The Chicago Wolves remain in second place in the AHL's Central division, five points behind the Manitoba Moose. That's the good news. The bad news? The Wolves have now lost two straight games to divisional opponents just 15 games before the playoffs.
"Our guys need a rest," said head coach Rocky Thompson. "We've come off the road, they've been away from their families for a while, so our guys need rest. I've been pushing our guys for the last six weeks, I've been grinding them, and that comes at a cost".
The Wolves lost Scooter Vaughan, Stefan Matteau, and Jason Garrison in the same game, before losing Brett Sterling the following game. Injuries have been a major concern for the Wolves recently. Garrison returned for the final leg of a three-in-three, but the team has lost a lot of bodies this season.
There are lessons to be learned from this most recent weekend. "At the end of the day, we can persevere in tough situations, come together as a team, and get points in situations where we don't deserve it or the other team deserved it to some degree," said Thompson.
Still, the things that made the Wolves excellent going into this six-game stretch have kept them competitive. The power play went 6-for-23 (26.1%), scoring in each of the six games.
The penalty kill also improved, getting to an 86.7 percent success rate, allowing goals in just past two games (both losses). That points to a large marker for the Wolves — the better the penalty kill plays, the better the Wolves will do. That'll be important to watch as the Wolves race towards the postseason.
3. Brandon Pirri
Brandon Pirri, now back to full health, has been on a roll. During this six-game stretch, he posted three goals, two primary assists, and four points on the power play. He's been remarkable all season for the Wolves. On the active roster, he has the best points-per-game rate with 24-21—45 in 46 games. It's the fourth time Pirri has hit 20 goals at the professional level.
"It's nice, but at the same time, the team is playing really well, and that's what's important,” Pirri said. “We all want to get to the next level, and in the NHL, teams want to win. If you're on a winning team, that makes a difference."
Pirri has certainly been a part of the Wolves' winning, as the team is 25-12-9 when Pirri plays. Without him, they're 8-7-0. That's very telling of Pirri's impact, and his ability to help the Wolves in all three zones.
2. Oscar Dansk
Oscar Dansk has a .947 save percentage and 1.72 goals against average over the past six games. He's turned it around from the beginning of the season, as well as when he first got back to Chicago from his long layoff. If the offense mustered more than just one goal in each of the final two games this week, Dansk likely wouldn't have lost. In fact, Dansk had a seven-game win streak going into Sunday.
He looks a lot more confident as if there was rust he had to shake off after sitting for a few months. Crazy, right? Dansk's better play of late may also be because he's adapted to the new defense in Chicago, a defense that specializes in moving the puck forward, and limiting the shots to the outside, even if they allow more in the process.
"I feel like I'm just staying focused and working,” Dansk said. “Not a lot of magic, just trying to work, try to find a way to win every night. We've been playing really well recently, both offensively and defensively, so that's made it easier for me and [Kasimir Kaskisuo] and Max [Lagace]."
"He was huge," said Thompson. "You need that in these situations, where you're playing a very good team trying to get back into a playoff spot. [Rockford is] right there, really. I thought he kept us in it, without a doubt, he played so well. Even when we scored a goal, the toughest work he had was the next three minutes, because... he had to save four or five grade-A chances."
1. Teemu Pulkkinen
Teemu Pulkkinen won the first star in the last Wolves Weekly Wrap Up, and he's done it again in this six-game session, posting 2-5—7, all primary points. That includes three points on the power play and a game-winning assist. He's been so much better for the last few months, and he's acknowledged it.
"It's a long season, and every player has their ups and downs," said Pulkkinen. "I had my downs a few months ago, and it's been better lately. I'm excited that we're almost there and it's time to play the real games."
Pulkkinen's found his clutch just in time, as the Wolves need terrific performances down the stretch. The 26-year-old is trying to prove that he has what it takes to provide those performances, and he's put in the work to show that.