Championship sets Wolves up for future success

Photo: AHL

📝 by Patrick Williams

A Friday in November might seem like an unlikely time for a team to begin a run to the Calder Cup.

But Ryan Warsofsky believes that his club truly started its path on the night after U.S. Thanksgiving in Grand Rapids.

On Nov. 26, the Wolves were having a bad night. Two quick first-period goals put them down 2-0. Another goal in the second made it 3-0 for the Griffins. Warsofsky was not a happy head coach.

“We challenged this group to see how competitive we could be,” Warsofsky recalled.

And the Wolves took that challenge.

Scoreless in his first six games with the Wolves, Josh Leivo netted his first of the season 1:29 into the third period. Then 57 seconds later, Maxim Letunov sliced the home team’s lead to one. Then Spencer Smallman tied the game with 1:36 to go in regulation, CJ Smith gave the Wolves the lead 12 seconds later, and captain Andrew Poturalski hit an empty net to finish off a 5-3 victory.

It was the first time in team history that the Wolves won a game in regulation after trailing by three goals in the third period.

“We wanted to see if we could get some more competitiveness, more competitive people,” Warsofsky continued. “And since that day, this has been a totally different group. I think that was a really good learning moment for our group to see what type of team we had.”

The victory would be the first of 12 straight for the Wolves, tying a franchise record. Seven months later, they are Calder Cup champions.

Letunov eventually departed, part of a difficult but necessary move on March 28 to procure additional defensive help from the Hartford Wolf Pack in Tarmo Reunanen. On that same day, the Wolves picked up Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Chris Bigras and added veteran forward Richard Panik on loan from the New York Islanders.

Wolves general manager Wendell Young now had most of his roster in place. This was a team of high-end Carolina Hurricanes prospects and elite American Hockey League veterans, many with substantial NHL experience. Everyone had something to prove and something to win. And they did, rallying past Stockton on the last day of the regular season to earn the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy with an AHL-best record of 50-16-5-5.

From there they swept the rival Rockford IceHogs in a Central Division semifinal series and then polished off the Milwaukee Admirals in a four-game Central Division Finals win. The Wolves then faced Stockton in the Western Conference Finals, taking a 3-0 series before dropping consecutive overtime decisions. Finally, in Game 6, Chicago finished off the stubborn Heat to advance to the Calder Cup Finals and meet Springfield.

Following a Game 1 hiccup in which the Thunderbirds rallied from two goals down in the third period to win 5-4 in overtime, the Wolves never sputtered again. They overwhelmed Springfield with four goals in the opening 10:12 of Game 2 in an eventual 6-2 win. Pyotr Kochetkov’s 36-save shutout in Game 3 and 39-save effort in Game 4 put the Wolves on the brink of the Calder Cup.

Warsofsky then turned back to veteran Alex Lyon for Game 5, his back-up that night in Grand Rapids, and was repaid for that faith. Lyon shut down the Thunderbirds with 28 saves in last night’s 4-0 win, giving the Wolves their first Calder Cup championship since 2008.

Sacrifice defined the Wolves. Take Bigras and Reunanen, two experienced pro blueliners who never dressed for the Wolves in the postseason. On many AHL teams, these two defensemen could have regular roles. With Chicago, each player had to make adjustments and step back for the sake of this championship run.

“I think you’ve got to play as a team,” Warsofsky said “It’s that simple, right? I mean, it doesn’t matter what type of players you have. At this level, you have to play as a team, and you have to get guys to buy in.”

Leivo, the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy winner as the MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs, exploded for 15 goals and 14 assists in 18 postseason games after a productive 46-point regular season. The veteran of 214 NHL games with Carolina, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto has positioned himself well to attract interest this summer.

At 22, rookie Jack Drury finished with 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in 18 games and further solidified himself as a candidate for full-time duty next season with Carolina.

Already a fan of Drury’s, Warsofsky served up even more praise last night for the 2018 second-round draft pick.

“I think he’s going to have a long NHL career,” Warsofsky said.

Panik, a Calder Cup champion with the Norfolk Admirals as a rookie in 2011-12, produced 11 points in 16 playoff games and showed that plenty remains in his game.

“Unbelievable,” Warsofsky said of Panik. “He stepped his game up in those last two rounds. He’s a heavy body, a physical body, and I think he was probably a difference maker up front. A great move to get him in here to help us.”

Working Panik into the Chicago mix took time, Warsofsky acknowledged, particularly given his player’s family circumstances.

“It was a little rocky at times, and it’s to be expected,” Warsofsky explained. “We’re talking about a guy who has played a lot in the National Hockey League, his family is back in Slovakia, he’s got three young kids. This is not easy. These guys are not robots. He’s not just going to come in and be the happiest guy in the world.

“So it took a lot of massaging, a lot of tough conversations. But at the end, we found a middle ground and he was the difference, probably, these last two rounds of us finishing it off.”

Whether it is Carolina, Chicago, or somewhere else next season, these Wolves have experienced what it takes to win one of the top prizes in all of hockey.

“Winning is important,” Warsofsky said. “I think winning breeds development, and I think development breeds winning.

Jamieson Rees, [Stelio] Mattheos, [Vasili] Ponomarev, [Noel] Gunler ― these guys are all going to be stepping into roles next year, even more important roles, and they’ve got great experience from this… understanding what it takes to win.

“I think you have to play for each other. You have to want something bigger than yourself, and every guy in there bought into it.”