CHICAGO – The 2019 Western Conference Final features two teams who are relatively unfamiliar with one another – the Chicago Wolves and San Diego Gulls. In fact, the only two meetings ever between the two teams occurred last season when they split the series 1-1.
In just their fourth season of American Hockey League play under the San Diego Gulls moniker, the Gulls are advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time ever. They’ve made three total divisional final appearances, but 2019 marks the first time they have moved past the second round.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Wolves are making their fifth conference final appearance since joining the AHL for the 2001-2002 season. They have a 3-1 record in the conference final, and are 2-1 in the Calder Cup Final after winning the conference title.
The third-seeded San Diego Gulls upset the Western Conference’s number one team (by points percentage) Bakersfield Condors in six games, with their first win occurring in quadruple overtime in one of the American Hockey League’s longest-ever games. Three of the series’ six games needed extra time to determine a winner, but the Gulls could only take one of the extra-time games. The other three wins came in regulation, and they out-scored their opponent 24-16.
In the Central Division, the Chicago Wolves were able to stave off a series comeback attempt by the Iowa Wild to move onto the conference finals in six games. After losing the first two games, Wild netminder Andrew Hammond proceeded to steal two wins for the Wild to extend the series to at least six. Unfortunately for the Wild, Hammond did not receive the support he needed and the Wolves won the final two games in 7-4 and 3-1 to take the series in just six.
Both Western Conference divisional final games finished on Monday – a full week after the Toronto Marlies and Charlotte Checkers each swept their way to the third round. Whichever team moves on from this series would be best-served by trying to do so in as few games as possible in order to give its roster time to rest and recuperate before the Calder Cup Finals.
Final Regular Season Records:
Chicago Wolves: 44-22-6-4, 98 points – Central Division and Western Conference Champion
San Diego Gulls: 36-24-5-3 (80 points) – 9th in Western Conference/3rd in Pacific Division
How They Got Here:
Chicago Wolves: defeated Grand Rapids, 3-2
San Diego Gulls: defeated San Jose, 3-1
Chicago Wolves: defeated Iowa, 4-2
San Diego Gulls: defeated Bakersfield, 4-2
Series Schedule (Home Team in BOLD CAPS and all times local):
- Game 1: Friday, May 17 – San Diego @ CHICAGO 7:00 p.m. CT
- Game 2: Saturday, May 18 – San Diego @ CHICAGO 7:00 p.m. CT
- Game 3: Wednesday, May 22 – Chicago @ SAN DIEGO 7:00 p.m. PT
- Game 4: Friday, May 24 – Chicago @ SAN DIEGO 7:00 p.m. PT
- *Game 5: Saturday, May 25 – Chicago @ SAN DIEGO 7:00 p.m. PT
- *Game 6: Monday, May 27 – San Diego @ CHICAGO 7:00 p.m. CT
- *Game 7: Wednesday, May 29- San Diego @ CHICAGO 7:00 p.m. CT
How Chicago Wins:
Plain and simple, the Wolves need to be better away from home. They’re 5-1-0-0 at home, but yet 2-3-0-0 in away games during the playoffs. In a format of 2-3-2, they need to be able to steal some games in San Diego if they have any hope of both moving on from the series and having success in the Calder Cup Finals.
Chicago’s played the most games out of any team remaining in the Calder Cup Playoffs, with 11 total games played thus far, and they’ve all been hard-fought series. Each round, players have been injured – though luckily no one past the point of no return.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to this team so far has been the returns of Brooks Macek and Daniel Carr to the lineup, two of the leading scorers in the American Hockey League during the regular season. Carr has the highest points per game for any Wolves player at this point with seven (2 goals, 5 assists) in six games played, and Macek has three (2G, 1A) in six games as well.
The Wolves are also the only team remaining in the Calder Cup Playoffs to not have any rostered player appearing on the postseason scoring leaders list. Instead, they’ve been scoring by committee in wins. In fact, they have three players with eight postseason points (Curtis McKenzie (5G, 3A), Tye McGinn (3G, 5A) and Tomas Hyka (2G, 6A), two more with seven (Carr and Cody Glass (4G, 3A) and another three with six points each.
The biggest issue with Chicago this postseason has been consistency outside of the play of netminder Oscar Dansk. Whereas Dansk has been a relatively steady force, the Wolves dropped two games by four goals apiece in the opening round and unfortunately hit a hot netminder in the second. When they are firing on all cylinders, they’ve appeared unbeatable but at times Rocky Thompson’s team has shown its youth. To be able to successfully move on, the Wolves need to take the training wheels off and come out full boar every game from this point forward. If they play the way they have in every single win, San Diego will have its work cut out for it.
How San Diego Wins:
Perhaps the biggest advantage for the Gulls have been its additions from the big club. Looking at their transactions following the conclusion of the Anaheim Ducks’ season, there are more than 10 players who saw some NHL action this year who were returned to the organization’s AHL team just in time to make a Calder Cup run.
This is no more evident than by taking a look at the postseason scoring leaders for the league as a whole. Adam Cracknell (6G, 6A) and Sam Carrick (5G, 7A) pace the club with 12 points (6G, 6A), and Sam Steel is not far behind with 10 points (4G, 6A).
Like the Wolves, the Gulls have also been scoring by committee. In addition to the previous three players, there are six additional ones with six or more points in the postseason. For both teams, a key to success is going to be a consistent, balanced attack, especially for a San Diego team which played seven overtime periods in the second round. Fatigue may be a concern, but having scoring depth is the best way of negating this.
Unlike the Wolves, who have just a +2 goal differential in the playoffs, the Gulls are +12. Sure, some of their games have been tight wins, but they have also registered 6-2 and 5-2 blowout wins of their opponents.
Looking at the Gulls’ postseason games, the most concerning thing for Gulls fans should be the high number of high-scoring affairs the team has gotten itself into. The first round saw a 6-5 OT win for the Gulls against the San Jose Barracuda, while the second brought a 7-6 loss against the Bakersfield Condors. The Wolves are a team who can successfully play with a lead so it will be important for the Gulls to step up defensively against a young, quick and talented Chicago team.
The most interesting thing about this match up is that the two teams did not face off in the 2018-19 regular season, so neither has a beat on the other aside from the prescouting done specifically for this series. The Western Conference is poised to be full of surprises.