CHICAGO WOLVES (11-6) AT CHARLOTTE CHECKERS (11-3)
one for the thumb
After 11 long years away from the Calder Cup Finals, the Chicago Wolves have returned in search of a championship ring for the thumb. The Wolves seek their fifth league championship after winning the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup in 2002 and 2008 and the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup in 1998 and 2000.
The Wolves’ 25th anniversary season has been the tale of a team that plays much differently now than it did as the year unfolded. Head coach Rocky Thompson’s squad was an offensive juggernaut in the early going as five different forwards — Brooks Macek, Gage Quinney, Daniel Carr, Brandon Pirri and Tomas Hyka — produced hat tricks in the season’s first half.
But as Pirri departed for the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, power-play quarterback Erik Brannstrom moved to the Ottawa Senators organization via trade and Carr, Macek and Hyka each spent extensive time off the ice due to injury, the Wolves reinvented themselves as a defensive juggernaut during the second half of the season. From Feb. 2 through April 13 — a stretch of 30 games — the Wolves allowed just 59 goals as they climbed to their third consecutive Central Division title.
The Wolves’ 1.97 goals allowed per game over that 10-week run was pretty impressive, but one team was better: The Charlotte Checkers, who allowed just 1.90 goals per game over the same stretch.
THE AHL’S BEST REGULAR-SEASON TEAM
The Charlotte Checkers enter their first Calder Cup Finals with home-ice advantage because they dominated the AHL during the regular season. The Checkers piled up 110 points with a 51-17-7-1 record to post the league’s best winning percentage (.724). To put those 110 points into perspective, only three AHL teams have fared better since the league switched to a 76-game season in 2011 and two of them went on to win the Calder Cup: The Norfolk Admirals (113 points in 2011-12) and the Toronto Marlies (112 points in 2017-18).
What makes the Checkers great? For starters, they boast the league’s Goaltender of the Year in Alex Nedeljkovic, who posted a 34-9-5 record with a 2.26 goals-against average during the regular season. He has handled most of the load during these Calder Cup Playoffs, but backup Dustin Tokarski owns a better GAA (0.77) in three postseason appearances. So they suppress scoring regardless of who’s in net.
The Checkers boasted the league’s best penalty-kill unit during the regular season (86.6 percent) and they’ve kicked it up a notch during the playoffs. In addition to stopping 88.1 percent of their opponents’ power plays, they’ve racked up four short-handed goals.
“They have a nice combination of young and old — skill, speed and size,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “Very similar styles, especially between San Diego and Charlotte. We know they’re going to be dangerous. They’re hard-working, but we’re just excited about getting it going.”
BY THE NUMBERS
1: The Chicago Wolves and Charlotte Checkers did not face each other during the season — and have not faced each other since the 2017 Central Division Semifinals — but they did have one common opponent in the Cleveland Monsters. The Wolves posted a 2-1-1-0 record against the Monsters with a 16-10 goal differential while the Checkers produced a 3-1-0-0 mark against the Monsters even though both teams scored 10 goals in the four games.
3: The Wolves boast three players with Calder Cup Finals experience: forwards Tye McGinn, Curtis McKenzie and T.J. Tynan. McGinn produced 1 goal and 3 assists for the Syracuse Crunch in the 2017 Calder Cup Finals won by the Grand Rapids Griffins in six games. Tynan posted 1 assist in the 2016 Calder Cup Finals for the Lake Erie Monsters as they swept the Hershey Bears. McKenzie earned his Calder Cup championship ring during his rookie year in 2014 when the Texas Stars defeated the St. John’s IceCaps in five games. He delivered 1 goal and 4 assists in that series. Last year, McKenzie captained the Texas Stars squad that went seven games with the eventual champion Toronto Marlies. McKenzie notched a series-leading 5 goals with 1 assist.
4: Left wing Daniel Carr became the fourth Wolves player in the last 13 seasons to earn the AHL’s Most Valuable Player honor. He received the Les Cunningham Award prior to Game 1 of the Central Division Semifinals against the Grand Rapids Griffins on April 19 and joined Kenny Agostino (2016-17), Jason Krog (2007-08) and Darren Haydar (2006-07) in this exclusive club. Hershey is the only other AHL team to have more than one MVP since the Wolves joined the league prior to the 2001-02 season.
8: The Chicago Wolves retain just one player from their roster from the 2017 Central Division Semifinals matchup against the Charlotte Checkers — center Reid Duke. But Duke did not play in that series and won’t play in this series due to a season-ending injury suffered in February. The Checkers, on the other hand, boast eight players on their roster who played in that 2017 playoff series: forwards Patrick Brown, Janne Kuokkanen, Andrew Poturalski and Aleksi Saarela and defensemen Trevor Carrick, Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown and Dennis Robertson. They combined for two goals and two assists in that series.
22: When the Wolves win Game 1 of a postseason series, good things nearly always ensue. When the Wolves defeated the San Diego Gulls in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals — then went on to take the series in six games — it marked the 22nd consecutive time that Chicago has taken Game 1 and gone on to take the series as well. The streak began in 1998 when the Wolves swept Manitoba in the IHL’s Western Conference Quarterfinal. The Wolves’ only loss when winning Game 1 came vs. Las Vegas in the 1996 Western Conference Semifinal.
83: The American Hockey League has been around for 83 years and held playoffs every season since 1937. Yet Chicago’s Max Lagace became the first goaltender to score a goal in AHL postseason history when he delivered during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on May 25 at San Diego. How’d it happen? When official Mitch Dunning raised his arm at 10:24 of the third period to signal a delayed penalty on Wolves center T.J. Tynan for holding the stick, San Diego goalie Kevin Boyle left the ice for an extra attacker. Gulls 19-year-old center Ines Lundestrom came down the left wing and fired a rising shot that Lagace fought off with his blocker.The Gulls played keepaway until Lundestrom reached the puck in front of the Wolves bench and guided it back toward his defensemen, but his 100-foot pass split them and glided into the empty net. As the last Wolves player to touch the puck, Lagace received credit for the goal at 10:49 of the third.
358: If you’ve suited up for the Wolves, chances are better than 50/50 that you’ve played in the National Hockey League or are on your way. Of the 623 players who have suited up for the Wolves over 25 seasons, 358 also have competed in the NHL. That 57.5 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 Oscar Dansk and Max Lagace — 38 boast NHL experience (69.1 percent).
CALDER CUP FINALS SCHEDULE
|Game 1||Saturday, June 1||Bojangles’ Coliseum||5 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 2||Sunday, June 2||Bojangles’ Coliseum||5 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 3||Wednesday, June 5||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 4||Thursday, June 6||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 5*||Saturday, June 8||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Tickets|
|Game 6*||Thursday, June 13||Bojangles’ Coliseum||6 p.m.||Watch|
|Game 7*||Friday, June 14||Bojangles’ Coliseum||6 p.m.||Watch|