CHICAGO WOLVES (37-19-5-2) AT ROCKFORD ICEHOGS (30-24-4-6)
ILLINOIS LOTTERY CUP UPDATE
The Chicago Wolves continue to climb toward the franchise’s 20th playoff berth in 25 years, leading the Central Division with 81 points with just 13 games remaining in the regular season. A win tonight against the IceHogs would not only keep the Wolves squarely in first place of the Central Division, but would push the Wolves that much closer to claiming the Illinois Lottery Cup once again.
Heading into tonight’s action, the Wolves and IceHogs are tied in the 12-game regular-season series with five wins apiece. Should the series end in a 6-6 tie after the final game on March 31, the team with the most points in the series will receive the Cup. Before tonight’s matchup, the Wolves hold a 12-11 lead in points. Should the teams tie in wins and points, the final tiebreaker is the number of goals in the series. The Wolves have the lead there as well, 31-25, with two games remaining.
To put it another way, a Wolves win tonight essentially clinches the lllinois Lottery Cup for the third year in a row. Our state’s American Hockey League teams have been battling for the Illinois Lottery Cup since the 2011-12 season. The Peoria Rivermen claimed the Cup first, but the Wolves and IceHogs have split ownership of the Cup over the last six seasons.
The matchup in Rockford also marks the start of a five-game road trip, during which the Wolves will face Rockford, Texas, San Antonio and Grand Rapids. The five-game stretch ties for the team’s longest this season, matching the five games the Wolves played on the road from Oct. 26 to Nov. 7. Chicago went 3-2-0-0 during that trip and outscored its opponents 19-15.
Defense wins championships
Through the first half of the season it was common for the Wolves to overpower teams on the scoreboard. Chicago scored at least two goals (but averaged more than three) in each of its first 33 games of the season and led opponents in goals 139-112 at the halfway point of the year. The Wolves were the first Western Conference team to reach 200 goals and have boasted some of the league’s top point-scorers throughout the season in Brandon Pirri, Brooks Macek, Daniel Carr, and T.J. Tynan, among others.
The Chicago offense has cooled to a consistent simmer, still averaging 2.84 goals a game through the back half of the season, but the defense has been the difference lately. The Wolves have given up an average of just two goals a game since the All-Star Break, allowing 38 goals in 19 games. The Wolves goaltending duo of Max Lagace and Oscar Dansk have combined for a .929 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average.
For the year, only Bakersfield (151) and Syracuse (156) have allowed fewer goals than the Wolves’ 167.
BY THE NUMBERS
3: The Wolves’ prowess during even-strength play shows up in the league’s plus/minus ratings as Chicago owns the top three spots. Center Gage Quinney, his former linemate Daniel Carr, and rookie defenseman Zach Whitecloud all share the league lead at +35. Rookie defenseman Nic Hague is in a three-way tie for fourth place with a +28.
4: Center T.J. Tynan dished out a season-high four assists on Saturday night, the seventh time this season a Wolves player has recorded four or more points in a single game. It matched Tynan’s AHL career-high, as the 27-year-old Orland Park native handed out four assists for the Wolves in a 6-1 victory over Bakersfield on Jan. 20, 2018.
12: Heading into tonight’s matchup, the Wolves need just 12 points in 13 remaining games. If Chicago sweeps its three games this week, theres a chance it can clinch the franchise’s 20th playoff berth in 25 years on Saturday night. Only Bakersfield (8) has a lower number in the Western Conference. The magic number is reduced each time the Wolves earn points, as well as each time teams outside the playoff picture fail to earn points.
18: Left wing Curtis McKenzie has been one of the most productive and most consistent Wolves since the All-Star Break. In the team’s last 17 games, McKenzie has stacked up nine goals and nine assists as the Wolves have fashioned a 12-4-0-1 record. In Saturday’s win over San Antonio, he rang up two goals and one assist to earn his third three-point performance of the season. Overall, he has looked remarkably similar to the standout who captained the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup Final last season and led all goal-scorers during postseason play.
43: The Wolves are outscoring their opponents by 43 goals this season (210-167), which trails only Syracuse and Bakersfield for the best goal differential in the AHL. Most of that advantage has been piled up during the first period, when Chicago has outscored its foes 71-43. Nobody in the AHL is close to that +28 margin.
200: When T.J. Tynan scored in the third period March 9 against Iowa, the Wolves became the first Western Conference team to reach the 200-goal mark this season and the fourth AHL team overall. The Wolves are on pace to score 253 goals during the 76-game regular season, which is two better than the 2016-17 Central Division champions.
357: 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 19-year-old defenseman Erik Brannstrom made his NHL debut Thursday night for the Ottawa Senators, he became the 357th player (out of 620 Wolves all-time) who have competed for the Wolves and in the NHL. That 57.6 percent overall success rate is even higher among goaltenders. Of the 55 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 — 38 boast NHL experience (69.1 percent).
THE NEXT THREE GAMES
All games are streamed on AHLTV.