The Chicago Wolves clinched the 2021 American Hockey League (AHL) Central Division championship with their two victories during the week. They led the way wire-to-wire after starting the abbreviated season with seven straight wins. The Grand Rapids Griffins split their two mid-week games. The Texas Stars and Iowa Wild started their three-game series, while the Cleveland Monsters and Rockford IceHogs look to finish out strong.
We head into the final weekend of the 2020-21 season in a weird situation. There are no Calder Cup Playoffs, and the Central title has already been clinched, so there is nothing but pride on the line, which numerous players have admitted is tough.
On Tuesday, the Carolina Hurricanes signed defenseman Cavan Fitzgerald to a two-year contract. The 24-year-old is a veteran of 165 AHL games and has three goals and 11 points in 28 games for the Wolves this season.
The Monsters added forward Cole Fonstad on an amateur tryout contract (ATO) on Tuesday. Originally a fifth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2018, he captained the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he had 16 goals and 34 points in 23 games this season. The team also released goaltender Justin Kapelmaster from his professional tryout contract (PTO).
The Detroit Red Wings reassigned goaltender Calvin Pickard back to the Griffins on Monday. He has played in six NHL games this season and made his second start in Grand Rapids on Wednesday night.
Adam Beckman was reassigned to the Wild on Thursday. He had two goals and an assist in seven AHL games before returning to the Spokane Chiefs for the start of the WHL season. In Spokane, he had 17 goals and 27 points in 21 games.
Monday, May 10
The Wolves got to work early this week with a matinee against the IceHogs on Monday afternoon. They got off to a fast start and needed it to hang on for the big win.
Tom Aubrun’s first AHL start did not get off to a great start. Phil Tomasino got in behind the defense and extended his point streak to six games with his 13th goal of the season just 35 seconds into the game. Aubrun failed to control a rebound 36 seconds later, and Jamieson Rees swatted it home to give the Wolves a 2-0 lead at the 1:11 mark of the opening period. Rees added another goal nine minutes later by being the first to another rebound and poking it past Aubrun.
The Wolves weren’t done. About five minutes after Rees’ second goal, Brandon Hickey, a defenseman playing forward, cashed in off another rebound for his first goal of the season and just third of his AHL career. Mitchell Fossier got a goal back for the IceHogs as he settled down a pass from D.J. Busdecker and snapped it past Beck Warm.
The teams traded goals during the middle frame. Brandon Pirri picked off a pass at this own blue line, then raced down the ice to finish off a breakaway for his seventh AHL goal this season. The Wolves had a quick response as David Cotton scored off a redirect just over a minute later to restore the three-goal advantage.
Pirri struck again on an early third-period power play by blasting home a one-timer from the top of the right circle. But, just like after his first goal, the Wolves had a quick response, as Tommy Novak scored just over a minute later to give them a 5-2 lead. Things got interesting as the IceHogs pulled to within a goal with eight minutes to play after quick goals and Anton Lindholm and Chris Wilkie. The Wolves held on as goaltender Beck Warm made 23 saves for the win.
“I liked our first period for the most part,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “The second was pretty good. We just kind of fell asleep there in the third and fed them some goals. We’ve got to clean up some things, but obviously good to get back in the win column.”
Tuesday, May 11
This was an evening that goaltender Kaden Fulcher would remember for years to come as he stopped all 22 shots he saw to earn his first career AHL shutout.
The Griffins got all the offense they needed late in the first period. Monsters’ defenseman Gavin Bayreuther was handed out a five-minute major for hitting Kyle Criscuolo from behind, causing him to go head-first into the boards. With just a few seconds left on the extended power play, Joe Veleno redirected a Taro Hirose pass in behind Matiss Kivlenieks for his first AHL goal of the season.
Riley Barber doubled the lead with another power-play before the end of the opening frame. He beat Kivlenieks with a snap shot from the right circle to move into second place in the entire league with 18 goals. He is three behind Cooper Marody of the Bakersfield Condors.
From there, Fulcher and the Griffins defense took over. They limited Monsters to just 13 shots over the final 40 minutes of play, including just three in the third period. This was Fulcher’s first professional shutout since March 3, 2019, when he was with the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.
