For two teams who have not faced each other since 2017, the animosity between the Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves certainly amped up very early during the Calder Cup Finals. The two teams have played a pair of very entertaining and skilled games that have also come with a fair share of edge.
“It’s been physical in the first two games,” said Stefan Matteau, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1. “They have a good team; we have a good team and both teams won’t back down or let themselves get pushed around.”
Checkers Coach Fires the First Shot
Things got ugly in the final seconds of the Checkers’ 5-3 Game 2 victory. Wolves forward Keegan Kolesar was hit from behind along the boards by Checkers captain Patrick Brown. This caused all 10 players on the ice to come together and the chaos ensued. Curtis McKenzie eventually jumped on Steven Lorentz and punched him in the face multiple times while he was down on the ice.
Following the game, Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci expressed his displeasure with the incident and McKenzie’s actions.
“I used to have respect for a guy that played 100 games in the NHL, but he hit a defenseless player four or five times,” he said on Sunday night. “I just watched the video. He hit him four or five times when he was on the ice. There’s a code in hockey, and he should know it and everybody knows it. To hit a defenseless player that many times when he’s down, I hope somebody takes care of what he’s supposed to do from the league standpoint. I used to have respect for somebody that played 100 games in the NHL, but that was bush league.”
On Tuesday morning, the American Hockey League passed judgment on McKenzie and suspended him for Game 3.
This will be a huge loss for the Wolves, with the series tied 1-1, as McKenzie fills a lot of roles on and off the ice. Besides bringing veteran leadership, he plays on both the penalty kill and power play and leads Chicago with eight goals and 14 points in the postseason.
Wolves Continue the War of Words
Both Vellucci’s postgame comments and McKenzie’s suspension was a hot topic following the Wolves’ Tuesday morning skate. Head coach Rocky Thompson was quick to express is displeasure his counterpart’s statement.
“I’m disappointed with what the league decided to go with, but we’ll deal with it,” he said. “I’m really upset with their coach’s comments, to tell you the truth. He went after our player. They initiated it and he’s saying it was a dirty act on a defenseless player. That’s what started the melee.
“They won the game; the game was over. We pulled our goalie to try and win. Then, one of their players hit our player from behind on a dirty play. That’s defenseless. The problem was they picked on the wrong guys. And as a result, one of their players got hurt. If their coach has a problem with it, he can walk down the hall and talk to me, not talk to the players. I am not going after their players, so don’t go after mine. It’s an issue with me.”
Kolesar, who was in the middle of the late-game scrum, echoed the sentiments of his coach.
“I kind of had a good laugh at that,” he said of Vellucci’s remarks. “It’s pretty disrespectful for a coach to come out and talk about a player in the media like that. If you want to say something, say it privately behind closed doors to the coaching staff instead or something like that. You don’t do have to go to the media like that.
“I got hit from behind with like seconds left, it wasn’t us going after them. But the league has passed their judgment and all we can do is have the next guy step up. That’s what we’ve done all year.”
“Next Man Up” is Nothing New in Chicago
McKenzie’s absence will leave a huge void in the Wolves lineup Wednesday night, but they have rallied and overcome greater shortcomings already this postseason. They were able to knock out the Grand Rapids Griffin the first round without the help of key players like MVP Daniel Carr, power-play quarterback Dylan Coughlan, and goal-scorer Brooks Macek.
“I think it’s kind of sensitive for him to get suspended at this point for that,” Matteau added. “We’ve got to move forward. It’s a collective effort.”
The Wolves have dealt with a ton of adversity all season long. Brandon Pirri was leading the league in scoring when he was recalled by the Vegas Golden Knight in December. Then top defenseman Erik Brannstrom was moved to the Ottawa Senators, at the NHL trade deadline, in the deal that sent Mark Stone to Las Vegas. Carr also missed the final the last five weeks of the regular season after he was the victim of a hit to the head by Jordan Nolan of the San Antonio Rampage.
The Wolves have always found a way to rally around each other this season and Wednesday’s game should be no different.
“Down that stretch where we lost four of our top scoring players on the team, we still found ways to win,” said Kolesar. “The next guy steps up. We’re a hard-working team and every guy can fill every role on our team, I believe.”
Lorentz, who left the ice with the team trainer by his side, made the trip to Chicago and took part in Charlotte’s skate on Tuesday. Vellucci said that they will have a better idea if he is available for Game 3 on Wednesday.
The Calder Cup Finals will call Chicago home for the next three games on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday nights.