ROSEMONT, Ill – The Chicago Wolves are now just one of four undefeated teams left in the American Hockey League – and one of two to be 4-0 – after defeating the Grand Rapids Griffins (5-1) and Milwaukee Admirals (5-4, OT) in their home-opening weekend.
Ironically enough, both of Chicago’s regulation wins have come on 5-1 margins of victory with Max Lagace in net, while the Wolves are 2-0 in overtime games, with Oscar Dansk in net both times.
In Saturday’s victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins, while the Wolves allowed the first goal, after Brooks Macek tied the game with his first goal of the season, Chicago never looked back. The 5-1 victory was punctuated by Brooks’ first hat trick as a pro in North America as well.
“It feels good,” said Macek. “Obviously, it would have been nice to score on opening weekend [in colorado], but I’m playing with some pretty good guys right now. [Gage] Quinney can pretty much find you anywhere on the ice. Same with [Daniel] Carr. He works hard, he can make plays too so they made it easy on me to be honest.”
Brooks Macek’s first pro goal in North America. pic.twitter.com/J4hg2Vpafy
— Sin Bin Wolves (@SinBinWolves) October 14, 2018
On Macek’s first goal in North America, Rocky said,
“When he had that breakaway and he scored that goal… He knew what he was doing. He’d done that before… It’s not easy when you play on European ice for the last five, six years, but it’s a pretty fast learning curve if you ask me.”
Though on the surface everything looked good for the Wolves heading into Sunday’s matinee, there were a few key stats which proved to be evident of the trouble to come. One, the Wolves gave the Griffins six power-play chances, allowing them to score on one. Two, they took just 10 shots on goal in the final two periods combined.
“We’ve got to do the simple things that we did tonight,” Rocky said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve got to play in the offensive zone. We’ve got to do the necessary things to get there. [If] we support the puck and we move it fast and we out work out the opposition that’ll be good, They’re a good team.”
Play simply, they did not, as the Wolves found themselves down 3-1 after 40 minutes of play Sunday, with all Admirals three goals coming on the man-advantage.
Rocky was not happy with his team’s performance on kill as a whole, explaining,
“The penalty kill – we didn’t follow the structure. We would follow the structure and we would have success and then we would go off script and it would cost us. The 5-on-3 was just a bad bounce… When we would go off that script and create an opening, they exposed us on it. You give them credit and you learn. You’re a young team, you’re going to make these mistakes but you’ll get another opportunity to remedy it.”
One thing Rocky’s team did show Sunday was its ability to persevere, with T.J. Tynan halving the deficit just 1:56 into the third. Though the Ads appeared to have put the final nail in the coffin when they made it 4-2, Chicago converted on a power play of its own. Having pulled Dansk for the extra skater, it was former Texas Stars Captain Clutch Curtis McKenzie who would get the tying goal at 18:07 of the period to force the game to extra time.
After exchanging a flurry of back-and-forth chances, it was rookie defenseman Dylan Coghlan who played overtime hero as his bomb from between the circles struck true for his first pro goal, and the game-winner.
Ask and ye shall receive. Here’s last night’s OT winner by Dylan Coghlan. pic.twitter.com/dd2XlMg6xt
— Sin Bin Wolves (@SinBinWolves) October 15, 2018
Rocky’s spoken about the value of his players getting the monkey off their backs early in the season, and just about every player who has registered his first of the year has agreed. Coghlan is no exception, saying,
“It’s nice to get your first goal out of the way instead of waiting for the last half of the year. Now I can just focus on playing hockey and getting better every day. The play, I think, I came off the bench and the puck was just there. [Curtis] McKenzie put it in the zone and I got the puck and gave it to [Reid] Duke. Just kind of a give-and-go back to me and it was lucky enough to go in.”
Throughout the weekend, and especially Sunday’s game, the coaching staff has noticed a hunger in the young defenseman.
“He’s got great offensive tools, without a doubt,” explained Rocky. “That was the potential coming out of junior… He sees the ice extremely well. He’s been running the top [power-play] unit the last two games… In overtime, it was kind of a hunch on the bench just to go with him in that situation. We were starting to feel it actually in the third period. You could see it, that he was starting to generate and create a little more, so Chris Dennis just mentioned that and he started to give him a little bit of a push in the third.”
Though the Wolves eked out a win Sunday, the key to Milwaukee’s success was its ability to shutdown the passing lanes in the neutral zone, creating turnovers and driving possession the first two periods of play. For Chicago to continue its success this upcoming weekend, it needs to return to the nuts and bolts of what has given it success in its two 5-1 victories.
Rocky was a little more explicit when asked about his team’s passing Sunday, saying,
“Our game isn’t to go east-west… We wanted to play a different style of game that isn’t out game and it will never be our game, and sometimes you have to learn the hard way. The hard way was playing without the puck most of the night and having to defend and we were fortunate it didn’t cost us in the standings.”
Spreading the Wealth
In addition to Macek, McKenzie’s and Coghlan’s important first goals, Brandon Pirri and Zac Leslie each recorded their first of the year against the Griffins, while Carr got his against the Admirals. Chicago has now scored 18 goals this season with 11 different scorers, including three defensemen, highlighting the depth of Rocky Thompson’s young team.
Has Rocky found his magical first three lines in Pirri-Tynan-McKenzie, Quinney-Carr-Macek, and Duke-Ryan Wagner/Stefan Matteau–Keegan Kolesar? All signs this weekend point to yes, at least while Tomas Hyka remains in Vegas with the Golden Knights. Pirri, Tynan and McKenzie all play together on the power play and combined for Pirri’s power-play tally against the Griffins. Then, all three created the tying goal in Sunday’s game with Dansk pulled.
Meanwhile, Quinney, Carr and Macek continue to produce magic every shift they are out. Rocky mentioned them as being the only good line throughout Sunday’s entire match, stating that they drove Chicago’s possession game for most of the first 40 minutes. This line has recorded 6 goals and 7 assists in just four games, and is a combined plus-12.
Duke and Wagner are probably two of the biggest surprises for the Chicago Wolves from last season. Duke now has three goals on the young season, and has been working to position himself as a formidable opponent at the dot. Meanwhile, Wagner has been the epitome of a third-line shutdown player, making hits to create openings and getting under the skin of his opponents. Adding the speedy yet tough Kolesar to this line means Rocky has three lines with scoring depth he can roll out against opponents. Matteau was not at Sunday’s game after getting into a fight Saturday.
In other news, Erik Brannstrom practiced with the team on Wednesday, but it is not yet known if him and Zach Whitecloud will play this weekend.
If you’re confused by the photos of Wolves players in a vest emblazoned with the Wolves head on the back, it is the team’s clothing article for player of the game. Whereas other teams have a WWE-style belt, or a hat of some sort, the Wolves have a vest. Macek was passed it Saturday for his three-goal effort, and then he gave it to Coghlan for recording the game-winner on Sunday.
The Chicago Wolves travel to Grand Rapids on Saturday for a rematch, and again host the Admirals on Sunday. Chicago is looking to repeat both outcomes from last weekend and improve its record to 6-0. Be sure to follow @SinBinWolves on Twitter for all Chicago Wolves news and updates, and @SinBinNews for coverage on minor-league hockey as a whole.