CHICAGO – This first round match up brings American Hockey League fans a meeting of the two teams which had been viewed as the best in the Central for the majority of the season, the Chicago Wolves and the Grand Rapids Griffins. Chicago locked up a playoff spot, and the division title, well before any other team in the Central was in a postseason slot. Meanwhile, the Griffins enter Friday’s game on the heels of a nine-game losing streak which dropped them from second to fourth in the division.

Final Regular Season Records:

Chicago Wolves: 44-22-6-4, 98 points (1st in Central Division, 1st in Western Conference)

Grand Rapids Griffins: 38-27-7-4, 87 points (4th in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference)

Series Schedule (Home team in BOLD CAPS and all times local):

Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 19 – Grand Rapids at Chicago, 7:00 p.m. CT

Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 20 – Grand Rapids at Chicago, 7:00 p.m. CT

Game 3 – Tue., Apr. 23 – Chicago at Grand Rapids, 7:00 p.m. ET

*Game 4 – Wed., Apr. 24 – Chicago at Grand Rapids, 7:00 p.m. ET

*Game 5 – Sun., Apr. 28 – Grand Rapids at Chicago, 3:00 p.m. CT

*if necessary… All times local

By the Numbers:

Season Series Recap:

For the second year in a row, the season series belonged to the Chicago Wolves who put together a record of 5-2-1-0 against the Griffins. Playing in just five of the games between the two teams, Daniel Carr leads both teams with 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) in the series. Turner Elson paces Grand Rapids with 7 points (4G, 3A) in eight games.

Griffins goaltender Harri Sateri has a less-than-stellar .906 save percentage in the series and a 2.96 goals against average, and Patrik Rybar is even worse at a .835 SV% and 3.93 GAA. In turn, Max Lagace posted a .923 SV% and 2.44 GAA, and Oscar Dansk has a .903 SV% and 2.97 SV%.

The Wolves have won the four most recent meetings between the two teams, and have recorded a combined 29 goals in the eight-game series. The Griffins have 23 goals in the series, and scored two, one, two and three goals in the final four meetings.

Chicago Wolves Keys to Success:

Chicago needs to continue being the team it’s been of late. With leading scorers Carr and Brooks Macek, and potentially Dylan Coghlan out for the foreseeable future with injury, the Wolves need the depth scoring which helped solidify their first place finish in the division for the third-consecutive year. Curtis McKenzie, Keegan Kolesar and T.J. Tynan have all upped their play with the puck since the Wolves caught the injury bug and finished the season at 0.76, 0.49 and 1.00 points per game, respectively, after a stellar March and April on the score sheet.

Newcomer Cody Glass is having much more success with the Wolves now than he did in his abbreviated stint last season. Not only has the youngster recorded three goals in two assists in his six games since joining Chicago, but he just appears to be much more comfortable with the team both on and off the ice.

“He’s done a good job,” detailed head coach Rocky Thompson. “Nic Hague came in last year and was able to play some games in the regular season at the end, and then ended up playing in the playoffs and did a good job. Cody’s had the same opportunity this year with his team being eliminated. He showed up at the right time for us because of the injuries; we didn’t have bodies. He’s been thrust into a big role and I think he’s been improving every single day.”

After captaining Team Canada in its disappointing World Juniors campaign, and dealing with two injuries that shortened his final junior season, it’s no stretch to think that Glass is playing with a bit of a vengeance.

“It’s a good opportunity for me, especially being out for a long time in the second half of the season,” noted Glass. “Just being here and playing hockey again is a nice feeling… I’ve been through rookie camp and training camp with some of these guys, so it makes it… a lot easier on myself coming in. Making my playing style more comfortable and just communicate with the teammates is a huge thing coming in like this.”

On a more worrisome note, I’d need more than two hands to count the number of times this season Chicago had a lead after the first period and lost it in the second. Though they were able to often come with the win, it’s never a good idea to let the opposition come back especially in the playoffs where momentum is so key. When leading after the second, the Wolves are a stellar 35-1-0-0, but they are 5-0-3-3 when tied after two, and 4-21-3-1 when trailing after two. 

