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Chicago Wolves advance to Western Conference Finals

A Josh Leivo hat trick helped power the Wolves to a road win.

Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Admirals

Central Division Finals, Game 3: Wolves 2, Admirals 4

While the first two games of this series were blowouts on the scoreboard, Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky said afterwards that the action on the ice was much closer than you’d think. The Wolves simply capitalized on mistakes more and were able to take advantage of a less-than-stellar performance from Admirals goaltender Connor Ingram in net.

Game three showed exactly how right Warsofsky was, as the Milwaukee Admirals played a tight, confident game from puck drop, putting forward their best performance of the series. They turned to Devin Cooley in net, who had replaced Ingram in both games one and two. Cooley was phenomenal for the team, keeping the Wolves off the scoreboard in the crucial first period, particularly during an early Admirals penalty which saw the Wolves get four quick shots on goal. Cooley ultimately faced 49 shots from the Wolves, a high mark for him this year, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.

Rather than getting frustrated and resorting to physicality and post-whistle scrums, the Admirals made the most of their limited chances against Alex Lyon en route to their first victory of the series. Special teams were the difference for the Wolves in this game. The Wolves’ penalty kill struggled, allowing three goals against, while the power play failed to convert on six chances.

Rocco Grimaldi opened scoring for Milwaukee in the second period on a power play, thanks to a fantastic setup from former Wolf Cody Glass.

Things didn’t get any better for the Wolves from there as they surrendered a second power play goal to the Admirals at the end of the second period. The Admirals’ passing on their power play opportunities was excellent in this game as they easily opened up shooting lanes rather than having to rely on rebounds or second chances. The Wolves meanwhile put 21 shots on Cooley in the second period without success.

While Jack Drury got the Wolves on the board just nine seconds into the third period, two quick goals for the Admirals put the game out of reach for the Wolves. A Josh Leivo goal pulled the team within two, but the Wolves soon found themselves having to kill off a late penalty. While they were able to kill it off, it disrupted any last-minute momentum they could have had.

Warsofsky was succinct when asked what his team needed to improve on for the next game: “Score more goals.” From his perspective, big changes weren’t needed for game four. “I think we outchanced them [...] but we’ll look at the video. At the end of the day, it’s black or white. You either win the game or you lose the game. We lost. So, we’ve got to move on. I think this group is gonna be able to respond. I think we have the right guys in there that are committed to it and want to keep going here.”

Scoring: Josh Leivo, 1 G, 1 A; Jack Drury, 1 G; David Gust, 1 A; Jesper Sellgren, 1 A; CJ Smith, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 21 of 25, 0.840 sv%

Central Division Finals, Game 4: Wolves 5, Admirals 1

The Admirals stuck with Devin Cooley in net for game four, hoping to hold off elimination with another outstanding performance from the netminder. That wasn’t to be, however, as the Wolves played a fairly relentless game from the start. While Milwaukee played the same time of composed game that they did in game three, the Wolves jumped out to an early lead. They outshot Milwaukee 15-6 in the first period and took the lead with three goals.

Max Lajoie opened up scoring, receiving the puck after stepping out of the penalty box for a high-sticking infraction early in the first period.

Josh Leivo and Josh Jacobs also scored in the first period to cap off scoring for the Wolves. Leivo’s was a perfectly placed shot on the power play, and Jacobs used his heavy shot from the blue line to send a rising puck in past Cooley.

Just 1:01 into the second period, Leivo scored again, collecting a rebound and finding a shooting lane. While the Admirals got on the board with a power play of their own slightly over a minute later, the Wolves minimized their subsequent chances in the period. Milwaukee was limited to just five shots in the second.

With a three goal lead, the Wolves locked the action down in the third period. As time ticked down, they were largely content to dump the puck out of their zone in order to make Milwaukee chase and regroup. Josh Leivo recorded an empty net goal with just around three minutes remaining, recording his second career professional hat trick (and first in the playoffs).

Asked about the team’s performance, Leivo cited the early goals as setting the tone for the Wolves: “We capitalized on a couple early, which got us motivated and moving in the game. We knew we weren’t gonna let this one get away again and go back home. I think we faced a lot of adversity this year and whenever we do, we seem to respond really well.”

Warsofsky got exactly the response he wanted to see from his team, who have excelled at bouncing back from tough losses. “Doesn’t surprise me with this group,” he said. “We’ve responded all year long to losses, backs against the wall, situations throughout the season, adversity. And these guys have responded. They’re a good group of guys that play for each other. And when you do that, special things can happen. I know we’re not done, but we’ve responded all year. So credit to the players.”

With the break in time before the Western Conference Finals, the Wolves hope to get Joey Keane back. The defenseman left the game in the first period after a collision left him hunched over on the ice and did not return to play as a precaution. He’d had a strong game, making several smart defensive plays to disrupt Admirals scoring chances. Warsofsky had no updates immediately after the game on Keane’s status.

The Wolves outscored the Admirals 21-9 over four games, marking a franchise best for a best-of-five series.

Scoring: Josh Leivo, 3 G; Max Lajoie, 1 G; Josh Jacobs, 1 G; Stefan Noesen, 2 A; Joey Keane, 1 A; Spencer Smallman, 1 A; Cavan Fitzgerald, 1 A; Jesper Sellgren, 1 A; Vasili Ponomarev, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 17 of 18, 0.944 sv%

The Wolves take on the Pacific Division’s Stockton Heat in the Western Conference Finals, scheduled to begin on Friday. The two teams did not meet in the regular season, so this will be new territory for both organizations. For readers with questions about the Heat, feel free to leave them in the comments — you’ll get them answered in a series preview later this week.