WENATCHEE — Coming off one of their most dominating wins of the season, the Wenatchee Wild had a good opportunity to build a towering two-game lead over the Fresno Monsters on Saturday at Town Toyota Center.
Instead, they took almost 40 minutes to record a goal, were blanked during numerous power play opportunities and never managed to establish the offense they needed to recover, despite out-chancing and outshooting Fresno 28-10 in the final two periods.
Wenatchee’s 3-1 home loss puts it in a 1-1 tie against the Monsters in the North American Hockey League West Division best-of-five series. Now the Wild will have to travel to Fresno and pick up at least one win to keep its postseason going, a feat that’s by no means undoable.
“We’ve played eight games down there this year, we’re 7-1, so obviously we know we can win down there,” first-year coach Bliss Littler said.
It took only 18 seconds for Wenatchee to fall behind, and that proved to be a big handicap for the home team.
The Wild gave up a costly turnover in the defensive zone, which left goalie Robert Nichols to face a Fresno attacker without any defensive help.
Wenatchee gave up another goal in the first period on another breakaway and one more in the second during a five-on-four advantage.
“It’s a kick in the teeth, is what it is,” Littler said. “We have three keys … Make plays, take care of the puck, be physical. You don’t take care of the puck on the first one — breakaway. Breakaway on the second one, and the third one’s just a bad goal.”
In fact, the Wild struggled to create effective offense for much of the first 40 minutes of play.
They spent a portion of the first period in the Monsters’ zone attacking, but couldn’t get past goalie Tomas Sholl — who recorded 35 saves on 36 shots in the win — and spent most of the last five minutes of the period shorthanded.
They got back on the attack after Fresno started committing penalties in succession, but couldn’t get the goals they needed to get back into contention and let one slip by with 8:23 left in the second period. The team went 0-for-6 on power play opportunities in the second period alone and 0-for-9 on the night.
Littler wasn’t distraught with the special team unit’s approach, but a combination of things kept it off the scoreboard.
“I don’t know that our power play was any better yesterday than it was today,” said Littler, whose team was 5-for-11 in that department Friday in its 7-0 win. “We’ve moved the puck into areas to score, you know, we got the puck in finishing areas. We just didn’t finish.”
As the seconds ticked away, it looked as though Wenatchee would retreat into the second intermission facing an almost insurmountable 3-0 deficit.
Max McHugh came up with a potentially game-saving score with 23 seconds left in the period after defenseman Joshua Hartley caused a turnover and linked up with the center up ice.
McHugh used the open-ice breakaway and found the five-hole to cut the Fresno advantage to 3-1 and give Wenatchee a sliver of hope going into the final period.
But the Monsters made a comeback incredibly difficult.
They implemented a very conservative strategy, often keeping three players back to meet negate any oncoming attack.
“Their goalie played very well, their goalie played very well,” Littler said. “Once they got a lead, they played a very good team game by chipping a lot of pucks out and they played a good road playoff game once they got the lead.”
Undeterred, the Wild continued to advance the puck and try and set up quality shots in hopes of clawing back into contention. They even pulled their goalie to put an extra attacker on the ice with 3:10 left in regulation. Unfortunately for the No. 1-seeded NAHL West squad, nothing was could breach Fresno’s strong defensive shell and Wenatchee will need to recuperate and come up with answers if it hopes to clinch the series.
“It was smart on their part,” Littler said of Fresno’s conservative strategy. “They did a nice job.”
Jon Frank: 664-7157