CHICAGO WOLVES (41-20-5-3) AT ROCKFORD ICEHOGS (32-27-4-6)
WINNER-TAKE-ALL FOR THE CUP!
After 11 fiercely contested games between the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs this season — four games required extra time and three more ended with a one-goal verdict — the identity of the 2018-19 Illinois Lottery Cup champion will be decided today. The team that wins today gets to claim bragging rights and own the cup throughout the offseason.
Why does it happen to be winner-take-all today? We’re glad you asked. The Illinois Lottery Cup competition, which wraps up its eighth season today, relies first on wins. Heading into tonight’s action, the IceHogs own six wins to the Wolves’ five. Should the Wolves win today and even the score at 6-6, then the team with the most points in the series earns the Cup. The teams are tied 12-12 there, so today’s winner automatically gets this tiebreaker as well.
Lastly, should the teams be knotted in wins and points, then the final tiebreaker is the number of goals in the series. The Wolves hold a 32-27 lead there. If the Wolves capture the Cup again this season, it will mark their third straight season as the champion and fourth overall.
BATTLING FOR MORE THAN THE CUP
After clinching the franchise’s 20th playoff bid in 25 years on Friday night at Grand Rapids, the Wolves showed a bit of jet lag Saturday night and suffered a 4-2 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals at Allstate Arena. Nonetheless, the Wolves maintained their 4-point lead over the second-place Grand Rapids Griffins in the division race. Chicago’s magic number to clinch the division title and the No. 1 seed in the Calder Cup Playoff sits at 10 with seven regular-season games remaining.
Rockford, on the other hand, has designs on claiming the fourth and final spot available in the Central Division. After the IceHogs’ 4-1 home win over Grand Rapids on Saturday night, they find themselves with 74 points. They’re in a virtual dead heat with Texas (77 points), Manitoba (75 points) and Milwaukee (75 points).
A THREE-IN-THREE SPREE
The Wolves are wrapping up a stretch where they play three games in three days, but technically it’s three games in 48 hours. The Grand Rapids Griffins are the only other Central Division team that’s also playing three games in three days this weekend.
The Wolves ought to get accustomed to this life because they’re going to cap the regular season with two more three-in-three weekends. This marks the first time Chicago has wrapped up a season with three consecutive three-in-threes since the 2010-11 season, which was the AHL’s last with 80 regular-season games.
In the Wolves’ most recent three-in-three (March 8-10), they swept all three games.
BY THE NUMBERS
2.58: The Wolves are allowing the third-fewest goals per game in the AHL, giving up an average of 2.58 goals each contest. That means this year’s squad is within striking distance of the franchise record of 2.51 GAA set by the 2013-14 Midwest Division champs. Goaltender Oscar Dansk, the reigning CCM/AHL Player of the Week, has gone 5-0-1 with just eight goals allowed in his last six games.
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 holds the lead at +37, forward Daniel Carr stands second at +35 and rookie defenseman Zach Whitecloud ranks third at +34. Arturs Kulda (+47) holds the franchise record, but this year’s group ranks favorably with the next two on the Wolves’ single-season franchise list. Brian Sipotz posted a +34 in 2006-07 and Chris Chelios did the same in 2009-10 while paired with Kulda.
26: 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 23 games, McKenzie has stacked up 12 goals — including three two-goal efforts — and 14 assists as the Wolves have fashioned a 16-5-0-2 record. McKenzie’s first goal Friday night against Grand Rapids was his 100th career AHL goal and extended his point streak to six games. He also owns a career-high eight-game point streak during his spree.
44: The Wolves lead the American Hockey League in first goals as they’ve scored the opening marker in 44 of their 69 games this season. When the Wolves have scored first, they’ve gone on to produce a 30-10-3-1 record, which breaks out to a .727 points percentage. When Chicago doesn’t score first — such as Saturday night’s game against Milwaukee — its record stands at 11-10-2-2 (.520).
52: The Wolves are outscoring their opponents by 52 goals this season (230-178), which trails only Syracuse, Bakersfield and Charlotte 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 79-46. Nobody in the AHL is close to that +33 margin.
69: With high-scoring right wing Brooks Macek forced to sit out the recent road trip due to an injury — his first absences from the lineup this season — top line left wing Curtis McKenzie became the only Wolves player who has suited up for all 69 games this season. McKenzie never has appeared in all 76 AHL games during his career, but he played 75 games in 2013-14 during his rookie season with the Texas Stars.
358: 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 defenseman Jake Chelios made his NHL debut Friday night for the Detroit Red Wings, he became the 358th player (out of 621 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.