The Chicago Wolves’ 14-game point streak came to a close in the first game of their California road trip, and what came after was nothing but bad.
Seriously, when asked if there was anything positive about the road trip, Wolves’ coach Rocky Thompson said simply, “No.”
The Wolves ended up losing three out of four games in the last week, all on the road. Three of the games were in California, against the San Diego Gulls, Bakersfield Condors and Ontario Reign. Then, when the Wolves got back to the Midwest, they took on the Iowa Wild.
The Bakersfield game was the only one the Wolves pulled any points out of. Tomas Hyka and Teemu Pulkkinen came up big in that game, the only two multi-point players in the contest. Those performances make up half the multi-point games over the four-game stretch, the other two being Ivan Barbashev against Ontario and Brett Sterling against Iowa.
Missing Brandon Pirri for the last two games (as well as Jason Garrison) doesn’t help. Both of those players represent elite talents in the AHL. Pirri is the Wolves’ first-line center and Garrison is a top-pairing defender. When you lose two players like that, recovery isn’t going to be easy. So far, it hasn’t been.
This losing stretch has pushed the Wolves out of the playoffs in a tightly packed Central Division. The five best offenses in the AHL’s Western Conference are all in the Central. The Wolves are number five. They have the third-best defense/goaltending combo in the division, as well. Yet they’re the odd team out.
Still, there are positives. Barbashev made an impact over the St. Louis Blues’ bye week, as did Vince Dunn. Both had two points in two games. Tobias Lindberg had two assists and Teemu Pulkkinen had a goal and a helper.
Max Lagace’s two games weren’t awful either, as he only allowed two goals in his loss to San Diego and won with 30 saves and only three goals allowed versus Bakersfield. He was injured in the game against Iowa, though. Kasimir Kaskisuo has had problems filling in full time for Lagace.
3. Brett Sterling
Sterling is a veteran of the AHL. And his only drawback is his size. He stands at just 5’7” and, at 33 years old, missed the “size doesn’t matter” window that came around five years after he made his AHL debut. He’s a favorite player amongst Wolves’ fans and may see his number retired in Chicago.
This season, Sterling has 10 goals and 13 points in 24 games. He’s a major locker room presence and somebody who helps develop the younger, shorter talent on the team like Tyler Wong, who’s been a consistent linemate of Sterling’s this season.
Through this four-game stretch, Sterling has two goals and three points, pitching in both goals against Iowa. His speed, shot, and ability to be more than his shorter stature is a part of why his offense comes to the forefront. A member of the defensive fourth line, Sterling also pitches in along the boards and on defense.
If Sterling were four inches taller, he’s a fan-favorite NHL third liner. I think the Wolves are grateful to have him, though.
2. Stefan Matteau
It feels like Stefan Matteau is finally back after his brief stint in Vegas. He hasn’t been consistently scoring since he returned to the Wolves, but something clicked in California, which has set him back on the right path. He’s scored two goals and an assist in the last four games, with both goals coming on the power play.
His presence is sorely needed as the Wolves’ depth dwindles, and if he can continue to pitch in like this, it won’t be long before the Wolves are back on the right track. Matteau has been bouncing between lines in the last month, but this stretch may have solidified his spot with Tomas Hyka on the top line.
The gameplan for Matteau after this stretch: “Just keep shooting,” said Matteau. “Keep being dangerous around the net and just keep shooting. You can’t score if you don’t shoot, so that’s the big thing.”
1. Tomas Hyka
It’s hard to argue with a goal and five points in four games, especially when Hyka chipped in three assists in the sole win. Hyka’s goal was pretty as well, as he collected a rebound and got behind the goaltender.
Hyka’s already been talked about this week, but he chipped in three more power play points. This week has been exhausting for the Wolves, but Hyka was the least exhausting part.
When asked for an NHL comparison for his game, Hyka had an interesting reply. “It’s hard to say,” said Hyka. “Because I believe each player is a different player, but I like to watch Connor McDavid and these guys because they’re really fast, skilled guys. But David Pastrnak, he’s kind of a similar player as me. He can skate, he can score.”
Both players are from the Czech Republic, only separated by an inch in terms of height, and have a two-way game. If Hyka can reach two-thirds of the player that Pastrnak is, he’ll be a solid middle-six and man-advantage player for the Golden Knights for years to come.
Plus, they likely would have both been members of the Czech Olympic team this year and grew up just four hours from each other.