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Gardner sizes up Wolves’ schedule

After the American Hockey League revealed the 2015-16 regular-season schedule Thursday, longtime Chicago Wolves color analyst Bill Gardner took time to break down what it could mean for the team.

The Wolves kick off their 22nd season on Saturday, Oct. 10, with a 7 p.m. home game against the Milwaukee Admirals. The season-opening fun begins at 2 p.m. with a free tailgate party in Allstate Arena’s West Lot. Chicago plays six of its first seven games at home.

“For years, I think the Wolves liked to start on the road and get some games under their belt,” said Gardner, who’ll join broadcast partner Jason Shaver at Arlington International Racecourse on Saturday afternoon for the Wolves’ free season ticket holders party.

“Last year and this year, we’ve had a real different schedule and played home games early. You can get off to a good start that gets you going in the right direction.”

That’s exactly what happened last season as the Wolves opened with five consecutive home games and claimed 8 of a possible 10 points.

While the Wolves’ October schedule looks similar to last year, the November slates are markedly different. Last year, the Wolves played 15 games in November that featured a nine-game road trip. This season, the Wolves play 11 times and their annual circus road trip lasts just five games.

“Overall I think it’s a very balanced schedule,” Gardner said. “There’s not the disparity of playing 15 or 16 games in a month, which sometimes happens. And I think there’s only one month where we’re away for three games more than we’re home. It’s good that way as well.”

The games also are spaced in such a fashion that the Wolves face just four “three-in-threes,” meaning three games in three days. Last season, Chicago battled through six three-in-threes.

With the team’s schedule loaded with Central Division foes – 68 of the 76 regular-season games come against the other seven teams in the new division – the AHL’s streamlined playoff format allows the Wolves to control their own postseason destiny.

This year, the top four teams in each of the four divisions qualify for the Calder Cup Playoff and the first two postseason rounds are conducted within the division (though the fifth-place team in the Central Division can claim the fourth-place spot in the Pacific if it posts a superior points percentage). If the Wolves take care of business during the regular season, they’re all but assured of a playoff spot.

“Absolutely,” Gardner said. “It’s important to have the upper hand on as many teams as you possibly can. When it was the Midwest Division, it was always competitive and one of the best divisions over the years.”