GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – With less than a week to play in the season, the Chicago Wolves rode the bus up to Grand Rapids to take on their division rivals in the Griffins. While riding into Wednesday’s game with a 6-3 record versus the Griffins, the Wolves found themselves on the broom’s end of a sweep in their previous weekend series with Grand Rapids. Following a shaky performance against Rockford where a 5-2 third period lead ended up becoming a tightly contested 6-5 win, there were certainly concerns regarding player motivation down the stretch considering the lack of a postseason.
Coach Ryan Warsofsky, however, preached to his locker room the mentality of how to be a professional hockey player night in and night out.
“You have to play a full sixty minutes. That’s pro hockey.” Coach said after the win against Rockford on Monday’s matinee. “We try to push our players to improve every single day. We’re not just here to satisfy guys and put them into these spots; we’re here to push our players to be great.”
Turning around to Wednesday night’s game, the Wolves had a chance to take that next step towards being great with capturing their fourth Central Division title in the last five seasons under three different affiliations.
The Wolves came in with a bit of an unorthodox lineup, dressing eight defensemen and ten forwards (though defenseman Brandon Hickey was slotted into the lines as a forward).
Beck Warm (7-3-1, 2.87) got the start for Chicago across from Calvin Pickard (0-0-1, 1.99). Warm had found himself battling lately, giving up 5 goals in three of his last four starts. Facing a Griffins team featuring high-scoring forwards like Riley Barber and Kyle Criscuolo that filled the Wolves’ net over the past weekend on the road, this division title wouldn’t be easy to capture.
At least, not at first.
The first ten minutes of the game featured a single whistle, and as a result, the game quickly found a quick pace to the action. Early chances by Phil Tomasino and Sheldon Rempal were fought off by Pickard, who had spent most of his season on the Red Wings’ taxi squad and was playing only in his second game with the Griffins. The Wolves continued the pressure, however, and a forecheck from Zach Solow created a point chance with the puck bouncing to a waiting Sean Malone at the side of the net. Malone lifted the backhand shot over Pickard’s pad for the 1-0 Chicago lead 12:17 into the game.
Thirty seconds later and a Troy Loggins minor put the Wolves to the man advantage, where they had gone scoreless in their last six opportunities. As a Griffins defender tried to collect the puck for a clear, Malone snuck in from behind and lifted their stick to allow the puck to slide to David Cotton out in front of Pickard. Cotton tucked the puck through the Griffins’ netminder for their first PP goal in seven tries and a 2-0 lead.
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) May 12, 2021
The Wolves continued with pressure as Jamieson Rees nearly walked through the entire Grand Rapids lineup to set up a tap-in goal that was just out of reach of teammate Frederic Allard‘s stick. Rees, who under normal circumstances would be playing with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, had begun to come into his own of late and, as a result, was seeing an increase in ice time.
Towards the end of the period, Grand Rapids had finally found their legs to respond, and a quick reaction stopped a backdoor play that nearly cut the lead in half from Warm sliding from the left post to the right. That save held the 2-0 lead into the first intermission.
The quick pace of the first gave way to a tighter checking second period that saw more caution from the Wolves. After giving up 12 shots in the first to the Griffins, the Wolves clamped down in the defensive zone to keep shots from the outside and bodies away from the net. Whatever Warm could see, he could stop. The offense at both ends nearly looked to dry up, and for 19 and a half minutes, it appeared as though the first period’s score would carry into the third.
With just two seconds on the clock and a Griffins penalty expiring, Anthony Richard put the puck off Pickard’s pad that came right to Sheldon Rempal, who hammered home the rebound for a 3-0 lead as the clock ticked down to the final seconds.
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) May 13, 2021
Chicago had twenty minutes to preserve their lead, but unlike Monday against Rockford, the Wolves would be sure to keep up the pressure for the full sixty minutes and not give their opponent any breathing room to make a game of it.
Five minutes into the period and a Max Lajoie wrist shot from the point found a lane through the traffic out in front, and Pickard didn’t see it until it was already behind him. In all three zones of play, Lajoie’s game was exemplified in this game, offensively moving the puck to his speedy forwards and laying out to block more shots on the penalty kill. The Wolves’ season-long stay at the top of the standings was due in no small part to the excellent play from their #1 defenseman.
The Wolves continued their work on the powerplay into the final frame, with Grand Rapids giving them ample opportunities. As a penalty to Tyler Spezia expired, Cotton was there again in front of Pickard once again to put another rebound into the back of the net to push the lead to five goals. Following a tripping call to Seth Barton and Givani Smith running Beck Warm (that would see his night finished after the Wolves stood up for their downed goaltender), the Wolves poured it on. Cotton put away another rebound to complete the hat trick, while less than a minute later, Allard put away Chicago’s third powerplay goal of the contest.
The 7-0 lead would stand up as the final to a dominating statement win for the Central Division champion Chicago Wolves. Beck Warm would make 35 saves for his second shutout of the season, while Pickard stopped 25 of 32 Wolves shots.
David Cotton added one assist to go with his three goals. Phil Tomasino finished with two assists, yielding the team goal-scoring lead to Cotton (14) but continuing to pace the Wolves in total points (31). Sean Malone picked up a goal and two assists in this one, not counting the stick lift that led to Cotton’s first. Lajoie and Rempal each had a goal and an assist.
- When this team is laser-focused, it’s dominant in all three zones of the game. They’ve had their lapses as any team has during the course of the season, but when a talented team meets preparation and executes a game plan for a full sixty minutes, it’s near impossible to compete with, let alone beat. Chicago endured a rough stretch of games at the end of this season (not to mention delays from Covid 19 protocol) and still delivered top-level hockey to take home the division title
- After a bit of an identity crisis with the callup of Tanner Jeannot, the Wolves have established more leadership-by-committee to their game. There was never a captain, to begin with, but rather three assistants every game. Cavan Fitzgerald stepped up defensively, clogging shooting lanes and creating timely zone entries that recently saw the free-agent signee earn an NHL contract with the Carolina Hurricanes as a reward for his responsible play. Malone, Tomasino, and Tommy Novak were big producers not just offensively but were big factors in controlling the neutral zone play. Zach Solow and Marc Del Gaizo entered late into the season and looked to have been with the team all year. At the end of the day, this wasn’t a team that rested on its high-end talent but on its compete and will to take its game to the next level
- Coach Warsofsky was given a monumental task at the beginning of the year to incorporate Milwaukee’s players into the Wolves. Two pools of players had to come together into one to capture the title, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Warsofsky expects his players to come out and compete every single night. He’s emphasized what it takes not just to excel at the AHL level but at the NHL as well. The first line scorers and the fourth line grinders all bought into his system, and he’s helped deliver yet another winner for the Wolves. With a Calder Cup already on his resume as an assistant and a 54-30-8 career record as a head coach, the future is bright for the young coach.
After the game Coach said: “This has been a short year, but really it has been a long, draining year mentally and physically. I’m really happy for our guys.”
The Wolves finish out the 2021 campaign with a home and home against the Rockford IceHogs. They travel to Rockford for Friday’s game before finishing up at home on Saturday night.