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Small improvements starting to pay off for the Chicago Wolves

The Wolves won two of three games this past week.

Ross Dettman/Chciago Wolves

The Chicago Wolves of the past ten games are drastically different from the Chicago Wolves of the first ten games of the season. In a constantly-shifting Central Division, that’s good news for the Wolves, who look to continue to gain points to close the gap between them and the Iowa Wild.

Looking purely at the statistics, you’d be hard pressed to pick out too many significant differences aside from the power play, which finally has been experiencing some consistency in recent games. Everything else is roughly the same, or even slightly worse than the beginning of the season for the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate.

First 10 games:

  • Record: 4-5-1-0
  • Scoring: 31 goals for, 35 goals against
  • Power Play: 10.81%, 4 for 37
  • Penalty Kill: 83.78%, 31 for 37
  • Shots: 28.20/game for, 31.30/game against

Last 10 games:

  • Record: 5-3-1-1
  • Scoring: 37 goals for, 39 goals against
  • Power Play: 30.30%, 10 for 33
  • Penalty Kill: 82.03%, 32 for 40
  • Shots: 24.20/game for, 31.20/game against

So what’s changed?

Coach Brock Sheahan looks first to the roster for an explanation. “We’re getting healthy, that’s part of it,” he said after the Wolves’ win over the Cleveland Monsters this weekend. “I think that a lot of our younger guys are starting to understand how we need to play all the time. [...] Those two things combined, you start to see a much more connected group out there and the game being pushed in our favor more as opposed to a month ago when we were really struggling.”

The eye test backs up Sheahan’s perspective, too, even if the basic numbers don’t. The team does look more connected — there’s fewer shifts where every player looks like he’s in his own game. Skaters are using each other more, trusting their teammates to continue a play or take a shot. The miscommunications that plagued the Wolves early in the season aren’t gone entirely but players miss assignments or cover the wrong opponents with much less frequency. Even the body language of the players looks more confident on and off the ice.

Some of the more advanced stats point to what continues to ail the Wolves, and that’s defense and goaltending. The Wolves currently allow an average of 3.04 goals at even strength, the most of all teams in the league. Their even strength save percentage is 89.1%, also the lowest in the league. They are near the bottom of the league in terms of shots taken (only San Diego takes fewer), and only barely miss out on allowing the most shots against (San Diego and Providence allow more). (All those stats come courtesy Sean O’Brien’s analytics.)

But shooting is improving and the power play has done the work to begin to look at least slightly more respectable. While it’s still somewhat of a longshot (O’Brien’s model gives the Wolves just a 15.3% chance of making the playoffs), with the expanded playoff format in the AHL, it’s easy to see the Wolves continuing to get healthy and making a push at the end of the season. Particularly if Pyotr Kochetkov ever returns from the NHL, it’s maybe not as far fetched as it seems.

Game 30: Chicago Wolves 5, Iowa Wild 2

Scoring: Josh Melnick, 1 G, 1 A; Brendan Perlini, 1 G; Ryan Suzuki, 1 G; Alexander Pashin, 1 G; Noel Gunler, 1 G; William Lagesson, 2 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 A; Alex Green, 1 A; Jack Drury, 1 A; Max Lajoie, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 27 of 29, 0.931 sv%

Game 31: Chicago Wolves 2, Cleveland Monsters 5

Scoring: Jack Drury, 1 G; Nathan Sucese, 1 G; Logan Lambdin, 1 A; Anttoni Honka, 1 A; Ryan Suzuki, 1 A; Max Lajoie, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 25 of 29, 0.862 sv%

Game 32: Chicago Wolves 4, Cleveland Monsters 1

Perhaps the most important goal of all: William Lagesson’s opening goal sent stuffed toys flying for Teddy Bear Toss Night.

Scoring: Jack Drury, 1 G, 1 A; William Lagesson, 1 G, 1 A; Josh Melnick, 2 A; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 A; Tuukka Tieksola, 1 A; Zack Hayes, 1 G; Ryan Suzuki, 1 G;

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 39 of 40, 0.975 sv%