The Chicago Wolves are standing on top of the Central Division. They’ve risen from the bottom all the way to the top, and are one of the hottest teams in the AHL. For the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that’s clinched the Pacific Division title, to have a development team in the same position — that’s incredible. Even more incredible when considering that this is an expansion franchise.
The leaders throughout this season? T.J. Tynan, Tomas Hyka and Brandon Pirri. But for the last week, Tynan has been out. Wade Megan also left with an injury. The Wolves’ response — winning without their first two centers and primary penalty killers, all but cementing home-ice advantage at least through the first round.
That’s thanks to the usual scoring suspects heating up and staying hot. Pirri has six points and five goals. Teemu Pulkkinen continues his increased production (5-3—8), and Hyka (2-6—8) is at the top of his game. Beau Bennett (1-8—9) continues to make me think a trade should be on the table this summer, and Oscar Dansk (1.98 goals against average, .932 save percentage) has increased his lead as the favorite for playoff goaltender status.
Rocky Thompson had nothing but good things to say about Dansk recently.
“Outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. He’s made a number of unreal saves.”
The power play continues to impress, getting six goals in 28 opportunities, a 21 percent success rate. Though that rate can be deceiving. There are times when the Wolves’ power play is on fire, games where they succeed on 2-of-5 power plays and get a four-game scoring streak on the man advantage. There’s also times when the power play can’t get a shot on goal and goes 0-for-3.
“It was alright,” said Thompson. “I was disappointed in our breakouts and I felt we didn’t execute as well as we can.”
While he said this in the context of one game, I feel like it fits for the Wolves’ whole eight-game stretch, which didn’t have as good a power play as the Wolves have proven capable of.
The penalty kill (91 percent success rate) really did step it up over the recent games. That’s partially without Megan and Tynan, shorthanded workhorses.
“We were killing way too many penalties,” said Thompson. “With the injuries we had, we lost Wade Megan, we lost TJ Tynan, it was our guys like Tyler Wong and Lindberg and Thompson and Kolesar and the other guys who kill consistently did a great job finding a way to kill, and of course Oscar was our best penalty killer. And our defense did a great job. Those guys are always killing penalties.”
The differences between this squad and the one that I saw at the beginning of the season are drastic.
“I think they take great pride in their work ethic and their compete level,” said Thompson. “From where we were at the start of the year and what it took to get out of that, they remembered it and they knew it and they just needed to be reminded of it. I’ve said it time and time again, I think we’ve got the best leadership in the American Hockey League. These guys hold themselves accountable and make my job easy. I have to remind them of some things, but they often remind each other and that’s huge and that’s important if you’re going to have success.”
That goes to a player-by-player level as well. Keegan Kolesar (1-2—3) really has turned his season around, and this was a low production week for him. He’s playing on both the penalty kill and power play now, and doing really well at both. Next season, with this level of confidence and playing style, the Knights will see why they traded for him.
3. Zac Leslie
It’s time to shout out the difference Zac Leslie has made since being traded to the team in February. The Knights gave up nothing to get him — all it took was future considerations going the other way — and they got a prospect (albeit a bit old at 24) who has 14 points in 19 games. His fit within Thompson’s system is tremendous.
Since Leslie joined the Wolves on Feb. 5, he’s collected 4-10—14, including two game-winning goals, four power play assists and four primary assists. Leslie has been all over the ice, and he’s looking more and more like a late-blooming NHL defenseman. Yes, he doesn’t have the same spark that Shea Theodore had with the Wolves, but he’s been the most legitimate replacement Chicago has found.
Over the past eight games, Leslie has collected a goal, coming at 19:29 of an incredibly close game that turned from a clear loss to a shootout win on Leslie’s stick. He also has six assists, half of them primary. Two came on the power play.
He’s also been paired with Jason Garrison, an NHL veteran and someone who can help with Leslie’s development.
There are some things Leslie can work on, mostly in the defensive end. At times, he makes a smart play, getting the puck out of the zone quickly and starting the surge the other way. At other times, there’s a bit to be desired. Still, as he’s adapting to the new system, he’s playing very well.
The Wolves are lucky to have a defenseman like Leslie. They’re putting him in a position to succeed, and he’s doing so.
“It’s a bit more open. Guys are skating and we’re skating with speed. I think that’s a part of my game,” he said. “If I can assist in helping us move the puck faster and creating more offense, that’s what I’m going to do. At the end of the day, it’s the system, it’s a high paced, fast system and that’s really benefited me.”
2. Tomas Hyka
Hyka shouldn’t be in the AHL. He never should have been sent down. “I know what I have to improve,” said Hyka, “and I’m trying to work on that down here to be better next time I’m called up.”
Two goals doesn’t seem like a lot for the prominent two-way winger, but considering that one is game-winning (and unassisted) and the other is on the power play, I think he’ll take the total.
Four of Hyka’s assists over the seven-game span are primary. He’s becoming a two-way playmaker, somebody who can do a lot with the puck on his stick as well as getting it to another player.
When I say two-way, I mean it. Multiple times in recent games I’ve been mesmerized not by Hyka’s speed — which is a constant and consistent presence — but by his ability to read the opposing team’s pass, intercept it and rush up the ice the other way, turning an opportunity against into an opportunity for.
The fact that he had both primary assists in that shootout victory that could have been a loss speaks volumes about his ability to swing momentum. This is a better team with Hyka.
1. Teemu Pulkkinen
What can I say about Pulkkinen that I haven’t said over the past few months? He’s been impossible to remove from the three stars list, and his production this week is no different. He went point-per-game, and again, all but one of his points were primary. Four came on the power play. He’s heating up at exactly the right time, and it’s helped push the Wolves into a territory to steal the Central Division from one of the best teams of the year.
“It’s nice to win,” said Pulkkinen. “It’s a tough schedule here, and we play a lot. It’s the same for every team. You don’t want to linger on your losses, you just want to move forward, see what’s in front of you. It’s been the same all year, we lose a couple games and bounce back. There’s a good feeling in the room and just want to move forward to our next games.”
Teemu, despite his low assist totals, is a playmaker. Watching his passing instincts and his ability to find the right player at the right time, it’s clear that he has those abilities. But he’s also paired with Bennett, who is probably the best passer on the team. That means Pulkkinen’s role has become shooter, and he’s doing it an elite level this season.
“He’s really heated up and I think him and Bennett have a lot of chemistry together,” said Thompson. “Both of them are offensive players and have generated offense all year, but it’s really turned up another notch in the last four to six weeks and I think a common denominator has been the two of them playing together.”
Yes, he has a tendency to let his shot overpower the puck and put it above the net. But when he’s on target, Pulkkinen is lethal. See his game-winning goal against the Iowa Wild, a 7-3 blowout in which he contributed two goals.
Pulkkinen is also playing much better defense recently. He’s finding ways to get the puck off the opponents’ sticks, get it through the neutral zone, and create opportunities. It feels like his skating improved as he’s become more active in his own zone.
I think this is a different season for Pulkkinen. There’s pre-February, and there’s post. The version of Teemu the Wolves have now is simply too good for the AHL. He’s no longer a problem in his own end, and he’s able to make the plays that lead to goals for other people. He’s a major player to watch heading into the playoffs for the Wolves.