CHICAGO WOLVES (4-0-0-0) at GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (1-4-0-0)
ONE OF THE LAST teams standing
For the third time in the organization’s 25-year history, the Chicago Wolves are off to a 4-0 start as head coach Rocky Thompson’s team pulled off a pair of home wins last weekend against the same team the Wolves are playing this weekend. The Wolves and the Charlotte Checkers (5-0-0-0) are the only unbeaten teams left in the AHL
Winning the first handful of games in October typically leads to a magical June for the Wolves. In 1997-98, head coach John Anderson’s first Wolves squad started 3-0 and went on to capture the 1998 Turner Cup. In 2001-02, the Wolves won their first three games and finished the year holding the Calder Cup aloft. In 2007-08, the Wolves raced out to a 6-0 start and didn’t stop until they owned the 2008 Calder Cup. There’s only one Wolves team that started 3-0 that didn’t win the league championship: The 2012-13 crew that opened 4-0, but early and frequent injuries left the squad just shy of the playoffs.
If there are any coaches out there looking for bulletin board material to make sure their team doesn’t get overconfident early in the year, there are these nuggets: Last year, the Milwaukee Admirals were the last AHL team to lose a game — but the Admirals’ 4-0 start couldn’t prevent them from missing the playoffs. In 2016-17, the news wasn’t much better for the last team to suffer a loss. The Albany Devils broke out to a 5-0 start before losing on Oct. 26. While the Devils secured a Calder Cup Playoff berth, they were done after Round 1.
WHY THE WOLVES ARE WINNING
Again, it’s early in the season to draw many conclusions, but the Wolves appear to have a nice blend of hungry veterans with NHL experience and eager prospects with preternatural skills. For example, the Wolves have won two games in overtime — and the game-winning goals came from 19-year-old defenseman Erik Brännström (a 2017 NHL first-round pick by Vegas) and 20-year-old defenseman Dylan Coghlan (an undrafted free agent who signed a three-year entry deal with Vegas). Both were their first professional goals in North America.
Brooks Macek and rookie center Reid Duke leads the Wolves with three goals — the first three of his pro career — but the team’s points leaders are familiar names who’ve proven themselves on the big stage. Veteran forwards Curtis McKenzie (G, 6A) and Brandon Pirri (G, 4A) have scored at least one point in each game while forward Daniel Carr, who played 71 games for the Montreal Canadiens over the previous two seasons, has racked up one goal and five assists in the last three games.
BY THE NUMBERS
3: The Wolves are off to the third 4-0 start in the franchise’s 25-year history, joining John Anderson’s 2007-08 and Scott Arniel’s 2012-13 squads as the only ones to pocket Ws in each of the first four games. This year’s crew has something in common with the 2007-08 squad as both earned a pair of overtime wins and both had two goalies start two games apiece (Ondrej Pavelec and Fred Brathwaite) during their 4-0 starts. The 2012-13 team posted two shootout wins and one overtime victory in its 4-0 start. Goaltender Eddie Lack, currently with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, was the early workhorse for that team before suffering a season-ending injury in November.
4: Rookie defenseman Dylan Coghlan scored the first four points of his professional career last weekend. The 20-year-old from Nanaimo, British Columbia, started with an assist Oct. 13 versus Grand Rapids, then produced one goal and two assists last Saturday against Milwaukee. He earned the primary helper on both assists — setting up Reid Duke and T.J. Tynan for the team’s first two goals of the night — before unleashing a slap shot 2:56 into overtime for the game-winner. “He’s got great offensive tools, without a doubt,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson after the game.
4.5: The Wolves are averaging 4.5 goals per game, which ranks third in the league behind Iowa (5.0) and Springfield (4.8) Chicago also opened last season with 18 goals in the first four games, but that translated to a 1-2-1-0 start as the Wolves allowed 18 goals as well. The team record for most goals in the first four games is owned by the 2015-16 squad. John Anderson’s boys piled up 20 goals while breaking out to a 2-1-0-1 start that stretched all the way to 8-1-0-1 before injuries and inconsistency chipped away at the team’s base.
6: The Wolves have six skaters taking point streaks into tonight’s game. Veteran forwards Curtis McKenzie and Brandon Pirri own four-game streaks, forward Daniel Carr and defenseman Zac Leslie boast three-game streaks and defenseman Dylan Coghlan and forward Stefan Matteau are riding two-game streaks. If and when forward Tomas Hyka returns from the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, he’ll take a two-game streak into his next AHL game.
10: The Wolves have scored 18 goals while allowing just 8 this season and their +10 goal differential ranks as the second-best spread in the AHL. Actually, the Wolves are tied with Springfield (+10) and Iowa (+10) and right behind league-leading Charlotte (+11). Grand Rapids, tonight’s foe, shares next-to-last in the same metric. The Hershey Bears stand at -12 while the Griffins and the Manitoba Moose stand at (-10). The Central Division is the AHL’s only one with at least four teams with winning percentage of .667 or better: The Wolves (1.000), Iowa and Milwaukee (.750) and Texas (.667).
353: If you’ve suited up for the Wolves, chances are better than 50/50 that you’ve also played in the National Hockey League. When Daniel Carr, Curtis McKenzie and Zach Whitecloud made their Wolves debuts on Oct. 5, they became the 351st, 352nd and 353rd players (out of 615 Wolves all-time) who have competed for the Wolves and in the NHL. That 57.4 percent overall success rate is even higher among goaltenders. Of the 54 players who’ve tended the net for the Wolves over the years — starting with original goaltenders Ray LeBlanc and Wendell Young and continuing through current Wolves Max Lagace and Oscar Dansk — 37 boast NHL experience (68.5 percent).