The start to November has been lackluster for the Chicago Wolves, to say the least. The team has lost four out of five, and the only game-winning goal belongs to St. Louis Blues prospect MacKenzie MacEachern, who scored his first of the year. Kasimir Kaskisuo (on loan from the Toronto Maple Leafs) got a shutout in that sole win and has taken the reins in net since both Max Lagace and Oscar Dansk are with the Vegas Golden Knights.
And now, the team is learning how to live without Shea Theodore, the best part of both the Wolves’ power play and defense. Jason Garrison and Griffin Reinhart have not been able to pick up the slack from the young dynamo, despite their experience, and, as coach Rocky Thompson puts it, the fact that they are “doing things right.”
That’s not to say that there are no bright spots. Possibly the brightest has been the penalty kill, which has killed 20-of-23 opportunities during the month of November. Thompson says the penalty kill has been both a “big strength” and “obviously very good.” The coach has isolated hard work, sacrifice, and attention to detail as the key components to a successful kill. The downside of all this is that the intrepid PK squad has had plenty of opportunities to see the ice, as the Wolves continue to tally up penalties.
Other bright spots include Jake Bischoff, who continues to look like an eventual depth defenseman for the Golden Knights. “[We’ve got] big, strong defensemen who make simple plays,” Thompson said. “When the other team has the puck, they’re hard to play against.”
The Wolves have also consistently outshot their opponents. Rocky Thompson: “It’s a positive thing. We are able to play up ice, I like our offensive zone, able to cycle well, get our defense involved, getting traffic in front of the net, and we generate opportunity. That is a positive for sure.”
The traditional fourth line of Stefan Matteau, TJ Tynan, and Paul Thompson has also been great all season. They play more minutes than a fourth line usually would, but for good reason. Two of the three have been stars in early November.
Third Star: Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson has been a hard-working grinder for much of the year in Chicago. At the same time, he’s been productive, with three goals and three assists so far this year. He says he has been, “working hard, trying to play the right way, doing things that I’ve learned and tried to instill in my games, to make me a better overall player.”
Thompson has found himself being used in every aspect, including the second power play, the first penalty kill, and that great fourth line.
“It’s good to be used in all those positions.”
He has posted 1-1—2 to start November, including a goal at home against the Milwaukee Admirals.
“That one felt good,” said the fourth-liner. “We’ve been working hard, getting a lot of chances, a lot of pucks to the net. Hopefully, that will propel us to start getting some of those bounces and keep trying to earn those bounces, playing the right way, and hopefully get rewarded for it.”
Thompson also wears an “A” for the Wolves, as Chicago waits to find its captain. “It’s something I take pride in,” said Thompson. “We’ve got a lot of leaders in there, a lot of older guys, it’s not a really young team. But it’s nice to be relied upon in that situation and to be looked upon as that, and I take pride in it.”
Second Star: TJ Tynan
Tynan has been a part of that fourth line, the primary penalty kill, and has found power play experience right along with Thompson. “We’re pretty good buddies off the ice, and we both play the game pretty hard,” Tynan said. “We just come together in situations like that, when the team needs the win. Obviously, being some of the older guys, we have to lead by example, and we were just trying to do that.”
Tynan has picked up his production (1-3--4) to start November, despite heavy defensive usage. Those four points include an excellent centering pass to a net-crashing Thompson and an empty net goal. Tynan explains his playmaking as a “pretty strong part of my game, find the guys who can shoot the puck, put themselves in areas to score.”
The penalty kill, though, is where Tynan truly shines. He finds ways to win draws, despite his diminutive size, and works well along the boards.
“We’re bringing intensity,” the veteran center said. “We know if we outwork the power play it’ll frustrate them, and they’ll try and make plays that aren’t the best idea. I think if we bring that mentality 5-on-5, we’ll be good.”
First Star: Brandon Pirri
This leaves Brandon Pirri, who has been on injured reserve for roughly half the season. Now that he’s finally back, Pirri says that, “it’s tough not being with the team for a while, but I worked hard while I was out, to get back on the ice, and back to my teammates and my brothers.”
Pirri has scored two goals in three games since returning, and both goals have been assisted by Teemu Pulkkinen. Of Pulkkinen, Pirri said: “He’s a really good player. We’re able to talk a lot on the bench, so that’s huge. To have that communication, where guys are gonna be, that plays a role.”
Pirri has found a variety of chances while healthy and has scored from multiple areas. He’s been back to his normal NHL-level self, and he’s proving why a team should pick him up in the offseason, and why the Knights could give him a look as the season goes on.
Coach Thompson also has a positive view on the forward. “Having Pirri back on [the power play] was a big bonus for us,” said the skipper. In a rough time for the power play, getting Pirri back has been a boost. It will likely continue to rebound, as Pirri is slated to take on an expanded role going forward.