas end. He made a behind the back pass along the boards to Mason Shaw behind the net, who made a one-touch pass in front to Luke Johnson. Johnson buried the one-timer up high for his 12th goal of the season to give the Wild a 1-0 lead.
A little more than a minute later, Joel Kiviranta entered the Iowa end with a burst of speed along the boards. He made a great pass to Tanner Kero, who redirected the puck on net, but Kahkonen came up big again, getting down to block the shot with his chest.
Three minutes later, Johnson almost made this a two-goal game. He took the pass at the blueline, then skated toward the middle before firing a wrist shot that beat Texas goaltender Jake Oettinger, but it hit off the post and bounced out.
At the 5:57 mark, Hunter Warner gave the Wild a 2-0 lead, scoring his first goal of the season. Dmitry Sokolov passed the puck back to the blueline to Warner, who fired a wrist shot that went through the legs of Oettinger. For Warner, it was an especially big moment.
“I just fired the puck on net. Good things happen when you fire the puck on net, and that is what happened. I’m not going to score a lot of goals. I have been injured for a lot of the season, so that it was great to be able to step in and help out.”
About four minutes later, the Wild were set up in the Stars zone looking to extend their lead. The puck came back to Matt Bartkowski, who blasted a shot that beat Oettinger, but it hit off the far post.
With eight minutes left, it was Kahkonen’s turn. Dillon Heatherington, appearing in his 200th game for Texas, made a centering pass to Joel L’Esperance who was crashing the net. He tried to go between the pads of the Iowa netminder, but Kahkonen quickly closed that attempt down with a pad save to keep his team on top by two.
With 2:40 left in the second, it looked like Texas would break through the Kahkonen wall. Michael Mersch fired a shot from just inside the left faceoff circle. The Wild goaltender made the save, but it snuck through his legs and was headed for the goal line. However, before it could cross the line, Keaton Thompson swept in to pull it away.
Coach Tim Army discussed the wild second period following the contest.
“It was good. Both teams are competing to make the playoffs. They have a very good team and it was fast. it was a little chippy and that is what is to be expected when both teams are competing and the points are that valuable.”
Texas had dominated the second period in many ways, outshooting Iowa 14-9 in the frame. But, Kahkonen was giving them nothing, denying chance after chance while giving up few rebounds. That continued into the third, when just before the two-minute mark, the pass came to Kiviranta in front of the net. He made a great backhand shot that Kahkonen saved with his leg. The puck was loose when Anthony Louis swept in trying to put in the rebound, but the Wild netminder jumped on top of it to draw the whistle.
The Wild had been denied on the power play in 14 straight opportunities, but they ended that rut on a beautiful individual effort by Nico Sturm. Bartkowski brought the puck out of the Wild end, passing it ahead to Sturm. He put on the jets, bursting past two Texas defenders, creating a 2-on-0. As he reached the net, Sturm quickly passed it to Brandon Duhaime, who redirected the puck in for his sixth goal of the year.
With about four minutes left, the Stars pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. They had great puck movement inside the Iowa zone, but could not find a way to get one past Kahkonen.
It did not matter, though. With 1:23 left in regulation, Mike Liambas sealed the victory. Brennan Menell gained control of the puck behind his own net and fired it around the boards to Thompson, who lifted the puck up and out of his end. Liambas outraced the Texas defender, corralling the puck and then going the distance to tuck it into the empty net for his second goal of the year. That made it 4-0, which would be the final.
Kahkonen stopped all 30 shots he faced for his AHL-leading sixth shutout of the season. He now has shutouts in four of his last nine games. In his last 11 games, the Iowa netminder has a minuscule 1.91 goals against average and is 9-1-1.
Coach Army had nothing but superlatives for his goaltender.
“He came to see me after last night’s game. He told me, ‘I am ready to go,’ and I like that response. I told him last night that he was not as sharp and Kaapo always responds when he was not as sharp in the previous game. I really liked the look in his eyes and thought he would respond and he was outstanding.
The win was the 14th road victory of the season for the Wild, already matching last year’s total. They are five away from the franchise record.
The Wild head home to take on the Chicago Wolves on Tuesday night. The puck drops at 7:00pm CST.
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