ROSEMONT, Ill. – And then there were two.
Over 250 days since the start of the season and it’s finally here. It took 76 regular season games and three brutal playoff rounds to get to the summit of the Calder Cup Finals, but two teams remain standing in the quest for the American Hockey League’s holy grail: the Chicago Wolves and the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Both clubs exemplify what it takes to win in this league: incredible depth in all positions to compliment high-end talent throughout the roster. World-class coaching staffs at both ends impose a will to outwork their opponents in their lineups. Both teams have their veteran leaders and their hungry rookies. The best of the best remain standing for a reason, but which team – if any – has the advantage?
Final Regular Season Records:
Chicago Wolves: 50-16-5-5 (1st in American Hockey League)
Springfield Thunderbirds: 43-24-6-3 (2nd in Atlantic Division)
How They Got Here:
After the regular season, Chicago finished with the best record in the American Hockey League. Following their opening series sweep of the Rockford IceHogs, they dismantled the Milwaukee Admirals by the score of 3-1 before setting up a heavyweight bout with the Stockton Heat in the Western Conference Finals. The top two teams in the season went toe to toe, with Chicago beating the Heat (in a literal and metaphorical sense with temperatures reaching over 100F in both cities) in six games to advance to the Calder Cup Finals.
Springfield’s second-best record in the Atlantic Division set up an opening series with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who they cleaned out with a 3-0 sweep. Keeping up with tradition, the Thunderbirds swept the division-leading Charlotte Checkers in the following series to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Laval Rocket. Suffering their first postseason loss in Game 2, the Thunderbirds and Rocket alternated wins until Springfield came out victorious in Game 7 to set up this showdown with Chicago.
Series Schedule: (Home Team in BOLD CAPS and all times local):
Game 1 – Sunday, June 19 – Springfield at CHICAGO – 3 p.m. CST
Game 2 – Monday, June 20 – Springfield at CHICAGO – 7 p.m. CST
Game 3 – Wednesday, June 22 – Chicago at SPRINGFIELD – 7:05 p.m. EST
Game 4 – Friday, June 24 – Chicago at SPRINGFIELD – 7:05 p.m. EST
Game 5* – Saturday, June 25 – Chicago at SPRINGFIELD – 7:05 p.m. EST
Game 6* – Tuesday, June 28 – Springfield at CHICAGO 7 p.m.PM CST
Game 7* – Wednesday, June 29 – Springfield at CHICAGO – 7 p.m. CST
How Chicago Wins:
Stay out of the box. After going up three games to 0 over Stockton in the last round, Chicago dropped two straight before closing out in 6. In those two losses, the Wolves took a combined 12 minor penalties and followed up Game 6 with three straight to open up. Those penalties take the team out of their rhythm in the puck possession game, and they’ll be playing with fire if they give this potent Thunderbirds powerplay too many chances in this series.
Penalty killing supreme. Chicago’s had a lot of practice to work on their penalty-killing unit, and it has reigned supreme in their last series with the heavyweight Stockton Heat. In 27 power play opportunities by the Heat, the Wolves gave up a single goal on the PK in the series. Led by defensive stalwart Max Lajoie blocking huge shots in front of a dynamic duo in net, if the Wolves indeed find themselves getting back into penalty trouble, their penalty killing has to remain as strong as it has been lately.
Big dogs got to eat. It’s hard to say that a player who scored 5 points in 6 games had a ‘quiet’ series last round, but that is the gold standard that Andrew Poturalski brings offensively to this team. Stockton’s defensive structure was able to slow down somewhat the Wolves’ top-line filled with regular season allocates, and it’s not going to get easier against the Thunderbirds. While the strength of this team lies in its depth attacking in waves, the top line of Poturalski, Stefan Noesen, and Richard Panik has to set the pace.
Goaltending. Early in the postseason, it was all Alex Lyon in net. In the Western Conference Final, head coach Ryan Warsofsky alternated his goaltenders with the assignment of Pyotr Kochetkov following Carolina’s elimination in the NHL playoffs. Both netminders are more than capable of carrying this team to a title, but the rotation has been pushing both goalies to be even better. Lyon, for example, recorded his first shutout of the playoffs right after his first game on the bench. Kochetkov responded with a shutout of his own in the deciding Game 6. They face Springfield’s own formidable duo of goaltenders and must once again be the stronger tandem if they want the grail.
How Springfield Wins:
Be opportunistic. Chicago was more than happy to give Stockton ample opportunity on the power play last round. Their goaltenders, for as well as they played, had just about one mental gaffe a game, be it on a misplayed puck or a funky bounce. Springfield has to take a mile when Chicago gives an inch. Cash in on the freebies, and the game gets much easier from there, but you have to first capitalize on them.
Road warriors. Chicago is undefeated at home this playoff at 7-0. Springfield, meanwhile, sports a 4-1 record on the road, including two colossal road wins in front of an incredibly hostile Laval crowd. The Thunderbirds need to find a way to win in Allstate Arena in the opening two games and turn the series at least tied back home, where Chicago is only 3-3 this postseason on the road. Even though the Thunderbirds haven’t played outside of their conference, their two leading scorers in Sam Anas and Will Bitten are quite familiar with Allstate Arena, having played a combined seven and a half seasons with the Iowa Wild.
“Our first playoff experience[in Iowa] they beat us,” Bitten said of the Wolves. “So me and Sammy have a little revenge to do.”
Depth scoring. Much like Chicago, Springfield’s strength lies in the talent not just on the top two lines but throughout the lineup. Anas and Bitten will get their chances and will bury them. The Thunderbirds are going to need contributions from all lines to go toe to toe with another team saturated with talent throughout the lineup. A player like Klim Kostin is going to have to put a goal or two in beneath some of the top-line producers to overwhelm the Wolves.
“You look at our lineup and there’s not really a first, second, third line.” Anas said of their depth. “Any night or any series there can be a line that steals the show. It could be [Bitten’s] line, it could be another line. I think it’s so hard for the other team to focus on one player or one line when you’re so deep and there’s skill and guys willing to compete and sacrifice for each other up and down the lineup.”
Goaltending. A heavyweight contender coming in with a rookie phenom and a steady veteran presence in net. These two teams are similar in more ways than not. The net has rotated from Charlie Lindgren to start to Joel Hofer with Lindgren called up to St. Louis and back to Lindgren. With Hofer dropping two straight against Laval and Lindgren shutting out the Rocket in the decisive Game 7, who does head coach Drew Bannister lean on in this series? All signs point to Lindgren, but will that remain? Either way – the Thunderbirds’ dynamic duo is going to have to outplay the Wolves’ netminders on the other side.
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