CHARLOTTE, N.C – The top team from the West clashes with the top team in the East, as the Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves square off to determine who will claim the Calder Cup in 2019.
The Checkers came into the playoffs on the back of a league-best 110-point regular season, and have shown no signs of letting up in the postseason. Charlotte coasted through the first two rounds, going a combined 7-1 against Providence and Hershey. The Providence Bruins gave Charlotte the most trouble of the two teams, but that only amounted to a split in Rhode Island before being promptly dispatched when the series shifted south to North Carolina.
The East Final was a different story as Charlotte faced the defending Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies. Toronto was even hotter than the Charlotte going into the series, having swept both Rochester and Cleveland to get through the North Division bracket unscathed. The experience of the Marlies was evident in game one, as they worked their way to a hard-fought 2-1 win away from home. Things appeared to be going Toronto’s way again in game two, as it shocked the Charlotte crowd by taking a 3-0 lead midway through the game. The Checkers responded with a vengeance, however, scoring late in the second and four times in the third period to claim a 5-3 victory and even the series before it headed to Canada.
The Checkers’ momentum traveled with them for game three, as they claimed an easy 5-1 win to take a two-games-to-one series lead. The Marlies evened the series with a clutch overtime win in game four, setting up a pivotal game five. Toronto played well, but Charlotte backup Dustin Tokarski stepped in and stopped 40-of-41 shots to give his squad a 3-2 series lead to take home for game six. Toronto fought as hard as it could to force a game seven, but Morgan Geekie ended the series when he crashed the net and was rewarded early in the second overtime of game six.
The victory gave Charlotte its first conference title in team history, and now only Chicago stands in the way of Charlotte bringing home its first Calder Cup as well. The Checkers have earned home-ice advantage thanks to their stellar regular season, with games one and two, as well as potential games six and seven scheduled for Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte.
On the opposing bench, the Chicago Wolves have come back from a deficit in each of its three series in the postseason to move on. Backed by stellar goaltending from Oscar Dansk and depth scoring in each of their wins, Rocky Thompson’s team continues to work towards redemption after being swept in the opening round last season.
Speaking of redemption, two of the biggest storylines for the Wolves have to be those of Curtis McKenzie and Cody Glass. McKenzie joined the Vegas Golden Knights last summer after having played the entirety of his career in the Texas Stars/Dallas Stars organization. As a rookie, McKenzie won a Calder Cup with the Stars. Last year, he captained them to another Calder Cup Finals appearance where they would lose in seven games to the Toronto Marlies. He returns to the Finals for the second-consecutive year where he is looking for a different outcome.
Said McKenzie after eliminating the San Diego Gulls in the Western Conference Finals,
“I guess [it]s a little redemption this year. Last year hurt going to game seven and dropping that one. When you go that far with the team and group of individuals it’s so much fun and you grow so much. I just want all the boys in this room to get experience winning together because you’ll take it for the rest of your life. I still talk to guys I was able to win with five years ago now in Texas my rookie year, and what a group we had there and how much fun we had and just memories you’ll never forget. We put ourself in a spot to win a championship and we’ve just got to go take advantage of it.”
Like McKenzie, Glass has unfinished business from recent history. He was expected to be one of the leading scorers in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks this season as their captain, but was limited to just 39 games after suffering two injuries. As a member of the Team Canada World Juniors squad, he experienced another disappointing finish this season when they failed to medal at home.
Headed into playoffs, Glass said,
“It’s a good opportunity for me, especially being out for a long time in the second half of the season. Just being here and playing hockey again is a nice feeling.”
Look for these two to continue their stellar play in the Finals, and Chicago will need huge contributions from them as they look to host their fifth league trophy in the team’s 25 years of existence.
For the first time this postseason, the Wolves do not have home ice advantage, so Rocky Thompson’s squad will face the challenge of opening on the road in what has been a tough building to play in for opposing teams.
Final Regular Season Records:
Charlotte: 51-17-7-1 (110 Points) 1st in Atlantic, 1st in East, 1st in AHL.
Chicago: 44-22-6-4 (98 Points) 1st in Central, 1st in West, 4th in AHL.
How They Got Here:
Charlotte defeats Toronto 4-2.
