The Chicago Wolves, on Dec. 8, were the worst team in the American Hockey League. Dead last in the standings, posting just a 6-12-5 record. No other team had fewer than eight wins, and of the 30 AHL teams, 20 were in the double digits in victories. The Wolves had the worst month of November, including an eight-game losing streak and nine losses in eleven games.
On Dec. 9, that changed. Almost immediately. The Wolves went on a six-game winning streak and a 14-game point streak. The biggest change in the roster — the re-addition of Max Lagace, who had been with the Vegas Golden Knights. Getting Lagace, full of confidence from his NHL stint, back was a massive step in the right direction, and the team in front of him began playing more confidently.
Teemu Pulkkinen agrees.
“Probably confidence is one big thing,” he said, when discussing the biggest changes. “We were losing a lot of one-goal games at the start of the year. When the snowball goes the wrong way, it goes the wrong way. We turned it around by playing simple. We have guys that can score goals and we have great goaltending and defense. We can play simple hockey. Some nights we’re not the better team, but we have guys that can put the puck into the net and that’s huge in this league.”
Since Dec. 9, the Wolves are the hottest team in the AHL. They have a 36-11-6 record in that time, which has earned them the Central Division title and home ice at least through the second round. If the Tucson Roadrunners, the only team ahead of the Wolves in the Western conference standings, somehow don’t make it out of the Pacific, the Wolves will have home ice through the Western Conference Final.
“I give our guys a ton of credit,” said Rocky Thompson, head coach of the Wolves. “From where we came in December, and as a group and as a team to build towards this, it’s great. We literally took it one day at a time. When you get that far behind, you can’t look too far ahead. You just have to look at what you can do, to build and take small steps in the right direction. Our guys have done that, and we don’t venture away from it. It’s what we do and who we are.”
“We were building a team at the end of the day,” continued coach Thompson. “We established a leadership group, and that was important. Our guys took the onus upon themselves because we were tested very early. There was a lot of character that was revealed in the guys. When you go through those tough times, you have to rely on each other. It reveals those things and they were able to persevere as a group, looking after each other and they always had each other’s backs, which is special, and through that, they really became a team. That was a tight-knit group that cares about each other. When you care about one another and succeeding as a group, not just as individuals, then special things can happen and you build upon that foundation. So we were laying a foundation, and our guys did that and there were some tough times, without a doubt, but it’s brought us to the point where we are today and we’re still building.”
Since Oscar Dansk returned on Feb. 15, the Wolves have a 18-7-3 record. Dansk himself accounts for 13-3-3. It didn’t take long for Dansk to separate himself as the goaltender for the playoffs, posting a seven-game win streak in his first seven games. Goaltending has been the savior of the Wolves this season, even with one of the best defenses in the league. The Wolves are fifth in goals against of teams that have played all 76 games.
All of this has helped the Wolves clinch the division; something that may not have been thought possible on Dec. 8.
Another huge part of the turn around — on Dec. 8, the Wolves had 61 goals in 23 games, averaging 2.65 goals per game. Since then, they have 183 goals in 53 games, averaging 3.45 goals per game. The Wolves’ offense has gone up nearly a full point-per-game.
The biggest contributors to the Wolves success past the first third? TJ Tynan, Teemu Pulkkinen, Beau Bennett, Brandon Pirri, Tomas Hyka... in short the usual suspects.
Pulkkinen scored eight goals and 14 assists in the first 23 games, which led the team. Since then, he’s added 21-22—43 in 52 games. Hyka went from 3-4—7 to 12-29—41 in a shortened season. Bennett had 3-8—11 and 9-37—46 since then. Tynan 2-9—11, 13-36—49. Paul Thompson 6-6—12, 18-8—26. Pirri 7-10—17, 22-13—35.
But the Wolves have also gotten bigger contributions from Jake Bischoff (0-5—5; 7-11—18), Keegan Kolesar (0-1—1; 5-7—12), Scooter Vaughan (0-0—0; 2-10—12), Tobias Lindberg (0-1—1; 10-12—22) and Griffin Reinhart (1-2—3; 1-8—9). Adding offensive defensemen like Philip Holm (1-8—9 in 21 games) and Zac Leslie (5-12—17 in 27 games) as well didn’t hurt.
Everybody’s pace changed for the better. That’s been a massive team-wide change, something that has shifted momentum firmly to the Wolves, and that is what has led to the Wolves’ change in fate. The fact that players who once couldn’t get on the scoreboard have become great is just a glimpse at how much has changed this season.
“We’ve just grown as a team,” said Wolves captain Paul Thompson. “From day one, guys got along. Obviously we didn’t get off to the start we wanted, but we changed things around and we became a winning team and believed in each other. We feel good about ourselves and it’s a really tight-knit group which makes a huge difference in a long year, we work and we have confidence every night that we can come out on top. We grew as a team, we’ve really matured, and as the season went on we got a lot better.”
The feeling of clinching the division?
“It was good,” said Pulkkinen. “It’s been a long year. You fight for that. We made it so it’s obviously nice for the whole team and the crew and for the Wolves, so it’s nice.”