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Wolves take 2-0 series lead over Heat in Western Conference Final

Pyotr Kochetkov recorded his first AHL playoff win in game two as Josh Leivo records the game winner with 17 seconds on the clock.

Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

Western Conference Finals, Game 1: Wolves 5, Heat 4 (OT)

In case anyone had any doubt over how close this series is going to be, game one probably made that very clear. The game featured multiple lead changes, quick goals, and a fluke game winner in overtime. The Wolves and Heat were fairly evenly matched, with no one team dominating large stretches of the game.

Both the Wolves and Heat approached the beginning of the game rather tentatively, a cautious approach given that neither team had faced the other at any point in the regular season. Josh Leivo found the back of the net first, scoring 6:09 into the first period on a power play. Leivo’s shot nearly went wide, but hit off the post and went in.

Stockton evened things up a little over three minutes later, and the teams continued to trade chances throughout the period, with both goalies making impressive saves. The Heat had the edge in the second period, scoring twice on consecutive shots. First, forward Walker Duehr split the Wolves defense to get in alone on Lyon. Less than two minutes later, the Heat banked a puck in off of Lyon to give them a 3-1 lead.

Some excellent puck movement from the Wolves helped them even the game back up. Jack Drury sent a cross-ice pass to Jalen Chatfield, who was able to score while the Heat’s attention was focused on Drury and Leivo, who was streaking up the middle to join the play. Leivo himself recorded his second goal of the game three minutes later on the power play, stuffing in a behind-the-net pass from Stefan Noesen.

The third period played to a deadlock for the first half, but Noesen gave the Wolves the lead on the power play, scoring after regaining control of a rebound in front of Dustin Wolf. The lead was short-lived, however, as Stockton tied the game a minute later. Forward Connor Zary got in behind the Wolves defense and unleashed a simple shot that slid under Lyon.

The Wolves headed to overtime for the first time in the playoffs. With how evenly played the game was, it would have been understandable to see a game go into multiple overtimes, but Jamieson Rees stepped up just 2:26 into the extra period, sliding a loose puck past Wolf, who had fallen after getting tangled up with one of his teammates.

Rees’ game winner was the type of goal the Wolves are going to need more of to continue to win games against Stockton. Dustin Wolf very rarely gives up a significant amount of goals; he allowed five goals against only three times in the regular season, and once in the playoffs prior to this game. The Wolves have had great success with their talented shooters, but Rees taking advantage of a fallen goalie or Noesen and Leivo stuffing pucks in from around the blue paint is going to be key.

Rees described his goal as a product of driving to the net: “I was just kind of battling out front trying to get positioning and saw the puck was on its way to the net. I think their defender blocked it, lost his footing, and it kind of stopped right in a good spot for me. I kind of just pulled it in, and pretty much just threw it on net.”

Reflecting on the game, Ryan Warsofsky noted that while both teams played tentative to start, that the Wolves realized quickly what they were up against: “I think we realized it pretty quick when we were down 3-1. They’re a fast team. They shoot for offense quite a bit. So if you get caught sleeping just a little bit, they’re gonna make you pay. [...] Even when it was 1-1, they were still pushing, had some good looks.”

As always, Warsofsky was adamant that if the Wolves stuck to their game plan, that they would come out successful. Dustin Wolf’s success at limiting goals against this season didn’t seem to cause any concern. “I think we know if we play our game and we hold on to pucks and create some offensive chances and looks, we can score on a lot of goalies,” he said.

“Like any goalie, you’ve got to get traffic. Any coach is going to say this time of year, you watch all the goals in the playoffs — AHL, NHL — it’s all because of traffic in front of the net. So you’ve got to get to the dirty areas and we did a good job of that tonight.”

Scoring: Josh Leivo, 2 G, 1 A; Jalen Chatfield, 1 G, 1 A; Stefan Noesen, 1 G, 1 A; Jamieson Rees, 1 A; Joey Keane, 2 A; Jack Drury, 2 A; Richard Panik, 1 A; Andrew Poturalski, 1 A

In net: Alex Lyon, saved 24 of 28, 0.857 sv%

Western Conference Finals, Game 2: Wolves 3, Heat 2

Pyotr Kochetkov’s return to the Wolves posted an interesting question for Ryan Warsofsky: continue leaning on Lyon, who has, to his credit, been phenomenal? Or insert Kochetkov, fresh off of some very unexpected NHL playoff appearances, back into the rotation? Fans got their answer on Monday night as Kochetkov led the Wolves out for game two of the series.

