The Wild got off to a fast start Friday at Town Toyota Center and never pumped the brakes, maintaining an aggressive attack until the end of regulation.
They finished the night with a lopsided 7-0 win, 41 shots on goal and — most importantly — a 1-0 lead over the Fresno Monsters in the North American Hockey League West Division Playoffs.
It’s just one game, but there was a lot to like about the way Wenatchee competed in the opening game of the best-of-five series.
It staked bodies in front of the opposing net, played disciplined (only 31 minutes of penalty time, 15 of which came from Martin Keckes, who received a game misconduct for fighting in the third period) and never abandoned its offensive-minded approach.
“We wanted to get pucks behind their D (defense) and be physical with their defense,” first-year bench boss Bliss Littler said. “And I thought that our endzone offense was very good because of our physical play.”
Goalie Robert Nichols faced a challenge early in the first period on a breakaway, but the 20-year-old stopped the shot, dove on the puck and spent the next 12 minutes waiting for an attack that never came.
On the other end, Monster goalie Thomas Sholl was doing everything in his power to prevent the puck from passing him by. Sholl made plenty of quality saves, but the Wild peppered shot after shot at him and it took a 2-0 lead in the first period.
The Wild got their quick lead by bodying up, fishing out rebounds and reloading. Their first score came from defenseman Derrick Kuchera off a pass from Joe Sullivan, the end result of a lengthy stay in Fresno territory at 9:42.
Wenatchee got a golden opportunity to extend its lead after a tripping call left the Monsters shorthanded. It stuck with the same game plan and crowded the opposing goal and ripped off a few shots. Finally, Nicholas Kuchera caught a rebound off Sholl’s pad and slipped the puck past Sholl’s reach for the team’s second score of the period.
Fresno opened the second period on a power play and put everything forward to create some offense and close the deficit.
It hammered away at Nichols, putting up eight shots on goal in the first nine minutes of play, but the seasoned Wild netminder kept the visiting team off the board with a number of athletic stops.
“He had a handful of very difficult saves,” Littler said. “He’s had a good couple weeks of practice.”
Finally, Wenatchee broke out on a counter attack and defenseman Joshua Hartley linked up with Evan Schmidbaeur with a clean pass from the neutral zone, which gave Schmidbaeur an uncontested breakaway. The forward finished with a wrister in the top shelf to make it a 3-0 contest.
The game got out of hand after that as the Wild continued to pursue the back of the net and enjoyed plenty of power play time — they finished the night 5-of-11.
“We got a lot of pride, so we don’t want to slow down,” said defenseman Joshua Hartley, who finished the night with one goal and three assists).
It’s still very early in the postseason, but if Wenatchee can produce at that level for the next month, it should be a very dangerous team.
“We had guys competing,” said forward Noah Nelson, who finished the contest with one goal and two assists. And that’s what you need in the playoffs. … You compete, good things happen.”