The Chicago Wolves are now on a nine-game point streak, with some help from Max Lagace, who, since returning from his brief stint in Vegas, has come up with a 5-0-2 record. That includes contests where the Wolves held opposing teams to just one goal. It also includes a game against the Grand Rapids Griffins where the Wolves let up three goals in the first period before Lagace held the fort to allow just goal in the final 40.
The Wolves offense has also taken a massive step forward. Earlier this year, it seemed like the Wolves couldn’t buy a goal, but since Michael Leighton’s shutout against the Cleveland Monsters on Dec. 9, the team has averaged 3.67 goals per game. The defense has also limited opponents to just 2.33 goals per game. Not a bad turnaround.
Coach Rocky Thompson has said that the team loosening up and having more fun is a result of the winning streak. Being around the team, it's easier to tell the players are having a better time.
"When you win, you feel better about yourself and about your game,” said Thompson. “That's such a huge thing. A coach can't give you confidence. You've gotta believe in yourself. When you do, and you start to get rewarded to a degree, confidence grows, and you know you can execute the situations."
And that confidence has only led to continued success.
"I think we've been consistent with our play. We've been getting steadily better, without a doubt,” said Thompson. “I think our goaltending has gotten better. They've made big saves and timely saves. On top of that, we've been scoring timely goals. When you stick to it and you work, as I think our guys have as a 20-man unit, they're starting to get rewarded in every aspect of the game."
Third star: Max Lagace
Lagace has a 5-0-2 record over his past seven games and has posted a .922 save percentage. He looks a lot more confident. He's been one of the best penalty killers for the Wolves, and he shows up every game.
When Thompson credits the goaltending with getting better, it's mainly due to the fact that Lagace is back. He looks like a different goaltender before and after his stint with the Golden Knights. And the fact that he got six wins in the NHL has translated to consistent success back in the AHL.
Yes, Lagace can be a bit aggressive, but when it works the vast majority of the time, it's hard to blame him. The Wolves defense has changed around him, and they look a lot more confident as well. Lagace has to have sent holiday cards to his posts, who've also played their part well.
Lagace says the secret to his success has been to stay calm, stay positive throughout the game.
“The team plays really well in front of me, and that makes me really confident,” said Lagace. “It lets me challenge guys."
Second Star: Tomas Hyka
Hyka, after missing an extended period of time with multiple injuries, came back with a vengeance. He's scored four goals and nine points over the past eight games, including a four-point performance in his first game back.
“He's very dangerous to play against,” Thompson said of Hyka. “His speed has to be respected, he makes our power play a lot better. He has a very good skill set. He can shoot and he can make plays. I don't think we have seen his best game yet. Even though he's played good, I'm not saying that in a negative way, that's a positive way. I think once he gets in a rhythm, in a groove, there's more of a ceiling there."
There is a lot to love about Hyka. He plays well on the power play and at even strength (and, in my opinion, should get a look at the penalty kill) and does everything well. He himself has stressed his need to develop a better defensive game, but the potential is there.
Hyka is perhaps the fastest skater in the Western Conference in the AHL. Every time he steps on the ice, it’s clear he’s the fastest player in the building. With the game of hockey moving towards speed, that's a crucial skill. Hyka also has a willingness to do whatever it takes to make a play or score a goal.
Hyka said his successful restart was him just keeping it simple.
“It's been a while that I didn't play, so I just kept doing simple things. That helped me a lot, and my teammates helped me a lot.”
Hyka also said with a smile, "Just give me the puck, and I'll do the rest.”
First star: T.J. Tynan
Thompson said of T.J. Tynan's recent success:
"I think over the last two weeks, his game has really started to elevate, and he's really starting to get into his zone. He is just an engine out there when he has the puck, whether it’s the penalty kill, 5-on-5, even on the power play. When it's on his stick, he makes good decisions. I think it's been a process here, it's been ramping up, we've been seeing a lot of good things the last two weeks. I think he feels really good and really confident."
I would hope so. Over the course of this winning streak, Tynan has blossomed into one of the best players on the Wolves roster. Over the past nine games, Tynan has scored four goals and nine points. That includes a hat trick with two of those goals coming shorthanded.
That's where Tynan has shined the brightest. When he's on the penalty kill, he has the ability to grab the puck, drive it to the opposing zone and get chances. Tynan has a competitive spirit, work ethic and vision. He's a dynamo of possession, and he continues to excel.
"He and Wade Megan were working really well together,” said Thompson. “I've started using them more. I think it's paid dividends for us. At one point, it seemed like they were generating more shots on the penalty kill.”
Tynan and Paul Thompson have played the most together out of any forward duo on the Wolves roster. That sort of chemistry was bound to give Tynan some confidence, and a good amount of Tynan's assists this season have come on Thompson goals.
Tynan said of his play on the penalty kill translating to success in other areas, “Anytime you get out there more, especially at the beginning of the game, you get your legs going faster, you’re skating more, you’re touching the puck a bit more. Anytime you can get out there more, I think it just helps.”