The Chicago Wolves enter the Calder Cup Playoffs as the hottest team in the AHL.
They’re loaded with talent up top, with an infusion of youth. Brandon Pirri, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Tomas Hyka will look to be catalysts.
The Rockford Ice Hogs, affiliates of the Chicago Blackhawks, stand in their way with the first round getting underway Saturday. The last time these two teams met in the postseason, the Ice Hogs’ goaltender was Corey Crawford. So it’s been a while.
That doesn’t mean the rivalry has gone away. With both teams being located in Illinois, the Illinois Lottery Cup was born between the teams, and the winner of their 12-game regular season series gets it. With a two-game sweep in the final weekend of the regular season, the Wolves took that trophy, going 6-2-4 in the 12 games.
But this is the Calder Cup we’re talking about; not some other trophy.
Chicago has firepower, defense, and goaltending to match up with Rockford. Oscar Dansk was the AHL’s goaltender of the month in March, posting a goals-against average of 1.75 and a save percentage of .941.
The offense is likely better. The Wolves have one of the best offenses in the AHL, scoring 3.45 goals per game since Dec. 9. Against the Ice Hogs, the Wolves are averaging 3.67 goals per game and 3.25 goals against. With Dansk in net, both numbers fall to 3.
The thing is, everybody on the Wolves’ roster is healthy. They’re able to roll their full first three lines, including a top six of:
Brandon Pirri - T.J. Tynan - Tomas Hyka
Teemu Pulkkinen - Beau Bennett - Brett Sterling
That’s deadly. Bennett and Pulkkinen have become the Wolves’ best scoring duo. Against Rockford, the second line contains three of the Wolves’ top four scorers. Sterling, Bennett, and Pulkkinen have all been deadly against the Ice Hogs.
The Tynan line is complete, with Tynan playing a two-way game, Pirri as an elite goal scorer, and Hyka’s pronounced abilities as a playmaker. They work well together. The Ice Hogs also have a great first line, and the Tynan trio will have to be better.
The bottom six has seen some shuffling, but it currently stands as:
Stefan Matteau - Wade Megan - Paul Thompson
Scooter Vaughan - Keegan Kolesar - Reid Duke
The Megan line is a physical, hard-working line that will out-contend the opposing players and score the ugly goals. They should be considered the X-factor in this series.
Kolesar’s line is defensive, made up of penalty killers, but they have a lot of kick in their offensive game, especially as Kolesar continues to find his ability to play with the puck. It’s a matter of preference for Wolves coach Rocky Thompson.
Defensively, the Wolves are putting out the following pairings:
Jason Garrison - Zac Leslie
Nicolas Hague - Jake Bischoff
Griffin Reinhart - Philip Holm
Each of those pairings has a defensive defenseman with an offensive, puck-moving one. It’s a lot like Vegas. Each of those pairings can do a lot of damage. Perhaps the best one, at least from the Golden Knights’ developmental standpoint, is the second pairing of Bischoff and Hague. Both of those players will likely get time with Vegas over the next few years.
That’s with Dansk and Max Lagace (though Lagace is currently fighting through an injury) in net. That’s why it’s so easy to predict the Wolves going far - they’re built for it and have both the necessary talent, the necessary drive, and the necessary energy to do so.
Here’s how Rockford will stand in the way: they’re built much like the Wolves are. They have NHL talent in Lance Bouma, John Hayden, and Tanner Kero. They have talented future NHL players in Tyler Sikura, David Kampf, Matthew Highmore, and Victor Ejdsell. Their defense is scary, with Luc Snuggerud, Cody Franson, and Adam Clendening. Finally, their goaltenders will be a problem for the Wolves, as the Ice Hogs have Collin Delia, Jeff Glass, and Jean-Francois Berube.
But that just doesn’t seem like enough. Their goaltenders allowed 11 goals to the Wolves in the final two games between the teams. The Ice Hogs aren’t as healthy as the Wolves, nor as deep. Kevin Lough, the Wolves’ seventh defenseman, would likely crack the Ice Hogs’ top four. Five Wolves forwards had more points than the Ice Hogs’ best producer.
The biggest impression over the season between these two teams, that seems to give the Wolves the edge: in the final game between the teams, Pirri, Tynan, Matteau, Bischoff, Garrison, and Reinhart were all scratched. Lagace was in net. The Ice Hogs were playing most of their core. The Wolves won 5-4.