GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (0-0) AT CHICAGO WOLVES (0-0)
TIME TO CHASE ANOTHER CUP
Three months and 27 days ago at Allstate Arena, the Chicago Wolves and Charlotte Checkers battled valiantly in Game 5 of the 2019 Calder Cup Finals. The Wolves’ extended postseason run — capped by the seventh Finals appearance in the franchise’s first 25 years — limited the players’ and coaches’ downtime before starting to prepare for tonight’s 2019-20 season opener. Nonetheless, everyone in the organization is eager to earn another shot at the Calder Cup.
The Wolves welcome back head coach Rocky Thompson and assistant coaches Chris Dennis and Bob Nardella for their third season together behind the bench. All they earned in their first two years was a .635 winning percentage, two Central Division titles — the only AHL team to win both years — and the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 2008.
In addition to retaining the team’s braintrust, the Wolves boast eight stalwarts from last year’s squad: forwards Curtis McKenzie, Keegan Kolesar, Gage Quinney, Tye McGinn and Reid Duke, defensemen Dylan Coghlan and Jake Bischoff and goaltender Oscar Dansk. McKenzie, the heart of the Wolves’ leadership group, paced the team during the postseason with eight goals and 15 points while Dansk manned the net for 19 of the 22 Calder Cup Playoff games.
To buttress the team’s strong group of returnees, the Wolves added five young veterans with NHL experience in goaltender Garret Sparks, forwards Patrick Brown and Tyrell Goulbourne and tdefensemen Jaycob Megna and Brett Lernout. The Wolves learned plenty about Brown and Megna during the 2019 postseason as Brown captained the Calder Cup champion Checkers while Megna captained the Western Conference finalist San Diego Gulls.
“I think our team’s coming together very nicely,” Thompson said. “I like our physicality and our compete level. We have good leadership up and down the line. I think we have the league’s three best captains (McKenzie, Brown, Megna) from last year. That’s a very positive thing. They’ve been working extremely hard. They’re jelling on and off the ice.”
LET’S WELCOME GRAND RAPIDS
The Griffins and the Wolves have enjoyed a long, heated rivalry for more than 20 years. The teams fought tooth and nail during last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, but the Wolves captured Games 4 and 5 to knock the Griffins out of the playoffs.
Grand Rapids head coach Ben Simon (a former Wolves standout who helped win the 2002 Calder Cup) has the enviable task of merging several strong returning veterans with a large group of top prospects. The Griffins’ roster features five of the Detroit Red Wings’ first-round draft picks over the last five seasons — including 18-year-old defenseman Moritz Seider — in addition to two older first-rounders in proven vets Matt Puempel and Dylan McIlrath.
WE ARE THE WOLVES
Since the Wolves played their inaugural game on Oct. 1, 1994, the team has put 624 players on the ice. When 20-year-old center Cody Glass made his NHL debut (and scored a goal) for the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday night, he became the 359th Wolves player to compete in the NHL. When 20-year-old defenseman Nic Hague made his debut Friday night, he became No. 360.
When Glass made his Wolves debut last April, he became the 50th NHL first-rounder to suit up for the Wolves. That list includes a pair of players taken first overall: center Patrik Stefan (1999; Atlanta) and goaltender Rick DiPietro (2000; New York Islanders).
DiPietro and current Wolves goaltender Oscar Dansk are two of the 38 Wolves netminders who have played at the highest level. That group also includes 2019 Stanley Cup champion Jordan Binnington.
- The Wolves and the Tucson Roadrunners were tied 1-1, 2-2 and 3-3 before Tucson’s Jalen Smereck scored the game-winner with 6:18 to play at UWM Panther Arena in Milwaukee.
- Chicago received goals from forwards Brady Shaw, Ben Jones and Jake Leschyshyn while Shaw and Jones also added assists.
- Goaltender Oscar Dansk posted 35 saves.
- With 15 rookies on the roster, the Wolves opened preseason play with a 4-0 defeat to the Admirals at UWM Panther Arena in Milwaukee.
- Chicago and Milwaukee were scoreless until Admirals forward Mike Huntebrinker scored his first of two goals at 8:04 of the second. The hosts added three goals in the third period.
- Goaltender Garret Sparks stopped 30 shots.
BY THE NUMBERS
2: Two Wolves rookie forwards — Lucas Elvenes and Jake Leschyshyn — are wearing different numbers for the regular season than they did during preseason play. Both made the change for the same reason — to honor their fathers. Elvenes’ father, Stefan, wore No. 25 for much of his professional career. Stefan Elvenes was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fourth round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, but did not play in the NHL. Leschyshyn’s father, Curtis, wore No. 7 for much of his 16-year NHL career that featured a 1996 Stanley Cup championship with the Colorado Avalanche.
3: When the Wolves captured the Central Division title last April, they became the seventh organization in the American Hockey League’s 83-year history to win back-to-back-to-back division crowns. They joined the company of Toronto (2012-14), Rochester (1999-2001), Philadelphia (1997-99), Hershey (1967-69), Quebec (1964-66) and Springfield (1960-62). If the Wolves win the Central Division this year, they’ll become the first AHL franchise to win four straight titles.
8: The Wolves’ Opening Night roster features eight AHL rookies: forwards Paul Cotter, Lucas Elvenes, Ben Jones, Jake Leschyshyn, Jermaine Loewen and Jonas Røndbjerg and defensemen Brycen Martin and Brayden Pachal. For Cotter, Jones, Loewen and Pachal, their first action with the Wolves will double as their first professional game. Elvenes and Røndbjerg, a pair of 20-year-olds, have professional experience in the Swedish Hockey League but tonight’s game will mark their first North American pro contest. Leschyshyn made his pro debut late last season with the Wolves when he stepped in for three regular-season games and two Calder Cup Playoffs contests against Grand Rapids. Martin, 23, has spent most of the last three seasons in the ECHL.
29: The National Hockey League’s Opening Night rosters featured 29 former Wolves spread across 12 teams. The group includes 12 St. Louis Blues who received their 2019 Stanley Cup rings earlier this week: Jake Allen, Ivan Barbashev, Jordan Binnington, Sammy Blais, Jay Bouwmeester, Vince Dunn, Robby Fabbri, Jordan Kyrou, Mackenzie MacEachern, Colton Parayko and Zach Sanford.
62.0: The Wolves have produced a .620 winning percentage on Opening Night during their first 25 years. The Wolves own a 13-7-2-3 mark in season openers, which includes a 6-1-1-0 showing on home ice. The organization hasn’t opened at home since Oct. 10, 2015, when Ty Rattie posted two goals and one assist in a 5-1 victory over Milwaukee. Tonight marks the fourth time the Wolves have opened their season against Grand Rapids. The Wolves won 3-2 in 1998 at home, lost 3-2 in overtime in 2003 at home and lost 3-1 in 2016 at Grand Rapids.
1,000: The Wolves are slated to play their 1,000th regular-season home game on Nov. 19, 2019, against the San Antonio Rampage. The franchise boasts a 585-300-9-35-62 record at Allstate Arena, which breaks down as a .643 winning percentage. The organization owns a .553 winning percentage on the road as the Wolves earn an average 7.24 more points per year in Rosemont than on the road.