CJ Smith scored two goals for the second game in a row as the Chicago Wolves clinched a first-round bye in the Calder Cup Playoffs with a 4-2 victory over the Texas Stars in front of 11,818 fans for a School-Day Game Wednesday at Allstate Arena.
Forwards David Gust and Stefan Noesen also scored for the Wolves (42-33-5-5), who dropped their magic number for the Central Division title to 10 with 11 games to go.
Rookie goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov stopped 16 shots to improve his record to 10-0-1 while rookie center Vasily Ponomarev recorded an assist in his first North American professional game and rookie defenseman Griffin Mendel notched his first point in his second pro game.
“I thought Kochetkov was good when we needed him to be,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “I thought we scored timely goals. I thought we stuck with it. It probably wasn’t our best game, but we’ve been grinding here for a while (11 games in the last 19 days). So when we get a chance to win a hockey game, we’re going to enjoy it.”
Texas (27-25-6-5), which saw its five-game winning streak come to a close, opened the scoring just 14 seconds into the morning as former Wolves captain Curtis McKenzie fed Josh Melnick in the slot and he banked home a shot off the post.
Gust grabbed the equalizer at 3:14 of the first as 20-year-old center Vasily Ponomarev — making his North American pro debut — started things with a rush up the ice before feeding Jamieson Rees on the left wing. Rees scissored into the high slot and fired a shot that was blocked, but Ponomarev passed the rebound to Gust alone on the goal line below the left circle for a quick strike.
Smith gave the Wolves a 2-1 lead at 17:36 of the first. Smith and Drury battled in the left corner to win possession of the puck, then Drury spun it back to Noesen at the left point. Noesen sized up the situation, saw Smith set up in front of a defenseman and fed him a pass that Smith redirected past Stars goaltender Adam Scheel into the top corner of the net.
Noesen delivered his own redirect to push the Wolves’ lead to 3-1 at 17:92 of the second. Rookie defenseman Griffin Mendel worked the puck back to Jesper Sellgren at the right point. Sellgren shifted into the middle of the ice and unleashed a wrister that Noesen tipped past Scheel for his league-leading 39th goal of the year.
Texas pulled within 3-2 on defenseman Alex Petrovic’s goal at 10:14 of the third. Winfield native Anthony Louis set up the play.
The Stars pulled Scheel with 1:15 left for an extra skater in search of the equalizer, but Smith steered home an empty-net goal from the defensive zone with 49 seconds left to clinch matters. Scheel (11-8-6) finished with 20 saves for the Stars.
The Wolves host second-place Manitoba at 7 p.m. Saturday and the first 2,000 fans to enter Allstate Arena receive a Wolves Goalie Mask Bank courtesy of My50 Chicago. Chicago wraps up its five-game homestand at 3 p.m. Sunday versus Cleveland on Wizards Day. To find the best ticket specials, contact a team representative at WolvesTix@ChicagoWolves.com.