HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – Before Saturday’s game at home against the in-state rival IceHogs, the Chicago Wolves had not played since their victory over the Iowa Wild on March 14th – a stretch of thirteen days without a game that had marked a franchise long. Games against the Grand Rapids Griffins scheduled for March 19th and 23rd were postponed to later dates due to league-mandated COVID-19 protocols: the first of their kind to affect the club this season.
With the lengthy layoff and only two practices to prepare for their weekend back-to-back against a Rockford team that had begun to find its groove after a brutal start, there were certainly questions about how the Wolves’ readiness and the ability to dial into game speed.
Chicago answered those questions with resounding authority early and never looked back en route to a weekend series sweep.
The Wolves came out flying to begin the evening’s contest, as players anxious to hit the ice once more swarmed on the IceHogs early. Just 45 seconds into the game, David Cotton and Max Lajoie tallying quick strikes for the home team for an early cushion. Chicago continued to apply pressure with its speed and excellent puck movement, forcing Rockford into penalty trouble with three infractions in the first period. The Wolves refused to give the IceHogs any breathing room with the man advantage, and Cotton struck again on a rebound to make it a 3-0 game going into the first intermission.
Starting the second period on a powerplay, the Wolves wasted no time cashing in. Dominik Bokk was left alone in the slot and beat Rockford goaltender Ivan Nalimov cleanly to make it a 4-0 game within a minute into the middle frame. It was Bokk’s fourth goal in as many games, and head coach Ryan Warsofsky praised the growth in the young German’s game.
“He’s more engaged in the hockey game, using his shot more. Obviously the points help, the goals help, but from a coaching standpoint we’re looking at how he plays away from the puck, how he holds onto the puck, things that are going to help him play at the next level. He’s done a really good job of that the last three weeks, and you just see him being more comfortable with teammates and as a pro. It’s helped translate into his hockey game.”
However, Rockford wouldn’t go away easily as goals from veteran Cody Franson and Evan Barratt in the second cut the Wolves’ lead in half. Fortune would shine on the Wolves, however, as Nalimov, making his North American debut in the crease, left the puck behind his net for a defender but instead was picked up by Anthony Richard, who found Ryan Suzuki out front for an easy tap in goal. The miscue helped sink the IceHogs’ momentum, while Tanner Jeannot tallied for the Wolves and Reese Johnson buried for Rockford for a final score of 6-3 in Saturday’s game.
Jeannot and Lajoie finished with a goal and two assists, while Tommy Novak ended up with three helpers. Veteran netminder Antoine Bibeau saved 23 of 26 shots to improve to 2-1-1 on the season, while Nalimov came up with 31 saves on 37 Wolves shots.
Less than 18 hours later, the teams met again at BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford for the second of their back-to-back. Rookie goaltender Devin Cooley got the start for the Wolves aside counterpart Matt Tomkins for Rockford. Early on in this game and the Wolves penalty kill saw much work as it has all season. Rockford burned them three times on the man advantage, beginning with Dylan McLaughlin’s second opportunity chance at the side of Cooley’s net. The IceHogs appeared to take the 1-0 lead into the intermission until a 3-on-1 developed for the Wolves, and it was Tanner Jeannot with the far side snipe tying the game up with 22 seconds to go into the first period.
Jeannot’s goal would continue his nine-game point streak along with his five-game goal streak as he continues to be the workhorse for coach Warsofsky’s club.
The second period developed into a track meet for both teams, trading chances back and forth, producing five goals in less than eight minutes of game time. The Wolves struck first with Sean Malone’s redirect of a Matt Murphy shot, and Rockford would answer with tallies from Barratt and Wyatt Kalynuk – the latter also on the powerplay. Less than two minutes later and a broken 2-on-1 rush turned into a Ryan Suzuki goal for his second goal of the series, while Jamieson Rees would wire a shot over Tomkin’s shoulder on the short side to give the Wolves the lead into the third period.
Into the third period and the powerplay once again clicking for Rockford as Josiah Slavin fired home his first goal in his AHL debut for the IceHogs. Rockford would finish 3-for-5 with the man advantage but would be haunted by another goaltender gaffe in their own end. Just as Nalimov had done the day before, Tomkins would leave the crease to play the puck behind the net, where Rees would sweep in, steal the puck, and wrap it around into the empty cage for his second goal of the contest.
That would prove to be the game-winner, as the Wolves would clamp down on the IceHogs’ offensive efforts, allowing only one shot in the entire 18 minutes and 45 seconds of gameplay following Slavin’s tying goal. Cooley would make that single save and hold up Rees’ robbery as the winning goal of a 5-4 contest. Cooley would finish with 20 saves on 24 shots in his debut, while Tomkins sported 28 saves on 33 shots.
The Wolves have a busy April ahead of themselves with the rescheduling of the two Griffins games. They face twelve contests in the month, with eight of them on the road. Chicago plays host to Grand Rapids tomorrow at 2 p.m. CST for their first matchup with their long-time Central Division foe since February 28th. The Wolves are 3-1 against Grand Rapids this season, who remains their closest adversary in the race for the division crown.