STOCKTON HEAT (0-0)
AT CHICAGO WOLVES (0-0)
WHO’S THE BEST IN THE WEST?
Simply put, this Western Conference Finals clash between the Central Division’s Chicago Wolves and the Pacific Division’s Stockton Heat has been a long time in the making. The Wolves seized the Central Division lead on the night of Nov. 26 and never let it go. The Heat seized the Pacific Division lead for good on Jan. 29 and never let it go.
To prove their regular-season dominance was not a fluke, both teams romped through the first two rounds of these Calder Cup Playoffs in strikingly similar fashions. The Wolves won their first five games against fourth-seeded Rockford and third-seeded Milwaukee, dealt with a hiccup in their sixth game and then immediately recovered to advance as they allowed just 13 goals while posting a 6-1 record. The Heat won their first five games against fourth-seeded Bakersfield and third-seeded Colorado, dealt with a hiccup in their sixth game and then immediately recovered to advance as they allowed just 13 goals while posting a 6-1 record.
Here’s the crazy part — and why every game matters in the AHL. The Wolves earned the home-ice advantage for this series by posting the league’s best regular-season points percentage (.724) while Stockton finished second in the league at .713. But for the longest time, it seemed like Stockton was destined to win the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy instead of the Wolves.
For each of Chicago’s final 24 regular-season games — from March 12 to April 30 — the Wolves woke up ranked second in the league and looking up at Stockton. But on the final day (April 30), if the Wolves earned 1 more point at Rockford than the Heat earned at Bakersfield, then they’d claim the top spot. Sure enough, the Wolves won 3-2 at Rockford and then watched as Bakersfield pulled off the 3-1 win.
GREAT GOALTENDING EVERYWHERE
As mentioned above, the Wolves and the Heat each have allowed just 13 goals in their first seven postseason games. Their matching 1.86 goals-against averages are tied for second-best in the playoffs, though the league-leading Texas Stars probably shouldn’t count since they played just 2 games (and lost both despite surrendering just 3 goals).
Anyway, both teams have used just one goalie in the postseason. The Wolves’ Alex Lyon, who earned the Harry ‘Hap” Holmes Award as the only goaltender to play at least 25 games for the regular-season AHL leader in goals-against average, carries a 1.87 GAA and .926 save percentage into the Western Conference Finals. The Heat’s Dustin Wolf, who earned the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award because he was voted as the AHL’s best goalie, carries a 1.82 GAA and .941 save percentage into this series.
Chicago got a bonus Tuesday when Pyotr Kochetkov and Jack LaFontaine were reassigned by the Carolina Hurricanes one day after their Stanley Cup Playoffs run ended. Kochetkov posted a 13-1-1 record, 2.09 GAA and .921 save percentage from Feb. 19 to April 16 for the Wolves.
WE ARE THE WOLVES
This Western Conference Finals series marks the 10th time out of a possible 26 opportunities that the Wolves have reached the conference finals.
During the International Hockey League days, Chicago capped that era with four straight appearances (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001). Since joining the AHL in 2001, the Wolves have earned six more appearances (2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2019 and 2022). In their first nine runs to the final four, the Wolves advanced to the league finals seven times (all but 1999 and 2007).
LAST TWO GAMES
- Josh Leivo scored one goal in each period — a pair of power-play goals and then an empty-netter — as the Wolves dominated Game 4 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
- Defenseman Max Lajoie opened the scoring 3:56 into the night while Leivo and defenseman Josh Jacobs gave Chicago a 3-0 lead after one period; Stefan Noesen handed out two assists.
- Goaltender Alex Lyon stopped 17 of 18 shots to improve to 6-1 during the postseason.
- After a scoreless first period, the Admirals converted three consecutive power-play chances and never trailed in their Game 3 victory at Panther Arena.
- Rookie center Jack Drury scored nine seconds into the third period to slice the deficit to 2-1 while forward Josh Leivo notched one goal and one assist as both extended point streaks to six games.
- Goaltender Alex Lyon posted 21 saves.
By the numbers
0: The Chicago Wolves and Stockton Heat never have met in the Heat’s seven-year history. Moreover, the Wolves and the Heat didn’t have any common opponents this season, so the teams enter the Western Conference Finals with far less first-hand information than they possessed during the first two rounds. The Wolves do have a history of success against AHL teams that partnered with the Calgary Flames. They built a 40-19-3-4 record (.659) from 2005-15 against the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights (2005-07), Quad City Flames (2007-09), Abbotsford Heat (2009-14) and Adirondack Flames (2014-15). The most recent game was Dec. 17, 2014, when Adirondack came to Allstate Arena and registered a 4-1 win against the Wolves and goaltender Jordan Binnington.
2: When Josh Leivo posted a hat trick to clinch the Central Division Finals May 27 at Milwaukee, he joined Stefan Noesen on the Wolves’ postseason hat trick. This marks just the third time in Wolves history that the team has registered two hat tricks during the same playoffs. And both of the first two times, the Wolves went on to win the championship. It happened in 2002 when Steve Maltais notched two hatties and again in 2008 when Jason Krog notched two.
3: Stockton’s roster features three players with direct ties to the Wolves. Forward Alex Gallant was a regular in the lineup for the 2019 Wolves squad that reached the Calder Cup Finals. He ranked second on the squad with 102 penalty minutes. Forward Tyrell Goulbourne suited up for 53 of a possible 61 games for the 2019-20 Wolves. Heat defenseman Connor Mackey’s father, David, capped his 14-year professional career by helping the Wolves win the 2000 Turner Cup. he produced 5 goals in 45 regular-season games. Connor attended Barrington High School, where he was coached by former Wolves great Steve Martins.
4: There are just four teams left in the chase for the 2022 Calder Cup — and the Wolves are the only franchise that also was a part of the final four in 2019 (the last time the Calder Cup Playoffs were contested). Chicago and Stockton upheld their top seeds in the Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively, but the Eastern Conference Finals feature the Springfield Thunderbirds (the Atlantic Division’s No. 2 seed) and the Laval Rocket (the North Division’s No. 3 seed). Springfield hosts Game 1 of that series Saturday.
5: Going solely by the box score, it did not appear that Wolves defenseman Jalen Chatfield (who wears No. 5) had a dramatic impact on the Wolves’ Central Division Finals-clinching win last Friday at Milwaukee. He provided no points and wasn’t among the 10 Wolves players who posted a positive plus/minus rating. But here’s how head coach Ryan Warsofsky described Chatfield’s effect in a game where the Wolves played short one defenseman after Joey Keane left late in the first period with an injury: “I thought Jalen was the best player on the ice tonight. I know (Josh Leivo) had the hat trick, but ‘Chatto” was the best player on the ice. He was an absolute beast. Our ‘PK’ was a difference-maker with him on it. He was winning races. Just doing the little details the average fan doesn’t see, but to us he’s a special player and special person.”
10: Speaking of veteran Wolves forward Josh Leivo, the 29-year-old who wears No. 10 for the Wolves finds himself atop a bunch of statistical categories during the postseason. Leivo, the only person to produce points in all seven Wolves playoff games, shares the AHL points lead with Springfield’s Sam Anas. Leivo has registered 6 goals and 7 assists in his first postseason action since 2016. He also rang up his second hat trick as a pro during the clinching Game 4 last week at Milwaukee. Leivo’s +11 plus/minus rating leads the AHL. as all of the top four play for the Wolves: Jack Drury (+9), David Gust (+9) and Max Lajoie (+9).
423: Since the Wolves played their first game on Oct. 1, 1994, a total of 727 players have suited up for Chicago. When 22-year-old goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov made his NHL debut for the Carolina Hurricanes on April 23, he became the 423rd Wolves player to play in the NHL. That makes 58.2 percent of all Wolves players — and 70 percent of all Wolves goalies (49 of 70).
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS SCHEDULE
|Game 1||Friday, June 3||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Game 1|
|Game 2||Monday, June 6||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Game 2|
|Game 3||Wednesday, June 8||Stockton Arena||8:30 p.m.|
|Game 4||Friday, June 10||Stockton Arena||9 p.m.|
|Game 5*||Saturday, June 11||Stockton Arena||8 p.m.|
|Game 6*||Tuesday, June 14||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Game 6 (if necessary)|
|Game 7*||Wednesday, June 15||Allstate Arena||7 p.m.||Game 7 (if necessary)|
All games are streamed on AHLTV.