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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Iowa: hard hitting and low scoring

The story of the Des Moines-based Iowa Stars in the playoffs this year is the team was assured of a playoff berth late in the season as Peoria faded. It is the second season for the team and it has successfully made it to the playoffs each time.

The 2006 first round playoffs went to seven games against the Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals, of course, went on to play in the league finals. The series against the Wolves is the first time the two teams have ever met in the post-season. In the first round, Iowa and the Omaha Ak-sar-Ben Knights played very physical games which were marred by questionable on-ice officiating. Dan Ellis has played in the nets for Iowa throughout the playoffs. The backup goalie is Tomas Stephan of Switzerland.

Ellis saved 89.4 percent, averaging 2.78 goals against average. Stephan, who played about half as many games as Ellis, averaged 90 percent saves and had a 2.88 GAA in the regular season. During the playoffs, Ellis has improved to 91.3 percent saves and a GAA of 2.09. Wolves goalie Michael Garnett, in comparison, has improved to a 93.6 percent saves and allowed 1.67 GAA in the playoffs, up substantially from 89.9 percent saves and 3.03 GAA in the regular season. Fred Brathwaite, who the Wolves have not used in net in the playoffs, averaged 90.2 percent saves and 2.74 GAA in the regular season.

The Dallas Stars, who have been eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs, sent three players to Iowa at the end of their season: Joel Lundqvist, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Grossman. Of the three Swedes, Lundqvist has only played in three playoff games and already leads all Iowa skaters with three goals and three assists. Junior Lessard, is proving to be hot, he has five points in the playoffs. Marty Sertich, who was sidelined with an injury for 25 games is also in the line-up. He has one assist so far, in two games.

The team was among the better road teams during regular season play, with 25 wins. They also had a great record in winning games past regulation during the regular season, eight wins, including four shoot-outs, for the second best record in the league. Their road percentage was even better, six of those eight out of regulation wins, were road victories.

The Stars notched a disappointing 14.5 percent power play in the regular season and a respectable, tenth place, 84.3 percent penalty kill. This has improved to 86.5 percent in the post-season. The Wolves stand at 95 percent in the post-season. And the Iowa power play has improved to 16 percent. The Wolves power play deteriorated from the regular season to 11.5 percent from 20.4 percent.

The hard hitting series with Omaha went six games. After losing game one, Iowa held Omaha scoreless for 20 minutes to win the second game in overtime. In game three, the Stars evened up the goals in the first period, holding the Knights to only one goal. Game four saw the Knights take an early lead and lose it. Game five, again, an early Knights lead, the Stars coming from behind and leading the game, then Omaha evening it up again, Omaha won this game in OT. The final game was a back and forth game of Iowa leads and Omaha evening up the score till Iowa took a one goal lead in the final frame. In desperation, Omaha pulled goalie Curtis McElhinney from the nets, but Lessard potted two empty net goals to finish the Knights season.

The pattern emerges of winning when defense is tight, each of the won games, Omaha had two goals or less. When Omaha scored three or more goals, they won. Except for game six, Iowa never scored more than three goals in the series. Given the descriptions of physical play, it seems like a team that likes to slow down play, clog up the approaches to the net. The other thing that emerges is a team that comes from behind and also warms up in the first period. They held the Knights to just four goals in the third frame over six games. Two of those goals occurred in game one.

The other thing is the team doesn’t take a lot of shots on goal. Game one, 19. Game two, 24. Game three, 20. Game four, 24. Game five, 30. And game six, 23. Obviously, there were periods in which very few Iowa shots on goal occurred, notably game one, third frame: five.

The flip side of this is that Omaha had few shots on goal too, 149 over six games, an average of 24.8 a game, compared to the Stars 140 total or an average of 23.3.

In comparison, the Wolves had 115 shots on goal in the series against the defensive minded Milwaukee Admirals, an average of 28.75.

Looking at how the two teams have matched up this past season:

Date Visiting Team Score Home Team Score CHI Goalie IOW Goalie
2006-11-14 Chicago 8 Iowa 2 Garnett Ellis
2006-12-12 Chicago 7 Iowa 3 Brathwaite Stephan
2007-01-23 Chicago 2 Iowa 3 SO Garnett Ellis
2007-01-27 Chicago 7 Iowa 3 Brathwaite Ellis
2007-03-23 Chicago 2 Iowa 3 Garnett Ellis
2006-10-28 Iowa 5 Chicago 4 OT Garnett Ellis
2006-11-26 Iowa 6 Chicago 3 Garnett Stephan
2006-11-29 Iowa 2 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Stephan
2006-12-05 Iowa 2 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Ellis
2007-04-14 Iowa 0 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Stephan

Although Garnett has the hot hand, he has not fared well against the Stars. Brathwaite should see more time in the pipes. Expect Ellis to start against Chicago. The game is likely to be very physical. There are notes that Iowa coach Dave Allison lost his temper at Omaha fans at the start of the series. In addition, the two teams were running each other’s goalies, especially a final game incident by Omaha.

So, lots of penalties. Chicago is 12 for 54 on the power play in the regular season against the Stars, 22.2 percent. Iowa is 9 for 66 on the power play against Chicago, 13.6 percent.

Keys to the game. Keep the game moving, don’t let Iowa slow the action down. Keep the shots ringing on their iron. Stay out of the penalty box. Our power play is better than their power play. And our penalty kill is better than their penalty kill.

Neutralize Lundqvist. Get under the skin of Allison. Don’t let Yared Hagos get under the skin of the Chicagoans. This is a very winnable series. But this team keeps coming back, so when the Wolves get them by the nuts, they need to scramble their brains.

The series is in a 2-3-2 format, with the first game occurring at the Allstate Arena, Wednesday, May 2nd 7:00 PM, followed by a game Friday May 4th 7:30 PM. If necessary, game five will be played Saturday May 12th 7:00 PM and Monday May 14th 7:00 PM.

Iowa plays in the Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa against Chicago May 8th 7:05 PM, May 10th 7:05 PM and if necessary May 12th 7:00 PM.

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