The decision made sense; with the long travel to California, combined with back to back appearances for games four and five at the end of the road trip, giving Lyon a break wasn’t the worst idea. Having two goaltenders that the team has full confidence in makes decisions easier for Warsofsky and the coaching staff. Rotating Kochetkov in keeps him sharp and in the rhythm of seeing game action, and allowing Lyon to rest will help keep him from burning out from overuse.

The Wolves spotted Kochetkov an early lead, with Jack Drury scoring just 17 seconds into the game. David Gust made a hit to free up a puck along the boards in the neutral zone and sent it ahead to Drury, who easily walked in and scored on Dustin Wolf. Drury’s goal was the fastest opening goal in Wolves playoff history.

With spirits already high for the Wolves, they turned in a strong start to the period and drew the game’s first penalty, which ended up being a turning point — just not the kind of turning point the Wolves had hoped for.

While the Wolves scored on all three power plays they had in game one, the Heat seemed to have learned a few lessons from that game. In this game, they were much more effective at picking off Chicago’s passes and ultimately ended up scoring shorthanded. Heat forward Eetu Tuulola got past three Wolves players and fired a shot that was initially blocked by Kochetkov; the puck ended up rising up over him and rolling into the net in a play which seemed to confuse everyone, including Kochetkov.

The fluke goal didn’t rattle the Wolves or Kochetkov, as he stopped all 10 shots he faced through the rest of the first period. The Heat controlled play for large stretches of time — the Wolves only had three shots in the final 10 minutes of the period — and Kochetkov was fantastic at stopping pucks through heavy traffic.

Justin Kirkland, who leads the Heat in playoff scoring, gave his team the lead in the second period, a frame in which the Heat continued to gather the majority of chances. Kirkland received a puck in the neutral zone and found a burst of speed to get past the Wolves and face off against Kochetkov. As we’ve already seen in this series, though, no lead is safe for long, and rookie Noel Gunler stepped up on the Wolves’ only power play of the second period. David Gust took a hit behind the Heat’s net but still managed to shovel the puck out to Gunler, who scored to record his first point of the playoffs.

The teams were deadlocked for the last nine minutes of the second period and nearly all of the third period, though each team wasn’t without their chances. Jalen Chatfield made a fantastic block in the net with Kochetkov already prone on his stomach, saving what would have been a sure goal.

Players like David Gust, Joey Keane, Stefan Noesen, and Josh Leivo all had excellent chances throughout the game, with Leivo in particular getting free on a breakaway, going one on one against Wolf, but firing right into his chest.

Watching the game as it continued to unfold, the Leivo missed chance loomed large. It stuck with Leivo, too, who even had a talk with Warsofsky in between periods about that play and what unfolded.

As time ticked down, the Wolves continued to press rather than sit back and wait for overtime. And with less than 30 seconds left, the Wolves, Jesper Sellgren helped send a puck back into the neutral zone when the Heat couldn’t quite manage to establish possession. Leivo picked up the puck at center ice and this time, alone against Wolf, he didn’t miss. Leivo’s game winner came with 17 seconds left on the clock, a nice little bookend to the timing of Drury’s opening goal.

Leivo’s no stranger to last minute heroics, having scored a number of late game winners this season for the Wolves. Leivo described his conversation between periods with Warsofsky as having helped him make a better shot when he had the opportunity: “I just asked him what he saw coming down on net. I kind of rushed it and tried to catch [Wolf]. He made a good save. I tried to go low glove but that one obviously didn’t work and then coming down this time, I was thinking deke right when I was coming, but then once I looked up and saw [the opening on the right side] I took the chance and that’s it.”

The veteran forward recognized the edge that Stockton had in the game, admitting that the Heat dominated most of game two. He recognized that the Wolves need to make adjustments to continue to have success. “I think we’ll go back to the video board, see what [Stockton’s] doing, but I think we’re just holding pucks too long. We’ve got to move it around, chip pucks out and use our speed.”

Likewise, Warsofksy recognized that the team has adjustments to make before going into game three. He cited speed and getting more involved in the forecheck as something he’d like to see improve as the series goes on.

Scoring: Josh Leivo, 1 G; Jack Drury, 1 G; Noel Gunler, 1 G; David Gust, 2 A; Jesper Sellgren, 1 A

In net: Pyotr Kochetkov, saved 33 of 35, 0.943 sv%