Wolves, Heat gearing up for heavyweight clash

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Chicago Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky compares his club’s Western Conference Finals match-up with the Stockton Heat to a heavyweight boxing match.

That fight between the top two clubs during the American Hockey League regular season begins tonight when the Wolves host Stockton in Game 1 at Allstate Arena (8 ET, AHLTV). Chicago finished first overall in the AHL at 50-16-5-5 (.724), overtaking Stockton (45-16-5-2, . 713) on the last night of the regular season for the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy.

“It’s two teams that are good, that have been atop the league all season long, that haven’t seen each other, and [will] probably feel each other out a little bit,” Warsofsky said.

“Then they’ll take big swings at each other.”

Said Stockton head coach Mitch Love, “The Wolves are always ready to win a Calder Cup, so we know we’ve got our hands full here with this group, and they’re the best in the league.”

Now after hearing so much about each other for months, they will finally see each other. Much of this series represents the AHL at its very best ― highly touted National Hockey League prospects and some of the best young talent in the game, elite veteran leaders, and fast-rising head coaches.

Look at the numbers, and they support each club’s mutual respect.

On offense, Stockton averaged 3.56 goals scored per game during the regular season, third-most in the AHL. Chicago was fourth at 3.43. Their power plays both converted at 19.6 percent efficiency.

Defensively, Chicago allowed a league-low 2.55 goals per game; Stockton ranked third (2.72), and was first in penalty killing (86.6 percent) while scoring an AHL-leading 15 shorthanded goals. The Wolves’ penalty kill placed fifth overall at 83.2 percent.

Look on the ice, and the abundant talent furthers that admiration.

Stockton has rookie standout goaltender Dustin Wolf, who shut out the powerful Colorado Eagles three times in four games during the Pacific Division Finals. A 21-year-old seventh-round pick by the Calgary Flames in 2019, Wolf won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the AHL’s top goaltender along with spots on the First All-Star Team and AHL All-Rookie Team. Right behind him is capable veteran Adam Werner.

But Chicago can counter with veteran Alex Lyon, who earned his own hardware this season by winning the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for helping the Wolves to the fewest goals against in the league. Lyon has exciting Carolina Hurricanes prospect Pyotr Kochetkov to complement him in net.

Each club’s blue line is dominant. Calgary Flames first-round pick Juuso Valimaki and 2020-21 Canadian Division AHL All-Star Connor Mackey are back after time with the NHL club for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nick DeSimone, Andy Welinski, and former Calder Cup champion Kevin Gravel are proven veterans. Chicago can counter with Jalen Chatfield, Cavan Fitzgerald, Josh Jacobs, Joey Keane, Max Lajoie, and Jesper Sellgren along with a deep group in reserve.

And then there are the forwards.

Wolves captain Andrew Poturalski (28-73-101) and linemate Stefan Noesen (48-37-85) were the AHL’s most dynamic scoring duo in more than a decade, both earning honors as First Team AHL All-Stars. Poturalski revamped his offseason training program, bringing in a new strength coach, and his skating has improved markedly as well; Warsofsky believes that Poturalski taking on a center role has brought out his strengths further as he led the AHL in scoring for the second consecutive season. He is a proven postseason force as well, having won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the Calder Cup Playoffs during the Charlotte Checkers’ championship run in 2019.

Noesen has always had a scoring knack, but he broke loose in 2021-22 to lead the league with 48 goals. Where Poturalski plays an elusive, deceptive game and is capable of finding the thinnest of passing lanes, Noesen (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) plays the role of a bull in front of the net, daring opposing defensemen to somehow gain position on him.

“We’re not afraid of the fight,” Noesen said of the Wolves’ ability to blend skill with a grinding, feisty element as well.

Joining Noesen and Poturalski are the likes of rookies Jack Drury and Vasili Ponomarev, as well as C.J. Smith, David Gust, Spencer Smallman, and NHL veterans Josh Leivo and Richard Panik, who won a Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2012. This is an attack that comes one line after another all night long.

For the Heat, Matthew Phillips plays in much the same mold as Poturalski, a slippery forward who can slip into tight areas and had 68 points (31 goals, 37 assists) in 65 games during the regular season. Calgary first-round pick Jakob Pelletier’s 62 points (27 goals, 35 assists) in 66 regular-season games put him on the AHL All-Rookie Team. Glenn Gawdin and captain Byron Froese are always dependable, and Justin Kirkland broke out with 25 regular-season goals. Luke Philp, Walker Duehr, Emilio Pettersen, Martin Pospisil, Adam Ruzicka, Eetu Tuulola, and 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary further strengthen the Heat up front.

Photo: Mark Nessia

Behind the benches, Warsofsky won a Calder Cup as a Charlotte assistant coach in 2019; Love captured the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach this season after taking Stockton to the best record ever by a Calgary AHL affiliate. Each head coach earns strong reviews from their players and is widely considered a bright prospect to one day join the long list of AHL alumni in NHL coaching roles.

After several days of pre-scouting and video, each head coach has come away impressed with the opposition ― and with the detail that each other’s club executes. And even before this series, Chicago had piqued Love’s interest enough that he took time during the regular season to catch the Wolves on video when his schedule allowed.

“I would throw a Wolves game on just to check them out and see the way they play the game,” Love recalled.

Said Warsofsky, “I think we’re excited for the challenge. We know this is a really good team in Stockton that kind of has it all. They have good goaltending, they have experience, they have skill, they have young prospects that are pretty elite, skill-wise. I think they’re a team that is similar to us. They like to play fast. There are some similarities, the way both teams play. I think they play with good structure.

“You can tell Mitch has done a good job there getting them to play on the same page.”

Each club and NHL organization also recognizes the opportunity that going deep into the Calder Cup Playoffs can mean for their young prospects. Earlier this week Love took in Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter’s season-ending press conference. One message in particular resonated with Love.

“I listened to Darryl just [for] his thoughts on his group up there. A lot of our guys can get something out of this where we’re at and how much this time of year is hard. It’s hard to win.”

It certainly is difficult to win a Calder Cup. Having been through the playoff grind in 2019, Warsofsky also is well aware of what his players will face from the Heat ― and how rare it can be to play hockey in June.

“It’s going to be a really good series,” Warsofsky said, “a good test for us, because I don’t know if we’ve seen a team like this.

“You’re not guaranteed a chance to do it again next year. You’re not guaranteed a chance to do it in five years. So, embrace the moment, embrace the experience.”