ROSEMONT, Ill. – The Chicago Wolves looked to rebound Sunday from a 5-3 loss to the Rockford IceHogs. Division rival Grand Rapids Griffins traveled to Allstate Arena as the two teams find themselves fighting to clinch a playoff spot in one of, if not the, deepest divisions in the American Hockey League.
To say the first period was lackluster for Chicago is an understatement as the Wolves found themselves outshot 15-4 and having to kill three penalties. While the Wolves gave up two goals in the first, they were both at even strength with the penalty kill being Chicago’s only high point of the opening frame.
Robbie Russo got the visitors on the board at 16:15 when he scored at the exact second Tomas Hyka’s penalty expired. It was a particularly ugly goal for the Wolves, as Russo walked the puck in all by himself and fired past two defenders to beat Oscar Dansk.
Jason Garrison and Wade Megan showed exactly why coaches constantly harp on the importance of playing to the whistle when they left Brian Lashoff open for the rebound with five seconds left in the period. It was an easy score for the defenseman with Dansk down after making the initial save and the visitors entered intermission with the 2-0 advantage.
A lackluster second saw the Wolves begin to sustain pressure in the Griffins zone, but neither team was able to move the scoreboard during the sandwich stanza.
Though the Wolves found themselves entering the third with a deficit for the second night in a row, they roared back with force initially when Teemu Pulkkinen danced the puck in all by himself to wrist one past goaltender Matej Machovsky to bring his team within one.
However, Stefan Matteau killed any momentum the home team had after Pulkkinen’s goal when he was baited into taking a charging penalty a minute later.
Russo, who opened up scoring for his team initially, left his team shorthanded with fewer than three minutes on the clock in regulation. Though he was tagged for a two minute rough, it should have been a four-minute double-minor for high-sticking Jake Bischoff.
Head coach Rocky Thompson pulled Dansk for the extra attacker, and just when everyone began to head for the exits Zac Leslie stole a point for the home team when his shot from the point beat Machovsky clear with 30.8 seconds left in regulation.
Each team traded sure chances in the overtime period, but Dansk stood on his head reading play after play when the Griffins would capitalize on a minor Wolves mistake. His performance single-handedly sent the Wolves to the shootout for the first time since Feb. 27.
Brandon Pirri scored the only goal in the shootout and the Chicago Wolves walked away with two points from a game where it was almost sure they would gain none. With the shootout win, the Wolves are now 2-2 in the shootout this season, the two wins coming in the last two attempts.
Dansk made 30 saves in the win as the Wolves improved to 37-21-7-2 on the season. Machovsky made 26 saves in the loss.
Chicago’s ability to end the night with two points was due largely to the stellar penalty killing units, especially in regards to Bischoff, Griffin Reinhart, and Dansk, who went five-for-five against the league’s second-best power play, and this was echoed by Rocky Thompson.
“We were killing way too many penalties, I thought we were undisciplined tonight and they have an outstanding power play… They’re [Bischoff and Reinhart] huge. They take 75% of every penalty kill… Without those guys the penalty kill certainly wouldn’t be where they are, and obviously Oscar, too.”
Leslie’s goal marked his 13th point since joining the Wolves, and his sixth in his last five games. When asked about the key to his success in Chicago, Leslie said,
“Good teammates. I think it’s just we’re doing the right things and I’m being put in a situation that’s allowing me to succeed. I say that as a joke but it’s true, we have a good team and a lot of good players and they’re kind of making me look good so we’ll put it on my teammates.”
Thompson felt overjoyed when the game was sent into extra time, and even more with the win.
“I almost jumped on the bench when we got that one point because I felt like it was a gift from above, because you see how tight this division is and every point is so valuable this time of year to try and keep you in the standings… I felt like we took it for granted early and that was a message in between periods to our team was, ‘You need to realize how important this game is. Grand Rapids does.’ Teams are so close and they’re not going away and it’s going to be a fight to the end so tonight was very, very important for us to get those two points.”
For a first-year coach, it is clear Thompson is well-received by the players in the locker room as Leslie echoed his statement after the game, saying:
“I mean, it’s a big game, obviously they’re right on our heels so we need to try and put as much space between us and them as we could. It was a big game so I was just happy to get the team back into the game and give us a chance in overtime.”
One place the Wolves need to work on improving as the playoffs loom is their start to games. When asked about the first period, Rocky said:
“I think what goes without saying, our team being six games in nine nights, has caught up to us today and I think it caught up to us on the ice. I thought our guys probably felt they [Grand Rapids] would be more at the level of pace we started, which was unacceptable. We should’ve been much better, obviously, and I think it blew the socks right off us and it was the worst period of hockey we had played.”
Luckily for the Wolves, six of their last nine regular-season games are at home, and the three away games they have are all day trips (Iowa, Milwaukee, and Rockford), so they will be able to get plenty of rest leading up to playoffs.
It is also worth noting the play of Beau Bennett on the night. While his contributions did not directly show on the scoresheet, he was the most consistent player on the ice for the Wolves. Bennett was getting shots off in the first period when no one else in a Wolves jersey was able to get the puck out of the Chicago zone, and he helped prevent or stop a few scoring chances.
The Chicago Wolves next face the Iowa Wild at home Wednesday night at 7 p.m. As always, be sure to follow @SinBinWolves on Twitter for current news and game updates.