Wolves, T’birds took similar roads to Finals

📝 by Patrick Williams

Even for two teams that have never met, there are few unknowns once the Calder Cup Finals arrive.

Both the Chicago Wolves and Springfield Thunderbirds have been through three playoff rounds. Both have taken some hits along with some considerable success. They have endured slumps and setbacks. And the head coaches, Drew Bannister of Springfield and Chicago’s Ryan Warsofsky, each now have had several days to dissect each other’s clubs via video.

And they are both close to their ultimate goal. Each team is four wins away from a Calder Cup title.

Come Game 1 this afternoon at Allstate Arena (4 ET, AHLTV), there is nothing left to do but to settle this on the ice.

“We’ve definitely watched a fair share of video,” Springfield forward Sam Anas said, “but there’s nothing like the actual feel of playing the game.”

The Wolves and Thunderbirds represent two cities that carry impressive history, but they each find themselves in the relatively early stages of relationships with new National Hockey League parent clubs. Springfield, home to the AHL’s headquarters, was one of the league’s original cities back in 1936, but the Thunderbirds ― who began play in 2016 ― are in the first season of a new affiliation with the St. Louis Blues.

Chicago joined forces with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2020 after three seasons partnered with the Vegas Golden Knights. In the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them file, the Wolves fell to the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s former AHL affiliate, in the 2019 Calder Cup Finals.

The first full season for the Hurricanes-Wolves affiliation produced a 50-16-5-5 record and the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s best regular-season team. Chicago then defeated Rockford and Milwaukee before knocking out the Stockton Heat, the AHL’s second-best team in the regular season, in the Western Conference Finals.

“We all truly love each other in there, and we’re excited to be in the spot we’re in,” Wolves captain Andrew Poturalski said after eliminating Stockton. “But we know the job’s not done.”

In the Eastern Conference, the Thunderbirds finished second in the Atlantic Division at 43-24-6-3 before sweeping both Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Charlotte in their first two series. They then ran into the Laval Rocket, a stubborn opponent that pushed them to a full seven games in the conference finals before the Thunderbirds finally prevailed. Springfield’s move into the Calder Cup Finals is the 10th all-time for the city, the first since the Springfield Indians won back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991.

“That was kind of our first time facing some adversity,” Thunderbirds goaltender Charlie Lindgren said of the Laval series. “I think that was actually really good for us to go through. We knew there was going to eventually be some bumps in the road.”

Speaking of goaltenders, both clubs possess plenty of talent at the position.

Veteran Alex Lyon owned the Chicago net for the opening two rounds before Pyotr Kochetkov’s return from Carolina at the start of the Stockton series. Faced with a heavy schedule, Warsofsky alternated starters in the conference finals; Lyon (8-2, 1.96, .924) and Kochetkov (2-1, 1.94, .941) each won two games, and each posted a shutout.

The platoon appears to have pushed Lyon’s game even further.

“I get excited when I am around goalies that are highly detailed, highly successful,” Lyon said. “It just forces me to be better.”

Bannister can turn to either Lindgren or Joel Hofer, and he has done plenty of both in a format quite similar to that employed by Chicago.

Hofer (6-2, 2.08, .947), a 2018 fourth-round pick by the Blues, got the start in Games 1, 3, 4, and 6 of the conference finals. Lindgren (4-1, 2.47, .924) spent a portion of the postseason on recall to St. Louis and got the call in Game 7, but no one would have been surprised by either goaltender taking that start.

On the blue lines, Chicago possesses plenty of dangerous puck movers that keep opponents honest in the neutral zone. Jalen Chatfield, Cavan Fitzgerald, Josh Jacobs, Joey Keane, Max Lajoie, and 2019 Calder Cup winner Jesper Sellgren lead the group.

Springfield counters with captain Tommy Cross, Brady Lyle, Steven Santini, and Tyler Tucker to provide ample abrasiveness defensively. Calle Rosen, one of the most skilled blueliners in the AHL and a 2018 Calder Cup champion with the Toronto Marlies, joined the Thunderbirds from St. Louis for the Eastern Conference Finals and contributed three assists in seven games.

Cross and the Springfield defense corps will be tasked with managing Chicago’s attack that is averaging a league-high 4.15 goals per game in the postseason.

“I think you just need to start with time and respect for the opponent,” Cross said of his team’s pre-scout work on the Wolves. “They’ve obviously had a heck of a year, and some of the players on their team have done some pretty incredible things.”

Major differences exist among the two teams’ forward groups. Whereas the Wolves can punish opponents with an aggressive, puck pursuit game that relies on an excellent transition game, Springfield utilizes a heavy, grinding down-low style that has worn down opponents eventually, most recently Laval.

With Chicago, NHL veteran Josh Leivo has raced out to the Calder Cup Playoff scoring lead through three rounds with 20 points (a league-high 11 goals and nine assists) in 13 games. Poturalski, the MVP of the 2019 playoffs, led the AHL in scoring for the second season in a row, putting up 101 points (28 goals, 73 assists) in 71 games as the league’s first 100-point scorer since 2009-10. Fellow First Team All-Star Stefan Noesen had a league-best 48 goals and finished third in the AHL at 85 points.

Rookie forward Jack Drury, considered to be a strong candidate for regular work with Carolina next season, has complemented an excellent regular season to post 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 13 playoff contests. Even more forward depth comes via Jamieson Rees, David Gust, Vasili Ponomarev, CJ Smith, and 2012 Calder Cup champion Richard Panik.

“They’ve certainly got guys over there that we’re going to have to know when they’re on the ice,” Lindgren said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re being smart.”

Anas had just one point ― a Game 7 assist ― in the conference finals, but he is still among the most dangerous playmakers in the AHL and has 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 13 playoff games. NHL veteran James Neal, in a league final for third time in six years after playing for the Stanley Cup in 2017 with Nashville and 2018 with Vegas, plays top-six minutes for the Thunderbirds, as does Matthew Peca, who was also a Calder Cup finalist with Syracuse in 2017.

A rambunctious line of Mackenzie MacEachern, Dakota Joshua, and Will Bitten created consistent havoc against Laval. Nikita Alexandrov, Hugh McGing, and Klim Kostin round out an excellent top-nine and can move up and down the lineup.

“We’re very excited right now coming off an emotional Game 7 win,” Anas said. “We’re on the road, which I think always brings a team a little closer. I think we’re just really excited to get things rolling here.”

Both head coaches enter this final series highly regarded. Warsofsky, at 34 the youngest head coach in the AHL this season, was an assistant for Charlotte’s 2019 Calder Cup championship. Bannister played 18 pro seasons as a defenseman, including 164 NHL games, and won a Calder Cup with the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2000.

And little appears to faze either club. The Thunderbirds just weathered the raucous atmosphere of Place Bell in their clash with Laval, winning two of three games in a hostile environment. Up 3-0 to Stockton, the Wolves lost back-to-back overtime games before closing out the Heat in Game 6.

“[The postseason] just gets more and more meaningful as you keep going,” Cross said. “You win a series and win the next series, and you’ve had some adversity and you push through.

“I think the more time and the more success you have as a group, it becomes more and more meaningful. [We are still] pushing and have a chance to be the last team standing.”