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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Iowa: hard hitting and low scoring

The story of the Des Moines-based Iowa Stars in the playoffs this year is the team was assured of a playoff berth late in the season as Peoria faded. It is the second season for the team and it has successfully made it to the playoffs each time.

The 2006 first round playoffs went to seven games against the Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals, of course, went on to play in the league finals. The series against the Wolves is the first time the two teams have ever met in the post-season. In the first round, Iowa and the Omaha Ak-sar-Ben Knights played very physical games which were marred by questionable on-ice officiating. Dan Ellis has played in the nets for Iowa throughout the playoffs. The backup goalie is Tomas Stephan of Switzerland.

Ellis saved 89.4 percent, averaging 2.78 goals against average. Stephan, who played about half as many games as Ellis, averaged 90 percent saves and had a 2.88 GAA in the regular season. During the playoffs, Ellis has improved to 91.3 percent saves and a GAA of 2.09. Wolves goalie Michael Garnett, in comparison, has improved to a 93.6 percent saves and allowed 1.67 GAA in the playoffs, up substantially from 89.9 percent saves and 3.03 GAA in the regular season. Fred Brathwaite, who the Wolves have not used in net in the playoffs, averaged 90.2 percent saves and 2.74 GAA in the regular season.

The Dallas Stars, who have been eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs, sent three players to Iowa at the end of their season: Joel Lundqvist, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Grossman. Of the three Swedes, Lundqvist has only played in three playoff games and already leads all Iowa skaters with three goals and three assists. Junior Lessard, is proving to be hot, he has five points in the playoffs. Marty Sertich, who was sidelined with an injury for 25 games is also in the line-up. He has one assist so far, in two games.

The team was among the better road teams during regular season play, with 25 wins. They also had a great record in winning games past regulation during the regular season, eight wins, including four shoot-outs, for the second best record in the league. Their road percentage was even better, six of those eight out of regulation wins, were road victories.

The Stars notched a disappointing 14.5 percent power play in the regular season and a respectable, tenth place, 84.3 percent penalty kill. This has improved to 86.5 percent in the post-season. The Wolves stand at 95 percent in the post-season. And the Iowa power play has improved to 16 percent. The Wolves power play deteriorated from the regular season to 11.5 percent from 20.4 percent.

The hard hitting series with Omaha went six games. After losing game one, Iowa held Omaha scoreless for 20 minutes to win the second game in overtime. In game three, the Stars evened up the goals in the first period, holding the Knights to only one goal. Game four saw the Knights take an early lead and lose it. Game five, again, an early Knights lead, the Stars coming from behind and leading the game, then Omaha evening it up again, Omaha won this game in OT. The final game was a back and forth game of Iowa leads and Omaha evening up the score till Iowa took a one goal lead in the final frame. In desperation, Omaha pulled goalie Curtis McElhinney from the nets, but Lessard potted two empty net goals to finish the Knights season.

The pattern emerges of winning when defense is tight, each of the won games, Omaha had two goals or less. When Omaha scored three or more goals, they won. Except for game six, Iowa never scored more than three goals in the series. Given the descriptions of physical play, it seems like a team that likes to slow down play, clog up the approaches to the net. The other thing that emerges is a team that comes from behind and also warms up in the first period. They held the Knights to just four goals in the third frame over six games. Two of those goals occurred in game one.

The other thing is the team doesn’t take a lot of shots on goal. Game one, 19. Game two, 24. Game three, 20. Game four, 24. Game five, 30. And game six, 23. Obviously, there were periods in which very few Iowa shots on goal occurred, notably game one, third frame: five.

The flip side of this is that Omaha had few shots on goal too, 149 over six games, an average of 24.8 a game, compared to the Stars 140 total or an average of 23.3.

In comparison, the Wolves had 115 shots on goal in the series against the defensive minded Milwaukee Admirals, an average of 28.75.

Looking at how the two teams have matched up this past season:

Date Visiting Team Score Home Team Score CHI Goalie IOW Goalie
2006-11-14 Chicago 8 Iowa 2 Garnett Ellis
2006-12-12 Chicago 7 Iowa 3 Brathwaite Stephan
2007-01-23 Chicago 2 Iowa 3 SO Garnett Ellis
2007-01-27 Chicago 7 Iowa 3 Brathwaite Ellis
2007-03-23 Chicago 2 Iowa 3 Garnett Ellis
2006-10-28 Iowa 5 Chicago 4 OT Garnett Ellis
2006-11-26 Iowa 6 Chicago 3 Garnett Stephan
2006-11-29 Iowa 2 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Stephan
2006-12-05 Iowa 2 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Ellis
2007-04-14 Iowa 0 Chicago 5 Brathwaite Stephan

Although Garnett has the hot hand, he has not fared well against the Stars. Brathwaite should see more time in the pipes. Expect Ellis to start against Chicago. The game is likely to be very physical. There are notes that Iowa coach Dave Allison lost his temper at Omaha fans at the start of the series. In addition, the two teams were running each other’s goalies, especially a final game incident by Omaha.

So, lots of penalties. Chicago is 12 for 54 on the power play in the regular season against the Stars, 22.2 percent. Iowa is 9 for 66 on the power play against Chicago, 13.6 percent.

