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2022 Calder Cup Playoffs

Calder Cup Playoff Western Conference Final Preview: Chicago vs. Stockton

Calder Cup Playoff Western Conference Final Preview: Chicago vs. Stockton

ROSEMONT, Ill. – On the last day of the regular season, the Chicago Wolves beat the Rockford IceHogs, while the Stockton Heat dropped their finale against the Bakersfield Condors. The result of this four-point swing allowed the Wolves to leapfrog the Heat for the top seed in these AHL playoffs after Stockton held the crown for several months. Over a month of Calder Cup Playoffs later and the implications of April 30th have finally come to bear.

In this Western Conference Final, two juggernauts match up that have been lined up in a collision course for the majority of the season. Two top seeds of their respective divisions with their eyes on the Calder Cup, but who has the advantage to get a chance to play for it in this clash of American Hockey League titans?

Final Regular Season Records:

Chicago: 50-16-5-5 (1st in Western Conference)
Stockton: 45-16-5-2 (2nd in Western Conference)

How They Got Here:

Chicago’s status as top seed allowed them a first-round bye that was followed by a thorough demolition of the Rockford IceHogs in a 3-0 sweep. In the Central Division Finals, the Wolves met the Milwaukee Admirals. In their first two games at home, the Wolves scored 14 goals and chased goaltender Connor Ingram from the series before coming away with a 3-1 series win on the shoulders of incredible offensive skill. The Wolves are outscoring their opponents 35-13 so far this postseason.

Stockton also received a first-round bye as a result of their finish atop the Pacific Division. The Heat dismantled the Bakersfield Condors in a clean 3-0 sweep before putting in a defensive clinic against the Colorado Eagles in the Pacific Division Finals. Stockton netminder and recipient of the AHL’s Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the top goaltender in the league Dustin Wolf showed why he was nominated for the award by posting three shutouts against the Eagles. Putting up 90 saves in those three shutout wins, Wolf led the Heat to a 3-1 series win to punch their ticket to this showdown with Chicago.

Series Schedule (Home team in CAPS and all times local):

Game 1 – Friday, June 3 – Stockton at CHICAGO – 7:00 pm CST
Game 2 – Monday, June 6 – Stockton at CHICAGO – 7:00 pm CST
Game 3 – Wednesday, June 8 – Chicago at STOCKTON – 6:30 pm PST
Game 4 – Friday, June 10 – Chicago at STOCKTON – 7:00 pm PST
*Game 5 – Saturday, June 11 – Chicago at STOCKTON – 6:00 pm PST
*Game 6 – Tuesday, June 14 – Stockton at CHICAGO – 7:00 pm CST
*Game 7 – Wednesday, June 15 – Stockton at CHICAGO – 7:00 pm CST

* – if necessary

How Chicago Wins:

Here are four ways Chicago punches their ticket to the Calder Cup Finals:

  1. Dominate puck possession. While Chicago especially burned Milwaukee in transition with odd-man rushes, their bread and butter all season has been to take the puck away and never give it back. Their extended zone time wears down opposing defenses and their offensive skill does the rest. There’s no need to turn away from that game now, especially against a team like Stockton that’s managed to lock down one of the hottest scoring teams in the Colorado Eagles in their previous round.
  2. Win the battle in net. While Wolf’s efforts in the crease have been nothing short of Herculean, the Wolves have their own weapons defending the cage. Alex Lyon, a veteran of deep AHL playoff runs, has matched his Stockton counterpart’s 6-1 record in this postseason and has a comparable GAA (1.87 vs. Wolf’s 1.82). While Lyon hasn’t had to steal games for a struggling offense this playoff, he’s had to come up with big, timely saves for the Wolves and has elevated his game in this playoff. Chicago also has reinforcements on the way – rookie phenom Pyotr Kochetkov returns from Carolina. In his abbreviated time with the Wolves during the regular season, Kochetkov sported a 13-1-1 record and was tracking to be the Wolves’ playoff starter before his call-up to the Hurricanes. They’re going to be facing a red hot goaltender on the other end, and over this seven-game series, the Wolves’ netminders will need to rise to the challenge.
  3. Get in Wolf’s face. Chicago found success getting in front of Milwaukee’s capable goaltending tandem and getting deflections and screens to take away their eyes. They’ll need that kind of spectacular net-front presence again from the usual suspects – Stefan Noesen, Jack Drury, and David Gust. The pretty goals just won’t be as easy to come by against Wolf, and Chicago shouldn’t count on chasing him out like they did to Ingram. They will have to get greasy, take away his eyes, and look for deflections and second-chance opportunities to keep the Heat netminder on his heels.
  4. Don’t get rattled. Chicago’s one loss this playoff came at the hands of three Milwaukee powerplay goals. It’s going to be a challenge to break through Stockton’s stifling defense, especially with no game experience between the two teams and only film to rely on to study. Chicago has to avoid the mental mistakes that have seen them get into some penalty troubles at times this season. Chicago’s taken 92 penalty minutes to Stockton’s 44 – the Wolves have to be disciplined to take this series.

How Stockton Wins:

Here are four ways Stockton punches their ticket to the Calder Cup Finals:

  1. Dustin Wolf. What more can be said that already hasn’t been said about this incredible young goaltender? To shutout a team featuring three AHL All-Stars like Colorado just once is a feat in of itself, but three times and it’s legendary. Featuring an absurd .941 save percentage this playoff, Wolf has found a way to take his game to the next level when his team needs him the most. He’ll need to play every bit of that elite level for the Heat to advance to the Final.
  2. Follow the leader. Stockton captain Byron Froese set the tone against Colorado not with his stick but with his shoulder pads. Froese came in like a wrecking ball from Game 1 and didn’t stop until the final buzzer blew on their convincing Game 4 win. The key to slowing down this Wolves’ attack will be the Heat’s physicality and sticking to their tight-checking game and not following the script that the Wolves want to play. It’s going to start with their big veteran presence wearing the ‘C’ on his chest and the rest of the roster will have to follow suit and wear this talented Chicago team down.
  3. One goal isn’t going to get it done. Stockton put up a pair of 1-0 wins over the Eagles in their last round. Defense wins championships, yes, but the Heat shouldn’t count on blanking this Wolves team that is almost oversaturated with skill. While the usual suspects of Justin Kirkland, Matthew Phillips, and Jakob Pelletier have pulled their weight, the Heat are going to need more. 20-goal scorer Luke Philp has yet to find the back of the net this postseason. There is help on the way, as with Calgary’s elimination allowing a massive body in Adam Ruzicka and a force on the blueline in Connor Mackey back into the lineup. It’s not just going to be one name or the other – the entire Heat roster is going to have to chip in to give Wolf some help in this series.
  4. Be opportunistic. The Wolves don’t like to give the puck up very often, so when they do the Heat need to cash in. Be relentless on the forecheck to force turnovers, and when you do convert on those chances. Where Chicago likes to play by volume, it will be who can convert on the high-quality chances or even sneak in a greasy goal that could end up being the determining factor in this one.

These rosters being so evenly matched, so well-coached and playing their best hockey at the right time will create a dynamite series that could go either way – and that one bounce could be the difference between playing for the Calder Cup and watching at home.

Download the Field Pass Hockey app from the iTunes or Google Play stores or follow @FieldPassHockey on Twitter for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL throughout the 2023 season!

    Andrew Rinaldi covers the Chicago Wolves for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @FPHWolves.

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