ROSEMONT, Ill. – The intensity was high inside Allstate Arena Saturday night, as the home-standing Chicago Wolves and visiting Texas Stars each came in needing points for their respective playoff races. The game would be tight throughout, with goaltenders Landon Bow of Texas and Oscar Dansk of Chicago both playing near perfect hockey in net. The two teams battled each other in a low-scoring defensive battle which would need 65 minutes – and beyond – to decide it.
The Western Conference playoff races are in full force, and these two squads are right in the middle of the action. The Texas Stars came in knowing they needed to win to still have designs on clawing their way into the third, or even second, spot in the ultra-competitive Pacific. Chicago, meanwhile, came knowing a point would allow them to further distance themselves over the Manitoba Moose in the Central’s first-place battle.
The game would start well for the visitors from Texas, as they would attack early and spend the first several shifts in the Chicago zone. The pressure would pay off, as after just over five minutes of play the Stars had a 5-0 edge in shots, and they broke through for the game’s first goal.
5:14 into the period Curtis McKenzie gained control along the end boards and slid a pass over to Brian Flynn in the center of the near circle. Flynn fired a shot on goal that deflected off the stick of a Chicago defender, causing Dansk to lose track of the puck. Dansk still managed to get his leg on the shot, but could not control the rebound, and Justin Dowling was waiting in front to scoop up the loose change. Dowling snuck a shot under the leg of Dansk and just inside the far post to give the Stars a 1-0 lead.
There would be no shortage of action over the remaining 15 minutes of play, and it would start with Chicago being given a chance to respond on special teams. Samuel Laberge was called for tripping 1:38 after the Texas goal, then 53 seconds after the Stars had killed that penalty, McKenzie took a tripping call of his own. The Wolves would not score on their advantages, but any momentum the Stars had from the early goal had been halted.
Chicago then tried to tie the game at even strength, but had two grade-A chances turned aside by Bow. First, after a turnover behind the net, the net came off as Bow kicked off the post to slide across to cover the far side. Then, high-scoring Teemu Pulkkinen was stoned by Bow on a breakaway.
The Stars would get a late flurry of chances, but Dansk stood tall, and the first period came to a close without further scoring. As the first intermission hit Texas would hold a 12-7 edge in shots, and a 1-0 advantage on the scoreboard.
The second period would gradually build to a climax, as Chicago fought to tie it and Texas fought to hold the lead. The Wolves would have a few chances and a power play over the first half of the frame, but then seemed to go to another level around the 10:00 mark. Bow would dance around the crease to stop three consecutive shots in tight himself, then received help from his best friend when the crossbar sent a puck out of play.
The changing moment would be set up by a mental mistake by the Texas captain. McKenzie took a run at a player without the puck and was given a minor for interference, but was lucky not to be given more.
— Samantha Hoffmann (@SinBinWolves) April 1, 2018
The Wolves would negate their power play by taking a roughing minor after the whistle, and the teams would skate four-on-four. The Wolves deserved a power play out of the situation, but karma was on their side, and the open space would lead to the tying goal.
With 6:30 left to play in the middle stanza Philip Holm spied a line through the crease, and whipped a pass backdoor to Brandon Pirri. Pirri tried to get a blade on the puck, but it hit his skate and went in the net. The refs would review the play to determine if there had been a kicking motion, but after a look at the monitors the call of goal stood and the game was even at one after two.
The third period had the feel of a game headed to overtime from the opening puck drop, as even though each team would create a chance or two, they both seemed more focused on not making a mistake that would lose the game in regulation. The best chance for the Stars may have been when McKenzie had a breakaway on Dansk, but his backhander was blockered into the corner. Chicago would own the time of possession and created some good looks of its own, but Bow made ten saves in the frame to keep it tied. The clock would expire and each team would claim a point as the game headed to the extra session even 1-1.
The Wolves would control the extra frame, owning a 5-2 advantage in shots, and nearly won it with 1:09 left when a shot clanged off the crossbar and out of play. Overtime would end without a goal, sending the game to the shootout.
Chicago would start the skills competition well, as Tomas Hyka opened Bow’s five-hole and slid the puck between his legs to put the Wolves up 1-0. Dansk would stop Tyler Kelleher on Texas’ first shot, and Bow answered by stopping Pirri on Chicago’s second try. Flynn then tied the shootout for the Stars by skating in and beating Dansk under the glove to make the count 1-1 after two rounds.
Round three would be the winning round for Texas, as Bow stood tall on Chicago’s try, then Travis Morin won it with a quick shot through the legs of Dansk. The Stars would win the shootout, and the game, by the same 2-1 margin.
With the win, the Stars improved to 35-24-7-4, for 81 points and a points percentage of .579. Texas will stay solidly in fourth in the Pacific, sitting .018 behind third-place San Diego (.597), and .031 ahead of fifth place Stockton (.548). The Stars will now return to the Lone Star State for the final six games of the season, with five games inside the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, and one in San Antonio against the Rampage. The Stars begin the quite literal homestretch Wednesday night at 7:30 CT, when they host the Stockton Heat in a game with massive playoff implications.
The Sin Bin’s Samantha Hoffmann (@SinBinWolves) shared her thoughts about where this point leaves Chicago:
The Wolves found themselves playing their second consecutive game playing without their top two centers in Wade Megan and T.J. Tynan. For a team which has at times struggled with center play all season, the loss of these two players has innumerable consequences. Chicago has had to adopt a strategy at faceoffs of expecting to lose the draw and chase to recover right away, one which keeps you from setting up at important times. To skate away with three out of four points in these two games is a laudable achievement, for it looked on paper to be two easy losses.
Chicago did have numerous chances on the power play to win the game in regulation, but the absence of Megan and Tynan is the most evident when it comes to the power play units. Therefore, the lack of success on the man advantage is not something Wolves fans should worry about too much right now – their primary concern should be getting Megan and Tynan back for playoffs. Ending the season on a winning note would not hurt Rocky Thompson’s team, either.
With one point on the night, the Wolves’ magic number now stands at three to claim a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs – which they can do Tuesday at home against the Milwaukee Admirals.