The San Diego Gulls squad that finished third in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division during the regular season is not the same squad the Chicago Wolves will face in the Western Conference Finals that start Friday night at Allstate Arena.
Twenty players on the Gulls roster appeared in a combined 326 games with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks this season. Judging by the lineups Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins used to knock off San Jose and Bakersfield in the first two rounds of the playoffs to get to this series, 15 or 16 of them figure to suit up for San Diego in Game 1 against Chicago.
“They’re a very good hockey team,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “They have a lot of depth. A lot of players played in Anaheim this year that were sent down. They had two good series against San Jose and Bakersfield. They’ve really controlled their series. We’re going to have to be at the top of our game, for sure.”
While San Diego (7-3) benefited from Anaheim’s ability to send several players to the Gulls when the NHL season ended, the Wolves (7-4) benefited from making the best of a bad injury situation.
When AHL Most Valuable Player Daniel Carr suffered an upper-body injury on March 5 and Wolves No. 2 scorer Brooks Macek suffered an injury on March 20, it gave other Wolves players a chance to play a bigger role.
Everyone from top-liners T.J. Tynan, Curtis McKenzie and Keegan Kolesar to third- and fourth-liners such as Tye McGinn, Matthew Weis and Ryan Wagner stepped up their games.
Then, when Carr and Macek were able to return to the lineup for the Central Division Finals against Iowa, the Wolves suddenly had offensive weapons on every line.
“(Carr and Macek’s return) was huge without a doubt,” Thompson said. “When you add players like that, it’s very important. I thought the guys, in their absence, did a commendable job in the first series against Grand Rapids. With those players you mentioned, they came back in and they hadn’t played in a long, long time. They got better as the series went as well, which is important for us for this third round.”
Perhaps just as important, the Wolves’ loss of Carr and Macek (and Brandon Pirri and Erik Brannstrom in the weeks prior) forced Chicago to commit to a style of play that required the team to be relentless defensively.
Since Feb. 1, the Wolves have allowed two goals or fewer in 29 of their 43 games. In those 29 games, the Wolves posted a 24-2-1-2 record. Goaltender Max Lagace was responsible for 10 of those games – most of them in February and mid-March. But when Lagace spent two stretches serving as the Vegas Golden Knights’ backup, Oscar Dansk stepped forward and became the Wolves’ shutdown goaltender.
Dansk has handled the team’s last eight playoff games – his longest consecutive-games streak during his two years in Chicago — and produced a 6-2 record with a 2.06 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Dansk said. “I have a lot of fun playing a lot of games. It’s a responsibility that I enjoy.”
“The best thing about Oscar is how hard he works in practice and his desire to get better,” Thompson said. “He has continued to grow this year. He’s done a great job and the same has been true in playoffs. He has been getting better as we go. “
THREE TO WATCH FOR SAN DIEGO
Wolves fans remember Cracknell fondly for all the goal-scoring he provided during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons – and not-so-fondly for all the damage he inflicted on the Wolves the four seasons prior with the Peoria Rivermen. The 33-year-old Cracknell, who just welcomed his second daughter into the world two weeks ago, has scored 12 points in nine playoff games for San Diego after producing 15 goals in 32 regular-season games.
After having a brief spin with the Rockford IceHogs in 2016-17, Carrick moved to San Diego and became a crucial part of their lineup. Carrick paced the Gulls in goals (32) and points (61) during the regular season and has notched 5 goals and 7 assists during the playoffs.
After waiting seemingly forever, the 33-year-old Glass finally made his NHL debut last season with the Blackhawks and appeared in 15 games. He joined San Diego at holiday time and split the regular-season duties with Kevin Boyle, but has become the workhorse during the playoffs. He owns a 6-3 record with a 2.25 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
THREE TO WATCH FOR CHICAGO
After missing eight weeks with an upper-body injury, the AHL MVP returned to the lineup for the Central Division Finals against Iowa and led the Wolves with 7 points (2G, 5A) that included the game-winning goal in the decisive Game 6.
McKenzie owns one Calder Cup championship ring (2014 with Texas) and captained the Stars to the 2018 Calder Cup Finals. He knows what it takes in the postseason – and he brought everything to the forefront against Iowa. The Wolves scored 11 goals in the final seven periods against the Wild – and McKenzie produced five of them.
Vegas’ 2017 first-round draft pick turned pro in April and the 20-year-old promptly became an important part of the Wolves lineup. After posting three goals and two assists in the team’s final six regular-season games, Glass has produced four goals and three assists in 11 playoff games. That includes the game-winning goals in Game 4 at Grand Rapids and Game 1 vs. Iowa.
WESTERN CONFERENCE finals schedule
|Game 1||Friday, May 17||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 2||Saturday, May 18||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 3||Wednesday, May 22||Pechanga Arena||9 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 4||Friday, May 24||Pechanga Arena||9 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 5*||Saturday, May 25||Pechanga Arena||9 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 6*||Monday, May 27||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 7*||Wednesday, May 29||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|