ROSEMONT, Ill. – Sunday afternoon at Allstate Arena featured two teams that could be mildly described as desperate for points. Both the Chicago Wolves and Grand Rapids Griffins found themselves on the outside looking into the playoff picture of the Central Division for a majority of the 22/23 season. Both clubs trailed the final playoff spot by double-digit point totals, and a run had to start somewhere – what better place than the home of the 2022 Calder Cup Champions?
Chicago would see a number of changes in their lineup that would see them dressed down to 17 skaters: Malte Stromwall and Cavan Fitzgerald were scratched after Saturday night’s game, while Zack Hayes drew into the lineup to try and fill up the gaps.
“It’s been our whole year, let’s be honest.” Head Coach Brock Sheahan said of his shorthanded lineup. “That’s this league to a certain degree. Lot of guys in and out of the lineup, but I think our guys are getting better. Hopefully we can continue to push and add consistency.”
Zachary Sawchenko (9-13-1-1 / 3.27 / .896%) would get the start for the Wolves across from Victor Brattstrom (2-6-2 / 3.68 / .887%) for the Griffins. You don’t need to look long at the numbers to see the struggles for both goaltenders and the need for a fresh start.
The Wolves got out to a fast start, but four quick second-period goals from the Griffins would power the visitors to a 5-3 win over Chicago to cap off their last homestand before the All-Star break.
For the second game in a row – the Wolves came out with a hot start. Unlike Saturday, they learned to finish off some of those chances. Just a few minutes into the game, an offensive zone faceoff win from Vasily Ponomarev drew the puck to Ronan Seeley, who blasted a shot past Brattstrom for the early 1-0 lead.
Ronan Seeley nets his first and second professional goals in back-to-back games. @Chicago_Wolves | #GRvsCHI pic.twitter.com/wWpGuE8RKs
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) January 29, 2023
Following a couple of Griffins chances stopped by Sawchenko, the Wolves quickly went the other way. On a two-on-one rush, Noel Gunler‘s shot grazed Brattstrom’s glove, but Ryan Suzuki was able to follow up the fluttering puck and knock it home. With a 2-0 lead just 6:19 in and the puck on their stick for the majority of the period, the Wolves were in prime position to run away with this one.
“I feel like we’re playing better hockey, which is a good sign.” Sheahan said of his team’s starts. “We just have to be more consistent with it.”
But as this season has shown – time and time again – Chicago can’t take their foot off the gas or it bites them. Just following the expiration of a minor penalty on Griffin Mendel, the Griffins executed a tic-tac-toe passing play that left Elmer Soderblom unmarked at the side of Sawchenko’s net. Soderblom buried the puck into the open cage to bring the Griffins in to a 2-1 deficit.
Heading into the second period, all the Wolves had to do was to keep playing their game and avoid the mental mistakes.
The Wolves had their chances early on in the middle frame – most notably from the stick of Jack Drury on the doorstep denied by Brattstrom not once but twice. One the Wolves would like to have, but wasn’t back breaking.
Then the floodgates opened. Taro Hirose cut through the middle of the Wolves’ ice, drawing all the attention towards him as he left a pass right on the tape for Simon Edvinsson. The #6 overall pick in 2021 blasted home the one-time chance to tie the game at 2-2.
Hold that thought – 22 seconds later and a turnover from Hayes at the Griffins blue line led to an odd-man rush the other way, and a pretty feed from Austin Czarnik to Soderblom for the tap in gave the Griffins their first lead of the game at 3-2.
But wait! There’s more! A minute and twenty seconds later, Edvinsson poked a puck loose to Jakub Vrana, who wired a wrist shot low blocker to beat Sawchenko and in the blink of an eye the Griffins had a 4-2 lead. Three goals in 1:42 led to the boo birds coming out at Allstate Arena, and Coach Sheahan called his timeout to calm his team down.
“We were just trying to get back to the way we were playing for the vast majority of the game before that. I thought we were carrying the play, playing how we wanted to play. We had four major breakdowns in a five minute stretch that really cost us the game.”
Despite the regrouping, the leaks in the wall continued to pour. Five minutes after Vrana’s goal, Joel L’Esperance cut to the net from the boards and shoveled a backhand that beat Sawchenko to the far post to give Grand Rapids a three-goal lead. Despite a period and change to play, the fourth goal of the second for the Griffins felt like the back breaker to a Wolves team that just couldn’t cut down on the breakdowns.
The second period mercifully ended for the Wolves without another goal against, but the damage had been done as they trailed 5-2 heading into the third.
It would be in the final frame where the Wolves get their first taste of the man advantage after killing off four of their own penalties in the first two periods. The Wolves would cash in when Suzuki feathered a pass through sticks and bodies to Seeley on the far side, who blasted home another heavy shot that would beat Brattstrom and cut the deficit to 5-3. Coming into the weekend without a goal yet in his first professional season, Seeley walked out of the weekend with three markers – a testament to his developing game growing stronger as the season went on.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for the Wolves. Despite pulling Sawchenko with plenty of time to work, the Griffins clamped down and reduced any Wolves threats in on Brattstrom. Grand Rapids would put in the hard work to shut down the Wolves’ attack and skate out of Allstate with a 5-3 win over Chicago.
- Elmer Soderblom – 2 goals, 1 assist
- Jakub Vrana – 1 goal, 1 assist
- Ronan Seeley – 2 goals
- The Wolves have been coming out of the gate hot lately, save for the Tucson series. They are getting the jump on teams and getting in front of them early. Consistency is going to take some time for young teams, but hopefully the good play out of the opening puck drop can be sustained later on in the games.
- Can the Griffins make this Central Division race interesting? Matt Luff returned this weekend, along with Vrana finding his groove and Soderblom’s continued development brings a ton of offensive firepower to this team. Talent has never been the issue for Grand Rapids – consistency throughout the lineup and discipline is going to be what determines this team going on a run to catch a Rockford team suddenly dropping like a rock and watching the playoffs from the couch.
Grand Rapids heads back up north to take on the Milwaukee Admirals on Tuesday night, while Chicago heads to Cleveland for a weekend series on Friday and Saturday before the All-Star break featuring both team captains – Brian Lashoff and Max Lajoie – representing their teams in Laval.
“He’s a true pro.” Sheahan said of Lajoie. “He’s been unbelievable for our group. He’s been our best player all year consistently. He does it the right way, he deserves it, and I’m excited for him.”
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