Keys to the game. Keep the game moving, don’t let Iowa slow the action down. Keep the shots ringing on their iron. Stay out of the penalty box. Our power play is better than their power play. And our penalty kill is better than their penalty kill.

Neutralize Lundqvist. Get under the skin of Allison. Don’t let Yared Hagos get under the skin of the Chicagoans. This is a very winnable series. But this team keeps coming back, so when the Wolves get them by the nuts, they need to scramble their brains.

The series is in a 2-3-2 format, with the first game occurring at the Allstate Arena, Wednesday, May 2nd 7:00 PM, followed by a game Friday May 4th 7:30 PM. If necessary, game five will be played Saturday May 12th 7:00 PM and Monday May 14th 7:00 PM.

Iowa plays in the Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa against Chicago May 8th 7:05 PM, May 10th 7:05 PM and if necessary May 12th 7:00 PM.

Friday, April 27, 2007


The Chicago Wolves swept the Milwaukee Admirals in four games to advance in the American Hockey League Western Division playoffs. The Wolves now face the winner of the Iowa Stars- Omaha Ak-sar-Ben Knights playoffs. The Stars lead that series 3-0.

The game three victory came Tuesday night in the Bradley Center, a 3-2 win with Milwaukee scoring its only power play goal of the series. A late third period power play goal by Brett Sterling, however, won the game for the Wolves.

The game four victory, also at the Bradley Center, was a 3-2 overtime come from behind victory as Darren Haydar tied the game early in the third period, and Brian Fahey won it in the extra period.

Wolves coach John Anderson started Michael Garnett in the pipes for all four games in the series. Garnett held the Admirals to seven goals, including a penalty shot goal, in the series on 110 shots. The Admirals had 22 power plays, but only scored on one.

The Wolves beat Nashville prospect Pekka Rinne in each of the contests. He gave up 13 goals on 115 shots. Chicago had 26 power plays, but only converted three to goals.

The Wolves scored first in each game. The Tuesday night game was the only game in which they didn’t score in the first frame. Their win in game four was the first game in 18 outings, that the team was trailing, heading into the third frame, and came back to win.

After a number of great saves by both goalies in the first and second periods, the puck was stripped in the Admirals zone by Jason Krog, who poked it to Darren Haydar, along the boards and close to the circle. Haydar one-timed it to Jordan LaVallee between the hash marks who wristed it in past Rinne more than ten minutes into the second frame. Four minutes later Brian Sipotz interrupted a play with a great check on Pat Leahy into the near boards. The puck spun around the perimeter to Mark Popovic behind the Wolves goal, who sent it on to Haydar, near the blue line. Chasing the puck, Haydar caught it near the center line and found no one between him and Rinne. He quickly closed in and scored making the score 2-0 at the end of the second frame.

Milwaukee has outscored the Wolves 5-3 in the third periods of the series, with its best efforts coming then. Forty-eight of its 110 shots occurred in third periods of the series. Tuesday night, once again, Milwaukee dominated the third period, scoring. Rich Peverly set up the first Milwaukee goal, crossing the far end of the blue line, he brought the puck along the boards and into the far circle. Passing the puck cross ice to Leahy, Leahy fired a one-timer at Garnett who deflected it with his pads. The puck spun into the corner where Cory Larose picked it up and passed it to center ice where an Admiral deflected it to Chris Durno.

Durno passed it cross ice to Leahy, who was skating through the far circle toward Garnett. Leahy’s one-timer was a lovely shot that appears to have gone under Garnett’s pads, making the score 2-1. However, Leahy set-up the game winning goal, when he was called for high-sticking late in the period while Milwaukee was trying to put an extra man advantage against Chicago.

Instead, with less than three minutes to play, Chicago had a man advantage. Nathan Oystrick, entering the Milwaukee zone at the near blue line made a cross-ice pass that threaded through a number of defenders to Brett Sterling, who was moving through the far circle. Sterling’s one-timer beat Rinne cold to make the score 3-1. Minor penalties, first on LaVallee and then Popovic, with less than 90 seconds, gave Milwaukee a continuous power play till the end of the game. Although Durno was able to score, with just 22 seconds remaining, the Wolves held on to win 3-2.

With the Wolves leading the series 3-0, Wednesday was a do or die game for the Admirals. It looked like the Admirals were going to win and certainly dominate the first period, with a doubling of the shots on goal against the Wolves. However, Rinne came out of the net, to the far end of the circle to play a puck. He blew a tire and took down the only Admirals player nearby, leaving Brett Sterling alone in the zone with the puck. It was an easy goal for a 1-0 lead.

Moments later, Kevin Klein put one into traffic that struck the skate of a Chicago defender and deflected into the net, first reports had credited the goal to Ramzi Abid. In the second period, Cal O’Reilly made a screened cross-ice pass to Brandon Segal in the far circle. Segal made a one-timer that beat Garnett cold, giving Milwaukee its only lead in the series, 2-1.

