The Central Division Semifinal series between the first-place Chicago Wolves and fourth-place Grand Rapids Griffins got underway on Friday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. This is the sixth time these two franchises have met in the postseason between both the AHL and IHL. In their previous five meetings, the team that won their series went on to win the league championship three times.
Griffins Strike First with Big Road Win
The Griffins drew first blood in this best-of-five series with a dominating 5-1 victory Friday night. Heading into the postseason, the Griffins were winless in their last nine games, but they got back on track to kick off the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The reigning Central Division champions came into the series missing a lot of key names, including AHL MVP Daniel Carr, who has been on the shelf since March 5. Forwards Reid Duke and Brooks Macek remained on the injured list as well as dynamic rookie defenseman Dylan Coghlan.
Tye McGinn scored the opening goal of the series; giving the Wolves a 1-0 lead 8:28 into the first period. Cody Glass, in his first professional playoff game, won an offensive zone draw that was quickly one-timed past Harri Sateri by McGinn.
Sateri made a big save on a rebound chance by Tyler Wong to keep it a 1-0 game about five minutes later. The Griffins knotted things up in the final minute of the opening frame when Colin Campbell was able to push a loose puck over the goal line during a mad scramble in front of the Wolves net.
Matt Puempel struck on the power play, midway through the second period, to break the tie. After Carter Camper’s shot from the top of the right circle sailed wide of the net, Puempel deposited the carom off the end boards into the wide-open cage for the eventual game-winning goal.
After picking up the primary assist on the opening goal, Dominic Turgeon added an insurance marker 13:10 into the final period. Turner Elson added an empty-net goal, about four minutes later, which was followed up be a Dominik Shine tally just 23 seconds later to complete the scoring.
Disappointment Was the Theme of the Night for Wolves
“We actually had a really good first period,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson after the loss. “We came out well. I thought our second-period start was OK, too. I really am disappointed in how our team responded in the last 30 minutes. I thought we were deflated after that (Puempel) goal went in.”
The loss extended the Wolves’ postseason losing streak to seven games, which dates back to Game 3 of the 2017 Central Division Final versus the Griffins. As you could imagine, the mood was much better outside of the Grand Rapids locker room.
“I don’t know if it was a statement win,” head coach Ben Simon said after his first career Calder Cup playoff win behind the bench. “I think it was a good character win for our team. We won with all different kind of guys contributing. From our first line to our fourth line, to our goaltender making big saves and our D playing pretty solid defensively.”
Wolves Keep Cool and Draw Even
The Wolves responded with a huge 3-2 win in Saturday night’s Game 2. Max Lagace took over the goaltending duties for Chicago and made 26 saves for his first AHL postseason win.
The game had a bit of snarl to it from the opening draw and Givani Smith played a big role in getting the Griffins two early power plays. Smith got under Chicago’s skin by baiting McGinn and Tomas Hyka into two undisciplined penalties less than eight minutes into the game. Fortunately for the Wolves, their penalty kill unit was up to the task.
Hyka made up for his early penalty by opening the scoring at the 7:38 mark of the second period. McGinn picked up his second point of the series by finding Hyka in the high slot where he blasted a one-timer past Sateri.
Campbell answered with his second goal in as many nights just 40 seconds later by finishing off a 2-on-1 rush with Christoffer Ehn.
Defenseman Zac Whitecloud broke the deadlock with the Wolves first power-play goal of the postseason at 12:58. Curtis McKenzie sent the rebound off a Glass shot to Whitecloud at the right point, where he blasted a slap shot over the glove hand of Sateri for his first career AHL playoff goal.
The goal was essentially a 5-on-3 tally because veteran defenseman Brian Lashoff was injured on the play and was down on the ice when Whitecloud shot the puck. He was helped off the ice and did not return due to an apparent left leg injury.
While playing 4-on-4, Keegan Kolesar doubled the lead just 44 seconds later. Zac Leslie’s shot from the point was blocked, but Kolesar located the puck and roofed it into the Griffins’ net for his second career postseason tally.
The Griffins spent much of the third period in the offensive zone, but the Wolves did a great job getting into the lanes and blocking shots to limit just 10 shots on goal during the final 20 minutes.
Chris Terry made things interesting by cutting the lead to 3-2 with just 4:30 left in the game. The veteran scorer got the puck, below the goal line, in the right corner and banked it off of Lagace for his first goal of the series.
The Wolves hung on for the series-tying victory, despite facing six attackers for nearly two and a half minutes to close out the game.
Wolves Learn From Loss and Move Forward
“We know exactly what we have to do every night,” Whitecloud said after the Game 2 victory. “From day one, we’ve known that we have to play a certain way as a team. Especially when you have key guys go down. We really stuck to that tonight and last night we let the game get away from us.
“Hockey humbles you at the times that you don’t want it to. That was yesterday. I got a good sleep, came to the rink with a smile on my face like I always do and got back to work.”
Thompson had plenty to say about the physical play to start the game and what the Wolves must do going forward if they want to advance.
“That’s their game,” Thompson said of the Griffins. “They are always diving after the whistle. They are trying to have a scrum. They are trying to needle you to get on the power play. It’s no secret. They get the most power plays in the league.”
This series shifts back to Grand Rapids for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday night. No team won more road games in the Western Conference than the Wolves did in the regular season. They will need more of that success because the Griffins have won 11 of their last 13 Calder Cup Playoff games at the Van Andel Arena. If there is a split, the fifth and deciding game will be back in Rosemont on Sunday.