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The last time the Chicago Wolves hosted a postseason game, the Charlotte Checkers celebrated a Calder Cup championship on the Allstate Arena ice. Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky was an assistant coach for the Checkers that night.
On Thursday night, he led the AHL’s best regular-season team to a 6-2 blowout victory over their bitter rivals, the Rockford IceHogs.
The Blackhawks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate entered their 178th all-time game with the Wolves as major underdogs. Goaltender Arvid Soderblom was able to keep the IceHogs close for much of the opening period, but Chicago kept coming in waves and eventually broke through.
You would have had no clue that the Wolves had gone 12 days since their last game with the way Thursday evening started. They dominated the opening minutes by keeping the puck in the offensive zone and getting nine of the first 10 shots on goal. However, just over six minutes into the game, a turnover led to a Lukas Reichel breakaway, and he buried the chance for a 1-0 Rockford lead.
“I almost lost the puck on the boards because there was so much snow,” Reichel said about his goal-scoring play. “Then I looked and saw I had a breakaway. But it didn’t help us today.”
The Wolves did not let the miscue derail them. Defenseman Cavan Fitzgerald snuck a shot through heavy traffic to even up the score. Then, with just 10 seconds left in the first period, Stefan Noesen, who led the AHL with 48 goals in the regular season, scored on the power play.
The IceHogs getting outplayed by their in-state rivals is nothing new. The Wolves outshot them in 11 of the 12 regular-season meetings. When Reichel scored the game’s opening tally, it could have been easy for the Wolves to say, “here we go again.” Instead, they stuck to their plan of attack and flexed their collective muscle in a Game 1 blowout.
“What I thought was impressive was our first period,” said Warsofsky. “For having 12 days off, we thought a sluggish start might happen, but it didn’t. Credit to the guys. They put the work in those 12 days.”
The onslaught continued in the second period when Stellios Matheos scored off a failed Alec Regula clearing attempt. Moments later, Jack Drury tipped a Joey Keane shot for another power-play tally as Regula watched from the penalty box thanks to an ill-advised crosscheck. David Gust scored on a breakaway late in the period to push to lead to four goals.
IceHogs goaltender Arvid Soderblom, who gave up just one goal on 70 shots versus the Texas Stars in the play-in round, watched the third period from the bench. He allowed five goals on 27 shots before being pulled. Interim head coach Anders Sorensen said it wasn’t about how he played but rather getting him a little rest before playing back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
“I thought Arvid was really good there, early on,” he said. “But, we have to be better in front of him.”
Noesen added his second of the night, from his knees, in the opening minute of the final frame. Evan Barratt was left open in the slot and buried his first career professional postseason goal, but it was too little too late.
“We’ve got to put that one behind us,” Barratt said. “You don’t win a series in Game 1. We are going to learn from this and are excited to get right back at them.”
The IceHogs got dominated in every facet of the game. They were outshot 38-20. They rarely had any sustained offensive zone pressure. They allowed two power-play goals on seven chances while going 0-for-4 on the man-advantage. They had a two-man advantage for 1:24 late in the second period and did not get a single shot on goal. There was little urgency when they had possession of the puck.
In addition to getting more aggressive offensively, Rockford will need to play more disciplined hockey if they want to even the series on Saturday night. They took 11 penalties in the Game 1 loss. There is a fine line between playing physical, which you have to do against this Wolves team, and a continuously parading to the penalty box. The IceHogs must get on the other side of that line to have any chance of advancing.
“We need to be quicker on the forecheck, ” Sorensen said. “We put ourselves in tough spots today. They are a resilient bunch in there. We’ll be better, for sure.”
The Wolves will host Game 2 on Saturday night. As Sorensen and the IceHogs look to play better, Warsofsky wants his team to stay the course.
“We just got to play,” he said. “Things are not going to go our way. There are going to be bad calls and bad bounces. There are going to be mistakes. We just got to keep playing. If we get frustrated by it and let it factor into our mindset, it’s going to hurt us. That’s been a big key of focus for us.”
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves
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