CHICAGO WOLVES (10-6-2-1) AT GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (10-7-0-2)
STARTING THE SECOND QUARTER
The Chicago Wolves wrapped up the first quarter of the 76-game American Hockey League schedule with a 10-6-2-1 record, which represents the franchise’s best start since 2014-15. Considering each of the last two Wolves teams posted a sub-.500 record over the first 19 games — only to improve markedly the rest of the way and claim the Central Division title — there’s reason to believe the same can happen again this year.
Why are the Wolves off to a solid start? The team’s offense is a good place to begin. Rocky Thompson’s squad leads the Western Conference and ranks third in the AHL with 3.89 goals per game. If the Wolves maintain this pace, then this edition will rank second in the team’s 25-year history in goals per game as the 2006-07 squad averaged 4.14 per game. Chicago boasts three of the league’s top 11 scorers in Brandon Pirri (8G, 14A), Daniel Carr (9G, 13A) and Brooks Macek (14G, 7A).
Carr led the AHL in points when he was recalled from loan by the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights on Thanksgiving — he opened the scoring for the Golden Knights in their 8-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night — while Macek continues to pace the AHL in goals. As for consistency, the Wolves are one of just four AHL teams that have scored at least two goals in every game — joining Providence, Rochester and San Diego.
UP AND DOWN THE LINEUP
The Wolves employed the same 18 skaters for the three-in-three over the weekend and, not only did 16 of them dent the scoresheet over the course of those hectic 47 hours, the team’s 12 goals were compiled by 10 players.
Right wing Tomas Hyka, who spent the last six weeks with Vegas before returning to Chicago on Thanksgiving, and right wing Keegan Kolesar, who entered the weekend with one goal in 16 games, were the Wolves’ multi-goal scorers.
“ ‘Keegs’ and I had a couple meetings early in the year,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “I thought he wasn’t playing poorly early in the year. He was a little bit snake-bitten. There was a lot of bad luck. It’d seem he’d get on the ice, not really be involved in a play, and a goal would go in. That wears on you. Then he was running into some pretty good saves (against him). So I wasn’t disappointed in his game early on. It was just a matter of he’s going to turn the corner. Things will start to go for him again if he stuck to it, stuck to the process, and he has.”
Kolesar isn’t the only youngster who’s enjoying a recent renaissance. Center Reid Duke ranks among the team’s hottest scorers over the last two weeks. The rookie produced 5 points (3G, 2A) in the team’s first five games. After going nine games without a point, Duke delivered a goal on Nov. 17 against Iowa to set the table for 6 points (2G, 4A) over the last five games.
BY THE NUMBERS
1: No team enjoys playing the first period as much as the Chicago Wolves. Rocky Thompson’s crew only has trailed once heading into the first intermission this year — and that happened the last time the Wolves played in Grand Rapids (on Oct. 20). The Wolves have outscored foes 29-13 in the first period this season. That +16 differential nearly doubles the next-best first-period team in the league as Charlotte owns a +9 differential. By the way, the Wolves have scored the game’s first goal in 12 of their 19 games overall, including five of the last six.
10: The Wolves rank 10th in the AHL — but first in the Central Division — with 16.3 penalty minutes per game. That doesn’t jibe with the tone set by Rocky Thompson’s first Wolves squad as last year’s group ranked 25th with 11.6 penalty minutes per game. But this year’s PIMS help to explain why the Wolves are in a four-way tie for ninth place in power-play chances allowed (92) and tied for sixth in power-play goals allowed (21).
13: Erik Brännström shares 12th among all AHL defensemen with 13 points (3G, 10A). The 19-year-old from Eksjo, Sweden, shares first among all rookie blueliners in points as he and Utica’s Olli Juolevi (13 points) are the only rookies among the top 17 d-men.
14: Though he hasn’t scored in the last six games, Brooks Macek continues to lead the AHL with 14 goals. The 26-year-old from Winnipeg’s 14 goals are not a franchise record for most goals after 19 games: Steve Maltais produced 23 goals in the Wolves’ first 19 games of 1995-96, Rob Brown notched 16 in 1996-97, Brett Sterling posted 16 in 2006-07 and Jason Krog delivered 15 goals in 2006-07.
82: Brandon Pirri ranks among the most dangerous players in the American Hockey League, so it makes sense that he leads the league in shots with 82. He’s firing a little more frequently than in years past. This is his sixth full or partial season in the AHL and this marks the first time he has averaged more than 3.65 shots per game. On the flip side, he’s converting just 9.8 percent of his shots, which is well off his 11.6 percent career rate. This suggests there could be a bushel of goals in his future as his shooting percentage regresses to the mean.
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).
6,532: This is the number of days between Brooks Macek’s five-assist effort on Nov. 7 at Milwaukee and the previous five-assist game by a Wolves player. Rob Brown, who holds the team’s single-game (6) and single-season (91) assist records, handed out five assists on Dec. 19, 2000, in a 7-5 victory at Kansas City.