The last time we saw the Chicago Wolves, they quickly dispatched the Rockford IceHogs with an impressive three-game sweep. Since then, they beat the Milwaukee Admirals in four games before defeating the Stockton Heat in six to win their second straight Western Conference title.
Since there were no American Hockey League (AHL) playoffs in 2020 or 2021, this is the Wolves’ second consecutive trip to the Calder Cup Finals. They lost in 2019 to the Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ affiliate. This time around, they are the Hurricanes’ affiliate, making it back-to-back trips for that organization too.
The puck drops on the Calder Cup Finals Sunday afternoon. The visitors’ locker room at the Allstate Arena will host Chicago’s most formidable opponent yet, the Springfield Thunderbirds. The AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues needed seven games to beat the Laval Rocket after sweeping the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Checkers in the first two rounds.
The Wolves have used the same formula since the team’s inception in 1994. They have consistently built teams that can develop young talent and compete for a championship by adding veterans who get it done this time of year. Josh Leivo is a prime example of this as the 29-year-old winger, who has 214 games of NHL experience, leads the AHL with nine playoff goals and 20 points. Veteran Stefan Noesen has seven goals and 16 points, while captain Andrew Poturalski has five goals and 14 points.
Poturalski was part of that Checkers team who beat the Wolves in 2019. In fact, he won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for being the most valuable player of the postseason. He led the AHL with 101 points during the regular season and has consistently performed at a top level since opening night.
“We have to stay with it,” Poturalski said after Friday’s practice. “We’ve been successful all season long doing the things we do. There is no reason to change anything up. We’re a good team when we play hard and fast. We’ve got to work hard and enjoy the moment.”
However, it is not just the veterans leading the way for the Wolves. 22-year-old Jack Drury, who went to Loyola Academy in the north suburbs, has seven goals and is tied with Noesen for second on the team in scoring with 16 points.
“I don’t think he will be in Chicago next season; he will be with the Hurricanes,” said Wolves play-by-play announcer Jason Shaver on the CHGO Blackhawks podcast. “If the Wolves did not have Jack as their number two centerman, they are probably not here either. This kid never has a bad day. You can always go to Jack. He’s a pro’s pro at 22. It’s unbelievable.”
Even if you can slow down the Wolves’ offense, you have to deal with a tremendous goaltending tandem in veteran Alex Lyon and rookie Pyotr Kochetkov. Lyon has started 10 of the 13 playoff games and posted a .924 save percentage (SV%) and 1.96 goals-against average (GAA). Kochetkov, the feisty Russian netminder, has played three games since returning from Carolina. He has a 941 SV% and 1.94 GAA and shut out Stockton to finish out the Western Conference Finals. Head coach Ryan Warsofsky has the luxury of two fantastic goaltenders to choose from.
“It’s an interesting dilemma,” said Shaver, a former goaltender. “You have a veteran who led the league in GAA, and he was off the great start in the playoffs, and then Kochetkov was reassigned. One of the things about this time of year is building availability is tough, so there will be some back-to-back games. The Wolves have a luxury where they can rotate and feel very confident in their netminders.”
Speaking of Warsofsky, he was on the bench for the Checkers as an assistant the last time the Calder Cup Finals were played. When the Hurricanes switched affiliates, he became the head coach of the Wolves, and success has followed. He knows one major challenge is left before his team can achieve their ultimate goal.
“They are similar to Stockton,” he said of the Thunderbirds. “They’ve got experience. They’ve got goaltending and are good on the back end. They’ve got some good offensive defensemen and some heavy forwards. They are here for a reason, so we’ve got to make sure we stick to our gameplan, and when we don’t have the puck, we know what we’re doing.”
Springfield has taken a page out of the Wolves’ roster-building book as they are a veteran-laden team. The most recognizable name for Blackhawks fans is James Neal, who has 296 goals and 559 points in 869 career NHL games with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Blues. The 34-year-old forward has three goals and nine points during the postseason.
Mackenzie MacEachern is no stranger to Wolves fans as he was a member of the team when they were the Blues’ affiliate between 2016 and 2018. Will Bitten and Sam Anas lead the Thunderbirds in postseason scoring with 17 and 14 points, respectively. Both veterans spent a lot of time in the Central Division with the Iowa Wild. Anas led the AHL in scoring with 70 points for Iowa during the COVID-shortened season of 2019-20. The roster is rounded out with other veterans like Matthew Peca, Dakota Johnson, and Tommy Cross.
Like the Wolves, the Thunderbirds have an outstanding goaltending duo with veteran Charlie Lindgren and first-year pro Joel Hofer. Even though Lindgren picked up the Game 7 win over Laval, Hofer has been the starter for eight of their 13 games. The youngster has a 2.08 GAA and .947 SV%.
“It’s so nice having two goalies, especially with the amount of back-to-back [games] we’ve played in the playoffs,” Peca said of the tandem. “Our two goalies have been our best players night in and night out, and it doesn’t matter who’s in there. We’re confident.”
Much like the Stanley Cup Final in the NHL, the Calder Cup Finals has an exceptional match-up. These two evenly matched teams know how to win in the playoffs. This series will see two of the best AHL teams playing at a high level, and it just may go the distance.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves.