The Chicago Wolves’ regular season will soon be coming to an end, meaning that the real grind of the season has just begun. The Wolves look to cap off their impressive regular season with a Calder Cup, and as the team with the second best points percentage in the AHL, they have a good chance at doing so. We have followed the Wolves closely this season and today, we’re here to talk about some factors that will be the difference between a Calder Cup or a playoff exit for the Hurricanes’ affiliate.
Matt: Chicago’s goaltending has been a major factor in the team’s success this season, but it’s more important heading into the playoffs. With Eetu Makiniemi out for the season, Alex Lyon out until the first round of the playoffs and Pyotr Kochetkov currently with the Hurricanes, the responsibility falls on Jack LaFontaine and Dylan Wells. Wells looked solid in two starts with the Wolves, and LaFontaine had a strong start this past weekend, but both goalies are a clear step or two below Lyon and Kochetkov. It’s going to be important for those players to be at their best while we wait for Lyon and Frederik Andersen to get healthy.
Sarah: As the Hurricanes goaltending situation goes, so does the Wolves, as evidenced by the early start to Pyotr Kochetkov’s NHL career. How far the Wolves go in the playoffs is going to depend a lot on who’s in net. The team hopes Alex Lyon will be ready to go for the first round, but if he isn’t, and if Kochetkov is still in the NHL, then it’s the Jack LaFontaine/Dylan Wells show, which has had mixed results at the close of the regular season.
Sarah: Fans had big hopes for Suzuki this season, but he’s been repeatedly sidelined by injury and hasn’t had the most productive season on offense. He has taken big strides defensively, though, playing important minutes on special teams for the Wolves. His playmaking ability and nose for the net has been showing more as the season has gone on, and Ryan Warsofsky is confident that Suzuki’s offense will come eventually. Getting going in the playoffs would be a great time for the pucks to start going in for him.
Matt: I’ve been fine with Suzuki this season. The offense will start to come, but the defensive play is encouraging. Rod Brind’Amour has historically been less trusting of players if their defensive game is weak, so shoring up that aspect of his game will be beneficial. Suzuki will have to find a way to create offense with less time to make decisions now, though. It’s going to take some time, but I think Suzuki should be able to elevate in the playoffs.
Matt: One of Chicago’s unsung heroes this season has been Spencer Smallman. He’s great in his own end, a pain on the forecheck and a strong presence in all three zones. Smallman has given the team a ton of energy over the course of the season and will be relied upon heavily come playoff time. Smallman’s play in the offensive zone has steadily improved over the course of the season and his play on the penalty kill has been outstanding. It’s great to see that Smallman is doing well, especially after the tough luck he had with injuries to start his pro career.
Sarah: Speaking of heating up at the right time, Spencer Smallman has been finding the back of the net recently, with eight points in his last ten games, including five goals. He’s been given a key role on the Wolves penalty kill and with three shorthanded goals this season, he’s shown a knack for causing disruptions and heading down ice to create chances for himself.
Sarah: Leivo has been a source of timely scoring for the Wolves this year. Buzzer beaters, overtime winners, and big goals when you find yourself in need — you name it, he’s been behind it. He’s been streaky, like most players, but has a habit of stepping up in big moments for the team. His nose for the net in all situations will be a big factor in getting scoring from players not named Stefan Noesen.
Sarah: The Wolves made some moves at the deadline, bringing on Richard Panik, Chris Bigras, and Tarmo Reunanen to help fill out their roster. Bigras and Reunanen have rotated in and out of the lineup, while Panik has become a fixture on the power play. Getting contributions from those new faces will be crucial, particularly if the Hurricanes make any playoff callups and find themselves with holes to fill.
Matt: I’m going to build off of what Sarah said and include Vasiliy Ponomarev and Noel Gunler here. Ponomaryov has been a fantastic addition for the Wolves, with ten points in his first ten AHL games. He’s a very similar player to Jack Drury. Both are strong two way forwards that play hard along the boards. Ponomaryov’s vision and playmaking have been on full display and I’m excited to see how he plays in the playoffs. Gunler has been improving steadily over his time in the AHL as well. He has five points in nine games and is starting to find the net. Both players are going to be crucial since depth scoring is needed even more in the playoffs.
Matt: Lastly, the Wolves will need to stay healthy. That sounds obvious, but they’ve struggled with injuries all season long and won’t have nearly as much time to recover in the playoffs. Getting Alex Lyon back will be huge, but if one or two Wolves go down with injury, that depth scoring I talked about will be even more important. Chicago has been resilient all season long and now has plenty of depth, but it’s still something to keep an eye on moving forward.