AHL Central News: Wolves Claw Their Way Past Wild

The Chicago Wolves had been playing very good hockey throughout the entire Central Division Final against the Iowa Wild. They found themselves tied 2-2 after the Wild found a way to grab a pair of victories. In the end, Chicago’s depth was too much for Iowa to handle and the Wolves are on the Western Conference Final.

Wolves Finally Crack Hammond, Penalty Kill

The Wolves had to feel frustrated heading into Game 5 Friday night. They saw their 2-0 series lead evaporate after Andrew Hammond stood on his head for two straight games. Even though the Wolves outshot the Wild 60-41 over the two games, they were outscored 4-1.

Head coach Rocky Thompson made some changes to his lines and got the production out of his special teams which that made the difference in Chicago’s 7-4 victory in the pivotal fifth game.

Rocky Thompson pushed the right buttons for Game 5. (Terry Wilson / CHL Images.)

Matthew Weis got the Wolves on the board, just over three minutes into the game, as Kevin Lough’s shot from the point hit off his leg on its way to the back of the net.

Ryan Donato’s first goal of the postseason tied the game at 15:02 of the first period. The young winger picked off a breakout pass, skated to the right circle and fired a nasty wrist shot over the glove hand of Oscar Dansk.

The Wolves’ special teams started their huge night with a shorthanded goal with less than two minutes left in the opening frame. Stefan Matteau incepted a pass, skated the length of the ice and then sneaked a backhander between the legs of Hammond for the first shorthanded tally of the series for either team.

“Luckily, they missed their pass,” said Matteau of his game-changing goal. “I just picked it up and went down the wing. I just kept going and going until I was right there, put it on net and luckily it squeezed through his legs.”

Heading into the second period, the Wild had given up just one power-play goal on 35 chances against since the start of the playoffs and killed off all 12 penalties in the series. That success ended at 4:24 of the sandwich stanza when Daniel Carr knocked home the rebound off of a Zach Whitecloud shot.

Curtis McKenzie extended the lead to 4-1, less than a minute later, by finishing off a 3-on-1 rush as he knocked the puck out of mid-air and into the net.

Curtis McKenzie, Chicago Wolves
Curtis McKenzie came up huge to close out the Wild. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Kyle Rau cut the lead to 4-2 at 16:05 of the second period. Rau headed to the right post right after the initial faceoff on a power play. Twelve seconds later, he fired the puck past Dansk for his fourth goal of the postseason.

The Wolves weren’t done in the second period as McKenzie added another power-play goal in the final minute. The veteran forward was all alone in front of the net when the rebound off of Nic Hague’s shot found his stick and he flipped it back into the Wild net.

Defenseman Matt Bartkowski cut the lead to 5-3 just 1:52 into the third period when his shot from the left point changed directions and got in behind Dansk. This was Bartkowski’s first playoff goal since 2013 when he was a member of the Boston Bruins.

Just past the halfway point of the period, while playing 4-on-4, Carr’s centering pass hit off the leg of Gage Quinney and got in behind Hammond to increase the lead to 6-3.

McKenzie completed the Wolves’ sixth hat trick this season with just over three minutes left in the game. Donato scored his second goal of the night, with 40 second left, to cut the lead to 7-4, but it was far too late to mount a serious comeback.

“We weren’t always playing the way we want to play, but everything went in for them,” said captain Cal O’Reilly after the loss. “They just got pucks to the net and got a lot of bounces tonight.”

Cal O'Reilly, Iowa Wild
Cal O’Reilly was frustrated after the Game 5 loss. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Summers Are Overrated in Chicago

The Wolves were able to close out the series on Monday night with a 3-1 victory of the Wild; their fifth straight win at the Allstate Arena.

All four goals were scored in the second period. Dansk got things going in the Wolves’ favor by robbing Kyle Rau with a diving stick save while he broke into the zone on a shorthanded 2-on-1 rush.

Less than a minute later, the red-hot McKenzie opened the scoring with his fifth goal, and third on the power play, in the last three games. Tomas Hyka found McKenzie at the left dot, where he beat Hammond to the short side with a nifty wrist shot.

“Summer is overrated, I’d rather be playing hockey,” McKenzie said with a smile after the win. “We’ve had a great team all year. This group has been unbelievable with each other and stepping up for each other. We just play so hard for each other and that’s why we’re such a special group.”

Hunter Warner’s first career Calder Cup Playoff goal tied the game at the 13:22 mark. With just four seconds left on a power play, the defenseman’s wrist shot from the point got through heavy traffic and over the glove of Dansk.

Just over four minutes later, the Wild were on another power play, but the Wolves regained the lead with the second shorthanded goal in as many games. Quinney led the attack into the zone and flipped the puck towards the front of the net where a streaking Carr slammed it in behind Hammond.

Andrew Hammond, Iowa Wild
Andrew Hammond was a star in the series, but his heroics were not enough. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Wolves capped off the scoring 25 seconds later with a little bit of luck. Hammond made the save on Hague’s blast from the point, but while he was looking for the puck to his left, Cody Glass pounced on the rebound and fired it into the wide-open cage.

“It’s a great feeling, without a doubt,” Thompson said of advancing into the next round. “These guys really do care about each other. If you had the opportunity to see what we see, it’s a special thing. They love being here and it’s because they love being around each other.”

The Wild have nothing to be ashamed of as their season included their first-ever postseason appearance and series win, the most regular-season wins and highest attendance in franchise history.

“It’s never a good way to end,” head coach Tim Army said Monday night.  “Everyone put their heart soul into it since the end of August. This is no easy answer for that.

“This series was a battle. There’s a lot of different things that happened in the 11 playoff games that will be really good for them. And that will only help them gain experience in these situations for the future.”

Chicago is on to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2008 when they went on to win the Calder Cup. They will meet the San Diego Gulls, who closed out the Pacific Division Final over the Bakersfield Condors on Monday.