Iowa Heartlanders notebook | Franchise emphasizing defense in search of first road win

The Heartlanders are 0-7-3 away from Xtream Arena in 2022-23 and play at the Newfoundland Growlers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.


Isabella Cervantes

Iowa goalie Hunter Jones blocks the puck from entering the goal during a Heartlanders scrimmage at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. The Rose Team defeated the Dash Team 4-3.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

The Iowa Heartlanders have yet to win an away game during the 2022-23 season, but head coach Derek Damon said they’re close to earning a road victory.

Through their first 10 away contests, the opponents have outscored the Heartlanders, 46-24. Yet, they have been close to winning as three of those games went into overtime, like their 5-4 fall against the Trois-Rivières Lions on Saturday.

The 4-9-3-1 Heartlanders will play at the Newfoundland Growlers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday before traveling back to Coralville. The Growlers are 14-5-1 and own second place in the ECHL North Division. Newfoundland has come on top in nine of its 12 games at Mary Brown’s Centre.

“They’re a fast team,” Damon said. “They have a lot of good players. So, it’s imperative that we play to our structure, and we stay within our system and we play really good defense. It’s something that we’ve stressed the last couple days in practice.”

The Growlers rank third in the league at 4.1 goals per game, and they tallied nine versus the Maine Mariners on Nov. 26. On the other hand, the Heartlanders have conceded 4.29 goals per contest, which is the third-worst mark in the ECHL. Iowa allowed eight goals to the Kansas City Mavericks on Nov. 11.

Despite the poor defensive statistics, Damon said there are multiple blueliners who have solidified themselves in the lineup.

He mentioned adding ECHL veteran Kevin McKernan and AHL-contracted Matt Murphy has been beneficial to the club. The bench boss applauded captain Riese Zmolek and noted rookie Ryan Wheeler has taken a step forward.

RELATED: Iowa Heartlanders defenseman Kevin McKernan providing veteran presence

Though Justin Wells and T.J. Fergus aren’t lineup regulars, Damon said the Heartlanders wanted to put them in the lineup in their two-game series against the Lions because they hadn’t played in a while. Wells filled in for Orzeck on Friday.

With forward James Sanchez suspended by the league on Saturday, the Heartlanders went to a 10-forward, seven-defensemen lineup. Orzeck replaced Wells as Fergus was the extra blueliner. Damon said Wells and Fergus played well.

Sanchez is also suspended Wednesday after he was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for interference on Friday.

Jones settling into professional game

Goaltender Hunter Jones was reassigned to the Heartlanders from the AHL’s Iowa Wild on Friday. After competing in four games with the Heartlanders early in the season, he started Saturday and saved 29 out of 34 shots in 61 minutes.

Though his numbers aren’t the greatest with the Heartlanders — a 3.81 goals against average with a .884 save percentage — Jones excelled in his sole appearance with the Wild in 2022-23. He stopped 26 out of 28 shots at the Milwaukee Admirals on Nov. 19.

Jones, who the Minnesota Wild selected in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, started his professional career with the Iowa Wild in 2020-21. He said he’s becoming more of a professional on and off the ice as he’s taken cues from veterans while training in the NHL and AHL.

“I think overall that learning experience has been really helpful for me moving forward, and I’m starting to understand it a bit more,” Jones said.

The Brantford, Ontario, product said Minnesota has given him positive feedback this year. Jones mentioned his rebound control has improved from last year, along with his mental game.

Durflinger providing energy

As a third or fourth-line forward, Jake Durflinger isn’t the most offensively skilled Heartlander. But Damon said the 5-foot-9 skater brings energy and is a pest on the ice.

Durflinger recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick when he notched a goal, an assist, and a fight at the Kalamazoo Wings on Nov. 23.

“I think it’s just protecting guys, being able to stand up for guys, whether it’s someone takes a cheap shot, or the team needs an extra boost in certain situations,” Durflinger said. “Obviously, with the way this league is there’s a lot of travel, and sometimes your legs aren’t there. We come out flat for a night with how heavy the travel is and just being able to add that to my game to give the team the spark when it’s needed.”

The rookie from Walnut Creek, California, signed with the Florida Everblades over the summer but was cut before the regular season started.

The right-handed shooter found his way to the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Huntsville Havoc but said he was there for a 2.5 days before Iowa called him. He made his professional debut against the Wings on Oct. 28 and has since totaled five points in 14 games.