ROSEMONT, Ill. – After going up three games to none in this heavyweight Western Conference Final showdown, the Chicago Wolves dropped two consecutive overtime games against the Stockton Heat and found themselves heading back to Allstate Arena for Game 6. With a heat wave rolling through Illinois and an energized Heat team rolling into town, and with how evenly matched these two teams have played one another all series, one bounce could be the difference between a decisive Game 7 and the Wolves punching their ticket to the Finals.
Continuing with the rotational approach, Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky once again shuffled his crease by turning to young netminder Pyotr Kochetkov, who looked a little shaky in his last start in Game 4 but was proven to be able to battle back from adversity all season. Should he be needed for Game 7, Alex Lyon‘s veteran presence would likely get the nod there. On the other side, Stockton Head Coach Mitch Love turned to the only goalie ever in consideration: AHL goaltender of the year Dustin Wolf, who was nothing short of spectacular in the two consecutive wins to force this Game 6.
Tuesday night in Allstate Arena would finish with handshakes and fireworks for the hometown crowd as the Wolves shut out Stockton for the second time this series with a 3-0 score, closing out the Western Conference Finals by a 4-2 final.
The opening frame was marred by an ugly habit that the Wolves have been developing lately – penalties. After giving up 12 powerplay chances to the Heat in the last two games, Chicago decided to open this pivotal game with three more in the first 20 minutes, including a double-minor from Noel Gunler for a high stick.
As they had done all series, the Chicago penalty kill stepped up in that first. Led by their defensive anchor in Max Lajoie clogging up the shooting lanes, the Wolves minimized the opportunities getting to Kochetkov as best as they could. They weathered the storm even after back-to-back minors against Jesper Sellgren and Josh Leivo that gave the team what felt like another 4-minute penalty kill.
The constant penalties threw this team off their rhythm as they had done so many times prior, however, as Stockton outshot the Wolves 14-6 in the first period. The story of the opening frame was Kochetkov, who looked to really fire up his game in front of the home crowd and was dialed in nicely following a shaky start in Game 4. He was square to the shooters and didn’t give up the rebounds that Stockton capitalized on earlier, which allowed Chicago to escape into the first intermission tied 0-0.
Opening up the middle frame it was finally Chicago’s turn to attack on special teams. With Matthew Phillips and Kevin Gravel sitting in the opening two minutes, the Wolves had a chance on a 5-on-3 to get the game’s opening marker. Even down two men, Stockton’s tenacious penalty killing made entries and setting up incredibly difficult for the Wolves, and whenever they could get a chance on net Wolf was up to the task with some incredible saves.
— y – Stockton Heat (@AHLHeat) June 15, 2022
Not to be outdone, Kochetkov responded with a couple of fantastic saves with his team down a man – both goaltenders proving true the adage that your best penalty killer has to be your goalie.
— z – Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) June 15, 2022
Even once the teams returned to 5-on-5, the ice was tilted towards the Wolves in terms of shots, where they led Stockton 15-5 in that category. As both Kochetkov and Wolf stood up to make save after save, there was a feeling that one side was going to have to dig in, roll the sleeves up and get into the dirty areas in order to make life hard for two world class goaltenders.
Despite a glorious look from Stelio Mattheos towards the end of the period, neither team’s armor had broken heading into intermission. First goal wins? It sure felt like it after two.
Chicago entered the final frame of regulation with 1:47 of power play time on a Juuso Valimaki holding penalty, but Stockton’s penalty killers held the blue line so effectively to deny entries that Chicago hardly got a look in on Wolf. Soon after, it was back to the war of attrition for these two teams at even strength. Stockton was gifted a couple of juicy turnovers off Wolves’ sticks in their own zone leaving capable players like Phillips in all alone, but Kochetkov was more than up for the task as he stretched out his pad to deny the chances by Stockton to finally break this game open.
