This wasn’t the first time forward Ryan Donato parachuted onto a team that was vying to extend its season to the playoffs.
He was in the same position two months ago after a trade from the Boston Bruins sent him to the Wild in the midst of its battle to advance, a push Donato contributed to by racking up 16 points in 22 games.
That bid ultimately fell short, with the Wild missing out on the postseason for the first time in seven years.
But Donato — along with fellow rookies Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — helped the organization’s minor league club clinch its first playoff appearance in franchise history, continuing a remarkable season for the Iowa Wild that has the chance to enhance the development of all three up-and-comers.
“Whatever they need for me to do,” Donato said, “I’ll do.”
Iowa will begin its first-round series against the Milwaukee Admirals on Sunday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Puck drop is 4 p.m.
A playoff spot was a predictable outcome on the heels of a 37-26-8-5 performance that culminated in 87 points, the best showing in Iowa’s six-year existence in the American Hockey League. But Iowa wasn’t guaranteed a berth until after it played all 76 games.
After ranking among the Central Division leaders for much of the season, the team dropped to fifth after an eight-game losing streak in March and April. Only the top four squads in the division advance.
With the Wild’s season over, the team assigned Donato, Greenway and Kunin to Iowa to keep playing, and their arrival kick-started a turnaround.
In the trio’s first game with Iowa, the three combined for a whopping 11 points — which included a five-point effort from Donato and a hat trick by Kunin — to end Iowa’s skid with a decisive 7-3 win over Grand Rapids on April 10.
The roster staples also stood out after that, as Iowa eked out a 2-1 overtime win over Chicago on April 12 before shutting out Rockford 3-0 last Saturday. The team ended up the third seed in the Central.
“They were outstanding, and offensively it was a springboard for us,” first-year Iowa coach Tim Army said of the three rookies. “But everybody else was dialed in and contributed and played well.”
Donato, Greenway and Kunin played together as a line, with Kunin slotting up the middle, Greenway skating on the left side and Donato on the right — a unit the parent Wild also utilized during its season.
While the additions created better balance in Iowa’s lineup, this was already a group built on speed and skill.
Wingers Gerald Mayhew (27) and Kyle Rau (26) are the team’s goal leaders, while captain Cal O’Reilly paces the pack in points with 67. Overall, Iowa’s 242 goals were the second most in the division and its 23.8% power play finished tops.
At the other end, goalies Kaapo Kahkonen and Andrew Hammond split the bulk of the starts with Hammond in net during the team’s 3-0 run to close out the season. He turned aside 86 of 90 shots in those games for a .956 save percentage and 1.30 goals-against average and was recognized as the league’s player of the week.
“We established a style of play that fit our strengths, and we stayed with it,” Army said.
Having that commitment lead to the Calder Cup playoffs is a source of pride for the organization, but there’s a chance to accomplish more. The team expects to be competing in June despite a challenging matchup against Milwaukee, as the Nashville Predators’ affiliate wrapped up the regular season on a 14-game point streak and upended Iowa 5-1 in its last meeting.
Iowa, though, won the season series 4-1-0-1.
“We have a group of guys that care about each other, and we have a lot of talent and we can make a run,” Army said.
Not only would a lengthy stay in the playoffs make this season even more memorable for Iowa, but it’d give Donato, Greenway and Kunin an experience they didn’t get with the Wild: competing for a championship against established pros while skating heavy minutes as players counted on to deliver offense.
And getting used to that situation should prepare the three for their NHL futures with the Wild since they’re primed to receive more opportunity while the team targets a younger lineup to help it improve.
“We’re going to do everything we can to have things go great down here,” Greenway said.