- Game 1: MARLIES 2 @ Checkers 1
- Game 2: Marlies 3 @ CHECKERS 5
- Game 3: CHECKERS 5 @ Marlies 1
- Game 4: Checkers 3 @ MARLIES 4 OT
- Game 5: CHECKERS 4 @ Marlies 1
- Game 6: Marlies 3 @ CHECKERS 4 2OT
Chicago defeats San Diego 4-2.
- Game 1: Gulls 4 @ WOLVES 5 OT
- Game 2: GULLS 3 @ Wolves 0
- Game 3: Wolves 2 @ GULLS 3
- Game 4: WOLVES 2 @ Gulls 1 2OT
- Game 5: WOLVES 5 @ Gulls 2
- Game 6: Gulls 1 @ WOLVES 3
Charlotte defeats Hershey 4-0.
- Game 1: Bears 1 @ CHECKERS 4
- Game 2: Bears 3 @ CHECKERS 7
- Game 3: CHECKERS 3 @ Bears 1
- Game 4: CHECKERS 5 @ Bears 2
Chicago defeats Iowa 4-2.
- Game 1: Wild 2 @ WOLVES 3 OT
- Game 2: Wild 3 @ WOLVES 4
- Game 3: Wolves 0 @ WILD 2
- Game 4: Wolves 1 @ WILD 2
- Game 5: WOLVES 7 @ Wild 4
- Game 6: Wild 1 @ WOLVES 3
Charlotte defeats Providence 3-1.
- Game 1: CHECKERS 5 @ Bruins 4
- Game 2: Checkers 2 @ BRUINS 4
- Game 3: Bruins 0 @ CHECKERS 3
- Game 4: Bruins 1 @ CHECKERS 4
Chicago defeats Grand Rapids 3-2.
- Game 1: GRIFFINS 5 @ Wolves 1
- Game 2: Griffins 2 @ WOLVES 3
- Game 3: Wolves 2 @ GRIFFINS 6
- Game 4: WOLVES 5 @ Griffins 2
- Game 5: Griffins 2 @ WOLVES 4
Series Schedule (Home Team in BOLD CAPS):
- Game 1: Saturday, June 1- Chicago @ CHARLOTTE 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT
- Game 2: Sunday, June 2- Chicago @ CHARLOTTE 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT
- Game 3: Wednesday, June 5- Charlotte @ CHICAGO 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT
- Game 4: Thursday, June 6- Charlotte @ CHICAGO 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT
- Game 5*: Saturday, June 8- Charlotte @ CHICAGO 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT
- Game 6*: Thursday, June 13- Chicago @ CHARLOTTE 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT
- Game 7*: Friday, June 14- Chicago @ CHARLOTTE 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT
Season Series Recap:
Charlotte and Chicago did not play in 2018-19.
How Charlotte Wins:
Play Your Game:
The Checkers are the favorites for a reason, and if they play to the best of their capabilities will be almost impossible to defeat. Charlotte leads the AHL in both goals for (3.93 per game) and goals against (2.14 per game) during the playoffs, though it is at its best when the offense is clicking. The Checkers have scored at least three goals in each of their eleven wins thus far, and have scored two or fewer in two of their three loses. Charlotte is also 7-1 when outshooting its opponent in the second season. The speed of the Checkers makes it extremely difficult on the defense in an up-and-down game, leading to plenty of golden chances for their talented forwards.
The Checkers have been led by three players in particular, as Andrew Poturalski, Morgan Geekie, and Tomas Jurco all sit at or near the top of the league leaders in scoring. Poturalski has been the focal point of the Charlotte offense all season, and that has continued in the playoffs. He leads all postseason performers with 18 points (8G, 10A) in just 13 games. Then, there is the hero from game six of the Eastern Conference Final, the rookie Geekie. He leads all first-year players in goals with seven, while sitting first in rookie scoring and fourth amongst all players with 15 points (7G, 8A). When teams have managed to slow down Geekie and Poturalski, Jurco has been there to pick up the slack. His 14 points (6G, 8A) have him tied for fifth in the leaderboard. If Charlotte is able to spread the ice and make Chicago chase, it will go a long way towards deciding this series.
