Let’s start with the obvious: It’s hard to win a postseason series without a productive power play.
During the first three games of the Western Conference Finals – which the Chicago Wolves trail 2-1 heading into Friday’s Game 4 at San Diego – the Wolves have converted just 1 of their 10 power-play opportunities. And, considering the Gulls’ Sam Steel scored a short-handed goal to give San Diego a 2-1 lead in Game 3 Wednesday night, it’s as if the Wolves are a net-zero on the power play for the series.
“At the end of the day, our power play has got to get going,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “It’s a big difference-maker in this series and right now it’s a liability for us.”
The Wolves went 0 for 4 on the power play in Game 3, but the issues went deeper than the numbers. After San Diego defenseman Andy Welinski was given a match penalty for elbowing rookie center Cody Glass in the face in the second period, the Wolves enjoyed three minutes of guaranteed 5-on-4 time for that major.
During those three minutes, San Diego cleared the puck out of the zone five times before the Wolves put a shot on goal – when AHL MVP Daniel Carr fed Tomas Hyka going to the net but Gulls goaltender Kevin Boyle blocked the redirect. Carr regained the puck and set up defenseman Zach Whitecloud for a blast from the right point, but Boyle’s shoulder got in the way. After one more clear and Boyle’s stop of a Carr stuff attempt, the power play was over. There were still 30 minutes left in the game, but the Wolves wouldn’t get another power play chance.
“I think it’s one of those things where as a whole we have to be better,” Carr said. “We’ve just got to execute a little better. Guys are there. It’s two things when you’re making plays: One, the guy’s got to be in the passing lane and, two, the guy’s got to put it in the passing lane. Sometimes you make passes and you’re both just a little off on what you think the passing lane is. It’s one of those things right now. It’s going to come. We’ve just got to keep working at it.”
Indeed, Thompson saw progress throughout the third period. And when he created a man-advantage with four minutes to go by pulling goaltender Oscar Dansk for an extra skater, the Wolves promptly worked their way for Curtis McKenzie’s rebound goal that cut the lead to 3-2 with 3:30 to go.
“By the third period, we started to play right,” Thompson said. “We started to execute, make some passes, support each other up the ice. We weren’t turning over pucks and so we had more looks come the third period. That’s the key to the game. But if you can’t execute a pass or get a shot through or not turn over pucks in certain areas, then it’s going to be a long night and we’re going to play from behind.”
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the Wolves just went through a similar crisis during the Central Division Finals against Iowa.
Through the first four games, the Wolves were 0 for 11 on the power play and the series was knotted 2-2. In fact, Iowa was an absurd 33 of 34 on the penalty kill for the entire postseason. The Wolves used the Thursday off-day – just like they’re using this Thursday off-day – to figure things out.
And then in Friday night’s Game 5 on enemy ice, the Wolves lit up the Wild for three power-play goals – the first by Carr and then two by McKenzie – to seize control of the series.
What might the Wolves do in Friday night’s Game 4 on enemy ice?
“We’ve just got to keep going,” Carr said. “You don’t really have a choice. It’s about working to get better going forward. For us, that’s our focus.”