MANITOBA MOOSE (37-21-4-2)
AT CHICAGO WOLVES (42-13-5-5)
THE LAST TWO STANDING
Only two teams are still in contention for the 2022 Central Division title — and it’s the two teams facing each other tonight at Allstate Arena for their final regular-season meeting.
It’s the logical conclusion to a Central Division “race” that has ranked among the most boring in AHL history. Since 5:43 p.m. Central time on Sunday, Nov. 28 — when the Iowa Wild wrapped up a 6-5 road loss against the Henderson Silver Knights to drop into third place — the Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose have ranked first and second, respectively, in the division standings.
Over the last 131 days, there have been no changes, no flip-flops, no days when Manitoba has even been close enough to claim the lead with a win. But that doesn’t mean there’s not time for the Moose to overtake the Wolves and prevent Chicago’s fifth Central Division crown in the last six years.
However, with the Wolves’ magic number down to 8 to clinch the division and 11 games still to go, Manitoba needs a regulation victory tonight to make its long odds a little better.
THE GOAL: PLENTY OF CHOICES
The Wolves’ 4-2 victory over the Texas Stars on Wednesday featured the team debuts for forwards Richard Panik, Noel Gunler and Vasily Ponomarev. For the latter two, it marked their first professional game in North America.
Ponomarev was in the starting lineup, which meant the 20-year-old NHL second-round pick received the chance to charge on the ice while being introduced to the 11,000-plus people in the crowd. He appeared to be so amped, he sprinted out much faster than the other Wolves and nearly crashed into teammate David Gust on his second half-lap around the ice. Nonethless, he earned his first North American point as a pro 3:14 into the game when he picked up the primary assist on Gust’s goal.
“He’s engaged in the game,” said Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky. “He wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck on his stick. It was impressive. He showed some good tools. Gunler was good, too. He showed off his shot a little bit. He can score. He had some good opportunities.”
On the blue line, recent ATO signee Griffin Mendel played his second consecutive game and earned his first pro point when he assisted on Stefan Noesen’s game-winning goal. Perhaps counter-intuitively, what Warsofsky liked best was a mistake Mendel made on Texas’ goal 14 seconds into the game.
“He was really good,” Warsofsky said. “That first goal, he makes a little bad read on it, but the way he showed the mental toughness to not let it bring him down was impressive. He has impressed us a lot — the whole organization. He has put his name on the map to be in the top 6. We want difficult decisions (all over the lineup) come Game 1 of the playoffs. Let’s see what we’ve got in the last 11 games.”
we are the wolves
With his next goal, Stefan Noesen will become just the sixth player in the Wolves’ 28-year history to score 40 goals in a season. There have been 10 40-goal-plus seasons in Wolves annals thanks to Steve Maltais, who scored at least 44 in each of his first six years. Here’s a look at how many games it took each guy to get to 40 (Note: Noesen has played 60 this year):
LAST TWO GAMES
- Forward CJ Smith scored two goals for the second game in a row as the Wolves recovered from an early deficit to clinch a first-round bye in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
- Forwards David Gust scored Chicago’s first goal while Stefan Noesen’s league-leading 39th goal wound up being his 10th game-winner of the year — tying the Wolves’ single-season record.
- Goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov stopped 16 shots to earn his sixth straight win.
- Shortly after the Wolves finished turning a 3-0 deficit into a 3-3 tie, the Stars scored a shorthanded goal and an empty-netter in the final 2:15 to claim their first regulation win over Chicago this year.
- Forward CJ Smith started the comeback with two second-period goals and forward Stefan Noesen scored his league-best 38th goal to knot the game with 3:34 to play.
- Goaltender Jack LaFontaine registered a career-high 34 saves on 38 shots.
By the numbers
2.54: The Wolves stand atop the American Hockey League at 2.54 goals allowed per game with the Pacific Division-leading Stockton Heat (2.61) their closest pursuers. If the Wolves can maintain their spot at the top of the GAA charts, it would mark the first time in franchise history to lead the league in fewest goals allowed. Prior to this, the closest Chicago came was a third-place finish in 2018-19 with 2.62 goals allowed per game. That’s not to be confused with the team record for fewest goals allowed per game — set in 2013-14 when Goaltender of the Year Jake Allen and backup Matt Climie led the team to a 2.51 per-game mark.
8.54: The Wolves are trying to become the first AHL team since the 2007-08 Providence Bruins to lead the league in Shots For (34.43) and Shots Against (25.89) in the same season, though the Manitoba Moose snuck past them last week to move into first place in fewest shots allowed at 25.77. The Wolves also have a chance to break the single-season franchise records for Shots For (34.69) and Shots Against (27.93).
26: The Wolves already have clinched a first-round bye and their Central Division magic number sits at 8, but their magic number to own home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs stands at 26 with 11 games left. The Stockton Heat are the only team with a better chance. The Heat’s magic number sits at 15 with nine games left.
39: Wolves forward Stefan Noesen owns an AHL-leading 39 goals, four ahead of Abbotsford’s Sheldon Dries. When he scores his next goal, he’ll become the first AHL player in 11 years to reach the 40-goal mark. Oklahoma City’s Colin McDonald scored 42 and Wolves/Hamilton forward Nigel Dawes scored 41 in 2010-11. Noesen also leads the AHL in game-winning goals (10) and first goals (8). With his next GWG, he’ll break the organization’s single-season record he shares with Chris Marinucci (1998-99), Brett Sterling (2007-08), Mark Mancari (2011-12) and Shane Harper (2014-15).
85: Wolves captain Andrew Poturalski missed Wednesday’s game due to injury, which enabled Ontario’s T.J. Tynan (the former Wolves center) to retake the AHL scoring lead. Tynan owns 86 points (13 goals, 73 assists) while Poturalski has 85 points (24 goals, 61 assists in 61 games. If Poturalski outduels Tynan down the stretch, then he’ll become the first player since Philadelphia’s Peter White in 1997-98 to win back-to-back AHL scoring titles. Poturalski is on pace for 100 points this season as he and Tynan are threatening to become the first AHL players to reach the 100-point mark since Hershey’s Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux scored 106 and 103 points, respectively, during the 2009-10 season.
199: For the first time in his five-year pro career, Wolves forward CJ Smith notched multiple goals in consecutive games as he scored 2 against Texas April 3 and again April 6. Those goals and an assist on April 3 pushed his career AHL points total to 199. The 27-year-old Des Moines native owns 85 goals and 114 assists in 241 regular-season games.
422: Since the Wolves played their first game on Oct. 1, 1994, a total of 727 players have suited up for Chicago. Veteran Richard Panik and rookies Noel Gunler and Vasily Ponomarev joined the club Wednesday — and Panik became the 422nd player to boast NHL and Wolves experience. Put another way, 58 percent of all Wolves have suited up in the greatest league in the world.
NEXT FIVE GAMES
|Sunday, April 10||vs. Cleveland||3 p.m.||Allstate Arena||My50|
|Wednesday, April 13||at Texas||7 p.m.||H-E-B Center||AHLTV|
|Friday, April 15||at Texas||7 p.m.||H-E-B Center||AHLTV|
|Saturday, April 16||at Texas||7 p.m.||H-E-B Center||AHLTV|
|Tuesday, April 19||vs. Rockford||7 p.m.||Allstate Arena||My50|
All games are streamed on AHLTV.