The Checkers also need to start the game off on the right foot, and take the play to the Wolves early and often. Charlotte has been perfect in the postseason when scoring first (8-0), as well as when leading after the first 20 minutes (6-0). When Charlotte is attacking early the momentum builds upon itself and snowballs on the opposition. Worn out from chasing in period one, the dam generally breaks in period two. The Checkers have excelled in the middle frame in the playoffs, outscoring their opposition 19-6 in the second segment.
This spells doom for the opposition with amazing certainty. Including the regular season, the Checkers have taken a lead to the third period 46 times this year. They are 46-for-46.
That is because this Charlotte team isn’t just an offensive juggernaut, it is also very sound defensively and between the pipes. The Checker d-corps is excellent at closing off the slot by taking away passing lanes and dropping to block shots. When a shot does find a way through, the Checkers can count on both of their goalies to make the save.
Alex Nedeljkovic is the starter between the Charlotte pipes, and has played in 12 of 14 games. He has posted a record of 8-3, with a goal against average of 2.28 and a .914 save percentage. Charlotte is blessed with an excellent backup as well, as Dustin Tokarski has gone 3-0 with a stellar .974 save percentage and 0.77 goals against in three appearances. When Nedeljkovic was off in game two of the East Final, Tokarski came in and slammed the door to allow the Checkers to rally from 3-0 down to win 5-3.
How Chicago Wins:
Rocky Thompson’s squad began this postseason without three of its biggest offensive weapons, as Dylan Coghlan, Daniel Carr and Brooks Macek were all out with injury. Then, they lost power center Gage Quinney early in the first series as well. The Wolves were able to overcome these losses, fueled by the elevated play of Tye McGinn and Zach Whitecloud. In 17 games played this postseason, they have 13 (6G, 7A) and 12 (2G, 10A) points, respectively.
Chicago’s operated by a next man up mentality all season and unfortunately for them, the Calder Cup Playoffs have been a similar story. Luckily for the Wolves, Coghlan, Carr, Macek and Quinney all returned prior to the Calder Cup Finals and look to be good to go.
Coghlan may be the most pivotal return now as he retakes the #1 spot on the power play. Chicago’s power play has struggled at times this postseason, and had the young defenseman been able to suit up all series against San Diego, it may not have taken six games to move on.
The Wolves will need to be electric against a Checkers team which has been killing penalties at an absolutely amazing 88.1% in the playoffs. Chicago is currently converting at 17.2%, and it’s going to need to be much better if they look to upset the heavy favorite. The Checkers also average 16.8 penalties per game, so this is probably the biggest chance the Wolves have to get the series win.
Chicago faces yet another hot goaltender in Nedeljkovic, and their tried-and-true recipe for success against talented netminders has been to create traffic in front of the net. McGinn, McKenzie, Keegan Kolesar, T.J. Tynan and Quinney are all big boys who love to battle it out in front of goaltenders, and Chicago has a slew of talent on the blue line with heavy shots. When Chicago’s lost in the playoffs, the Wolves have failed to create the appropriate drama in front. The old adage he can’t save what he can’t see is extremely applicable here.
Quite frankly, the Wolves need more from Macek in the postseason. Since returning from injury, he has just three points (2G, 1A) in 12 playoff games. He’s been playing on the bottom two lines for Rocky Thompson as of late and just doesn’t appear to be the same guy who won consecutive league titles in the German league. My best guess is that he isn’t fully recovered from the injury which caused him to miss the end of the regular season.
Dansk has elevated his play in net this postseason, too, and he’s won out in numerous goaltending battles. Game six of the WCF was one of those, and it was San Diego who blinked first. While I’m not sure Dansk can out-battle Nedeljkovic, who is arguably the best netminder in the AHL this season, the Wolves will need him to be solid in net against an offensively talented Checkers team.
Just like Charlotte, the Wolves are 8-0-0 when leading after two, and are undefeated when leading after one. More so than any other series in the playoffs to date, each game could be decided in the opening 20 minutes.
Vegas betting odds have the Charlotte Checkers as a -150 favorite, but Sean OBrien gives Chicago the slight edge based on analytics.
Regardless of the outcome, expect this series to be a hard-fought one which will likely go the distance.