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Wolves sweep Rockford, advance to Central Division Finals

They’ll take on the Milwaukee Admirals in the next round.

Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

Central Division Semifinals, Game 1: Wolves 6, IceHogs 2

The Chicago Wolves won only four of their 12 regular season meetings with the Rockford IceHogs, and saw four games need a shootout to be decided, setting a stage for the Central Division powerhouse to meet up with a scrappy underdog who gave them unexpected troubles this season.

In game one, however, the Wolves set the tone for the series and never looked back. Rockford scored the first goal at 6:16 in the first period, despite being outshot 9-1 up to that point. Lukas Reichel, a main driver of any offense for the IceHogs, picked off a Wolves pass in the neutral zone and scored on a breakaway.

Despite the early goal against, the Wolves kept up the pressure, overall outshooting the IceHogs 18-6 in the first. A pair of goals in the final minute of the period gave the Wolves the lead. First, defenseman Cavan Fitzgerald scored on a one-timer. About 45 seconds later, Andrew Poturalski and Stefan Noesen teamed up for their first points of the playoffs. Poturalski found Noesen, who had been left alone at the goal line. Noesen did what he’s done all season long and put the puck in the net to give the Wolves the lead.

The Wolves’ domination continued into the second period, where the Wolves scored three more times over a 10-minute span of time. Jamieson Rees continued to show his on-ice awareness by intercepting a Rockford clearing attempt. He found Stelio Mattheos, who scored to give the Wolves a 3-1 lead.

Jack Drury recorded his first AHL playoff goal on the power play after redirecting a shot from Joey Keane. And David Gust pushed the score to 5-1 when he escaped from the penalty box and got free on a breakaway thanks to a smart play from CJ Smith. IceHogs goalie Arvid Soderblom knocked away Gust’s first shot, but Gust showed off some stellar hand-eye coordination by batting in the rebound mid-air.

Stefan Noesen capped off scoring for the Wolves just 36 seconds into the third period. He showed off his strength and determination by scoring essentially from his knees. He had dropped down to wrestle a puck away from an IceHogs defenseman; after gaining control of the puck, Noesen managed to slide it in past Soderblom.

Scoring: Stefan Noesen, 2 G, 1 A; David Gust, 1 G, 1 A; Stelio Mattheos, 1 G; Jack Drury, 1 G; Cavan Fitzgerald, 1 G; Andrew Poturalski, 2 A; Joey Keane, 2 A; CJ Smith, 1 A; Josh Leivo, 1 A; Jamieson Rees, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 18 of 20, 0.900 sv%

Central Division Semifinals, Game 2: Wolves 4, IceHogs 1

If a six-goal opening game wasn’t dominant enough, how about a period in which the opponent only got one shot on goal? That was the story of the first period of game two, where the Wolves allowed only one shot, which came from IceHogs forward Andrei Altybarmakian, 14:01 into the period. The single shot against set a new franchise record for fewest shots against in a playoff game.

Despite the 20-1 shot advantage, the Wolves came out of the first period with only a 2-0 lead, thanks to an outstanding performance by Arvid Soderblom. Both Wolves first period goals came in a two-minute span towards the end of the period.

First, Josh Leivo picked up a puck after Jack Drury won a faceoff; Leivo’s first shot was stopped, but his second went in. The Wolves’ second goal came off of an excellent passing play from Andrew Poturalski and Josh Jacobs. Jacobs sent a backhand pass to CJ Smith, who scored on the one-timer for his first goal of the playoffs.

Rockford came out much stronger in the second period. They also spent significant time on the power play, as the Wolves took four penalties in that frame (plus one set of matching penalties for both teams). In their first two power plays, the IceHogs recorded one shot on each advantage.

Despite the ice tilting slightly towards the visitors, the Wolves took advantage of another faceoff win from Jack Drury. Forward Max Lajoie picked up the loose puck this time and scored to give the Wolves a 3-0 lead.

Chicago’s penalty kill finally surrendered their first goal of the playoffs towards the end of the period. Goalie Arvid Soderblom set up the play, passing the puck up to Alec Regula, who made an end-to-end play, evading Max Lajoie en route, and going one-on-one with Alex Lyon.

The Wolves shut down absolutely all attempted offense from Rockford in the third period, as the IceHogs recorded just five shots on goal in comparison to 18 from the Wolves. The team capped off their strong performance with a late goal from Vasili Ponomarev. Soderblom made an initial stop on a puck, which popped up over his pad, trickled through the crease, and stayed out. The Wolves stayed on the play though, with Ponomarev making a pass from along the goal line that was intended for Jamieson Rees. It never got to its destination, however, as it bounced off of an IceHogs skate and got past Soderblom.

