The Chicago Wolves won a critical Game 1 of the Calder Cup Final against the Charlotte Checkers on Saturday by a score of 4-3 in overtime.
How big is this? Well, 77 percent of teams that won the first game in the Calder Cup Final won the series. The Wolves gave themselves a chance at doing the same by beating Charlotte, who came in as the best team in hockey, in their own building in a game Charlotte was heavily favored to win.
“We know they’re a very good team,” Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said on Wednesday. “They have a nice combination of young and old and skill, speed and size. They’ve got good special teams, their penalty kill’s been really good this entire season and in the playoffs they’ve stepped up that much more. We know we’re going to have to be at our best.”
The Wolves weren’t at their best at the beginning of the game, allowing the first eight shots against, which was reminiscent of Game 6 against the San Diego Gulls. The Wolves also won that game.
Despite this, the Wolves never panicked. And after those first eight shots in the first period, they regained their composure and played their game — a style that relies on heavy forechecking and defensemen who are aggressive on the puck. They got the next nine shots after their rough start.
“We know what we can do,” Thompson said. “We have a game plan. It doesn’t change and when you have that, you don’t have to think as much. And the less you think, the less pressure there is. We have really good leadership and guys who have been there before.”
Chicago got just two power play opportunities against that very good penalty kill, and they failed to capitalize on both attempts. In fact, only Charlotte got a power-play goal, the first goal of the game from Charlotte defenseman Trevor Carrick.
The Wolves followed that goal three-and-a-half minutes later with the first goal from Stefan Matteau, tipping a shot from the point by Griffin Reinhart. The Wolves would allow two more goals before the first period was up, however, to Martin Necas and Andrew Poturalski, who leads the AHL in playoff goals.
In the second period, the Wolves added two more goals, both from defensemen. Zac Leslie scored from the point after the puck bounced back to him and Zach Whitecloud scored thanks to a great screen in front of Alex Nedeljkovic.
Nedeljkovic entered the game as one of the best goaltenders in the AHL in the postseason and looked terrific throughout the game. It took screens and deflections to beat him because pretty much anything he could see, he saved.
Despite back-and-forth scoring, the third period went scoreless, leading to overtime. While the Wolves got another power-play opportunity in the overtime period, it took a Matteau shot that bounced through Nedeljkovic’s five hole to win the game. That goal allowed the Wolves to take this incredibly important game and give themselves a better chance than what was given to them prior to the series.
This game showed how hard it will be for the Wolves to beat the Checkers in this series, but that it is possible. The Wolves will look to accomplish that feat again on Sunday.