For the third consecutive game, the Chicago Wolves scored four goals, but this time, all they really needed was Max Lajoie’s first period goal to bring the Calder Cup back home for the first time since 2008.
Winning three straight road games is a tough feat, particularly in a sold out arena against a team that steamrolled the rest of the Eastern Conference. But after their reality check in game one, the Wolves didn’t blink. They never trailed the rest of the way as they reeled off four wins. Players set new franchise records, brushed up against long-standing League statistics.
At the end of the night, the Chicago Wolves captured a championship by being the same team they’ve been all season long. Saying you’re hard to play against is so prevalent in hockey as to be a cliche that hockey fans and writers alike make fun of, but the Wolves formed their identity around being exactly that team. Physical but without being overly penalized. A blend of skill and — yes, I’ll say it — grit. Players like Jack Drury, who will beat you on the scoreboard, but also drop the gloves when the moment calls for it. Stefan Noesen, who has been the heartbeat of this Wolves team all season long, learning to control his enthusiasm, let’s call it, and play on the right side of the line. Players like Josh Leivo and Jalen Chatfield, bouncing back from rough 2020-21 campaigns where they spent more time on the COVID taxi squad than on the ice in games.
Springfield had no answer for the Wolves. They had trouble getting established in the offensive zone; when they did, they had to face down Wolves players who blocked shots, redirected them, pushed them to the side. Once again, the penalty kill was perfect, the ninth time in 18 games that the Wolves stifled their opponent on special teams. The penalty kill came in at 90.3% success against the Thunderbirds, who had the eighth best power play in the regular season. The power play converted on one of their two chances; they finished the series with a 45% conversion rate on the man advantage.
The players who have stepped up all season long came up huge for the Wolves in their win. Andrew Poturalski with a power play goal. The still-unheralded David Gust was the recipient of an excellent move from Drury, who deftly evaded a Springfield defender to set the play up. Drury’s 24 points in 18 games crushed the previous franchise record of 15 playoff points by a rookie, previously set by Zach Whitecloud in 2019.
And of course Leivo capped the night off with an empty net goal, his fifteenth tally of the playoffs. Leivo rightfully earned MVP honors for his excellent play in the post season. His 29 points in 18 games was the most in the past 14 playoff seasons in the AHL. His regular season tally of 46 points in 54 games was impressive but overshadowed by the outstanding seasons from Noesen and Poturalski. But Leivo has come up huge in big moments all season long — he had seven game winning goals in the regular season, plus two more in the playoffs — and it came as little surprise that he stepped up in the playoffs.
Everyone contributed to this win. Every single Wolves postseason regular recorded at least one point. (Kyle Marino and Griffin Mendel, with two and one games played respectively, did not get on the scoresheet.) The only regular player without a goal was defenseman Jesper Sellgren. Pyotr Kochetkov finished the playoffs with an absolutely ridiculous 1.65 goals against average and a save percentage of 0.950, putting him first among goalies who played more than two games. Lyon came in just behind him with 2.03 goals against average.
The victory has to feel sweet for Lyon, who once made 94 saves in a win in the longest game in AHL history, on a Lehigh Valley Phantoms team that missed the playoffs more often than not during his tenure there. Aside from Richard Panik, loaned to the Wolves at the trade deadline, Lyon was the elder statesman of this team, a player who still found things to learn from his Kochetkov, his younger counterpart.
Both Lyon and Kochetkov earned shutouts in this series, making the Wolves the first team in 22 years to record two shutouts in the Calder Cup Finals. In addition, in series-clinching games, the Wolves outscored opponents 16-2, shutting out both Stockton and Springfield.
And of course, everything ultimately has to come full circle to Ryan Warsofsky, who lifted the Calder Cup on Wolves territory in 2019 as an assistant with the Charlotte Checkers. He’s proven himself to be one of the brightest stars of the league — a staunch defender of his players, a coach who knows how to get the best of out everyone on his lineup, and someone who’s surely bound for the NHL sooner rather than later, much like some of the men he’s coached this year.
Congrats on getting another one, boys pic.twitter.com/XvGbSfLCvu— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) June 26, 2022
Calder Cup Finals, Game 5: Wolves 4, Thunderbirds 0
Scoring: Andrew Poturalski, 1 G, 1 A; David Gust, 1 G; Max Lajoie, 1 G; Josh Leivo, 1 G; Jack Drury, 2 A; Spencer Smallman, 1 A; Richard Panik, 1 A; CJ Smith, 1 A; Joey Keane, 1 A
In net: Alex Lyon, saved 28 of 28, 1.000 sv%