KALAMAZOO- As the Kalamazoo Wings (26-15-2-3) enter the second half of the season, they find themselves in familiar territory, first place in the ECHL’s North Division. Capturing the Division crown the past two seasons, the K-Wings have 55 points on the season, just four points ahead of the Chicago Express (22-17-5-2), who are slowly creeping up in their rearview mirror. The Cincinnati Cyclones (21-15-0-6) are in third with 48 points, and the Toledo Walleye (19-23-2-2) round out the division with 42.
With the Express knocking on the K-Wings’ door, head coach Nick Bootland is just as concerned over the other two teams that trail them as he is with the Express. “If you look how many games Cincinnati has in hand (four over the K-Wings) and you look at their record, I think their winning percentage is better than Chicago’s,” Bootland said.
Bootland said he is well aware that his team needs to be watching for Cincinnati down the stretch. “They are an unbelievable team at home, and they have come into our building and given us fits, too,” he said.
In addition, while the Walleye are currently in last place in the division, they are still a big threat. “You play Toledo, and it doesn’t matter if they are in first or last; it’s going to be a battle because of the rivalry that we have,” he said.
Playing in Huntington Center, where the Walleye play, is no easy task, according to Bootland, but hosting them is no piece of cake, either. “They come in here and fore-check hard as a group; they are a very aggressive hockey team,” he said. “If you don’t make the right decisions, quick decisions, then it can come back and bite you.”
Pointing to the parity of the league, Bootland said that the K-Wings can’t afford to take a night off. “If you’re not prepared to play and you’re not prepared to compete and you make some mistakes, you’re probably going to lose that night in this league, and that is one of the great things about the ECHL,” he said.
The K-Wings hit the road this past Tuesday for a three- game southern road swing that will take them to South Carolina and Georgia before returning to Kalamazoo in the early morning hours on Monday. Even though Bootland says his team is a tightly knit group that gets along well, going on the road as a team is just another way to make the group stronger and hopefully lead to a few more wins. “Anytime you get a chance to go and bond on the road, and you have a trip like this, you just want to go in there, keep it simple, and have success, and that makes it a lot more fun,” Bootland said.
With the team competing hard on the ice, Bootland feels there are still a few areas that they need to fine tune if they want to make another run for the Kelly Cup.
“I think the way we are playing . . . I don’t think it has been because of a lack of effort for a long time. That is huge,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes and lost games, don’t get me wrong. . .
Maybe lack of preparation to the fact that we are not ready to go at the start of a game and we get ourselves behind,” Bootland said. “But we always try to find a way to battle back and get back into the hockey game.”
While the team has been riddled with injuries, Bootland says that once everyone is healthy, watch out.
“Eventually we are going to get healthy and there are guys that are here that are going to push to keep their spots, and there are guys coming back that want their spots back,” he said. “The competiveness within the team and the competition within the team is going to be something that drives us to be even better.”
Goaltenders Riley Gill (17-9-1-3; 2.83 GAA) and Maxime Clermont (8-6-1-0; 3.36 GAA) have been competing against each other all season long to be the K-Wings’ number one goalie. “We are at a point now where they are pushing each other hard,” Bootland said. “They are both playing fairly consistent the last four or five starts for each of them, and that, in turn, is helping us win hockey games.”
At the moment, Bootland is content playing them both until one of them steps forward. “If there is a time when someone glaringly steps up, then they will get the job,” he said. “I like the fact that they are pushing each other, and I know they have a good relationship with each other. It’s a friendly competition to try and get it.”
K-Wings News and Notes
Susan G. Komen Night: The K-Wings will host Susan G. Komen Night on February 18th when the K-Wings take on the Gwinnett Gladiators. For the game, the team is selling special “Pink Packs”, which include a ticket to the game and a commemorative T-Shirt. Pink Packs are $23.90 for the Red Section, $19.90 for the White Section, and $9.90 for kids 2-12. The K-Wings are also offering special Pink Pack pricing for groups of 15 or more. A portion of all Pink Pack purchases will go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation of Southwest Michigan. Fans who cannot make the game or already have a ticket to the game can purchase a Pink Pack and donate their ticket to a cancer survivor.