ROSEMONT, Ill – The Chicago Wolves had come back from two series deficits, 1-0 and 2-1, in order to force a game five against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Entering Sunday’s rubber match, head coach Rocky Thompson noted Chicago would only move onto the second round if it excelled at its own style of play, and did not allow Grand Rapids to get under its skin.
Instead, the Wolves would finally do to the Griffins what they had done in their first two wins. Chicago was not only able to score, but also frustrate Grand Rapids into taking penalty after penalty, which all but sealed the win for the home team early on in the third.
While the shots on goal after the opening frame would favor Grand Rapids barely at 8-6, the game play told a much different tale. Wolves goaltender Oscar Dansk made repeated tough saves to keep his team’s second round hopes alive. The only goal he would allow in the opening frame came when Vili Saarijarvi poked the tertiary rebound in at 7:22 after the Griffins crashed the net hard. Dansk made saves on the first two shots, but the Wolves could not clear the crease to allow him time to recover for the third and the home team found itself down 1-0. Surprisingly, this 1-0 score would hold headed into the first intermission.
Whatever Rocky said to his team before the start of the second period was clearly effective, as the team’s depth began to shine. Cody Glass would tie the game at 3:41 on a wrister from the top of the circles, but Rocky noted his success was a direct result of the previous line’s play.
“What really got us going was our third line. [Matthew] Weis, [Tobias] Lindberg and Stefan Matteau, they had them hemmed in there for a long shift. We had nothing going in the game there up until that shift, and they hemmed them in for about 45 seconds and they changed. That was Glass’s goal. And so those are the things that can get unseen sometimes. Though they didn’t get on the score sheet, those individual players, they were the ones who actually got us going and when you play that way, your teammates get rewarded.”
Continue to get rewarded, the Wolves would, as the game would start to turn ugly for the Griffins.
A little over a minute after Glass’s goal, the Griffins were tagged for the game’s first penalty. Tomas Hyka converted Chicago’s only power-play goal off a rebound from a shot by Curtis McKenzie, and suddenly Harri Sateri and his team were down 2-1.
At 13:08 of the sandwich stanza, it was Keegan Kolesar’s turn to bang one home after catching Jake Bischoff’s rebound perfectly and releasing it again in the blink of an eye.
With Glass’s goal standing as the turning point, the teams headed into their locker rooms for a final time with the Wolves on top 3-1. Dansk had now made 20 saves on 21 shots.
Kolesar’s second of the game came off a T.J. Tynan steal, and the home team now had a 4-1 lead at just 3:06 of the third, which still left plenty of time for the Griffins to mount a comeback.
However, they would take themselves out of contention by means of a parade to the penalty box, which began with Filip Hronek’s trip on McKenzie at 5:30 of the third. While they would kill the Hronek penalty, the Griffins would then take what is perhaps the most ridiculous penalty I’ve ever seen.
Someone on the Griffins bench, potentially Matt Puempel, launched a water bottle onto the ice in the direction of play. Grand Rapids would understandably be tagged with an unsportmanslike conduct penalty and was shorthanded yet again. They would also kill this, but 45 seconds after the water bottle penalty’s expiration, Wade Megan would sit. Rinse, repeat, with a kill and finally Jake Chelios sitting.
Chicago was able to frustrate Grand Rapids into taking four consecutive penalties in the third. Though it was unable to convert on any of these chances, at a 4-1 lead, that really is not reason for concern. Playing shorthanded for half the frame really hurts your ability to make a push, and Sateri would be pulled with four minutes remaining.
Kolesar narrowly missed the empty net in his natural hat trick bid, and while Colin Campbell would get one back for the visitors, there was just 31.1 left on the clock and it proved too little, too late.
After a too-early exit last year, the Wolves move on to the second round to play the winner of the Iowa Wild-Milwaukee Admirals series. Dansk would finish the night with 30 saves on 32 shots.
“It’s exhilarating,” said Kolesar. “There’s so much elation in our locker room right now, to go through that and to have the bounce back like we did from last year to this year. We were just as good of a team, maybe even better this year, and to fall short in the first one there at home, it stings, but to be celebrating now after game five, it’s huge for us.”
“It’s polar opposite now. Last year, it was devastating for us. We thought we could make a run and obviously it didn’t happen. This year we got out of here with a win and it was kind of like, ‘okay, let’s get this ball rolling.’ It’s a great feeling after a hard-fought series like that you want to keep going with these guys.”
Oscar kept the Wolves in it after not the best start, or as Tynan noted, he was “lights-out”. They’re going to need to continue to receive contributions like this from the netminder as they look to make a longer playoff run.
Chicago played in the second round in 2017, but lost in the division finals to Grand Rapids four games to one. The Wolves have not made the Conference Finals since 2008, which was their last Calder Cup win as well.
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