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Wolves’ Fifth Championship Season is One for the Ages

The Wolves celebrate around the Calder Cup following their 4-0 win in Game 5. Photo Courtesy: Chicago Wolves

Wolves’ Fifth Championship Season is One for the Ages

ROSEMONT, Ill. – On June 25, the final buzzer went on the 2021-2022 American Hockey League season with another in a long line of emphatic wins for the Chicago Wolves, closing out the Springfield Thunderbirds with a 4-0 victory to claim the Calder Cup. The incredible journey of a championship story that began in October has its roots stretching much further than that. A winning culture established by Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky dating back before his first season in Chicago in 2021 set the foundation, while Chicago GM Wendell Young and Carolina GM Don Waddell helped blend a mix of youth and veteran presence to solidify a championship roster.

Despite their top billing in the regular season, it was never an easy ride. Adversity presents itself in all forms, whether the Wolves had any control over it or not, and the battles through any and all circumstances only hardened the team’s resolve and solidified its message from day one.

One day at a time.

Their mantra remained the same from opening night to when the celebration with the Calder Cup began. The 2021-2022 Wolves amassed records never seen in the storied franchise’s history and provided the blueprint for success in the American Hockey League.

Veteran Leadership

Two months before opening night, the seeds of a champion were planted. Following a two-year stint in the Anaheim Ducks system, Andrew Poturalski returned on a one-year deal to the Carolina organization that saw him lift the Calder Cup in 2019. Reunited with coach Warsofsky – an assistant on that championship Checkers team – Poturalski was named team captain just before opening night. The leading scorer in the AHL in the 2021 season would pick up right where he left off, putting up 28 goals and 73 assists for 101 points to pace the league for the second straight year.

Carolina wasn’t done there – the Hurricanes would also sign Stefan Noesen and Josh Leivo to one-year, two-way deals to foster up their organizational depth. Both Noesen and Leivo brought over 200 games of NHL experience to the Wolves and would provide monstrous contributions all season. Noesen would pace the league in goal scoring with 48 markers during the regular season while Leivo put up an absurd 29 points in 18 postseason games to capture MVP honors in the playoffs.

Ahead of the deadline, GM Young worked the phones and acquired Richard Panik from the Bridgeport Islanders on loan for the playoff push. With over 500 NHL games under his belt and a Calder Cup Championship with the Norfolk Admirals, the veteran Panik stepped onto the Wolves’ first line with Poturalski and Noesen. He responded by scoring a goal in four straight Calder Cup Finals games.

With questions in the crease, GM Waddell went out and picked up Alex Lyon to help mentor the young goaltenders in the system and prepare them for the rigors of the season and the process to become a winner in this league. After five years in the Philadelphia system, Lyon led the league in fewest goals allowed for a goaltender and became that dependable third goaltender in the Carolina system that ended up being sorely needed by season’s end. His play was incredible all season long and served to push these younger netminders to be the best that they could be.

The American Hockey League is often viewed as a league for younger players trying to work on their game to break into the NHL, which is true for the most part. Chicago, and by extension their parent club in Carolina, understood the importance of injecting these veterans into their lineup to lead by example and show the younger players on the roster how to succeed not just at this level but at the next.

Did they ever.

The Kids are Alright

Supplementing the veteran leaders brought in over the offseason was a wave of youth coming into town. Carolina draft picks and players on Standard Player Contracts (SPC) signed by the Wolves all came in hungry to battle for a roster spot. Establishing his position on the roster early was Jack Drury. Following a championship season in Sweden in 2021, the self-proclaimed winner earned coach Warsofsky’s trust early on with his dependable 200-foot game that came alive in the postseason, where he finished third in AHL scoring with 24 points in 18 playoff games. Excelling in all special teams situations, Drury put the work in on and off the ice to all but guarantee his roster spot in Raleigh come October.

The youthful legs on the roster helped energized the team when they needed it most. Jamieson Rees had himself a great year following a preseason injury, and his work ethic combined with a relentless motor in all three zones cemented his role in the lineup as a spark plug for the team. Vasili Ponomarev and Noel Gunler came in near the end of the regular season following their season’s end in Europe and contributed almost immediately to an already talented roster. Ivan Lodnia, who came into the season without a contract until the Wolves offered him one a month into the season, fought to consistently stay in the lineup until the postseason when his knack for huge goals cemented his position.