The Wolves walked away with the win after a dominant performance. With the team on the brink of sweeping the IceHogs and advancing to the next round, team captain Andrew Poturalski talked about the team’s focus, especially facing a team that had given them trouble in the regular season: “We had a great almost two weeks off there and we just focused on ourselves. We didn’t try to get caught up too much in what they were doing or any outside noise. We just focused on us.”

As someone who has gone the distance previously, winning the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers, Poturalski is familiar with the type of leadership it takes to get a team through the playoffs. “We’ve been through it, so we could help these younger guys out,” he said. “But they’ve done a great job here. These first two games, no one’s looked out of place at all, everybody’s ready. Those are two solid team wins and we just got to keep going and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Ryan Warsofsky talked about the difference between the team’s regular season performance and playoff performance against the IceHogs: “I think we’re just a little bit more determined. The regular season is a regular season, the playoffs are the playoffs. It’s intense. It’s a lot to play for and our guys showed up both nights. Our starts are crucial, and I think it’ll be crucial again tomorrow.”

He was also pleased with the contributions from players deeper in the lineup like Ponomarev and Rees. “I know they’re playing limited minutes there so anytime you can chip in offensively, it’s a bonus. Smallman’s been unbelievable all year, solidifies our third line there with Panik and Gunler. [...] Every guy is being really selfless and understanding what’s at stake.”

Scoring: Max Lajoie, 1 G; CJ Smith, 1 G; Josh Leivo, 1 G; Vasili Ponomarev, 1 G; Jack Drury, 2 A; Andrew Poturalski, 1 A; Josh Jacobs, 1 A; Stelio Mattheos, 1 A; Joey Keane, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 15 of 16, 0.938 sv%

Central Division Semifinals, Game 3: Wolves 4, IceHogs 1

Game three saw a very determined Rockford team right out of the gate. They were physical and spent more time with the puck, though it didn’t necessarily translate to success. The IceHogs had two shots in just over the first two minutes of play, but then didn’t record another shot until the halfway mark of the first period. All three periods saw a good number of penalties called, with several instances of matching minors given the physicality on both sides.

Despite the early attempts at a push from Rockford, however, the Wolves scored first. Forward Ivan Lodnia, back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the first two games, picked up a pass from Spencer Smallman and flipped a backhand shot in past Arvid Soderblom.

The Wolves’ penalty kill excelled in the first period. The Wolves took three straight penalties at the end of the first period, but the IceHogs recorded just two shots on goal.

Rockford had a very strong second period, outshooting the Wolves 14-9 and generally displaying the kind of physicality and drive for the puck that led them to success in the regular season. Alex Lyon was outstanding, however, stopping all of the shots that he faced in the period.

The Wolves capitalized towards the end of the second period to make the score 2-0 thanks to CJ Smith. The veteran forward exchanged the puck with Richard Panik, ultimately getting it back to score his second goal of the playoffs.

The IceHogs still perhaps had hope heading into the third period, but Jack Drury scored just 1:12 into the third period on the power play, giving Rockford an even tougher road to climb to tie the game. Drury’s goal was a redirect of a Joey Keane shot and was his second goal of the playoffs.

While the IceHogs picked up a goal mid-way through the third period, the outcome of this game was never really in doubt. Andrew Poturalski added a fourth goal with just around four minutes left, putting the game out of reach. Goaltender Alex Lyon stood tall through a last minute flurry of shots to preserve the Wolves lead.

Ryan Warsofsky was complimentary of Lyon’s performance, especially given all of the goaltenders the Wolves have cycled through this year: “He was outstanding tonight. You could tell he was locked in early. He made some big saves, including a breakaway on [Lukas] Reichel. You can just tell he’s a pro. He’s got a plan of how he wants to attack it and he executes it. Big, big kudos to him.”

The Wolves managing to overcome the adversity of so many penalty kills was also something Warsofsky touched on. “We talked about, we’re going to be in situations through this adventure that we’re on and that things aren’t going to go our way. Emotions are going to run high, we’re gonna have some penalty kills in a row, it’s just gonna happen,” he said. “I remember back when coaching in Charlotte, when we were on that run, we I think had 11 PKs in Toronto. So, we’re gonna go through situations in a game that you have to stick together and I thought the guys have done a great job of that.”

The Wolves will face their other regional nemesis, the Milwaukee Admirals, in the Central Division Finals. That series kicks off on Saturday at home. Look for a series preview later this week as the Wolves prepare to take on some familiar faces.

Scoring: Andrew Poturalski, 1 G, 1 A; CJ Smith, 1 G; Jack Drury, 1 G; Ivan Lodnia, 1 G; Richard Panik, 2 A; Josh Leivo, 1 A; Joey Keane, 1 A; Spencer Smallman, 1 A; Stefan Noesen, 1 A; David Gust, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 29 of 30, 0.967 sv%