The Chicago Wolves were in for a bit of home cooking since we last updated their progress but managed only a 1-2 record while up against Arizona’s affiliate the Tucson Roadrunners, led by Dylan Strome, and the Manitoba Moose who were supported heavily by goaltender Eric Comrie.
When watching the Wolves there are a few things that pop out at you. The first is their magnificent power play, which led the league until this week, but still leads the division. Part of the recent decline in power play production is due to an injury to Brandon Pirri, signed to the Knights on a two-way deal, who was a significant contributor offensively.
Head coach Rocky Thompson said Pirri has an upper-body injury and said his status was “day to day, but he’s not playing in the near future.” A blow to the Wolves lineup, but when Pirri does return healthy, he’ll be “on the top power play and the top line. Whether that’s as a center or a winger depends on the roster.”
A roster that has changed rapidly over the past week. Most of the moves have been made by the St. Louis Blues, and so are unimportant to address here. However, the Wolves have lost goaltenders Oscar Dansk and Max Lagace as the Golden Knights have had need at the position. Lagace started two out of three of this week’s games, and looked really good in the second game of the back-to-back against Tucson, allowing just one goal.
Another thing that pops out is the penalty kill, which is seventh best in the AHL at 88.5% penalties killed. That’s a special teams unit led by less discussed Golden Knights affiliated players like Tobias Lindberg, T.J. Tynan, Paul Thompson, and Jake Bischoff who look like rock stars defensively.
Then there’s Tomas Hyka, who does everything well, and looks like he has what it takes to be a productive third liner in the NHL. His transition back to North American ice has been helped by being paired with NHL talent Beau Bennett of the Blues for four games. He scored the first game-winning goal of the season for the Wolves and added a goal in the first game against Tucson.
The worst this team may look all season was during their most recent game against the Manitoba Moose, and even then they were great for 30 minutes. To start the game, they had the most dominant 10 minutes they’ve had all season. They then implemented Coach Thompson’s plan by tightening up in terms of penalties, not taking one for more than twenty minutes in the middle of the game. Now, if only the team would meet his want of less turnovers.
Third Star: Max Lagace
The belief amongst the writers covering the Wolves is that Lagace was supposed to be the number three goaltender after Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban. And why not? He was the starter in the AHL, and has looked better in terms of both game situations and practice than Oscar Dansk.
While Lagace was in the AHL, taking two back-to-back starts to stay warm in preparation for a backup role behind Subban, Malcolm got hurt. Dansk was there and picked up the first two wins of his NHL career. Good thing I talked to him before the season started.
Still, Lagace might be the better goaltender in that duo, and he kept the Wolves in their first three home games. He won two, allowing just two goals in the opener, where he recovered after an early third period lapse, a recovery he credits to “doing what I did in the first two periods. After that, we shut the door and played really well.”
He credits the guys in front of him as well. “Right off the bat, we came out strong and, you know, the shots were from outside. It was a pretty easy night for me. When I had to come up with the better save, I felt confident,” said Lagace. That defense is the only thing that hasn’t seen a ton of change yet this season, which helped translate to another win for Lagace against the Roadrunners.
Lagace also left me with this gem, which summarizes the Knights’ goaltenders motto this season: “First win is always a big confidence booster. Now it’s all about getting the next one.”
Second Star: Shea Theodore
Perhaps the biggest credit to the defense belongs to Shea Theodore. Nobody’s been more important to the Wolves this season defensively, and he’s among the leaders in the AHL in terms of points scored and points scored among defensemen. It’s getting kind of ridiculous that he hasn’t been called up to the NHL.
Theodore credits his offensive production to “skating and puck moving ability. That’s been shown the past couple games.” It’s been shown more than just the past couple games, as Theodore has scored points in four of the six games so far for the Wolves.
He has also been a prominent part of both the special teams units. He’s a power play threat that helped lead to some of the best chemistry on the team, and has seen his fair share of penalty killing minutes.
“That’s what I’m here to do. Play lots of minutes, lots of important minutes for sure. I feel like I’ve been pretty solid so far.” He’s the clear number one guy, he double shifted after Chris Casto was injured against Manitoba, and he and Teemu Pulkkinen are the go-to guys for Thompson.
First Star: Teemu Pulkkinen
Pulkkinen, six games into the season, is tied for the AHL points lead with 11. “It’s nothing. It’s early. It’s just a couple games. Let’s see at 20, 30 games, how we’re doing,” said Pulkkinen. His humble attitude comes across in every interview question asked, but not on the ice. He scored four points in the home opener, and has scored two points since then.
He single-handedly won the second game for the Wolves this season, scoring both goals, the second following an effortless zone entry.
Pulkkinen has also said of his production: “[It] doesn’t matter, we won the game. We’re here to win the games. Work hard and try to get some goals to try and get back to the NHL. That’s my ultimate goal, to play in the NHL.” To get there, he has some areas in his game in need of improvement that Pulkkinen will need to focus on.
The main area — defense. Watching Pulkkinen, he seems to glide around in the defensive area whereas he hustles and doesn’t stop giving his maximum effort on the offense end. To be fair, the effort he gives in the offense has to be taken from somewhere, and he’s also great in the neutral zone. But in the NHL, Pulkkinen will see fewer minutes and fewer shifts. He needs to prove he has what it takes to play well in his own zone. If he can do that he looks like he could become a consistent scoring third liner.
And as Pulkkinen has said about the roster change mostly affecting his line: “[It] doesn’t matter who’s playing there, just want to practice hard, and it will come. Hard work, that’s the thing.” He has the work ethic to improve. The rest of the season will be proving he can do it, while remaining one of the best scorers in the AHL.