The sport of ice hockey is many things. It is an artform balancing unbelievable skill and speed with toughness and sacrifice. Teams put in months of training, practice and video sessions to come up with the perfect game plan to win a playoff series. There are few greater feelings than a series win that went exactly according to plan.
Then hockey can just show its silly and unfair side when you execute perfectly, outplay your opponent in their building for two straight games, and come up with nothing because you run into a red-hot goaltender. That is exactly what happened to the Chicago Wolves in their back-to-back losses at the Iowa Wild thanks to Andrew Hammond.
The Hamburgler Steals Game 3
The first two games of this series were decided by one goal, which is nothing new when the Wolves and Wild take to the ice. In their previous 10 games this season, seven of them were decided by a lone tally.
Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 was essentially a one-goal game as Iowa clung onto their slim lead for much of the contest before a late empty-net goal. Hammond was the star of the game, stopping all 26 shots he faced in a 2-0 victory for his second shutout of the postseason.
“We defended really well tonight and had a lot of big block shots tonight,” Hammond said after the big win. “For the most part, I thought we didn’t give them the autonomy they needed by making some adjustments that I thought definitely helped.”
After Gerald Mayhew scored the first three goals of the series for the Wild, Luke Kunin scored the next three, including the opening goal at 17:05 of the first period. Matt Read picked off a pass below the goal line and fed it out to the slot where Kunin ripped home his sixth goal of the playoffs.
Read became the first Wild player not named Mayhew or Kunin to score when he added an empty-net goal with just 55 seconds left in the game.
“We gave ourselves some opportunities to come back in the game,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “It’s disappointing, but this is playoffs. It’s going to be a hard, tough series. We knew that. We give credit where credit is due. They played well tonight and we’ll be ready for Game 4.”
With the win, the Wild are 3-0 at the home during the Calder Cup Playoffs, outscoring their opponents 15-1.
“The team has always found a way to pull together,” head coach Tim Army said. “It is a really tight-knit group. They look out for each other; they stick up for each other. They take care of each other. When they need to, they get it done.
“Everybody’s held serve right now. They won their two home games; we won our home game and have two more to go.”
More of the Same for Game 4
Hammond, once again, stole the show and the game for the Wild in Game 4. The Wolves outshot Iowa 34-22, but Hammond stopped 33 of those shots in a 2-1 victory to even up the series at two wins apiece.
Mayhew, who Michael Russo of The Athletic is reporting is close to an NHL deal with Minnesota Wild, continued his magical Calder Cup playoff run by opening the scoring on Wednesday night. At 13:01 of the first period, Mayhew took a pass from Cal O’Reilly and flew up the right side. He then drove to the net and faked a shot to the short-side before beating Oscar Dansk to the far post.
After a scoreless second period that was dominated by Chicago, Mayhew doubled the lead 5:25 into the third period. This time he was the first to get to a loose puck in front of the net and pounded it into the back of the net for his AHL-leading ninth goal of the playoffs and fifth of this series.
Less than four minutes later, Curtis McKenzie ruined Hammond’s bid for consecutive shutouts and snapped his scoreless streak at 143:04. The veteran winger got the front of the net and redirected a Zac Leslie shot from the point for his first goal of the postseason.
The Wolves kept coming in waves over the final 10-plus minutes of the game, but Hammond did not yield an equalizer. In his four postseason starts on home ice, Hammond has given up just two goals on 113 shots for a sparkling .982 save percentage.
“We were facing a deficit going into tonight and the hole was 2-0 last game,” Hammond said after another great outing. “Obviously you don’t want to give them too much because we really respect them. They are a really good team and division champs from the regular season for a reason. You can’t give them too much of a lead. It very easily could have been the other way, but we kept making enough plays to be on the right side of the result.”
While the Wolves did enough to win both Games 3 and 4, they now find themselves in an even series. Despite back-to-back losses, Chicago still has to feel very good about their chances.
“I thought Oscar kept us relevant because of his good first period,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “We gave up a lot of good opportunities in the first, but he held them to a one-shot game. We had a good second period for sure. I thought Hammond did a really good job. I really liked our pushback in the final 10 minutes.”
The pivotal Game 5 will be in Iowa on Friday night. The series will shift back to Chicago for Game 6 on Monday and Game 7 on Wednesday night, if necessary. Home-ice advantage has been key to this series, so the Wolves still have to be considered the favorite to pull this one out. Regardless, we are guaranteed at least two more games of this fantastic series.