This season has been full of surprises for the Chicago Wolves.
Winning the Central Division title after finishing below .500 for the first time in franchise history during the 2015-16 season and beginning the 2016-17 campaign on a three-game skid, seeing Kenny Agostino lead the American Hockey League in scoring by 16 points, and watching Wade Megan clinch the league’s goal-scoring title in the final game of the season were all very pleasant surprises.
Another surprise was the rookie class. Of the dozen novice professionals on the Wolves roster at any given time, left wing Samuel Blais and defenseman Vince Dunn established themselves early and were regulars throughout the entire season.
“They’ve been key contributors in their own way,” said Wolves assistant coach Daniel Tkaczuk. “When you look at the two of them, we didn’t really know what to expect.”
The 20-year-old Blais missed just one game during the regular season for the Wolves and racked up 43 points. His 26 goals were second-best among Wolves skaters and all AHL rookies. He also finished in the Top 20 in league scoring for first-year players.
Helping man the blue line, the 20-year-old Dunn – the Wolves’ youngest skater for the majority of the season – compiled 45 points (13G, 32A) in 72 regular-season games.
Dunn led – by way of goal-scoring tiebreaker – all novice defenseman in points and finished 13th among all rookie skaters in scoring. He also was the Wolves’ top-scoring blueliner by 15 points.
“To have them play like they did when you look at the body of work over the 76 games, it really is quite impressive,” Tkaczuk said.
However, the biggest surprises have been the fresh faces that joined the Wolves roster in the twilight of the regular season: Adam Musil and Jake Walman.
Musil, captain of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, made his professional debut on April 14 and skated in two regular-season games while Walman, a Providence College Friars defenseman, skated in his first pro game on April 1 and appeared in seven regular-season contests.
All four rookies were in the lineup for Game 1 of the Central Division Semifinals when the red-hot Charlotte Checkers shut out the division-champion Wolves 4-0.
While the loss was stunning – and showcased the Checkers had a game plan for facing the Wolves’ top line led by Agostino and Megan – it reminded the Wolves what made them successful throughout the regular season.
“We know we can rely on our [veteran] guys, who have the experience, to lead the way,” Dunn said. “And when you see the young guys step up, everyone feeds off that.”
And the team did.
In Game 2, 11-year NHL veteran defenseman James Wisniewski made his Wolves postseason debut – and registered two assists – while Blais posted three points (1-2–3) and Musil collected two (1-1–2), including the game-winning goal late in the third period.
Though the Wolves lost Game 3 in overtime, Agostino got on the scoresheet with a goal and an assist for his first two points of the postseason. Musil scored the second of his three playoff goals.
Down 2-1 in the series and hampered by injuries, the Wolves again adjusted their lineup, bringing back Walman, who had sat the previous two games. The 21-year-old – along with Blais, Dunn and Musil – picked up a point in the Game 4 series-tying victory.
That game also saw more established players find their footing. Captain Chris Butler collected two assists and stayed on the ice for an entire two-minute penalty kill while top-line skater Andrew Agozzino also piped in two assists.
“We knew we were going to need contributions from everybody,” Tkaczuk said. “For (the rookies) to come in and play the minutes that they did and contribute like they did played a big factor in us coming back.”
After twice rallying from one-game deficits, the Wolves needed back-to-back victories in order to keep their postseason hopes alive for another round. In Game 5, all four rookies again made the scoresheet while Agostino nabbed another two points – a goal and an assist – as the Wolves edged the Checkers 3-2 in regulation time.
Musil again accounted for the game-winning goal, but this time short-handed.
When the dust settled in the opening-round series, Musil, Agostino and Blais finished 1-2-3 in team scoring while each averaging a point per game.
Rookies – specifically Blais, Dunn Musil and Walman – accounted for more than a third of the 41 points posted by the Wolves in the five-game set while veteran-status skaters registered about a quarter of the club’s points in the series.
When the puck drops on Game 1 of the Central Division Finals on Wednesday night at Allstate Arena, the Wolves will be looking for everyone – rookies, vets – to up their game and find a way for this team to win.
“When everyone is contributing from top to bottom, no matter what role, what age and when the young guys are producing, that’s when our team game is best,” Dunn said.
“Everybody’s going to be called up on,” Tkaczuk said. “Everybody is going to need to find a way to play a role in this series and help us play our game.”