Calder Cup Playoffs: Western Conference Finals Preview

The Western Conference has narrowed down its field of championship contenders down to just two final teams: the Chicago Wolves and San Diego Gulls.

The Wolves needed all five games to eliminate the Grand Rapids Griffins in the first round before dispatching the Iowa Wild in six games during the Central Division Final. The Wolves are in the conference finals for the fifth time since joining the AHL in 2001-02, but the first time since 2008.

Related – Calder Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Gulls beat the San Jose Barracuda in four games in the first round. They went on to knock out the Western Conference’s top team in the regular season in point percentage, the Bakersfield Condors, in six games to advance to their first conference finals in franchise history.

These two teams did not play each other during the regular season.

Wolves Outlook

Regular Season Scoring Leaders

Goals – Daniel Carr (30)

Assists – T.J. Tynan (59)

Points – Carr/Tynan (71)

Daniel Carr, Chicago Wolves
Daniel Carr won the league MVP despite missing the final five weeks of the regular season. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Postseason Scoring Leaders

Goals – Curtis McKenize (5)

Assists – Tomas Hyka (6)

Points – Hyka/McKenzie/Tye McGinn (8)

The Wolves’ 2018-19 season has been about dealing with adversity and the next man stepping up. They have had to deal with top players being called up the Vegas Golden Knights, traded before the NHL trade deadline and getting injured along the way. Through it all, the Wolves found a way to persevere and win their third straight Central Division crown.

“This has happened because of the adversity we have been through this year,” head coach Rocky Thompson said after the Wolves punched their ticket to the third round. “With the players getting injured, key players. Guys getting called up like (Brandon) Pirri. He basically was an MVP of this league at the time of his call up. Then Carr steps up, who was already playing extremely well anyways, but now he is the MVP. Then he gets injured and (Brooks) Macek gets lost and (defenseman Erik) Brannstorm leaves; somebody always had to step in.

“We can only play one way and if we play that way, we’ll give ourselves a chance. I give our guys credit and the leadership in the room credit. They committed to that and that’s what you are seeing out there.”

It seems that every single night of the postseason, somebody else is taking over for the Wolves. Five different players have scored game-winning goals for the Wolves. Keegan Kolesar, who missed Game 6 versus Iowa with an injury and Cody Glass, who only turned pro the final week of the regular season, each has a pair of game winners.

Their balanced offensive attack has seen 18 different players register at least one point during the playoffs and half of those have at least five points.

Goaltender Oscar Dansk has been another player to step up and really solidify the Wolves between the pipes. He and Max Lagace split action during the first three games of the postseason, but the net has been Dansk’s since Game 4 versus Grand Rapids. In his nine starts, he has a 2.28 goals-against average (GAA) and .912 save percentage (SV%)

Oscar Dansk Golden Knights
Oscar Dansk has come up huge for the Wolves this spring. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

“I think Oscar has played outstanding in these last number of games,” said Thompson after their Game 2 victory over Iowa. “Those two elimination games (against Grand Rapids) and he had a really good Game 1 as well. I thought he played really well again (tonight).”

Gulls Outlook

Regular Season Scoring Leaders                  

Goals – Sam Carrick (32)

Assists – Chase De Leo (35)

Points – Carrick (61)

Postseason Scoring Leaders

Goals – Adam Cracknell (6)

Assists – Carrick (7)

Points – Carrick/Cracknell (12)

San Diego finished the regular season in third place of the Pacific Division with 80 points. After getting by the Barracuda in Round 1, they beat the top-seeded Condors in a series that saw seven periods of overtime hockey over its six games.

“We came out gunning,” head coach Dallas Eakins said after their final win over Bakersfield. “We were by far the better team at 5-on-5. It’s a testament to their work ethic, their commitment to each other, and their dedication, all those things that go into winning a series.”

Dallas Eakins has the Gulls to the conference finals for the first time. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Gulls have been a high-scoring team all season long and that has not changed since the playoffs began. They currently lead the Calder Cup playoffs with 42 goals and a 4.20 goals-per-game average.

Carrick, who led the team in scoring during the regular season, has carried over that success into the playoffs. Cracknell, a veteran of over 200 NHL games, has been a huge pick up for the Gulls. Ever since he was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 10, Cracknell has 21 goals and 40 points in 42 total games with the Gulls.

Veteran goaltender Jeff Glass has started all 10 games for the Gulls in the postseason. He is second among the four remaining starters with a 2.25 GAA to go along with his .920 SV%.

No matter where the games are being played, every game should be well attended as both teams have loyal fan bases. The Gulls drew 12,005 fans on May 10, which was the largest AHL playoffs crowd (excluding Calder Cup Finals) dating to Game 5 of the North Division Final on May 13, 2005.

“We would have loved to have done it earlier, but getting it done at home, being able to walk off that ice and look up to those people that come and pay their good, hard-earned money to support us and be entertained, I don’t think there can be a better feeling in sports that walking off the ice after winning a series and seeing your home fans so excited,” said Eakins.

Series Schedule

Game 1 – Fri., May 17 – San Diego at Chicago, 8:00

Game 2 – Sat., May 18 – San Diego at Chicago, 8:00

Game 3 – Wed., May 22 – Chicago at San Diego, 10:00

Game 4 – Fri., May 24 – Chicago at San Diego, 10:00

*Game 5 – Sat., May 25 – Chicago at San Diego, 10:00

*Game 6 – Mon., May 27 – San Diego at Chicago, 8:00

*Game 7 – Wed., May 29 – San Diego at Chicago, 8:00

*if necessary… All times Eastern