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Chicago Wolves closing in on clinching top seed in AHL’s Central Division

Plus: Hurricanes prospect Noel Gunler recorded his first AHL goal.

Noel Gunler of the Chicago Wolves
Noel Gunler
Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

Game 65: Wolves 4, Stars 2

With many European and NCAA teams finding their seasons coming to a close, an influx of young players find themselves playing in the AHL for the first time, helping to bolster an already talented roster. In this daytime game, forwards Noel Gunler and Vasily Ponomarev made their AHL debuts. Gunler’s run with Brynas in the SHL ended after three playoff games; Ponomarev bounced between three different leagues in Russia before finding his season in the KHL over. With this game, the Wolves have now officially used 47 different players, a new franchise record.

Both players excelled in their debut, with Ponomarev recording his first AHL point on the Wolves’ opening goal. Gunler was more noticeable as the game went on, helping to create chances for his teammates.

The Wolves found themselves surrendering a goal just 14 seconds into the game, allowed just 18 shots on goal, an unfortunately frequent occurrence as of late. This time, the puck bounced in off of Pyotr Kochetkov’s back. The goaltender recovered easily from the mishap, though, and though he didn’t face many shots — just 18 over the course of the game — he held steady when needed.

Gust’s opening goal came courtesy Ponomarev and Jamieson Rees, with Ponomarev carrying the puck through the neutral zone before passing to Rees, and then advancing to cover the front of the net. Rees’ rebound came out to Ponomarev, who passed to Gust, allowing the veteran of the line to shoot into a mostly empty net.

CJ Smith scored twice — once off of a redirect and once into an empty net with less than a minute left. Stefan Noesen’s goal stood as the game winner, a tipped puck from a Jesper Sellgren shot.

The Wolves’ win clinched a first round bye in the playoffs, guaranteeing that they’ll finish no lower than third in the Central Division. (In the league’s expanded playoff format this season, the top three teams in the Central skip the best-of-three first round; the fourth and fifth seeds face off with the winner taking on the top seed.)

Scoring: CJ Smith, 2 G; Stefan Noesen, 1 G, 1 A; David Gust, 1 G; Jesper Sellgren, 1 A; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A; Jamieson Rees, 1 A; Jack Drury, 1 A; Spencer Smallman, 1 A; Griffin Mendel, 1 A; Max Lajoie, 1 A

In net: Pyotr Kochetkov, saved 16 of 18, 0.889 sv%

Game 66: Wolves 2, Moose 1 (OT)

The Manitoba Moose are one of the few teams who have given the Wolves troubles this year. Four of their eight games have needed extra time, with three ending in overtime and one needing a shootout.

Their most recent matchup wasn’t exactly a thrilling affair, with the Wolves’ 16 total shots standing as a new season low for them. Despite limited action, both goaltenders were perfect through two periods, and it took a shorthanded opportunity for the Wolves for them to finally break through.

Smallman collected a puck along the boards when a Moose player lost an edge. He, Ponomarev, and Jalen Chatfield came down the ice on a 3-on-1, cycling the puck between the three of them before it ended up back on Smallman’s stick for a tip in. This was Smallman’s first goal since March 9 against Grand Rapids.

From there, it looked like the Wolves were trying to hang on to win a 1-0 game. The Moose had other ideas, however, as a long shot from defenseman Leon Gawanke clanked in off the crossbar and behind Kochetkov to tie the game with 2:38 left in regulation.

In overtime, the Wolves controlled the puck from the very beginning. Andrew Poturalski took advantage of a bad change by the Moose, leading all three Wolves into the offensive zone. Defenseman Jesper Sellgren skated down the middle and unleashed a perfect shot to win the game for the Wolves, just 46 seconds into overtime.

While this game didn’t feature the most exciting moments on offense, the Wolves’ six penalties did provide for ample time to watch how some of the Hurricanes’ top prospects have stepped up defensively. Ryan Suzuki has been playing a larger role on the penalty kill and made several smart moves, at one point stripping an opposing player of the puck in the neutral zone to clear the puck.

When asked about Suzuki, Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky spoke about the young forward’s usage on the penalty kill this season. “I think you can gain confidence in different ways. Sometimes it’s not going to be on the score sheet,” Warsofsky said. “[Suzuki] was really good on our PK tonight. I thought he can add it to his repertoire [...] Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction, and the 5-on-5 points and the power play points will come.”

In counterpoint to Suzuki’s calm play, Jamieson Rees has a sort of frenetic energy pretty much all of the time. He’s the kind of player who usually gets described as having a motor that doesn’t quit, and that’s evident on the penalty kill, where he frequently harasses opposing players across the ice. Watching him on the penalty kill, you could easily see how he would be able to create shorthanded opportunities for his team.

