Back in October, 31 teams began their long journey with the ultimate goal being Calder Cup champions. This weekend the last two teams standing, the Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves, will begin their best-of-seven series for the American Hockey League’s top prize.
These two teams did not meet in the regular season, but they do have a bit of a history together after spending two seasons as Central Division rivals. The Wolves beat the Checkers, in five games, in the 2017 Central Division Semifinals.
Regular Season Scoring Leaders
Goals – Aleksi Saarela (30)
Assists – Andrew Poturalski (47)
Points – Poturalski (70)
Postseason Scoring Leaders
Goals – Poturalski (8)
Assists – Poturalski (10)
Points – Poturalski (18)
The Checkers are enjoying their best season since moving to the AHL in 2010 and have reached the Calder Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. Their 110 points were enough to win the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy which is awarded to the team that finishes the season with the most points or highest points percentage.
Their regular-season success has carried over into the playoffs as they have lost just three times during their run to the Final. The Checkers beat the Providence Bruins in four games in the first round, swept the Hershey Bears in the second and ended the Toronto Marlies reign as AHL champs with a six-game victory in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Much of the Checkers’ offense was filtered through Poturalski and Saarela during the regular season. Not much has changed in the postseason. Poturalski leads the playoffs with eight goals and 18 points, but he is getting plenty of help.
Rookie center Morgan Geekie is having a huge postseason run. He is averaging over a point per game with seven goals and 15 points. It seems that every goal he has scored this spring has been a big one, but none have been bigger than the one that sent the Checkers to the Calder Cup Finals.
Veteran Tomas Jurco is also adding plenty of offense with six goals and 14 points, while Saarela has pitched in with six goals and 12 points. Patrick Brown, who did not play in the first two rounds, had a pair of goals and a team-high five points versus the Marlies.
Overall, the Checkers have 55 goals in their 14 postseason games, five more than the Wolves have scored in three fewer games. Their power-play unit has scored on 20% of their chances with eight goals in 40 opportunities.
The Checkers had the second-ranked team defense during the regular season. They have allowed just 30 goals in the postseason and have a sparkling plus-25 goal differential. They have been allowing 28 shots on goal per game (SA/GP).
The defense was bolstered when Haydn Fleury was reassigned to the Checkers after the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff run came to an end. Not only has he been playing big minutes in all situations since his return, but he also added two goals and four points during the Eastern Conference Final.
Offensively, Trevor Carrick leads all Charlotte blueliners with nine points in the playoffs. He had a goal and led the team with four assists versus Toronto in the last round.
The Checkers have successfully killed off 59-of-67 penalties (88.1%) during the postseason. They have also scored four shorthanded goals, including one in three straight games versus the Marlies. They boasted the top penalty kill unit during the regular season with an 86.6% success rate.
The Checkers have had the best goaltending all season long and that has not changed since the playoffs began. Alex Nedeljkovic won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender for the 2018-19 season.
During the regular season, Nedeljkovic led the AHL with 34 wins and a 2.26 goals-against average (GAA). He finished the season with a career-high .916 save percentage (SV%) and four shutouts. At one point, he went 20 straight home starts without a regulation loss.
Nedeljkovic has started 12 of the 14 Checkers’ postseason games and has a 2.28 GAA and .914 SV%. In case things go bad, Dustin Tokarski has been stellar with a 0.77 GAA and .974 in his three appearances during the playoffs.
Top NHL Prospect
While Geekie has been a great performer during the playoffs, the 2017 third-round pick does not have the highest ceiling on the Checkers’ roster. That honor goes to Martin Necas, who the Hurricanes selected 12th overall in 2017.
After putting up 16 goals and 52 points during the regular season, his point production has tapered off a bit with just two goals and seven points in 13 playoff games. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward is expected to make a serious run at the NHL roster next fall.
“Rest. Rest. That’s all there is. That’s all we can do right now is rest. The key will be to get as much rest as possible because a lot of guys had the flu and are dragging right now. We get some days off, and that’s why tonight was so important so we can get some days off.” Head coach Mike Vellucci on preparing for the Calder Cup Final.