“It was an interesting game,” Monsters’ head coach Mike Eaves said. “I thought for the first three, or four minutes, we looked like ourselves. When they scored that power-play goal, we seemed to drop our energy level. Sometimes you don’t want a period to end because you are playing so well, and sometimes you can’t wait for it to end because you need to regroup. We had our chances, but we didn’t shoot enough. In the end, hats off to them. Their goaltender gets a shutout and played hard and found a way to get a couple of power-play goals.”
Wednesday, May 12
Whatever momentum the Griffins earned on Tuesday, it stayed in Cleveland. The Wolves were on a mission to clinch the Central Division crown, and that is exactly what they did, thanks to their high-powered offense.
Sean Malone opened the scoring 12 minutes into the game by beating Pickard upstairs with a backhand shot. Just over a minute later, Cotton began his huge night with a power-play goal to double the Wolves lead.
The two-goal cushion looked it would remain heading into the third period, but Sheldon Rempel had a different idea. Anthony Richard found Rempel wide open at the backdoor, and he tapped in the pass to give Chicago a 3-0 with just 2.6 seconds left in the middle frame.
Cotton scored his second goal of the night, eight minutes into the third period, just as a power play expired. He completed the first hat trick for any Wolves player this season by scoring on a 5-on-3 power play about seven and a half minutes later. Frederic Allard capped off the scoring with another tally on the man advantage just over a minute later. The Griffins actually outshot the Wolves 35-32, but Warm brought his A-game to earn his second shutout of the season.
“We felt like we didn’t play that well in the first period,” Warsofsky said. “So, we talked to the guys during intermission and said, ‘Let’s try to approach this like a playoff game and see what we can do.’ I thought they responded well.”
The Wolves will once again be owners of the Sam Pollock Trophy for winning the Central Division. This is their fourth title in the last five seasons and with their third different affiliation. The first came as the St. Blues’ affiliate, the middle two during their partnership with the Vegas Golden Knights and this season as a split affiliate of both the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators.
“It feels pretty good,” said Warsofsky. “This has been a short year, but really it has been a long, draining year mentally and physically. I’m really happy for our guys.”
The Wild welcomed the Stars in from Texas to wrap up the season with a three-game series. The youngsters for Iowa led the way in the opening game of the set.
The Stars got two power-play chances in the opening period but could not convert on either. Shortly after failing to convert on a third chance to start the middle frame, Ty Dellandrea opened the scoring. He located a rebound and hammered it past Hunter Jones to give Texas a 1-0 lead.
Rookie defenseman Daemon Hunt evened up the score with just over seven minutes to play. His shot from the point made it through heavy traffic and found the back of the net for his first professional goal. About five minutes later, Nick Swaney gave the Wild the lead with his first professional goal by redirecting a Connor Dewar shot into the net. A few seconds later, Matt Bodly, another rookie who had an assist on Hunt’s goal, scored an empty-net goal.
“I think in the second period, we kind of set the tone there,” Swaney said shortly after his goal. “We started creating chances and having those opportunities, and eventually, one was going to go in. I was fortunate to find the back of the net, and it felt really good.
The Mid-Week’s Top Performer
The Wolves scored 13 goals in their two games and Cotton factored into five of them. After scoring a goal against the IceHogs on Monday, he had three goals and an assist versus the Griffins to finish the week with five points.
He now has six goals and nine points in his last seven games. The 2015 sixth-round pick of the Hurricanes has 14 goals and 21 points during his first professional season. He leads the Wolves in goal, one more than fellow rookie Tomasino.
Central Division Standings
Wolves – 20-8-1-2, 43 pts (.694 pts %)
Monsters – 15-9-1-2, 33 pts (.611 pts %)
Griffins – 15-11-3-0, 32 pts (.567 pts %)
Wild – 16-12-4-0, 36 pts (.563 pts %)
Stars – 16-17-3-0, 33 pts (.486 pts %)
IceHogs – 11-18-1-0, 21 pts (.383 pts %)
Upcoming Weekend Schedule
Friday, May 14: Griffins @ Monsters, Wolves @ IceHogs, Stars @ Wild
Saturday, May 15: Monsters @ Griffins, IceHogs @ Wolves, Stars @ Wild