The Chicago Wolves open their games with spectacle and pyrotechnics, enough to make the entirety of Allstate Arena fill with fog. Unfortunately, that was just the pregame festivities, and not the product the Wolves put on the ice Wednesday night.
The Wolves lost Game 3 of the Calder Cup Final 4-1 against the Charlotte Checkers despite it being the Wolves’ first home game of the series, and having not played since Sunday.
The Wolves have developed a trend during the Calder Cup Final of not starting out too well. That trend continued Wednesday night as the Wolves surrendered the first three shots of the night, including a deflected goal by Julian Gauthier at 1:51. From that 1-0 deficit the Wolves never recovered.
Much of that is due to the excellent goaltending performance put on by Alex Nedeljkovic, the regular-season AHL goaltender of the year. He entered the postseason as the premier goaltender, and he proved why in Game 3, making 38 saves on 39 shots, not allowing a goal until Brooks Macek put a rebound past him at 14:49 in the third.
“He is a good goaltender and I thought he was locked in early,” Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said. “He was making some very difficult saves look easy. We have to get in the way more, better traffic, make it more difficult for him to track the puck. When the goalie can’t see the puck it makes it very difficult to save it.”
The Wolves had chances throughout the night, but Nedeljkovic was up to the task almost every time the Wolves developed something dangerous. Part of that was a lack of net-front presence on the part of the Wolves, who couldn’t find a way to get bodies to the front of the net.
“If you look at some of the goals we scored in Charlotte,” Chicago forward Brooks Macek said, “we had good traffic. There were shots from the point and they were finding ways to get in. From our defensemen we have to make sure we’re getting pucks through and they’re on net and as forwards we have to get to the net and take his eyes away.”
In the second period, both the Wolves’ power play and penalty kill allowed goals, making it a 3-0 score just past the mid-mark in the game.
“We handed them the puck,” Thompson said. “Our first unit was fighting it, and they’ve fought it the last couple of games. There were turnovers that gave them the breakaway, things that don’t normally happen, but our first unit is not getting looks. The execution is poor.”
The Wolves’ power play itself is now 1-for-8 in this series, with the one goal scored coming from Gage Quinney on the second unit. The shorthanded goal from Patrick Brown was Charlotte’s second shorthanded goal in the last two games.
One of the positives was the play of Tyler Wong, getting in the lineup for the first time since the Wolves’ opening round against the Grand Rapids Griffins after a back injury took Wong out of the series. He was one of the few noticeable Wolves throughout the game, generating two shots and a few breakaways.
“I thought Wong did a really good job,” Thompson said. “For not playing for so long and after coming back from such a devastating event for him, he did a great job. He’s been that way for the last two years. I thought that his line (including Ryan Wagner and Matthew Weis) played really well, they had a lot of opportunities, they did exactly what they needed to do.”
The Wolves also found the ability to possess the puck throughout the game, beating the Checkers by a shot total of 39-26. That’s the fewest shots the Checkers have been allowed in this series and the first time the Wolves had more shots. That’s something the Wolves will need to build on to find more success in Game 4.
“We have to continue to play hard and heavy, continue to grind out the series,” Thompson said. “Play in the offensive zone, keep it simple. We outshot a team that is a puck-possession team, that is very dynamic offensively, and I thought we did a lot of good things that worked for us to have the puck and wear on them and we have to continue to do that. We just ran into a really good goaltender.”
The Wolves will play the Checkers again Thursday night at Allstate Arena, where Chicago will try and get more than just one goal past the goaltender.