During the Chicago Wolves’ 25-year history, they have favored bringing in veteran players who have a history of winning to make a run at the Calder Cup. Last summer they added Curtis McKenzie, who fits that mold perfectly and now the Wolves are back in the Calder Cup Final for the first time since 2008.
Adversity Only Makes You Stronger
If you went up and down the ranks of the American Hockey League this season, you would be hard-pressed to find a team that faced more adversity than the Wolves. From losing star players to the NHL or to trades, to having the league MVP miss the last five weeks of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, it did not matter; someone was always there to step up.
While the roster can be credited to the Vegas Golden Knights’ front office as well as Wolves’ general manager, Wendell Young, head coach Rocky Thompson deserves a ton of credit for the team’s success as well. He has the team playing for each other every night and, no matter who is out of the lineup, everybody is pulling their weight.
“You look up and down our lineup,” Thompson pointed out with pride after Monday night’s Western Conference Final clinching victory. “Tye McGinn and what he’s been contributing. You see Jake Bishoff and Griffin Reinhart blocking shots with every part of their body just to continue to advance. And then you’ve got Whitey (Zach Whitecloud) and Haguer (Nic Hauge) playing tons and tons of minutes in all different situations. I could go through the entire team and everyone is contributing. That’s special.”
The Wolves have needed that depth to get as far as they have and it is that depth that has worn down all three of their opponents in the Calder Cup playoffs so far.
Wolves Ride Out the Storms to Make Final
In each of the Wolves’ three playoff series, they needed to overcome adversity to move on. In the first round, they had to play through a mountain of injuries to slug their way past the Grand Rapids Griffins. Then they had to topple a red-hot goaltender and stifling penalty kill unit to get past the Iowa Wild in six games.
The Western Conference Final versus the San Diego Gulls had its fair share of adversity too. The Wolves fell behind 2-1, after dropping Games 2 and 3, with the next two games in San Diego. Then AHL MVP Daniel Carr scored in double overtime of Game 4 to even the series. The Wolves played their best game of the postseason in Game 5, when Carr scored the game-winning goal for the second straight night and Max Lagace became the first goaltender in AHL history to score a playoff goal on this major miscue.
Game 6 was a goaltending duel between Oscar Dansk and Kevin Boyle as the contest was scoreless for over 52 minutes. Then the teams combined for four goals in just over three minutes, including a pair of redirections by the Wolves just 19 seconds apart.
McKenzie scored the opening goal and then added the third Chicago goal shortly after San Diego cut the lead to 2-1 while he was in the penalty box. He finished the series with three goals and five points.
“It was another game we just found a way to get through,” he said while wearing the “Alpha Wolf” motorcycle vest given to the player of the game after each win. “There was a lot of the game where we probably weren’t the better team, but Oscar was solid in the net for us and found a way to get through.”
Wolves’ Locker Room Is Full of Leaders
This will be McKenzie’s third trip to the Calder Cup Final and second in as many years. He won the championship with the Texas Stars in 2014 and was their captain last season when they dropped Game 7 of the Final to the Toronto Marlies.
“I guess a little redemption this year,” said McKenzie. “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 is not the only Calder Cup winner on the Wolves roster. Center T.J. Tynan was a part of the Lake Erie Monsters championship run in 2016. Both players have been leaders in the Chicago locker room all season.
“It was huge during the regular season and it was huge at the start of the playoffs,” Thompson said of his leadership group. “Mac won one his rookie year and Tyns won in one of his first couple of years. Mac was there again last year. He’s that type of a player. He’s a playoff style player – blood and guts.”
McKenzie, who leads the Wolves with eight goals in the playoffs, has plenty of wisdom to share with his younger teammates.
“Just keep playing,” he revealed. “You never know what is going to happen. We got down 2-1 in San Diego and we could have easily folded or crumbled, but we were able to come out of double-overtime and turned around the series. We have such a great group of guys here. The young guys are young, but they’ve done such a good job of stepping up.”
The Wolves will face the Charlotte Checkers in the Calder Cup Final. This will be their fourth trip to the championship series since moving to the AHL in 2001. They have won two Calder Cups as well as a pair of Turner Cups back in their IHL days.
“We’re excited,” Thompson said of his team’s opportunity. “It’s a lot of hard work to get this point. We’ll enjoy it tonight and get back to work tomorrow. The guys will take the rest and then get focused for Charlotte. They’ve been the best team all season, so far. The work’s not done.”
The Checkers, who had the most points in the AHL during the regular season, will have home ice in the Calder Cup Final. The series will begin on Saturday night with the Wolves hosting Games 3, 4, and 5.