Instead, those saves opened the door for the Wolves to counter at the other end. On a touch pass from Spencer Smallman at center ice, Jamieson Rees motored into the zone and around the boards, drawing the attention of nearly every Stockton defender to him. That space allowed Smallman to feather a backhand pass to Ivan Lodnia all alone at the side of the net, and Lodnia buried the one time shot for yet another huge goal for him in this playoff. Chicago had finally broken the ice after over 48 minutes of hockey and they led 1-0.
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) June 15, 2022
The stage was set for a dramatic end to this one. As Chicago had done all year, they weren’t satisfied with getting the one goal lead and playing conservatively – the Wolves attacked the Stockton end with a determination to gain some breathing room. At the very least, the best defense was keeping the puck 200 feet away from their net. When opportunity presented itself, the Wolves struck. With just 1:20 left on the clock, a fantastic defensive play from Stefan Noesen at center ice poked the puck loose, and captain Andrew Poturalski sped up with middle with it, made a move on Wolf, and shelfed the puck in the top corner for the dagger in the heart of the Heat to go up 2-0.
One of the areas where Poturalski has made a strongly concerted effort has been his skating. Overhauled his offseason training program last summer.
Three years ago, I'm not sure he gains the early step like this. https://t.co/VqMxd132Tg
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsAHL) June 15, 2022
Stockton couldn’t get much going afterwards. With Wolf pulled, a quick turnover to Leivo allowed him to deposit the puck in the empty net with just 45 seconds left and the celebration was on in Allstate Arena. Leivo’s 11th of the playoffs would hold up as the last score in a 3-0 final for the Chicago Wolves to clinch the Western Conference in 6 games.
Kochetkov stopped 28 pucks for his first shutout in North America, while Wolf made 35 saves in what ended up being the finale for Stockton, who will be moving north of the border and in house with their parent club in Calgary.
After such a hot series in which two hyper competitive teams were separated by just inches, the two sides came together for sports’ greatest tradition in the handshake line. The Wolves then gathered around Poturalski and the Robert W. Clarke Trophy for the Western Conference Champions, and while there were smiles and celebrations to be had, the Wolves know there is work to be done still.
- Pyotr Kochetkov – 28 saves
- Ivan Lodnia – 1 goal
- Andrew Poturalski – 1 goal
- You couldn’t have asked for much more from this series. Two heavyweight rosters throwing some serious haymakers, and ultimately it was the Wolves with the heavier hands. When it came down to those inches, the Chicago penalty killing stepped up in crucial moments to silence Stockton’s big guns. Phillips, Stockton’s leading point producer in the regular season at over a point a game, had a single assist in the six game series. Jakob Pelletier, with 62 points during the season, had just a single goal over this Western Conference Final. In the end, the Heat battled but the lack of production from their biggest guns ultimately led to their season’s end.
- Ivan Lodnia has only played in 6 games this postseason but has mode some huge impacts whenever he’s slotted into the lineup with 3 goals – all of them the first of the game, and two of those being game winners in this series. The coaching staff in Chicago loves his work ethic, his tenacity to get after the puck, and his mindset to always be game ready even when he may not be one of the 12 forwards in that night. In the postseason you need contributions from everywhere in the lineup and Lodnia is a guy battling every night for spot and making huge splashes when his team needs it the most.
- This Stockton team was the toughest challenge the Wolves have faced all year. No disrespect intended to the other teams in the Central, but no other roster was as deep, as well-coached, or had as big of an X-factor in net as Wolf. Taking care of business in six games, how can’t you favor this team heading into the Finals? They handled the adversity of the two straight heartbreaking losses and came out emphatically with this win. Their roster is loaded with depth, they have a 1A-1B situation in net, and have the coaching, leadership, and hunger. Four more wins to glory.
The Wolves will await the winner of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to see who they will meet in the Calder Cup Finals. Game 1 takes place at Allstate Arena on Sunday, June 19th at 3PM CST.
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