The AHL playoffs are upon us and the Wolves have clinched home ice and their division. To do so, the Wolves have gone 4-2-1 over the month of April. And if you don’t count the games the Wolves rested their starters, they went 3-1-1.
They still beat their first-round opponent, the Rockford Ice Hogs, with Brandon Pirri, T.J. Tynan, Jake Bischoff, Jason Garrison, Griffin Reinhart, and Stefan Matteau all out. I have a good feeling about this series.
So how did we get here? Well, apart from a game against a desperate Iowa Wild where the Wolves crumbled 7-3, they were in every game. Even the other loss, against the Manitoba Moose, was only a loss because Pirri, Tynan, Bischoff, Garrison, Reinhart, Matteau and Beau Bennett were all out.
The one bad thing in the Wolves’ last seven games — the penalty kill has collapsed. While the power play still converted at 23.3 percent (in a slow week), the penalty kill fell to a 70.9 percent success rate. They allowed three goals to the Wild in that loss, two goals to Milwaukee in a win, and two goals to Rockford in a win (but out of seven kills). That kill will have a week to practice, however, and should be ready for the playoffs.
Honorable Mention: Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson has been on quite the run over these seven games, posting four goals, with three of them coming from the man advantage. He also got a primary assist.
“It just comes from trying to do the right things,” said Thompson. “Get to the net, a lot of them are from around the net. It’s just trying to play the right way, cause traffic, get tips, rebounds. Doing the right things detail wise. That’s always been my game, to go to the net and create things there. I’ve been fortunate to get some bounces. You need those every once in a while too.”
His style of goal scoring, with the ability to get to net front and score the ugly goals, will be important against Rockford. His play could be an x-factor at least through the first round, if not throughout the postseason. That’s not even mentioning his captaincy, and the culture he’s helped build that have turned the Wolves’ season around. He’s done an excellent job this season, but he’d be the first to tell you, it’s not done.
3. Beau Bennett
Bennett continues to be a consistent presence on the Wolves’ roster, despite the fact that he’s one of just two St. Louis Blues on it. In the past seven games, Bennett has scored 1-7—8. He has five primary points, and two power-play assists.
He’s not the best goal scorer on this team (likely because he doesn’t take that many shots, though he has a good one) but his pairing with Teemu Pulkkinen has elevated the Wolves to new heights over the past two months. That pairing should continue into the playoffs, as Tomas Hyka, TJ Tynan, and Brandon Pirri go back to the top line.
The second line of Bennett, Pulkkinen, and whoever Rocky Thompson puts there will be a dangerous weapon in a playoff series, much like the Erik Haula-James Neal combination for the Vegas Golden Knights. They’re also able to take away the puck quickly in the defensive zone, so they might get lined up against Rockford’s own second line.
2. Brett Sterling
Sterling has become that other member of the second line, and he’s benefited from it, as well as helping elevate it even more. Sterling has 3-4—7 over the past seven games, including a game-winning goal. Sterling will likely be the third member of the second line into the playoffs.
Sterling also scored a career goal, number 250 in the AHL for the winger, this week. Tomas Hyka got the primary assist, and went back to make sure he got the puck.
“It’s a great feeling for him,” Hyka said. “I told him before the game that I wanted to make sure he got the goal, and he did it. So it’s a great feeling for him.”
With the Golden Knights building an AHL team in year one, veterans were important. That’s why players like Sterling and Scooter Vaughan have been so important for this Wolves turnaround. Next season, as the team goes through even more change, be prepared to see familiar faces like Vaughan and Sterling again.
1. Teemu Pulkkinen
Who else did you expect to see here? Pulkkinen finished the season on an 11-game point streak, including 7-4—11 over the past seven. Four points on the power play. He has taken over every shift he’s been on recently, and the puck is almost constantly in the offensive zone when he’s on the ice.
“It’s nice to play”, said Pulkkinen. “I feel really good right now, and pucks are going in. At some point in the season, I was unlucky, and I didn’t get any pucks in. Now I feel like I’m getting some luck too.”
“I feel like every player wants to score, and when you score you feel good about yourself, you get confidence. That’s how it goes. When the snowball starts to roll in the right direction, you usually play better than when it’s rolling the wrong way. So I’ll take this. I just want to enjoy this last couple months and when the playoffs start it’s going to be great.”
Pulkkinen has the potential to help propel the Wolves through the Calder Cup playoffs, and get points even when the Wolves’ elite second line is getting blanketed by the opposing team’s best defensive pairing. The three of them are just too talented to get weighed down permanently, and it starts with Pulkkinen.