One of the biggest stories of the Wolves’ season came from the electric play of one of their biggest characters on the team: rookie goaltending phenom Pyotr Kochetkov. Coming in for his first appearance in North America in February, Kochetkov established himself as a fan favorite immediately when he challenged the entire Iowa Wild bench in his first game. His fiery personality followed him up to Carolina, where he went after noted NHL All-Star and pest Brad Marchand before returning to Chicago for the Western Conference Finals. All Kochetkov did after going 13-1-1 in the regular season was to follow up in the playoffs with a 5-0-1 record, including his first two shutouts in North America. His personality both on and off the ice coupled with his incredible play in the crease has won over fans of both parent and farm club. With a Calder Cup already on his resume to back up his gaudy numbers, Kochetkov is well on his way to success in the NHL.

Truly Special Teams

Chicago’s postseason success can be attributed to several hundred different factors, but their ability to separate themselves from the pack on special teams really widened the margin between themselves and the other contenders in the league. In the Western Conference Finals against Stockton, the Wolves put themselves down a man on 27 different occasions over 6 games – an average of over 4 penalty kills a game. For most teams giving up that many opportunities (as we’ll see in the next series), it’s a sentence to quick series defeat – especially against a potent Stockton Heat team.

The Wolves gave up a single power play goal in the six-game victory over the Heat.

In front of their incredible duo in net, the Wolves leaned heavily on their top PK unit of Drury, Spencer Smallman, Max Lajoie, and Jalen Chatfield. While at the rate they found themselves in the box nearly everyone in the lineup got involved on the kill, the top unit ate minutes up by clogging up shooting lanes (a Lajoie speciality), communicating to move the puck into soft areas for clears, and an overall work ethic to beat the opposing PP. The momentum swings of a costly penalty were just never given to their opponents throughout the series.

Meanwhile, the powerplay was lethal. Scoring at a 31% clip over the postseason, the Wolves made sure to make an undisciplined Springfield team pay in the Finals. Led by the usual suspects of Leivo, Drury, Poturalski and Noesen – along with PP quarterback Joey Keane – Chicago went 9-for-19 on the man advantage against the Thunderbirds, engaging on the scoreboard rather than dancing on the ice and ending up in the box. The Wolves converted where Springfield could not, and that series that might have been closer was over without a home victory for the Thunderbirds in the Finals.

One Day At A Time

There were no passengers on Coach Ryan Warsofsky’s team. 20 minute efforts weren’t enough. 50 minute efforts weren’t enough. Warsofsky demanded a full 60 minutes of complete and total effort from all lines, all skaters, all goaltenders. His message was clear from day one in Chicago in 2021: this was going to be a team that win or lose was going to be incredibly tough to play against.

“He’s a really hard worker.” Drury said of his head coach. “Always lives in the present moment. All the guys in the locker room have a lot of respect for him and he has a lot of respect for them too. He said on the first day: it’s not coaches vs. players or players vs. coaches. We’re all one unit.”

Since taking over for the head coach of a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate back in 2019, Warsofsky has compiled a record of 105-47-11-7. His energy and intensity exudes over into his players, who only ever have the best to say about playing for him. Yet he still reminds them to stay grounded and in the moment. One shift, one game, one day at a time. With his second Calder Cup now under his belt – his first as a Head Coach – it begs the question of when NHL franchises will start making the calls to him for their own vacancies.

He’ll answer those the day he gets them, but for now Coach will stay in the moment.

A Winning Culture

The 2021-2022 Calder Cup is the third of its kind for the Wolves since they’ve joined the AHL, and fifth in the history of its franchise including the two Turner Cups won as a member of the IHL. Their three titles since entering the league in 2001-2002 ties them along with the Hershey Bears for the most in that span. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in that span.

This team’s found a way to raise the bar. They lost a single game in regulation in the playoffs. They never lost two straight in regulation all season. Their combined regular and post season winning percentage at .734 was the highest in team history. Leivo’s 29 points would be the most a Wolves player has put up in a postseason since 2008.

A franchise embroidered in a culture of winning went out and got the best players to compliment a NHL team that filled its organization depth with talented, hard-working players that bought into their system. It was the perfect storm, and a team that met lofty expectations and went beyond them for a magical championship season.

The summer will have questions, but for now the Wolves can enjoy their Calder Cup.

One day at a time.

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 2021 season!

    Andrew Rinaldi covers the Chicago Wolves for The Sin Bin. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @SinBinWolves.

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