📝 by Patrick Williams
First off, give the Colorado Eagles plenty of credit in their fight to remain alive in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Colorado somehow found a way to put six pucks past Stockton Heat rookie star goaltender Dustin Wolf to nail down a wild 6-5 overtime victory on Friday, extending the Pacific Division Finals to tonight’s Game 4 at Colorado (9:05 ET, AHLTV).
“I think the playoffs just bring the best out of everybody,” Wolf said of facing a Colorado offense that ranked second overall during the regular season and is averaging 4.5 goals per game in the postseason as well.
After all, plenty of American Hockey League teams this season have tried and failed to figure out the 21-year-old Wolf, a 2019 seventh-round pick who has since emerged as one of hockey’s most elite goaltending prospects. And the Eagles themselves had run into that same frustration in the first two games of the series, pelting Wolf with a combined 50 shots in those two outings and still coming up dry.
Wolf will need a bigger trophy case after a sterling regular season in which he won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender and also took spots on the AHL All-Rookie team and the AHL First All-Star team. In all, he went 33-9-4 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .924 save percentage all while putting in a heavy workload (47 games and 2,809 minutes, second-most in the AHL). His GAA ranked eighth overall while he placed fourth in save percentage.
But players across the AHL agree that the level of play rises even higher in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and Wolf has shown that he can handle that elevated standard. Through six playoff games, he is 5-1 with a 2.11 GAA and .929 save percentage against high-caliber competition in Bakersfield and Colorado.
“This experience early on in my career, I think it’s very beneficial,” Wolf said. “To be on a team that has a chance to do something pretty special, it doesn’t come very often. I’m just trying to take advantage of that and continue to learn every day.”
Now Wolf faces another twist in his path through the Calder Cup Playoffs after a rare night in which Stockton was dented for six goals.
“The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season,” Wolf said. “You have to be ready at all times. Things can turn real quick.”
But what does that difference actually feel like standing in net against an attack like the one the Eagles possess?
“I think the intensity, for one,” Wolf replied. “You know, the regular season is pretty fast in general, but the playoffs [are] an extra gear. Everybody’s getting to that net front, and they’re making your life hard, not seeing pucks. There are a bunch of bounces that don’t go your way. Everything’s just getting thrown to the net and goes off a [skate] and in or whatever the case may be.
“I mean, it’s playoff hockey, right? It’s very unpredictable, and I think that’s the fun part about it. It can go either way on any given night.”
And that is just on the ice.
Atmosphere-wise, the Eagles’ Budweiser Events Center is one of the toughest buildings in the AHL. Colorado fans found their own higher playoff level in Game 3, roaring as the Eagles fought for their season and repeatedly pushed back against each Stockton lead.
“It’s an awesome building to play in,” Wolf said, even if playing the Eagles is not a particularly hospitable experience for visiting goaltenders. “It’s fun to come into the building and play well. Even after the result [in Game 3], it’s still another opportunity coming. It’s unreal playing in front of a loud, raucous crowd even if they’re against you.
“It’s the atmosphere you dreamed of playing in as a kid, and definitely an opportunity that nobody takes lightly.”
Glass half-full, glass half-empty, Heat head coach Mitch Love is going to take the optimistic viewpoint. Always.
“If you started this series,” Love began, “and we ever thought that we were going to give up six goals in three games, I think everybody [would] be laughing at that. So they got a few past, and there are some areas that we can be better as a team in front of our goaltender.
“Dustin’s been a rock for us in the playoffs and all season long, and we just ask those [goaltenders] to give us an opportunity to win each and every night.
“That’s what he’s going to do.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.