The Chicago Wolves operate by the words uttered by late Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
To put Burnham’s words into hockey terms, the Wolves plot solely to win the American Hockey League championship. They did not fulfill their plan during the 2014-15 season, though not due to lack of trying.
The Wolves enjoyed a splendid start and a brilliant finish during the regular season, but their inconsistencies during the lengthy middle left them with the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference’s half of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Once there, the Wolves pushed the top-seeded Utica Comets to the limit before falling in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. The teams were as close as could be – three of the first four games required overtime – but only one team could advance.
“They were in first place for a reason, but I thought we played them tooth-and-nail,” said Wolves coach John Anderson. “It’s a matter of one goal here, one goal there. Bounce of the puck here, bounce of the puck there.”
Let’s trace the bounce of those pucks from October 11, 2014, to May 2, 2015, as the Wolves played out their 21st season:
Chicago opened the year with a 2-1 victory over Charlotte on Oct. 11 in front of 10,399 fans at Allstate Arena. One of the season’s themes was established as Colin Fraser, one of four Wolves who helped the Blackhawks capture the 2010 Stanley Cup, delivered the season’s first goal. The win triggered a 9-2-2-0 start for the Wolves, which had general manager Wendell Young pleased with the team’s collective effort.
“I’m absolutely elated about our team,” Young said as part of a “State of the Pack” interaction with fans on Facebook. “I think our team has been really, really good, especially with the amount of road games we’ve had. We’ve done our job at home too. It’s the way our team plays. It’s all through hard work and it’s a good group of guys. That’s the biggest thing about this year’s team: We don’t have any true superstars, but we’ve got a lot of good players.”
While the Wolves were well-balanced in the early going, second-year right wing Ty Rattie stacked up 13 goals in the team’s first 22 games to set the pace for the entire AHL.
Neither the Wolves nor Rattie could maintain their blistering starts. When Chicago suffered a 5-1 home loss to Lake Erie on Jan. 16, the team’s record stood at 19-15-4-0 at the season’s 38-game midpoint.
The season’s third quarter featured the ascension of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Anderson split the duties between Binnington and veteran Matt Climie during the first half of the season, but Climie’s lower body injury meant Binnington got to start a franchise-record 18 games in a row.
Binnington played solidly despite the heavy workload (2.40 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with 1 shutout), but the team’s inconsistent offense and effort consigned the Wolves to a 9-6-3 record during those 18 games.
“I’m a little disappointed with where we are,” Young said near the end of Binnington’s 18-game run. “I’m excited one night and disappointed the next night. We haven’t been consistent enough. That’s within games and from period to period. We have a great weekend, then don’t play well the next game. We’re trying to figure out why that level…we don’t have a team that’s all about skill. We’re about hard work. That’s one of the things we took pride in at the start of the season and that’s why we got off to such a great start.
Climie’s return couldn’t stem the team’s struggles as the Wolves went 3-7-1-0 from Feb. 15 to March 19 to enter the final month of the regular season needing a significant rally in order to qualify for the playoffs. Sports Club Stats, a website that uses algorithms to gauge teams’ capabilities, pegged the Wolves’ chances to make the playoffs at 26 percent after the team’s 3-0 home loss to Texas on March 19.
But then came the significant rally. The Wolves reeled off a season-high seven-game winning streak due to a variety of factors. Top-line center Pat Cannone returned from injury, top-flight right wing Shane Harper (32 goals) kept producing, two of Young’s late-season veteran acquisitions (defenseman Brendan Bell and forward Adam Cracknell) played at their customary high level and youngsters such as defenseman Colton Parayko and forward Jacob Doty had no problem adjusting to their new AHL surroundings.
When Binnington and the Wolves shut out Iowa 1-0 on April 12 at Allstate Arena, it marked the team’s 10th win in 12 games and clinched the franchise’s 17th playoff berth in 21 years. For Anderson, it was his 12th playoff appearance in his 13 years at the Wolves helm.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” Anderson said. “They had to really dig down. They weren’t easy games. We deserve to be there now. We’d like to finish with a good push toward the playoffs and hit the ground running.”
The Wolves wound up paired with North Division champion Utica in the first round. The teams split their four regular-season games, so both sides expected nothing less than a taut thriller for their best-of-five series. Sure enough, the Wolves and Comets delivered more than their fair share of thrills.
Game 1: Wolves forward Magnus Paajarvi’s goal with one second left in regulation forces overtime. The teams battle until the 3:10 mark of the second extra period, when Utica defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti swats home a rebound in a 3-2 final.
Game 2: Wolves forward Jeremy Welsh snaps a 1-1 tie when he redirects Jani Hakanpaa’s shot from the right point at 11:52 of the second period. Welsh’s tally holds up as Binnington stops 30 shots.
Game 3: Utica takes advantage of a disputed third-period goal by Adam Clendening (spoiler alert: Clendening’s shot never crosses the goal line, but the officials refuse to use video replay to review the play) to force overtime. Once again, Utica comes through in the extra session as former Wolves forward Darren Archibald scores at 10:58 of the first overtime. Binnington posts a remarkable 50 saves in the hard-luck loss.
Game 4: Adam Cracknell, Mathieu Brodeur and Benn Ferriero score for the Wolves, but Sanguinetti’s third-period goal forces these teams to work overtime yet again. This time around, the Wolves emerge with a 4-3 win as defenseman Joel Edmundson fires home a power-play goal from the right circle just 2:19 into extra time.
Game 5: With everything on the line, the Wolves and Comets take turns combining for 5 second-period goals. Utica carries a 3-2 lead into the final period and the Wolves remove Binnington late in hopes of finding the equalizer. Utica capitalizes with an empty-net goal with 44 seconds left. Though Rattie clangs a shot off the crossbar with five seconds left, the Wolves cannot pull off the comeback.
While the Comets and seven other AHL teams continue to pursue the 2015 Calder Cup, the Wolves already have begun making plans to chase the 2016 Calder Cup. Those plans, as you can imagine, will not be little.