Warsofsky also praised Kochetkov’s strong performance in the game, as well: “This was probably top one or two, right here. He was sharp, made some big saves in the first. Could have been easily 2-0 in the first. You need a good goalie this time of year and he’s been everything that has come advertised.”

Scoring: Spencer Smallman, 1 G; Jesper Sellgren, 1 G; Andrew Poturalski, 1 A; Stefan Noesen, 1 A; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A; Jalen Chatfield, 1 A

In net: Pyotr Kochetkov, saved 27 of 28, 0.964 sv%

Game 67: Wolves 5, Monsters 2

A second period explosion of goals ensured a Wolves win against the Monsters, giving them the season sweep over the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate. With this win, the Wolves’ magic number to clinch the Central Division title is down to three.

Spencer Smallman opened scoring in the first period, recording points in his third consecutive game. Smallman teamed up with Suzuki just three minutes into the game as the pair came into the zone. Smallman’s shot went over the stick of a Monsters defender and under the crossbar for his seventh goal of the season.

While shots were 11-10 in favor of Chicago in the first period, the Monsters were quiet for most of the period. Most of their shots were amassed in a two minute span shortly after Smallman’s goal. However, Wolves goaltender Alex Lyon had to make two big saves in the final minute of play to keep the Monsters off the board.

Now, you’ll be forgiven if you missed some goals in the second period, given that the Wolves scored three times in just around five minutes of play. Stefan Noesen got the second period started quickly, scoring just 51 seconds in. He got his stick on a rebound from an Andrew Poturalski shot, recording his league-leading 40th goal of the season.

Two minutes later, it was Jalen Chatfield’s turn, unleashing his shot as he came down the middle of the ice. Slightly more than two minutes after that, a fantastic individual effort from Andrew Poturalski gave the Wolves a 4-0 lead. Poturalski came down along the boards, took the puck behind the Monsters’ net, and tucked it in on the wrap-around.

The Wolves got a bit sloppy after that, allowing two straight goals from the Monsters, but turned things around midway through the second. A harmless looking play unfolded to give Noel Gunler his first AHL goal. The goal was initially awarded to David Gust, but on review, it was determined that the puck didn’t touch his stick. Ponomarev picked up an assist, giving him three points in three career AHL games.

After all of the excitement of the second period, the third felt like a slog. While Chicago held the edge in shots 12-7 in the period, none of them felt truly dangerous. The Monsters, who replaced their goaltender with newcomer Linden Marshall in his AHL debut, worked hard to protect their goalie from high danger shots, but the damage had already been done the previous period.

After the game, Gunler broke down the play that unfolded for his first AHL goal: “I see the puck on the boards and try to go, I see a guy comes behind me and I try to shake him off. Then I get a little bit of space and then I try to take it to the net and luckily it went in.”

Like many young players adjusting to the AHL, Gunler noted some differences between here and the SHL, namely commenting on the increased speed of the game. “It’s a little bit quicker, more around the board, so that probably [is] some adjustment I need to do, but feels like it’s getting better and better for every game so far.” He describes his game as focused on offense: “I try to be [an] offensive forward who likes to shoot the puck and score goals. Try to be a dangerous player out there.”

Warsofsky has been impressed with the contributions of the new players in the lineup. Gunler “looked a little bit more confident today,” he said, which was good to note, as the forward got somewhat limited usage the day before against Manitoba. “Ponomarev is a smart player without the puck, and those are usually the challenges you have.”

Defenseman Griffin Mendel, who signed an ATO with the team after finishing his college career with Quinnipiac, also garnered praise. “Mendel’s been really impressive. Just almost like a third, fourth year pro the way he plays.”

Noesen, en route to capturing the AHL’s goal scoring title this season, becomes the first player to reach the 40 goal mark since Colin McDonald in 2010-11. He scored 42 with the Oklahoma City Barons. Noesen is also the first Wolves player to hit 40 since Brett Sterling and Darren Haydar both did it in the 2006-07 season. Noesen is the sixth player in franchise history to score at least 40 goals; in addition to Sterling and Haydar, Noesen joins Steve Maltais, Rob Brown, and Chris Marinucci in the franchise record books.

Warsofsky described Noesen as the team’s “engine” after the game. “He plays hard, he’s a heavy forward, he’s hard to defend, he can tip pucks like the best of them. He’s got a knack for scoring goals, he could probably even have more than 40. He was a little snakebitten early in the season but he gets hot and he’s just hard to defend. He’s a hard matchup for teams.”

Scoring: Spencer Smallman, 1 G, 1 A; Andrew Poturalski, 1 G, 1 A; Stefan Noesen, 1 G; Noel Gunler, 1 G; Jalen Chatfield, 1 G; Ryan Suzuki, 1 A; Richard Panik, 1 A; Griffin Mendel, 1 A; Ivan Lodnia, 1 A; Jamieson Rees, 1 A; Jesper Sellgren, 1 A; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 23 of 25, 0.920 sv%