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How the Chicago Wolves Won the Central Division

Three games. Four goals. No wins. No points. That’s how the Chicago Wolves opened the 2016-17 season – dead last in the Central Division.

Six months later, the Wolves own the Central Division title and the division’s top seed in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs that start Thursday at Charlotte. It’s a team that has taken just two regulation losses in the last two months – or one fewer than the team suffered during its first six days together.

How did the Wolves shrug off their slow start and deliver the franchise’s best regular-season winning percentage (.664) since the 2008 Calder Cup champions? To a certain extent, it’s about what the Wolves didn’t do.

Head coach Craig Berube and his assistants, Darryl Sydor and Daniel Tkaczuk, didn’t show any panic. Their lack of overt concern allowed a talented conglomeration of NHL veterans, AHL rookies and talented guys in their mid-20s to find their way together.

“Looking back a little, one thing that’s so special about ‘Chief” (Berube’s nickname coined during his 17 years as an NHL forward) and this coaching staff is they let us become a team on our own,” said Wolves left wing Kenny Agostino, who developed into the American Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player.

“He wasn’t overbearing early on like some coaches can be early in the season. He understands it’s a long season and a feeling-out process – players finding their game and, more importantly, a team finding their game. I think that is a huge credit to him and the staff for understanding. He really let us mesh and become a team.”

“I think the attitude of our team is a direct correlation to how we are coached,” said defenseman Chris Butler, the team captain. “When you look at the style of game Berube played, you might think of more of a pitbull-style mentality behind the bench. But it’s even-keeled. He’s approachable. He communicates well, which is what you need.

“He understands what it was like to be a player. He knows how hard it is to play three games in two-and-a-half days. He understands the importance of rest at this point in the season. The even-keel attitude that we wanted to adopt comes from him and runs through the locker room.”

At the same time, Berube, Sydor and Tkaczuk worked hard to instill a team-first mentality while forging the team’s talent into one of the league’s best offenses (tied for fourth in the AHL at 3.30 goals per game) with one of the league’s best defenses (eighth at 2.63 goals allowed per game).

“Just be honest with everybody,” Berube said. “And tough. You’ve got to be tough. You’re the coach. You’ve got to demand. You’ve got to demand work ethic and competitiveness. It has to be in your players. You have to do it and they have to understand it. The other thing is you’ve got to be a team player. It’s about the team.”

Sydor, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, brings 1,291 games as an NHL defenseman and four years as a Minnesota Wild assistant coach to the room every day. Tkaczuk, the sixth overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, played professionally for 12 years before developing into a coach who seems to work 25 hours a day, eight days a week with all of the video he inhales, diagrams he draws and workouts he conducts.

“‘Syd’ has done an amazing job with the defense all year,” Agostino said. “ ‘Chucker’ has been one of the hardest-working coaches I’ve ever seen.”

As the Wolves developed into a winning unit during November and December, they still found obstacles they needed to overcome. Defenseman Brad Hunt climbed the charts and became the AHL’s leading scorer, so he moved to the National Hockey League on Dec. 8 never to return again. Center Ivan Barbashev stacked up 37 points in 46 games, so he moved to the NHL and now he’s centering the top line for the St. Louis Blues.

No matter who has been in the dressing room, though, the Wolves have produced and they’ve had a great time doing it. Together. Literally, these Wolves stick together like a pack.

“We’ve all said it: This is the closest team we’ve ever been on,” Agostino said. “Everyone really gets along. It’s really special and it makes coming to the rink a joy.”

“I think we have a really fun group to be around,” Butler said. “You get on some teams and there are cliques or whatever. I don’t think we have that here. Guys enjoy going to dinners together. Guys enjoy spending time on the road together.

“We’ve got quality people. When you get rid of the egos and everyone checks those at the door, it’s pretty cool what a team can accomplish. At the end of the day, when a team has success then everyone has success.”