ROCKFORD, Ill. – The Chicago Wolves had a chance to clinch back-to-back Central Division titles Friday with a win over the Rockford IceHogs at BMO Harris Bank Center. In addition to a win over the IceHogs, the Wolves needed the Manitoba Moose to lose in regulation against the Cleveland Monsters.
The Wolves roared out of the gate and found themselves with a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period. Keegan Kolesar struck first for the visitors at 4:13 when he intercepted an IceHogs pass and threw it over the glove of goaltender Jeff Glass.
Andreas Martinsen and David Kampf combined to give the Wolves a 5-on-3 power play. Though the Wolves have at times struggled to convert on these changes during the season. That was not the case Friday, however, when Teemu Pulkkinen fired from the blue line and the Wolves once again beat the Rockford netminder over his glove.
With Chicago shorthanded at 5:47 of the second, it appeared Rockford was poised to start its comeback. T.J. Tynan begged to differ, and the AHL’s second-leading shorthanded scorer fired the puck through Glass’s five-hole for his fifth shorthanded goal of the season.
Rocky Thompson’s team now held a 3-0 lead and would receive word of the 3-1 Moose loss to the Monsters. Now, Chicago controlled its destiny and just needed a win of any kind to seal back-to-back Central Division titles.
William Pelletier got the home team on the board with less than a minute left in the second. Oscar Dansk did not control the rebound from Alexandre Fortin’s shot, and Pelletier poked the rebound from behind the netminder into the goal to make it 3-1 to end the period.
Pulkkinen regained the three-goal lead for the Wolves at just 1:41 of the third after Brett Sterling found the winger wide open at the bottom of the circle for his second goal of the game. The Wolves were then given a chance to put the nail in Rockford’s coffin a minute later on the power play and appeared to do just that. This time, Zac Leslie worked in the puck all by himself on the power play en route to his sixth goal of the season, and fifth since being dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights organization.
Just 2:46 into the third, and the visitors held what appeared to be a commanding 5-1 lead. However, the Wolves took their foot off the pedal and gave the IceHogs every opportunity to walk away with the win instead.
Cody Franson kicked off Rockford’s comeback bid just a minute after Leslie’s goal when he scored on the power play.
Chris DiDomenico then made it 5-3 when he stuck the rebound in past Dansk at 11:45. Now down just two goals, the IceHogs had more than enough time to try and send the game into bonus hockey.
Rockford would pull Glass for the extra attacker with under three minutes left in regulation, and his gamble paid off. It would be Gustav Forsling who tossed a rocket from the blue line through a smattering of bodies in front of the Wolves netminder to make it a 5-4 game with 2:24 on the board.
Tynan stepped up big again for the Wolves when he put the empty net goal in just thirty seconds later to regain a two-goal cushion. Just when it appeared Stefan Matteau’s slashing penalty would give Rockford a power play with 1:15 left, DiDomenico took a retaliatory penalty, and the IceHogs lost one of their most potent scorers for the rest of the game.
Though the Wolves held a 5-1 lead at one point which was now 6-4, the Rockford IceHogs’ comeback bid proved to be too little, too late, and the buzzer sounded on the ten-goal game.
Rocky Thompson’s team officially ends the season as Central Division Champions, after having found itself at the bottom of the division in December.
Dansk made 32 saves in his third-consecutive win, and the Wolves are now 41-22-7-4 on the season, having been 5-11-4-1 on December 2nd.
Chicago officially draws Rockford in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, and the two teams will also face off Saturday night at the Allstate Arena.
Puck drop on the regular season finale between the two playoff foes is set for 7 p.m. As always, be sure to follow @SinBinWolves on Twitter for current news and game updates.