Wolves holding two aces in net

Photos: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Like a lot of the American Hockey League’s circle of experienced goaltenders, Alex Lyon understands his mandate.

Provide stability in net for the Chicago Wolves. Be a reliable recall option for the Carolina Hurricanes. Mentor and push the up-and-coming prospect, someone like Pyotr Kochetkov, the goaltender who eventually may take on some of your playing time.

Experience can guide youth. But that youth also has a few lessons to teach the veteran goaltending hand, and that has happened this season with the Wolves.

In his first season as a member of the Hurricanes organization, the 29-year-old Lyon has ticked each of those boxes. He can continue to do so as the Calder Cup Finals continue with three games in Springfield, beginning with tonight’s Game 3 (7 ET/6 CT, AHLTV).

In Carolina, Lyon handled taxi-squad duty during a portion of the COVID-19 surge at midseason. But netminder Antti Raanta had just exited the Carolina lineup with an upper-body injury before a Jan. 8 game with the Florida Panthers. Eetu Makiniemi was injured in Chicago. Kochetkov was still playing in Russia, and Jack LaFontaine was still unsigned and playing at the University of Minnesota.

Carolina needed a starter to spell Frederik Andersen, who had played the night before, and Lyon was it. He stepped in, stopped 32 Florida shots, and was named the game’s third star in a 4-3 overtime loss in Raleigh.

Signing with the Hurricanes last July provided the boost that his career needed following five seasons in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, Lyon says. He still, after all, has his own NHL goals.

“It’s been huge for me,” Lyon said. “Obviously everybody wants to make $10 million, be the best goalie or best player they can be, whatever. But I needed a fresh start. Carolina is a great spot. I can’t thank the organization enough. They’ve been great to me so far.”

Back with the Wolves, Lyon has been a dependable season-long presence. In a regular season when eight different goaltenders saw game action for Chicago, Lyon led the team with 30 appearances, 18 victories and three shutouts, and finished second in the entire league with a 2.16 goals-against average. He earned the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award as the Wolves finished with a league-low 2.55 goals allowed per game.

With Kochetkov on recall to Carolina for the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lyon handled the entire workload for the Wolves’ Calder Cup series against Rockford and Milwaukee. But since the start of the Western Conference Finals, head coach Ryan Warsofsky has alternated between his two netminders, who have a combined .922 postseason save percentage.

Lastly, there is the mentorship component of Lyon’s job description. At different points, Lyon has been part of a group with Kochetkov, LaFontaine, Makiniemi, and Dylan Wells, each of them being young goaltenders who have shown promise at different points.

Kochetkov, who turns 23 on Saturday, is a 2019 second-round pick by the Hurricanes who could be that club’s future number-one goaltender. After arriving from the KHL in February, Kochetkov went 13-1-1 in 15 regular-season games for the Wolves, posting a 2.09 GAA and .921 save percentage while also being named AHL Rookie of the Month in March. Kochetkov has done more of the same in the Calder Cup Playoffs, going 3-1 (1.96, .936) in his four starts, including his first North American shutout.

Despite the short time together, a language barrier, and the inherent competition for playing time between each other, Lyon and Kochetkov have forged a quick relationship with Chicago. Both goaltenders have some visible fire in their on-ice personalities, for one.

“I like it,” Lyon said. “I like having Pyotr around. I get excited when I am around goalies that are highly detailed, highly successful. It just forces me to be better. I really welcome his presence.

“He’s a great teaching point for me, to be perfectly honest. He’s an exceptional goalie and has a very bright future, and so I just feel like I can learn a lot from him, and I hope that’s a two-way street.

“Hopefully we can elevate each other as a goalie tandem. Really all you can ask at the end of the day is that both goalies have a good relationship and that they elevate each other. I think that we do that. It’s nice to have that kind of person in the locker room.”

But a further discussion of goaltending is where Lyon can really open up, become animated, and provide a further look into the mindset that the position demands at this level.

“This is kind of a lot,” Lyon expanded, “but everybody has their own style, their own way to stop the puck in their own specific skill set. Goalie, to me, isn’t necessarily a carbon copy ― ‘I have to do this’ ― if that makes sense. [Kochetkov] does things in a certain specific way that you don’t see a lot of 22-year-old goalies do.

“For me, seeing NHL goalies, and seeing them in person, is like striking gold. Because it gives me the clarity of what I need to work on and what level I need to be at on a daily basis in order to make it to the next level. So when I see Pyotr, it’s just like, ‘This guy has an extremely bright future in the NHL. He’s a very good goalie.’ And it gives me clarity.”

As a sixth-year pro, Lyon has been around his share of high-caliber goaltenders.

“That’s one thing that I’ve found that’s consistent among very good NHL and AHL goalies ― their ability to stay calm under pressure. Their ability to be focused on a daily basis, the detail that they put in their game, the habits away from the rink… Those are the things that make goalies and players very successful.

“Pyotr does all of those things in spades.”