If Coghlan does not play come Friday after being injured by a puck in the penultimate game of the regular season, Zac Leslie and Zach Whitecloud are expected to take even bigger roles on Chicago’s power play, which has had a resurgence as of late. Coghlan’s 10 goals and 11 assists on the power play will be tough to make up, but just as he stepped up when Erik Brannstrom was traded, there is enough offensive talent on Chicago’s blue line for the man advantage to not miss a beat. The next-man-up mentality has been so key the past month and a half for Rocky’s team, and there’s no reason to expect this would not continue especially with a week of practices to sort out systems. With a 24.9% power play against Grand Rapids in the regular season and a 90.9% penalty kill rate, special teams success may be the biggest factor should Chicago win this series.

Perhaps the biggest difference between last year’s team, which was swept in the opening round, and this year’s squad, is its ability to play physically and excel. Against Rockford in the first round, the Wolves were outhit and out-muscled. Though this year’s squad is able to play quick, the additions of McKenzie and Tye McGinn, along with the elevation of physical play by other players, have given Chicago the ability to play hard and quick, an important combination for any team which eyes a long postseason run (see the Texas Stars and Toronto Marlies, 2017-18).

Of course, stellar performances by Chicago’s goaltending tandem of Lagace and Dansk are imperative to a win as well. It seems like Lagace has just edged out Dansk as the team’s starter, especially considering his success against the Griffins, and he’ll be a good choice for Rocky in net. Lagace has been a steady workhorse in net for Chicago, and his single game playoff performance last season of 72 saves shattered the previous high mark for the franchise.

Should Chicago’s depth remain as good in the postseason as it has been for the last month and a half, the Wolves are likely the favorites in what will be a tough match up.

Grand Rapids Griffins Keys to Success:

In short, they need to be the same team from the first half of the season, not the one which dropped from the second to fourth spot in the division after losing its final nine games of the regular season.

Perhaps the most glaring point of improvement for Grand Rapids is its special teams. A 9.1% success rate on the power play (14.2% on the season as a whole) and 75.8% on the penalty kill (78.5% on the season as a whole) during the regular season series are just asking for failure, especially as power-play units seem to find another gear during the postseason.

It is important to note that the Detroit Red Wings ransacked their AHL affiliate’s roster for a good portion of the final month of the regular season, and then players were reassigned and thrown into game play without having even one practice to re-adjust to the different systems. There were eight (!!) players who are fixtures of the Griffins’ lineup reassigned on April 7th, three forwards and four defensemen. That is your top line, and your top two defensive pairings, and playing without them – and then fresh from a stint on a different team – throws your entire roster out of whack and can easily explain the nine game slide.

That being said, there’s a good chance the nine games is going to be used as fuel for this team entering playoffs. They know they have to play better, and they know how to, especially against a familiar opponent which has had its number for the majority of the season.

At a bare minimum, the Griffins need more from players other than Elson, Matt Puempel, Carter Camper and Wade Megan. The majority of the Grand Rapids roster has just one point or fewer in the series, and it will need depth scoring to be able to match that of Chicago. If Chicago shuts down the top line for Grand Rapids and no one else steps up, it will be an easy series for the Wolves. 

On the positive side, Grand Rapids certainly has the speed to match its opponent, and the size, as the teams sit at 12.3 PIM/GM and 11.7 PIM/GM, respectively. This is a team which has the potential to seamlessly make the transition to playoff hockey.

Just like the Wolves, the first two periods of game play may be indicative of the final result. When leading after two the Griffins are 18-2-3-1, and 16-5-3-3 when tied after two, but 4-20-1-0 when trailing after two. Grand Rapids has not had the lead nearly as much as Chicago which is another glaring point of differentiation between the two teams. From opening puck drop, the Griffins need to come out firing on all cylinders to get and then maintain a lead as much as they possibly can.

Sateri, the assumed starter for the Griffins, has a 2.84 GAA and .899 SV% on the season, and his performance in the series against Chicago has been about the same. He left the final game due to an injury after allowing three goals on four shots, but appears to be healthy and ready to go. Should Rybar get the start instead, he will need to be much better against the Wolves. While the netminder posted a 2.49 GAA and .908 SV% as a whole in the regular season, he has a 3.93 GAA and .835 SV% in the season series.

Against the Wolves, everyone needs to play better. For some reason, they have let Chicago get the best of them especially as of late, and with a few notable exceptions, everyone on the Grand Rapids roster needs to elevate their play to make it out of the first round.

For all your opening round coverage, be sure to follow @SinBinWolves on Twitter for game updates and analysis.

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