ALEC DOPP — You won’t hear much talk of must-win scenarios at this stage of the United States Hockey League’s regular season, but as far as Green Bay Gamblers head coach Pat Mikesch is concerned, his squad’s weekend-opening matchup with Des Moines was exactly that: A must-win.
Fortunately for Mikesch, his staff and 2,507 fans who packed the Resch Center Friday evening, Green Bay’s young roster rose to the occasion following three consecutive regulation losses, including one just two nights earlier in Cedar Rapids — the league’s top club with 40 PTS.
After two periods in which both clubs posted all but identical shots on goal and penalty minute totals, the Buccaneers converted on the game’s first score midway through the third period, which placed Green Bay in an all too familiar, late-game deficit situation.
But with two minutes remaining in regulation, momentum shifted.
First-year forward Brian Bowen connected with his eighth goal of the season — he’s now tied for the club lead with 19 PTS — in a scramble in front of Des Moines’ net, after which Green Bay was forced to kill off a crucial penalty over the final minute of play to earn an overtime appearance.
Then, with 18 seconds to spare in the extra period, Michigan Tech commit Jake Kauppila completed the late comeback effort with his fourth goal of the season. The two key points raised Green Bay’s total to 20 through 23 contests, and simultaneously improved the club’s record to 9-12-2.
“I don’t think I’ve had a game winner since midgets,” Kauppila said after the win. “It felt great. I was trying to make up for getting walked into the blue line and I made a pass to Bowen, so I just drove to the net. Vili’s pass got blocked and I kind of blindly swung at the puck and saw it crossed the line.”
“I think we’ve had a few of these opportunities slip,” Mikesch said. “We are playing good hockey, but I think we have a lot better. I think we have another level of complete game in us, and tonight was a step closer to that level.”
Kevin Reich once again performed admirably in net for Green Bay, successfully warding off 24 of 25 shots against him. Since being acquired from Dubuque in October, Reich now boasts a 5-2-1 record and save percentage of .929, which remains one of the best marks in the league.
“It will be interesting to watch the film back because I thought he (Reich) looked really solid,” Mikesch said. “Pucks were hitting him square, and the one he let through I didn’t get a great view of yet, so once I do we’ll have a much better idea of how that played out.”
With their third overtime victory at the Resch Center in the books, the Gamblers will make a quick turnaround to Chicago Saturday morning to complete their weekend campaign. Stay tuned for continual notes and updates once puck drops at its designated 7:05 p.m. CT slot.