The Chicago Wolves are the hottest team in the AHL. You’d think the Vegas Golden Knights were playing there, too.
The Wolves are on a 14-game point streak (!!!). They're currently on a five-game winning streak (!!!) and started the point streak with six straight wins (!!!).
Happy New Year, indeed, for a team that seemed to be in the midst of obscurity at one point in December.
“I think we’re building, we’re finding ways to win games,” said Wolves coach Rocky Thompson. “Sometimes we control games outright, and we’ve won that way, which is great."
Here’s what you missed during this time: It's been a streak of mostly home wins, but their win against the Iowa Wild in Iowa on Jan. 1 was impressive. They beat the best team in the Western Conference in the Manitoba Moose on Jan. 5 and elevated themselves into a playoff spot with wins over the Rockford Ice Hogs, Grand Rapids Griffins, and Iowa.
Considering they were out of the playoffs six weeks ago, that's not half bad.
They're second in the Central Division, three points above the Milwaukee Admirals (who have two games in hand) and two points above both Rockford and Iowa, who have played the same number of games (37).
These five wins have been a mixture of close games (4-3 over Manitoba, 2-1 over Iowa) and beatdowns (6-2 over Rockford). The most consistent thing about the point streak has been variation, and that's stayed true to the start of the calendar year. There have been five different game-winning goal scorers in this winning streak, but there have been standouts.
That includes St. Louis Blues' center Wade Megan, who has five points in the past five games. He's been excellent at his job of second-line center and power-play specialist. It's not difficult to see why he was the AHL's leading goal scorer last season.
It also includes T.J. Tynan, who deserves props for the past month. He's been proficient. He's hit 2-2—4 over the past five games, including two shorthanded points. He continues to be one of the best penalty killers this writer has seen. Again, that seems to be another trend that’s rubbed off from the counterparts in Vegas.
“We’ve had a couple long road trips, where we’ve played games consistently on the road, and our guys have done a good job,” Thompson said. “Our game doesn’t really change, where we’re playing. We know we can only play one way, which is straight ahead hockey. We want to play in the offensive zone. We feel it’s a big strength of ours, and we feel our guys have bought in and they’re seeing the fruits of their labor now.”
3. Tobias Lindberg
Lindberg has scored a goal every other game since Dec. 9. Those goals have come in handy, especially with Lindberg's role as the fourth-line center. That line includes AHL veteran Brett Sterling (and during this five-game winning streak, Bryce Gervais) as well as rookie Tyler Wong.
Lindberg has 2-1—3 through five games, including a goal in back-to-back games. His goal against the Cleveland Monsters helped cement the victory, and he scored shorthanded to kickstart the game in Iowa.
“He strengthens our fourth line,” Thompson said. “He's always been a winger, and I think he's been a better centerman. I think that move to center, once he's gotten adjusted to it, has really brought another element to his game. He's very responsible without the puck."
Lindberg has been excellent defensively this season and has earned a spot in the penalty-kill rotation. He doesn’t win many faceoffs, but to be fair, he's a natural winger. His shift to the center position is going about as well as could be expected, especially as he's turned his offense around.
“I’ve always looked at myself more as an offensive-minded person, but I just try to become a complete player," Lindberg said. "If they need me to become more of a defensive player, I’ll become more of a defensive player.”
2. Brandon Pirri
Pirri was named an All-Star for the third time in his AHL career. He's said he's honored to represent the Wolves when multiple guys could go. But as the leading scorer for the Wolves, and near a point-per-game pace, it makes sense why Pirri was selected, even if he's too humble to admit it.
Pirri's defensive game has also been something to watch this season. He's taking a lot more responsibility in his own zone.
“Everyone’s got to do their part,” Pirri said. “If you do your job in the defensive zone, you get to have fun in the offensive zone. For our line, that means playing strong in our zone and get the puck out quick and then we get to do what we do.”
Pirri has four goals and an assist in the past five games. That includes a hat trick against the Moose.
“We feel that we’re the best team in the league,” the All-Star forward added. “We believe in ourselves in that locker room, I think we proved a lot to ourselves and to people around the league, that we’re a legitimate team and they have to worry about us.”
While it may not be a surprise, Pirri has been good at scoring goals, leading Chicago with 15. He's picked up 15-15—30 in 31 games this season. Many points have come on the power play, including six goals. It would make sense to see him in a Vegas Golden Knights jersey if an injury bug hits, and he could earn a spot as a power-play specialist.
1. Tomas Hyka
Our old friend Hyka continues to be damn good. He's got 3-3—6 over the past five games, including a game-winning goal and three points on the power play. The point streak hit full swing when he and Max Lagace returned to the lineup, and they've been two of the most important players in keeping it going.
Even when Hyka has a quiet game, he's still doing things off the scoreboard that help the Wolves win. Whether that's winning a board battle, using his speed to create natural zone entries, or getting back on defense to prevent chances, Hyka has been beyond impressive.
“It’s getting better and better," Hyka said. "It was obviously harder for me at the beginning, with European ice being bigger, everything here happens faster than in Europe. I’m getting better every game, and that’s what I’m going to focus on for the rest of the season.”
Hyka's game has continued to improve as he's adjusted to the American game. The way he's playing, more players should go to the Czech league or come out of it. Or maybe it's just Hyka's special skill set that sets him apart. After all, there are not many players with his speed.