📝 by Patrick Williams
Chicago Wolves Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky compares his club’s Western Conference Finals matchup with the Stockton Heat to a heavyweight boxing match.
This fight between the top two regular season clubs in the American Hockey League begins tonight when Wolves host Stockton in Game 1 at Allstate Arena (8 ET, AHLTV). Chicago finished first overall in the AHL with a 50-16-5-5 (.724) record, passing Stockton (45-16-5-2, .713) on the final night of the regular season for the trophy. Macgregor Kilpatrick.
“These are two teams that are good, that have been at the top of the league all season, that have not seen each other, and [will] probably kinda feel for each other,” Warsofsky said.
“Then they will kick each other hard.”
Stockton head coach says Mitch Love“Wolves are always ready to win a Calder Cup, so we know we have our hands full here with this group, and they are the best in the league.”
Now that they’ve heard so much about each other for months, they’re finally going to see each other. Much of this series represents the AHL at its best – highly touted National Hockey League prospects and some of the game’s best young talent, elite veteran leaders and burgeoning head coaches.
On offense, Stockton averaged 3.56 goals per game during the regular season, third most in the AHL. Chicago finished fourth at 3.43. Their power plays are both converted at 19.6% efficiency.
Defensively, Chicago allowed a league-low 2.55 goals per game; Stockton ranked third (2.72) and was first shorthanded (86.6%) while scoring an AHL-leading 15 shorthanded goals. Wolves’ shorthanded ranked fifth overall with 83.2%.
Look on the ice, and the abundant talent fosters that admiration.
Stockton have an exceptional rookie goalkeeper Dustin Wolf, who shut out the mighty Colorado Eagles three times in four games in the Pacific Division Finals. A 21-year-old seventh-round pick by the Calgary Flames in 2019, Wolf earned the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the AHL’s Top Goaltender as well as First Team and Team berths. AHL Rookie All-Stars. Right behind him is a capable veteran Adam Werner.
But Chicago can counter with a veteran Alexander Lyons, who earned his own hardware this season by winning the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for helping Wolves score the fewest goals against in the league. Lyon has an exciting prospect for the Carolina Hurricanes Piotr Kochetkov to complete it in net.
The blue line of each club is dominant. Calgary Flames first-round pick Juuso Valimaki and 2020-21 AHL Canadian Division All-Star Connor Mackey are back after some time with the NHL club for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nick DeSimone, Andy Welinskyand former Calder Cup champion Kevin Gravel are seasoned veterans. Chicago can counter with Jalen Chatfield, Cavan Fitzgerald, Josh Jacobs, Joey Kean, Max Lajoieand Jesper Sellgren with a deep group in reserve.
And then there are the attackers.
captain of the wolves Andrew Poturalski (28-73-101) and trio mate Stefan Noesen (48-37-85) were the most dynamic scoring pair in the AHL in more than a decade, both earning AHL First-Team All-Star honors. Poturalski revamped his off-season training schedule, bringing in a new strength coach, and his skating also improved markedly; Warsofsky believes having Poturalski take on a center role brought out his strengths as he led the AHL in points for the second straight season. He’s also a proven force in the playoffs, having won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the Calder Cup playoffs during the Charlotte Checkers Championship in 2019.
Noesen has always had a knack for scoring, but he escaped in 2021-22 to lead the league with 48 goals. Where Poturalski plays an elusive, deceptive game and is able to find the thinnest passing lanes, Noesen (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) plays the role of a bull in front of the net, daring opposing defenders to win in somehow stand on him.
“We’re not afraid of the fight,” Noesen said of Wolves’ ability to mix skill with an element of grinding and feistiness.
Joining Noesen and Poturalski are rookie likes Jack Drurry and Vasili Ponomarevas good as C.J. Smith, david gust, Spencer Smallmanand NHL veterans Josh Leivo and Richard Panicwho won a Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2012. It’s an attack that follows line after line all night long.
for heat, Matthew Phillips plays in much the same mold as Poturalski, a slippery forward who can squeeze into tight areas and has 68 points (31 goals, 37 assists) in 65 games during the regular season. Calgary first-round pick Jacques PelletierHis 62 points (27 goals, 35 assists) in 66 regular season games placed him on the AHL All-Rookie Team. Glenn Gawdin and captain Byron Froese are always reliable and Justin Kirkland broke with 25 regular season goals. Luke Phillip, Walker Duehr, Emilio Pettersen, Martin Pospisil, Adam Ruzicka, Eetu Tuulolaand 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary further strengthen the Heat up front.
Behind the benches, Warsofsky won a Calder Cup as Charlotte’s assistant coach in 2019; Love won the Louis AR Pieri Memorial Award as Outstanding AHL Coach this season after leading Stockton to the best record ever by a Calgary AHL affiliate. Each head coach receives excellent reviews from their players and is widely considered a bright prospect to one day join the long list of AHL alumni in NHL coaching roles.
After several days of pre-scouting and video, each head coach came away impressed with the opposition – and the detail that the other’s club are performing. And even before this series, Chicago had piqued Love’s interest enough that he took time off during the regular season to catch Wolves on video when his schedule permitted.
“I would run a Wolves game just to check them out and see how they play the game,” Love recalled.
Said Warsofsky, “I think we’re excited to take on the challenge. We know they are a very good team in Stockton who have it all. They have good goalkeepers, they have experience, they have skills, they have young prospects who are quite elite, skill-wise. I think it’s a team that looks like us. They like to play fast. There are similarities, the way of play of the two teams. I think they play with a good structure.
“You can tell Mitch did a good job there having them play on the same page.”
Every NHL club and organization also recognizes the opportunity for their young prospects to go deep into the Calder Cup playoffs. Earlier this week, Love hosted the Calgary head coach Darryl SutterEnd of season press conference. One message in particular resonated with Love.
“I listened to Darryl just [for] his thoughts on his group up there. A lot of our guys can take something from where we are and how tough this time of year is. It’s hard to win. »
It is certainly difficult to win a Calder Cup. Having come through the playoffs in 2019, Warsofsky is also well aware of what his players will face from the Heat – and how rare it can be to play hockey in June.
“It will be a very good series,” Warsofsky said, “a good test for us, because I don’t know if we’ve seen a team like this before.
“You’re not guaranteed to have a chance to do it again next year. You are not guaranteed to have a chance to do so in five years. So embrace the moment, embrace the experience.
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 About podcast A.
Patrick received the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for Outstanding League Coverage in 2016.