Swept at home. Heading back to Chicago, the Vegas Golden Knights’ affiliate Chicago Wolves had the Calder Cup Final tied 1-1. They won a prolonged first game against the Charlotte Checkers in overtime, beating the AHL’s goaltender of the year Alex Nedeljkovic four times. They proceeded to lose Game 2, but that Game 1 seemed to be enough to carry the momentum a bit further.
Fast forward to the conclusion of Game 5 on Saturday night in Allstate Arena, the Wolves were swept at home. The Checkers got to celebrate with the Calder Cup, receiving it from AHL Commissioner David Andrews, on the Wolves’ own ice.
“We had no intention of going back home,” Nedeljkovic said. “We blew a lead in the first game, lost it in overtime, blew a lead in the second game, but came back in the third and took it back, and ever since that game we’ve kept our foot on the gas and been rolling.”
But that doesn’t mean Chicago didn’t make it a fight.
Despite never leading in Game 5 — the Checkers scored just 91 seconds into the game, as Andrew Poturalski, who would score two goals in Game 5 and win the Jack A. Butterfield Award for Calder Cup Playoff MVP, put the puck past Oscar Dansk — the Wolves started fighting back in the second period. Not before the Checkers got another goal from rookie Morgan Geekie, however.
Brooks Macek, who had been one of the Wolves’ best goal scorers in the regular season, tipped a Tomas Hyka shot into the net to get Chicago on the scoreboard at 19:35 in the second. That was his third goal in as many games.
The Wolves allowed another goal to Trevor Carrick at 6:15 in the third before pushing back to make it a competition.
Gage Quinney scored with a little over three minutes remaining on a rebound from a Dylan Coghlan shot to make it 3-2 with Oscar Dansk on the bench. As has happened often throughout this three-game stretch in Chicago, the Wolves proceeded to allow an empty-net goal to Poturalski.
Then Cody Glass, who has scored the most points by a player under the age of 20 since Jeff Carter back in 2005, scored with 38.1 seconds remaining (with Quinney getting the primary assist) off of a booming slap shot. And then Charlotte scored another empty-net goal.
“I’ve been in games where you’re on the bench and you don’t really feel like you can do it,” Wolves coach Rocky Thompson said. “For some reason tonight, even before we scored that second one, I felt like, ‘we’re just going to find a way. We’re going to do it.’ That’s a belief this team has had because we just always found a way. Obviously it didn’t work out.”
And that was it. Charlotte celebrated with Nedeljkovic, who, along with his tandem partner Dustin Tokarski, controlled this series after the first game.
“You can’t say enough about Tokarski,” Nedeljkovic said. “He was 12-0 with us. In the playoffs, it’s easy to say as an older guy, well, why am I here if I’m not playing. But every day he came in and it was a new day. It was all positive and you couldn’t ask for a better guy to win it with.”
After the game, there were shouts of “Ned is an NHL goaltender!” and a lot of expletives. But from the Wolves’ side, there was also a lot of talk about their young players — Glass, Coghlan, Hague, Zach Whitecloud and Keegan Kolesar, all of whom performed admirably throughout these playoffs.
“It was a tough one, it’s a tough pill to swallow for sure,” Wolves veteran T.J. Tynan said. “I don’t think the series indicates how we played at all. For us, it was a special group, that was a lot of fun, everybody worked their ass off, and I’m really proud of all the guys, especially with how young our team was, for them to step in, it says a lot about the kind of people they are. I’m just proud of everyone.”
“I’m really proud of these guys, we had such a good group, from Day 1 I knew this was a going to be a good year,” Wolves forward Tomas Hyka said. “We showed so much commitment, we battled with some injuries, guys got called up, it was up and down, especially those young guys, it was so much fun to watch them and it was special to be a part of this group.”
There was also talk about how broken and out of gas these Wolves players were. Stefan Matteau, who missed Game 5, was out with a lacerated kidney. Jake Bischoff and Griffin Reinhart, the Wolves’ defensive stalwarts, were beaten and bruised.
“At this time of the year, everyone’s got something going on,” Tynan said, “but the guys battled and we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”
Let’s focus on the positives. The young prospects Vegas has interest in (and judging by the presence of Kelly McCrimmon at Game 5, the organization did indeed have eyes on this team) had one of the best professional tests imaginable before cracking the NHL. Making it to the Calder Cup Final meant that the Wolves were one of the last teams standing. They lost to the best team in the AHL the entire season and faced perhaps the league’s best goaltender, and a veteran equal, at their very hottest.
“It’s going to be huge for me,” Cody Glass said. “My first taste of pro, you don’t get a lot like that, playing in the Final against a team like Charlotte, and there’s a lot of bumps along the way. I felt like the vets around the team really helped me in pushing my game, and I just wanted to make an impact and play the best I could and help this team try and win a championship.”
Glass, despite this being his first taste of professional hockey, played incredibly well, with seven goals and 15 points in 22 games. Hague and Whitecloud were Chicago’s go-to defensive pairing. Kolesar turned several series, getting both the first round and Western Conference Final series-winning goals, and he made his presence known throughout the Final. Even Coghlan, returning from a broken jaw, played on Chicago’s first power-play unit.
“(Glass) scores a huge goal and he’s been stepping up all playoffs,” Thompson said. “He’s been getting better, and this is a grind. You think of his year in junior, they play 72 games down there, and you have playoffs and World Juniors. Then he comes and plays here, he must be close to 100 games now. Guys like Whitecloud, coming out of college, only played 30 games a season, he’s on his 98th game tonight. This is impressive that these guys were able to do what they did and really grow, both as a team and as individuals and players.”
“I hope they learned a lot from this run,” Wolves forward Curtis McKenzie said. “A lot went into this. This is the next step from the NHL, the last two teams from this league, you don’t get much closer to an NHL game. I hope these guys learned a ton and they’re able to use it at the next level. All our young guys did a heck of a job all season, it’s a long season, to play against men the entire year on this schedule, go all the way to the finals, battle injury, to keep working and get to this point is pretty amazing.”
So while Chicago’s season may have ended in defeat, the Wolves making it here in the first place signifies great things ahead for the Golden Knights.
“What I’m proud of most is that our team played the best we possibly could have to an individual to give ourselves a chance, with everything we had,” Thompson said. “When you do that, you shouldn’t be sad. You shouldn’t be sad when that’s all they have. I’m really proud of that for them, because it’s rare.