Regular Season Scoring Leaders
Goals – Daniel Carr (30)
Assists – T.J. Tynan (59)
Points – Carr/Tynan (71)
Postseason Scoring Leaders
Goals – Curtis McKenzie (8)
Assists – Tomas Hyka (11)
Points – Hyka (14)
“Next man up.” The Wolves have been the personification of that mantra all season long. They have had to deal with top players heading to the NHL, being traded and getting injured and they never let it get in the way of the team’s third straight Central Division title.
Chicago had to fight through a physically taxing five-game series against the Grand Rapids Griffins in the opening round. They took down the Iowa Wild, in six games, in the Central Division Finals. Then they fell behind 2-1 to the San Diego Gulls in the Western Conference Final before winning three straight games to advance to the championship series.
The Wolves have been one of the deepest offensive teams all season long. It is the biggest reason why they are four wins away from their fifth championship in franchise history. If you are lucky enough to shut down the Wolves top line, another trio is right there to finish the job.
Carr’s first season with the Vegas Golden Knights organization was a very successful one. He won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player for the 2018-19 season. He put up 30 goals and 71 points despite missing six games because of an NHL call-up in January and the final 18 games of the regular season due to injury. Carr returned to the lineup in the second round versus Iowa and has five goals in 10 points in his 12 games.
Hyka, who had an up-and-down regular season, is currently leading the Wolves with 11 assists and 14 points in the postseason. Tye McGinn, who was acquired from the Manitoba Moose in January, and Curtis McKenzie have the perfect styles of play for the playoffs and both have put 13 points in 17 games.
The Checkers will still have to deal with players like Keegan Kolesar, Brooks Macek and Gage Quinney who combined for 65 goals during the regular season.
The Wolves have been averaging 2.9 goals per game on 29.4 shots during the postseason. While their overall power play numbers are not terrible (10 goals in 58 chances) most of that success came early in the postseason. They scored just one power-play goal in 16 chances versus San Diego and have been held off the board on the man advantage in five straight games.
The Wolves, much like the Checkers, have a very mobile and deep defensive corps. Even after top prospect, Erik Brannstrom was moved to the Ottawa Senators at the NHL trade deadline, the Chicago blue line did not skip a beat.
Three rookies have been the cornerstones of the Wolves defense. Nic Hague and his big slap shot have been solid in both ends of the ice. Dylan Coghlan has provided the offense from the back end, especially on the power play. When he went down to injury, Zach Whitecloud stepped up his game and filled the void.
Jake Bischoff has been the quiet and reliable defender all season long while Griffin Reinhart provides the veteran leadership.
The Wolves killed off 82.2% of their penalties during the regular season and they have succeeded at that same exact rate in the postseason. They have been holding their opponents to 28.2 SA/GP during their run to the Finals.
Oscar Dansk and Max Lagace split goaltending duties during the regular season and posted nearly an identical GAA and save percentage. Lagace started Games 2 and 3 of the series against the Griffins, but Dansk has started all but one game since.
Dansk has saved his best hockey of the season for the playoffs. He has a 2.16 GAA and .921 SV% in 14 starts and was one of the biggest factors in the series win over the Gulls.
Top NHL Prospect
Cody Glass has had no problems transitioning from the Western Hockey to the AHL this spring. After playing in the final six games of the regular season, where he scored three goals and five points, Glass has been a big contributor during the Wolves’ playoff run.
Related – Cody Glass Is Living up to the Hype
Glass has six goals and 12 points in the playoffs. He is tied with Carr and Kolesar for the team lead in game-winning goals with three, two of which came in overtime. He has quickly become a reliable center in both ends of the ice and at the faceoff dot. Glass is showing exactly why the Golden Knights selected him sixth overall in 2017.
“I guess a little redemption this year. Last year hurt, getting to Game 7 and dropping that one. I want all the boys in this room to have the experience of winning together. You’ll take it with for the rest of your life. I still talk to guys I was able to win with Texas in my rookie year.” McKenzie on making to his second straight Calder Cup Final.
Game 1 Saturday, June 1 Chicago at Charlotte, 6:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sunday, June 2 Chicago at Charlotte, 6:00 p.m.
Game 3 Wednesday, June 5 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
Game 4 Thursday, June 6 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Game 5 Saturday, June 8 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Game 6 Thursday, June 13 Chicago at Charlotte, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 7 Friday, June 14 Chicago at Charlotte, 7:00 p.m.
*if necessary… All times Eastern
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.