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On verge of sweeping Heat, Wolves lose two straight road games instead

The Chicago Wolves head home this week for another shot at closing out their series.

Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

The Chicago Wolves walked into Stockton riding high after two home wins. Game three in Stockton saw the league’s second-best team on the verge of elimination, something unthinkable for the Heat, who have shut down their fair share of high-powered teams all year long.

But as the cliche goes, hockey is a game of inches, and the Wolves whiffed on two straight chances to eliminate the Heat and advance to the Calder Cup Final.

In fairness to the Wolves, and as I can very much hear Ryan Warsofsky and company saying: Stockton’s a good team. They didn’t get here by accident. More cliches, but they’re well-trod sayings for a reason, after all.

With the exception of game three, every game in this series has been a one-goal game. We’ve got three overtime games, two last second critical goals, and, once the series moved to Stockton, more complaints about bad ice and bad officiating than you could ever possibly dream of.

So what’s gone wrong for the Wolves on the road?

Yes, the ice was bad in Stockton — a Jack Drury breakaway in overtime in game five tells the story as well as any other botched play. The puck skipped and jumped away from him before he could get a handle on it for a clean zone entry. But, at the end of the day, the ice was just as bad for Stockton, and they seemed to fare just fine. (For those wondering, having watched quite a bit of Stockton in the regular season, their ice has never been great but it’s certainly been worse during this playoff series than during any other game that I recall watching.)

The Wolves’ power play, which notably went three-for-three in game one of the series, also drastically slowed down once the series hit Stockton. Over the last three games, the Wolves went two for twelve on the advantage. The penalty kill was nearly perfect, allowing just one goal on 23 chances throughout the series — but the one goal allowed was the overtime gamewinner in game four.

And for as strong as the goaltending duo of Alex Lyon and Pyotr Kochetkov has been, both have struggled in this series. Again, the poor ice conditions and unfamiliar boards have played a part. But both goaltenders have misplayed pucks, turning them over behind their own net or mishandling breakout passes. Lyon in game five was an adventure in particular, with several miscues behind his own net that narrowly avoided ending up in the back of his own net.

The first three games of the series saw the Wolves take advantage of Stockton’s mistakes, easily getting in behind the Heat’s defense to pepper Dustin Wolf with shots. On their home turn, the Heat have turned the tables. Call it the home-ice advantage, the desire to extend their season — once Stockton’s eliminated, AHL hockey as we know it in Stockton will cease to exist, as the team is relocating to Calgary — or just see it as the better team winning. But the Heat have used their speed and opportunistic tendencies to pounce on loose pucks, slip past the Wolves’ defense, and score a few goals of their own.

Where just a few days ago, dreams of a sweep were foremost in Wolves’ fans minds, now, the series heads back to Chicago with one more chance to eliminate the Heat before a critical game seven. The Wolves looked far more comfortable at Allstate Arena, and when they take the ice on Tuesday night, they’ll look to get back to that confident style of play that’s made them so successful to date.

Western Conference Finals, Game 3: Wolves 3, Heat 0

Scoring: Richard Panik, 1 G, 1 A; Stefan Noesen, 1 G, 1 A; Ivan Lodnia, 1 G; Vasili Ponomarev, 1 A; Jack Drury, 1 A; Noel Gunler, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 23 of 23, 1.000 sv%

Western Conference Finals, Game 4: Wolves 3, Heat 4 (OT)

Scoring: Jack Drury, 1 G, 1 A; Andrew Poturalski, 1 G, 1 A; Josh Leivo, 1 G; Stefan Noesen, 2 A; Cavan Fitzgerald, 1 A; David Gust, 1 A

In net: Pyotr Kochetkov, saved 34 of 38, 0.895 sv%

Western Conference Finals, Game 5: Wolves 2, Heat 3 (OT)

Scoring: Richard Panik, 1 G; Andrew Poturalski, 1 A; Jalen Chatfield, 1 A; Josh Leivo, 1 A

In net: Pyotr Kochetkov, saved 32 of 35, 0.914 sv%