Veteran forward Josh Leivo produced his second professional hat trick as the Chicago Wolves wrapped up the Central Division Finals with a 5-1 triumph in Game 4 Friday night at Panther Arena.
Defensemen Max Lajoie and Josh Jacobs also scored for the Wolves (6-1) as they shrugged off Wednesday’s Game 3 loss by jumping to a 4-0 lead early in the second period.
Goaltender Alex Lyon (6-1) rejected 17 shots and Stefan Noesen handed out two assists to clinch Chicago’s second consecutive appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs’ Western Conference Finals.
The Wolves own home-ice advantage in the best-of-7 Western Conference Finals and will host Game 1 on Friday, June 3, and Game 2 on Monday, June 6. Chicago will face either the Stockton Heat, who own a 2-1 lead in the Pacific Division Finals, or the Colorado Eagles.
“It doesn’t surprise me with this group,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “We’ve responded all year long to losses, backs-against-the-wall situations, adversity, and these guys have responded. They’re a good group of guys that play for each other. And when you do that, special things can happen.”
The Wolves jumped on top 3:56 into the game as they indirectly benefited from taking an early penalty.
Just as Lajoie finished serving his two minutes for high-sticking, the Wolves’ Cavan Fitzgerald and Vasili Ponomarev started a counterattack up the left wing. Lajoie jumped out of the box and zipped down the right wing to set up a 2-on-1 situation. Ponomarev fed Lajoie and he slid a shot between goaltender Devin Cooley’s skates for a 1-0 lead.
The Wolves pushed the lead to 2-0 on Leivo’s first power-play goal at 11:02 of the first. Noesen battled on his knees along the right half-wall to steer the puck back to Joey Keane at the right point. Keane zipped it to the left point for Leivo, who used a shoulder fake to get past a Milwaukee defenseman and then parked a shot in the top right corner for his fourth postseason goal.
Chicago made it 3-0 before the end of the first period on Jacobs’ one-timer from the right point. Ponomarev forced a turnover in Milwaukee’s defensive zone and Stelio Mattheos fired a shot that Cooley rejected. An Admirals defenseman cleared the puck by firing it toward the right corner, but it banked right toward Jacobs and he whistled a riser past Cooley at 17:18.
The Wolves maintained the momentum through the first intermission and jumped ahead 4-0 on Leivo’s power-play goal 1:01 into the second. The veteran forward collected a rebound above the right circle, dragged his way into an open shooting lane and snapped the puck home.
“We had a lot of shots last game and their goalie (Cooley) was just on his head,” Leivo said. “I think tonight, we capitalized on a couple early and that got us motivated and moving. We knew we weren’t going to let this one get away and (have to) go back home (for Game 5).”
Milwaukee (4-5) answered with Cole Schneider’s power-play goal at 2:27 of the second to cut the margin to 4-1, but the hosts could never get closer than three goals the rest of the way as the Wolves continued to suppress shots. The Admirals managed just 12 shots on goal through the first 45 minutes.
The Admirals removed Cooley with 4:19 remaining to add an extra attacker, but it led to Leivo wrapping up his first hat trick since March 8, 2014, when he played for the Toronto Marlies against the Lake Erie Monsters. Spencer Smallman dished unselfishly to Leivo with 2:07 left and he flicked the puck into the empty net to make it 5-1.
Cooley (3-2) finished with 26 saves for the Admirals.
When the Wolves host Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at 7 p.m. Friday, it will be $3 Beer Night at Allstate Arena. To find the best deals on postseason tickets, visit ChicagoWolves.com/Playoffs or contact a team representative via email at WolvesTix@ChicagoWolves.com.