📝 by Patrick Williams
Even for two teams that have never met, there are few unknowns once the Calder Cup finals arrive.
The Chicago Wolves and Springfield Thunderbirds both made it to three playoff rounds. Both took a few hits with considerable success. They have endured crises and setbacks. And the head coaches, Drew Banister from Springfield and Chicago Ryan Warsofskyeach has now had several days to dissect the other’s clubs via video.
And they are both close to their ultimate goal. Each team is four wins away from a Calder Cup title.
Come Game 1 this afternoon at Allstate Arena (4 ET, AHLTV), it just needs to be settled on the ice.
“We certainly watched a good chunk of the video,” the Springfield forward said. sam anas says, “but there’s nothing like the actual feeling of playing the game.”
The Wolves and Thunderbirds represent two cities that carry an impressive history, but they each find themselves in relatively early stages of relationships with new parent clubs in the National Hockey League. Springfield, home to the AHL’s headquarters, was one of the league’s first cities in 1936, but the Thunderbirds ― who started play in 2016 ― are in the first season of a new affiliation with the St. Louis Blues.
Chicago partnered with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2020 after three seasons partnering with the Vegas Golden Knights. In the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them case, the Wolves fell to the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s former AHL affiliate, in the 2019 Calder Cup Final.
The Hurricanes-Wolves affiliation’s first full season produced a 50-16-5-5 record and the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s top regular-season team. Chicago then beat Rockford and Milwaukee before eliminating the Stockton Heat, the AHL’s second-best regular season team, in the Western Conference Finals.
“We all really love each other in this, and we’re delighted to be where we are,” the Wolves captain said. Andrew Poturalski said after eliminating Stockton. “But we know the job isn’t done.”
In the Eastern Conference, the Thunderbirds finished second in the Atlantic Division with a 43-24-6-3 record before sweeping Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Charlotte in their first two series. They then ran into the Laval Rocket, a stubborn opponent that pushed them to seven full games in the Conference Finals before the Thunderbirds ultimately prevailed. Springfield’s stint in the Calder Cup Finals is the 10th all-time for the city, the first since the Springfield Indians won back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991.
“It was kind of the first time we faced adversity,” the Thunderbirds goaltender said. Charlie Lindgren said of the Laval series. “I think it was really good for us to pass. We knew there would be bumps in the road eventually.
Speaking of goalkeepers, both clubs have plenty of talent in that position.
Veteran Alexander Lyons owned the Chicago net for the first two rounds before Piotr KochetkovCarolina’s return at the start of the Stockton series. Faced with a busy schedule, Warsofsky alternated starters in the Conference Finals; Lyon (8-2, 1.96, 0.924) and Kochetkov (2-1, 1.94, 0.941) each won two games and each posted a shutout.
The peloton seems to have pushed the Lyon game even further.
“I’m excited when I’m surrounded by very detailed, high-performing goalkeepers,” Lyon said. “It forces me to be better.”
Bannister can turn to Lindgren or Joel Hoferand he did a lot of both in a format quite similar to that employed by Chicago.
Hofer (6-2, 2.08, .947), a 2018 Blues fourth-round pick, started Games 1, 3, 4 and 6 of the Conference Finals. Lindgren (4-1, 2.47, .924) recalled part of the playoffs at St. Louis and was called up in Game 7, but no one would have been surprised by either goalkeepers taking this start.
On the blue lines, Chicago has plenty of dangerous movers who keep honest opponents in the neutral zone. Jalen Chatfield, Cavan Fitzgerald, Josh Jacobs, Joey Kean, Max Lajoieand winner of the 2019 Calder Cup Jesper Sellgren lead the group.
Springfield counters with captain Tommy’s Cross, Brady Lyle, Steven Santiniand Tyler Tucker to provide sufficient abrasiveness defensively. Rosen Streetone of the AHL’s most talented defensemen and 2018 Calder Cup champion with the Toronto Marlies, joined the St. Louis Thunderbirds in the Eastern Conference Final and provided three assists in seven games.
Cross and the Springfield defense force will be tasked with managing Chicago’s offense, which is averaging a league-high 4.15 goals per game in the playoffs.
“I think you just need to start with time and respect for the opponent,” Cross said of his team’s pre-scouting work on Wolves. “They’ve obviously had a hell of a year, and some of the players on their team have done some pretty amazing things.”
Major differences exist between the attacking groups of the two teams. While Wolves can punish opponents with an aggressive puck-chasing game that relies on great transition play, Springfield uses a heavy, crushing style that has eventually worn down opponents, most recently Laval.
With Chicago, NHL veteran Josh Leivo led the Calder Cup playoffs in three rounds with 20 points (a league high with 11 goals and nine assists) in 13 games. Poturalski, the 2019 playoff MVP, was the AHL’s leading scorer for the second straight season, tallying 101 points (28 goals, 73 assists) in 71 games as the league’s leading 100-point scorer since 2009-10. First All-Star Team Member Stefan Noesen scored a league-record 48 goals and finished third in the AHL with 85 points.
Rookie striker Jack Drurry, considered a strong candidate for regular work with Carolina next season, completed a strong regular season to post 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 13 playoff games. Even more forward depth comes via Jamieson Rees, david gust, Vasili Ponomarev, C.J. Smithand 2012 Calder Cup champion Richard Panic.
“They definitely have some guys there that we’ll need to know when they’re on the ice,” Lindgren said. “We have to make sure we’re smart.”
Anas had just one point ― an assist in Game 7 ― in the Conference Finals, but he’s still among the AHL’s most dangerous point guards and had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 13 playoff games. NHL Veteran James Neelin a league final for the third time in six years after playing for the Stanley Cup in 2017 with Nashville and 2018 with Vegas, plays the first six minutes for the Thunderbirds, as does Matthew Pecawho was also a Calder Cup finalist with Syracuse in 2017.
A tumultuous line of Mackenzie MacEachern, Dakota Joshuaand will be bitten created constant havoc against Laval. Nikita Alexandrov, Hugh McGingand Klim Kostin complement an excellent top nine and can move up and down in range.
“We are very excited right now after an emotional win in Game 7,” Anas said. “We’re on the road, which I think always brings a team that little bit closer together. I think we’re really excited to get things done here.
Both head coaches enter this highly regarded final series. Warsofsky, at 34, the AHL’s youngest head coach this season, was an assistant for Charlotte’s 2019 Calder Cup championship. Bannister played 18 professional seasons as a defenseman, including 164 NHL games, and won a Calder Cup with the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2000.
And little seems to faze either club. The Thunderbirds withstood the noisy atmosphere of Place Bell during their clash with Laval, winning two of three games in a hostile environment. Leading 3-0 at Stockton, Wolves lost back-to-back games in overtime before closing out the Heat in Game 6.
“[The postseason] becomes more and more meaningful the further you go,” Cross said. “You win one streak and win the next streak, and you’ve had adversity and you’ve come through it.
“I think the more time and success you have as a group, it becomes more and more meaningful. [We are still] push and have a chance to be the last team standing.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently co-host of the podcast Around the A.
Patrick received the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for Outstanding League Coverage in 2016.