ROSEMONT, Ill – For the third time this postseason, the Chicago Wolves had come back from a series deficit. And for the third time, they found themselves in a position to eliminate their opponent.
Monday’s Memorial Day game against the San Diego Gulls was the biggest game yet for Rocky Thompson’s squad. Win, and they would move on to face the American Hockey League’s best Charlotte Checkers in the Calder Cup Finals. Lose, and Wednesday would mean a pivotal game seven. With Charlotte eliminating the Toronto Marlies on Sunday, the more rest, the better, for whichever team would move on.
For two offensively-gifted teams, I do not think anyone foresaw game five being the goaltending battle it was. Oscar Dansk was forced to make all of the game’s first nine saves as the Gulls came bursting out of the gate.
It took the Wolves eight minutes to register their own first shot of the game, but from that point on, the period belonged to the home team. Like Dansk, Gulls netminder Kevin Boyle was challenged often in the opening 20. And like Oscar, he was perfect in net this period. As the horn sounded on the first period, the teams found themselves locked in a scoreless tie.
The teams traded chances and power-play opportunities through the first half of the middle frame, but it would be Chicago who out-shot San Diego 14-6 during this 20. After 40 minutes of play, each netminder was a perfect 20 for 20.
You could cut the tension with scissors in the Allstate Arena as the teams took the ice for the third period. It was all but clear that the team which scored first would skate off the ice victorious.
Finally, with 7:23 left on the clock, the tie was broken. It was the home team which struck first when Curtis McKenzie tipped a bomb from Nic Hague past Boyle for the 1-0 lead. Hague smartly passed on his initial shot which would’ve hit traffic, and the Wolves were able to keep possession because of this. Then it went back to him and he just unloaded. This was the type of goal Chicago’s been needing to solve Boyle, just a dirty, hard, playoff-style deflection through traffic in front.
It took just 19 more seconds for the Wolves to double their lead. This time, it was Keegan Kolesar who was able to squeak one through the legs of Boyle to make it 2-0 in favor of the home team. The Allstate Arena crowd was louder than it had been in years at this point, and faint chants of, “We want the Cup” erupted. The Gulls looked all but deflated, but there was still plenty of time left in the game.
McKenzie was tagged for interference at 13:35 of the final frame, and the Gulls were gift-wrapped a chance to close the gap. They were able to do so when Sam Carrick banked the puck in off Dansk to spoil his shutout bid on the power play. With 5:09 on the clock, San Diego had pulled within one.
Just two minutes later, McKenzie continued to show why he’s known as an elite playoff performer when he took the puck in by himself to regain the two-goal lead for the Wolves, and everyone tied to Chicago erupted.
— Samantha Hoffmann (@SinBinWolves) May 28, 2019
Boyle was pulled for the extra attacker with 2:31 left in regulation, but Chicago proved more than San Diego’s equal, and was able to ride out the flurry of late attacks. By a final score of 3-1, the Chicago Wolves eliminated the San Diego Gulls in six games and earned their place in the Calder Cup Finals.
The Chicago Wolves are the 2019 Western Conference Champions. pic.twitter.com/oNCsUmy08N
— Samantha Hoffmann (@SinBinWolves) May 28, 2019
Perhaps no one summarized the stellar play by Oscar Dansk better than head coach Rocky Thompson postgame. His play was imperative to the winning effort.
“They had a real big push and we weren’t playing great at the beginning and Oscar was there. He got locked in early he didn’t waiver the entire time. That’s what it takes in games like this. You’re going to need your goalie to arguably be your best player. And he was. He was tonight and he gave us an opportunity in the third period to get a lead and we finally were able to get some shots on net and get into rebounds and that lead to more success and that’s why we were able to finally score some goals.”
Always the team player, Oscar turned the attention away from himself and credited his partner Max Lagace in helping earn the series victory, especially when it came to the rest he was given in game five thanks to Max.
“I feel pretty good. Max came in and played extremely well last game. Really proud of him not playing for awhile and he comes in and gets an important win for us. He’s a great goalie, we all know that, so we’re just doing it like we’ve always been doing. We’re pushing each other and supporting each other in any way we can.”
It’s Chicago’s depth which has powered the team to its first Calder Cup Final berth since affiliating with the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Wolves have continued to persevere not just during the season, but in playoffs. They’ve been down in every series so far and have come from behind to win. They began playoffs without three of their biggest weapons in Daniel Carr, Brooks Macek and Dylan Coghlan who were all injured. They’ve now all returned to the line up just in time to face a strong Charlotte Checkers team.
Said Rocky Thompson,
“If you look at this whole year, everything’s just been so tight and a lot of adversity and a lot of different guys have contributed in different ways. It’s just kind of battle-tested us. You get into these [where] you know the series, they’ve all been extremely hard, difficult. With Grand Rapids, it was extremely difficult. We were down against them and they were getting reinforcements, and we still had injuries. As the series progressed, our guys persevered and then lost momentum in Iowa. But our guys came back three games in a row there, you lose the first two, then the power play kicked in and ended up winning us the series and so did the penalty kill. Killed a bunch of penalties and then scored some goals. Now, you go into this series and you see the way they came out in that first game. I really thought they dominated us in the first game and Oscar made a bunch of saves and we were opportunistic. Then we played good in game two and we didn’t win. Then we go there and we lose again but our guys just keep coming. That’s good because that’s what the playoffs are all about. You have peaks and valleys. There’s a great belief in the room and in each other which is the most important thing.”
The biggest difference between this year’s team and last? It has to be the chemistry, which is evident even as the team takes the ice for warm ups. McKenzie echoed this, saying,
“We got down 2-1 in San Diego there. We could’ve easily folded or crumbled but we’re able to come out of that double overtime game and I think that turned around the series. We have such a great group of guys and all the young guys are young but they’ve done such a good job all season long stepping up and playing bit time for us, so I think they’re a confident group. We all do a good job as a team together.”
The former Texas Stars captain is no stranger to the postseason. He was playing in the Calder Cup Finals just a year ago where he lost in game seven.
“I guess [it’s] a little redemption this year. Last year hurt going to game seven and dropping that one. When you go that far with the team and group of individuals it’s so much fun and you grow so much. I just want all the boys in this room to get experience winning together because you’ll take it for the rest of your life. I still talk to guys I was able to win with five years ago now in Texas my rookie year, and what a group we had there and how much fun we had and just memories you’ll never forget. We put ourselves in a spot to win a championship and we’ve just got to go take advantage of it.”
Speaking of redemption, no one’s forgotten that the Chicago Wolves were swept in the opening round of the Calder Cup Finals in 2018. Just a year later, they’re playing for the league crown. While making it to the finals is a big win in and of itself, the Wolves aren’t done. When asked if this means they’ve redeemed the loss to the Rockford IceHogs, Oscar had just two words to say,