The first two rounds of the playoffs featured familiar adversaries for the Chicago Wolves. All combined, they played the Rockford IceHogs and Milwaukee Admirals a total of 26 times — 34% of their games — in the regular season.
The Stockton Heat are a different story entirely. The Wolves and Heat did not meet in the regular season and, in fact, shared no common opponents at all this year. While the Wolves cruised to the top of the Central Division, the Heat were busy dominating the Pacific, and in fact only relinquished their hold on the top spot in the league in their final game of the regular season, where a loss to the Bakersfield Condors caused the Heat to slip just below the Wolves in terms of points percentage.
Not to discount the talent of the IceHogs or Admirals, but this series will pose a challenge for the Wolves. Previously in the playoffs, the Heat easily dispatched the Colorado Eagles, who in turn had previously swept the Ontario Reign, one of the top teams in the league. Heat goaltender Dustin Wolf took home honors as the AHL’s best goaltender, ending the regular season with a .924 save percentage and 2.35 goals against. He already has three shutouts to his name in the playoffs, including all three wins in the series against the Eagles.
The Heat also have a ton of speed, which should be concerning for the Wolves. As a team, the Wolves have the tendency to allow a large number of breakaways or odd-man rushes down the ice. Alex Lyon is generally up to the challenge, and Pyotr Kochetkov, if called into action, has generally fared well on those plays, too. But forcing your goaltender to stop wave after wave of breakaways when players get in behind your defense isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
The Wolves are likely to continue to rely on Lyon, despite Kochetkov being returned to the AHL after the Hurricanes were eliminated. Lyon has a 1.87 goals against average and .926 save percentage and has the complete confidence of the team and coaching staff. However, with back-to-back games being the norm in the league — games four and five, and six and seven, are both back-to-backs — having Kochetkov back could give the Wolves the flexibility to rest Lyon if needed. And, of course, if Lyon struggles at all, knowing Kochetkov is there to step in certainly inspires confidence.
Special teams will also need to be an area of focus for the Wolves. Their normally strong penalty kill struggled against the Admirals, and while the Heat have — pun not intended — cooled off some in the playoffs, they did have the best penalty kill in the league in the regular season. Even strength scoring may come at a premium in this series but the Wolves are going to need to ensure that they’re getting on the board in five-on-five play, because they may not be able to count on their power play getting things done.
|Regular Season Record||50-16-5-5||45-16-5-2|
|Head to Head Record||N/A||N/A|
|Power Play % (Rank)||19.6% (T-12th)||19.6% (T-12th)|
|Penalty Kill % (Rank)||83.2% (5th)||86.6% (1st)|
|Power Play % (Rank)||25.0% (6th)||16.7% (T-13th)|
|Penalty Kill % (Rank)||77.4% (15th)||80.0% (12th)|
|Team Leaders (Playoffs)|
|Goals||Josh Leivo (6)||Justin Kirkland (5)|
|Assists||Josh Leivo (7)||Matthew Phillips (4)|
|Points||Josh Leivo (13)||Justin Kirkland, Matthew Phillips (7)|
|Shots||Josh Leivo (33)||Matthew Phillips (22)|
|PIM||Josh Leivo, Stelio Mattheos (10)||Justin Kirkland (8)|
Is Dustin Wolf human? No, seriously though... Was his excellent season something that was predictable or has he surprised everyone?
From what I’ve seen on Zoom calls, Wolf appears to be human. Surprisingly, his performance was mostly expected this year. Maybe not to the extent he had played at but definitely as a solid goaltender. He was a three time goaltender of the year in the WHL and a goal medalist for USA in the 2021 IIHF World Championship. Wolf playing full-time pro this year was a huge advantage for Stockton.
Is Wolf a one-man show or is he also getting great support from the defense in front of him? What makes him so hard to score on?
Defense is not the best aspect of the Heat but Wolf makes up for it. The top defenders are fourth line NHL caliber when we have them and it tends to get a little shaky as you get further down the depth chart. Wolf’s advantage is his composure. He doesn’t get too high or too low and is very humble. He is 100% focused on doing a job and does so very well.
Aside from Wolf, who are the key players to keep an eye on?
Jakob Pelletier is a rookie standout fresh off his junior career. Justin Kirkland is also an underrated clutch player that scored all three game-winning goals in the Colorado series. Matthew Phillips is also a highly rated Flames prospect that makes things difficult on the ice even when he’s not scoring. (Even with his smaller size).
What’s Stockton’s record/performance been like when they score first? Do they jump out to a lead and not relinquish it?
The Heat are very successful when they score first. In the regular season their record was 32-4-4-1 when they score first. They get off to a hot start and maintain it. They were 5-0 in the playoffs when scoring first.
What’s one reason you think Stockton will win this series? What’s one reason you think they’ll lose?
I’m confident in the Heat’s goaltending and depth scoring. These two factors have carried them through the year with great success. Where I could see them failing would be if Wolf reaches his limit for playing time and burns out. He has few off games but they do happen. I also worry some key players from the regular season have been underperforming in the playoffs and if that continues, it could really hurt them in a seven game series.
Western Conference Finals (all times Central)
Game 1 — Friday, June 3 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.
Game 2 — Monday, June 6 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.
Game 3 — Wednesday, June 8 — Stockton Arena — 8:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Friday, June 10 — Stockton Arena — 9 p.m.
Game 5* — Saturday, June 11 — Stockton Arena — 8 p.m.
Game 6* — Tuesday, June 14 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.
Game 7* — Wednesday, June 15 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.