The Chicago Wolves sure didn’t make it easy on themselves. Then again, with three games in four days, including a double overtime marathon, this was never going to easy in the first place.
Before the Wolves won Game 6 against the San Diego Gulls 3-1 to finish off the AHL’s Western Conference Final, they had to actually get through Game 6. The first 10 minutes saw nine shots go against them and just one go for them.
After that, however, the Wolves took control. Much of that is due to Oscar Dansk, who held the fort until the Wolves could score, even as the puck zigzagged across his crease early.
“This was a game we just had to get through,” Curtis McKenzie said. “Oscar obviously helped with that, and again, we just found a way to get through, which has been our season all along.”
Dansk made 29 saves on 30 shots, allowing just one goal. He was critical throughout this series, including in that five-period Game 4. He has a .921 save percentage through the Calder Cup playoffs, and this game was won largely because of his efforts.
“Really excited,” Dansk said, when asked his reaction. “I thought today we played a really good game, I think we responded well, played a good game, came out in the third, capitalized on our opportunities with a lot of blocked shots, and overall just really excited.”
That third period saw four goals in the last seven and-a-half minutes, starting with McKenzie’s tip of a Nic Hague shot. This was a game of inches, with both goaltenders, Dansk and San Diego’s Kevin Boyle, unwilling to give any.
It took that redirection from McKenzie to open the floodgates, and his score was immediately followed by a Keegan Kolesar strike just 19 seconds later. Kolesar’s goal would prove to be the series winner, his second of the playoffs, having previously scored the goal that defeated the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“We knew the first goal going into the third period would be a big one,” McKenzie said, “and we were just fortunate enough to get it. We didn’t sit back and we just wanted to keep playing and going out there, and Kolesar kept the momentum going.”
McKenzie would add the third goal for the Wolves, adding concrete on the Gulls’ coffin. He proved why the Wolves need both young guys like Hague, as well as Kolesar and Cody Glass, but also why Chicago’s veteran core has been important this season.
“We have such a great group of guys,” McKenzie said. “The young guys have done such a good job all season, stepping up, they’re a confident group and we do such a good job together.”
McKenzie has already won the Calder Cup once with the Texas Stars and went to the Final last season. His experience kicked in in this game, and helped the Wolves get the job done.
“We’re really excited,” Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said. “It’s a lot of hard work to get to this point, so we’ll enjoy it tonight and get right back to work tomorrow. Guys will take rest and refocus and be ready for Charlotte. The work’s not done, but another mountain climbed tonight and we have another one before us.”
While the Charlotte Checkers come in as the best team in the AHL this season, having secured the Eastern Conference before any other team in the league had secured even a playoff position, the Wolves have had a more difficult path, including injuries, call-ups and early struggles in both the regular season and playoffs.
“Our guys just keep coming,” Thompson said. “That’s what the playoffs are all about. You’re going to have peaks and valleys and there’s this belief in the room in each other, which is the most important thing.”
The Wolves have gotten this far, but they feel they can go further. When asked about last season, with the Wolves having lost in the first round and whether they have redeemed themselves yet, Dansk simply said “not yet.”
The schedule for the Calder Cup Final has not been released yet, but Knights on Ice will have it once it is.