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Defense optional as Wolves battle through high-scoring games

No, the Wolves still haven’t clinched the division.

Courtesy of Chicago Wolves

I can’t say I’ve seen a team so apparently uninterested in clinching their division — even with as meaningless as it is this season. The Wolves had a chance to clinch last week, but three consecutive losses to Iowa and Grand Rapids have made the last games of the season actually mean something for Chicago.

As things stand, the Wolves’ magic number is four, in terms of clinching the division. The Cleveland Monsters are hot on the Wolves’ trail, with a points percentage of 0.635, in comparison to 0.683 for the Wolves. Each team has three games remaining: Cleveland finishes its season with three straight games against the Grand Rapids Griffins, while the Wolves have one against Grand Rapids before finishing with a home-and-home against the Rockford IceHogs.

In recent post-game comments, coach Ryan Warsofsky made it clear, without naming any names, that some players need to learn to play with more consistency and maturity. Warsofsky echoed a common refrain from coaches and personnel across the AHL: you never know who’s watching you play. Even if a game isn’t being played in search of a championship, players still can’t take shifts off.

Warsofsky cited veteran defenseman Dylan McIlrath of the Griffins, who has played in the AHL since the 2010-11 season, as an example of consistency. No matter the game or situation, McIlrath is the same player from shift to shift. Teammates and opponents know what to expect from him, and while he’s never been a player who provides significant offense, his predictability and energy that he brings to every game has helped keep him in this league for more than ten years.

This season has been a learning opportunity for the many young players on the Wolves, and hopefully they will take those lessons to heart in the final few games of the season.

Game 28: Wolves 4, Griffins 5

Two of the Wolves’ three games this past week were high-scoring affairs. This one, the Wolves happened to come out on the wrong side of all of the goals, largely thanks to Griffins forward Riley Barber.

The Wolves found themselves down 4-2 midway through the third period, where the Griffins started to dominate in terms of possession, eventually outshooting the wolves 13-9 in the frame. A win seemed to grow more unlikely as the period went on and the Griffins refused to give up control. But a well-timed power play goal from Dominik Bokk, his ninth of the season, gave the Wolves some energy. David Cotton scored his 10th of the season around 90 seconds later to tie the game at four.

The game seemed destined for overtime until the Griffins gained possession at the end of the period. With 12 seconds left, and an exhausted Wolves squad on the ice, Riley Barber placed a perfect shot on Beck Warm to stun the Wolves and win the game for Grand Rapids. Six of Barber’s 17 goals this season have come against Chicago.

Scoring: David Cotton, 1 G; Anthony Richard, 1 G; Dominik Bokk, 1 G; Phil Tomasino, 1 G; David Warsofsky, 3 A; Tommy Novak, 3 A; Marc Del Gazio, 1 A

In net: Beck Warm, saved 22 of 27, 0.815 Sv%

Game 29: Wolves 1, Griffins 3

In yet another frustrating effort, the Wolves could only muster one goal against the Griffins after scoring four the day before. In a crucial third period, down two goals, the Wolves had only five shots on goal and weren’t able to solve goaltender Pat Nagle.

This game prompted Warsofsky’s comments about players needing to take every game seriously and put forth their best efforts, as poor games now could easily impact a player down the road in his career, when it comes to negotiating new contracts or getting the attention of a scout.

Forward Ryan Suzuki returned to the lineup this weekend, playing in both games against Grand Rapids. While his absence wasn’t specified, Warsofsky noted that it was a learning experience for Suzuki to learn how to take care of his body like a professional and prepare for both games and practice. Warsofsky would still like to see Suzuki generate more offense, something which he’s shown flashes of throughout the season.

Scoring: Tommy Novak, 1 G; Anthony Richard, 1 A; Phil Tomasino, 1 A

In net: Antoine Bibeau, saved 26 of 29, 0.897 Sv%

Game 30: Wolves 6, IceHogs 5

In another high-scoring game, defense was clearly optional for both the Wolves and the Rockford IceHogs. With defenseman Joey Keane called up to the Carolina Hurricanes, and Brandon Hickey jumping up to forward from his normal spot on the blue line, the Wolves weren’t icing an optimal roster, but fortunately this time around were able to outscore their problems.

Warsofsky’s message after the previous game of playing with passion and purpose clearly resonated with the Wolves, as Phil Tomasino opened the scoring just 35 seconds in, with Jamieson Rees following just about 40 seconds later with his first of two of the game. The Wolves were flying, at one point outshooting the IceHogs 9-1 in the first period. They finished the period up 4-1 and looked to be en route to another lopsided victory.

And then, as many teams — particularly young teams — tend to do, the Wolves took their collective foot off the gas. Over the second and third periods, the IceHogs peppered Beck Warm with 22 shots and began to do a better job of protecting their own goalie.

Oh yeah, and Brandon Pirri happened, too. Pirri seemingly took over the game for the IceHogs and scored twice on the Wolves; seven of his eight goals this season have come against his old team.

The IceHogs made things interesting in the third, scoring three times and pushing the Wolves to a frantic finish. They managed to hang on to record their 19th win of the season and fourth over Rockford this year.

Scoring: Jamieson Rees, 2 G; David Cotton, 1 G; Tommy Novak, 1 G; Brandon Hickey, 1 G; Phil Tomasino, 1 G; Josh Healey, 2 A; Dominik Bokk, 2 A; Max Lajoie, 1 A; Marc Del Gazio, 1 A; Frederic Allard, 1 A; Luke Evangelista, 1 A; Zach Solow, 1 A

In net: Beck Warm, saved 23 of 28, 0.821 Sv%