As playoffs begin, Wolf has eyes on the AHL’s top prize

Photo: David Moll

📝 by Patrick Williams

Dustin Wolf is running out of leagues to dominate.

AHL All-Star Challenge MVP. First Team All-Star. Top goaltender. Most valuable player.

But despite an armful of awards over his first two pro seasons, Wolf really has his eye on the AHL’s biggest prize of all. Wolf wants the Calgary Wranglers’ names on the Calder Cup.

That quest started last night with a 3-2 overtime victory over Abbotsford in Game 1 of the teams’ Pacific Division semifinal series. After a run to the 2022 Western Conference Finals in the Flames affiliate’s final season in Stockton, Wolf is back for more.

“It left a bitter taste,” Wolf said of falling to the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves last June. “You come so close and don’t achieve what you want. [You] come back this season with a mindset of, ‘We’re going to get this job done.’”

After a dominant career in the Western Hockey League, Wolf stepped right into the AHL last season and won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender. He also earned spots on the AHL All-Rookie Team and the First All-Star Team.

And somehow, he managed to top that performance this season, putting together one of the most dominant seasons in recent AHL memory. Wolf ranked first in the league wins (42), save percentage (.932), goals-against average (2.09) and shutouts (seven), a sweep achieved by only three other goaltenders in the last 45 years. He was a workhorse, too, playing a league-leading 55 games and besting all goaltenders in minutes (3,238), shots faced (1,653), and saves (1,540). Calgary allowed a league-low 2.42 goals per game, thereby earning Wolf the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award.

He earned his second straight First Team All-Star nod and Bastien Award. And it all added up to Wolf becoming only the eighth goaltender ever to win the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player. At 22, he is the AHL’s youngest MVP since Jason Spezza won the award in 2004-05.

“I think they’re cool, for sure,” Wolf acknowledged of his awards haul. “Each year you set out to grow and grow as a player and be the best player on the ice you possibly can. [But] I don’t get any recognition without the 25 other guys in the room, plus the staff. It’s rewarding, for sure, and it will be cool to add those to the mantel.

“But I know for myself and the 25 other guys, it’s about the next two months and the Cup, not individual awards.”

Wolf has worked with two different goaltending coaches in the AHL. Thomas Speer held that post in Stockton last season before joining the San Jose Sharks; former AHL netminder Mackenzie Skapski took over the role with the Wranglers.

“Speer was outstanding last season,” Wolf said. “[Skapski has] really been able to help me dial in certain areas of my game that have really helped me grow as a player this year, so I’m super-thankful for him.”

Wolf has always been able to adjust quickly. Just like he has done in the AHL, Wolf quickly came to dominate the Western Hockey League. He posted a record of 106-34-6 over four junior seasons with the Everett Silvertips, leading the WHL in goals-against average and save percentage twice. And he was voted that league’s outstanding netminder in 2019-20 and 2020-21, making it four consecutive years now that he has won his league’s top goaltending honor.

Through 105 AHL games, Wolf is 77-20-6 with a 2.24 GAA, a .927 save percentage and seven shutouts.

That leaves the NHL as the final league left for Wolf to conquer. A seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft, Wolf gave Flames fans a peek at their possible future in net when he made his NHL debut on Apr. 12, stopping 23 shots in a 3-1 win against the San Jose Sharks — the team that the Gilroy, Calif., native rooted for as a child.

“It was super-special,” Wolf said. “To make my debut against the team that I grew up idolizing was pretty cool. The nerves definitely took over at that time, but it was a fun evening for myself, my family… and hopefully it’s the first of many.”

The NHL is for later, however. The Calder Cup is the priority now. To win an AHL championship, the Wranglers will have to navigate a perilous path just to emerge from the Western Conference fray. First up is Abbotsford, no small obstacle, especially with the potential for as many as three games on the road to close out the series.

“They’re a strong team,” Wolf said of the Canucks. “They’ve got guys who can put the puck in the net. Their ‘D’ have a very locked-down style, and they have offensive abilities, too. They’ve got two goalies that can go win them games.”

Should the Wranglers advance, they would face another gauntlet in either Coachella Valley or Colorado. The Firebirds and Wranglers battled until the final game of the season for the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion.

Next would come the Central Division’s last team standing, and then the Eastern Conference winner, and, well, it’s too much to take in at one time. Details and a one-game-at-a-time approach are all that matter.

“You learn that every area of the game is crucial,” Wolf said of his first go through the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Wranglers head coach Mitch Love knew Wolf well before they ended up together in the AHL. Love was an assistant coach with Everett in 2017-18, when a 16-year-old Wolf played 20 games as a backup to Carter Hart in his first season of major junior hockey.

“It’s been a treat,” Love said of his time with Wolf. “He’s just a young man that’s driven to be good at his craft. He puts a ton of work into his craft. He’s a competitor. He wants to be good. I’ve seen a lot of leadership come out in him this year as a second-year pro.

“When you think he couldn’t have been much better than last year, he was.”

Wolf believes the next two months could be something special.

“I think we have a little bit of everything,” Wolf said. “We have the offensive ability. We scored a lot of goals this year. Our power play is ticking, and we had the best kill. Everybody’s tugging on the same rope. If you have that — the bonds we have in the room, and everybody loves everybody — I think that showed in the regular season how resilient we were at times.

“We’re looking forward to hopefully a long run here.”