Milwaukee held its lead into the third frame. With a little under six minutes remaining, Chicago got a power play. Working the boards, the puck found its way to Jason Krog, but was deflected by Rinne. Rinne and Krog fell in a heap outside the goal mouth, while the puck skittered away to Haydar, just to the near side of the goal line. He fired a shot that found its way under Krog and Rinne and into the goal to tie the game 2-2.

In the overtime, Guillaume Desbiens fought for a loose puck along the boards. He popped it out, centering it to Brian Fahey, who was between the hash marks. Fahey’s goal ended the Milwaukee season—just—like—that.

Rinne’s performance has to concern the Nashville Predators. He was unable to withstand the pressure of the playoffs. On the other hand, Michael Garnett is a much more valuable goaltender today, than a month ago. Although both goalies made great saves, the bottom line is one won four, one lost four.

Rookie Matt Anderson, who is not related to coach John Anderson, received a goal and an assist in three games, with a +1. Rookie Sterling is again keeping pace with his more experienced teammates with three goals and two assists. Haydar, who was on the Admirals last season, was responsible for four goals and three assists.

The Chicago top line of Haydar, Krog and Sterling were responsible for seven of Chicago’s goals. LaVallee joined the line for one goal in game three when Sterling was temporarily sidelined. Krog put himself on the line several times, notably in game four, to stop power play opportunities and finally setup a goal.

Now that the Gwinnett Gladiators and the Atlanta Thrashers are out of the playoffs, the reinforcements have arrived. Derek MacKenzie has not hit the transaction wire from Atlanta. However, three Gwinnett players are in the black aces seats: Dan Turple, Colton Fretter and Scott Lehman.

Looking ahead, here is how Chicago fared against each of its potential opponents in the regular season:

Wolves record against Omaha:
2006-11-03 Chicago @ 3 Omaha 1 Final
2006-11-22 Chicago @ 6 Omaha 3 Final
2007-01-05 Chicago @ 5 Omaha 1 Final
2007-01-26 Chicago @ 5 Omaha 0 Final
2007-03-16 Chicago @ 5 Omaha 4 Final OT
2006-10-15 Omaha @ 4 Chicago 2 Final
2006-12-15 Omaha @ 1 Chicago 9 Final
2007-02-24 Omaha @ 2 Chicago 0 Final
2007-02-25 Omaha @ 4 Chicago 2 Final
2007-04-15 Omaha @ 4 Chicago 2 Final

And against Iowa:
2006-11-14 Chicago @ 8 Iowa 2 Final
2006-12-12 Chicago @ 7 Iowa 3 Final
2007-01-23 Chicago @ 2 Iowa 3 Final SO
2007-01-27 Chicago @ 7 Iowa 3 Final
2007-03-23 Chicago @ 2 Iowa 3 Final
2006-10-28 Iowa @ 5 Chicago 4 Final OT
2006-11-26 Iowa @ 6 Chicago 3 Final
2006-11-29 Iowa @ 2 Chicago 5 Final
2006-12-05 Iowa @ 2 Chicago 5 Final
2007-04-14 Iowa @ 0 Chicago 5 Final

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Chicago in unaccustomed position: leads playoffs 2-0 over Admirals

For the first time all season, the Chicago Wolves won a game at home against the Milwaukee Admirals. In fact, they won two in the American Hockey League Western Division Semifinals this weekend at the Allstate Arena.

A dominating Wolves came out to play Friday night in game one. Allowing just six Milwaukee shots on goal in their first period, the Wolves defense stepped up and so did goaltender Michael Garnett, who turned aside all the Milwaukee attempts in the period.

The Wolves, who have struggled since before the New Year, but have one of the best regular season records for offense based on the first two and half months of the season, brought the first rubber to the net with just one minute, 27 seconds on the clock when the first shift, under Andy Delmore brought a puck across the center circle into the Admirals zone and fired from the far boards. Brett Sterling was playing just outside the net and rebounded it in for his first goal of the night and in his playoff record.

A little under eleven minutes later Admiral’s goaltender Pekka Rinne went behind his net to play a puck to the far boards where Sheldon Brookbank was waiting. He was checked by Andre Deveaux and coughed up the puck to Colin Stuart. The puck was chipped into the corner then found its way to the slot where it was backhanded by Kevin Doell through traffic to light the lamp.

With the score 2-0, the Admirals and the Wolves went after each other more physically in the second period. At 8.37 into the period, it came to a head when a scrum in front of the Wolves goal left three players on the ice. As Milwaukee’s Chris Durno got up to leave, his skate hooked on Garnett’s leg and Garnett fell, earning a diving penalty. Boris Valabik picked Durno up and shook him like dog shakes a rabbit. But Durno refused to drop his gloves, hoping to draw a penalty from Valabik. Valabik didn’t punch Durno, but continued to shake him and received a double minor, while Brookbank and Durno each received minors. The penalties led to a 5-3 power play by the Admirals in which many of the nine shots on goal for the period were registered. Yet, Garnett held on.

At 14.03 Chicago’s first line got a power play opportunity that it was able to score on with Sterling getting his second goal of the night with assists by Jason Krog and Darren Haydar.

Early in the third period, Milwaukee finally replied when Cal O’Reilly was fed the puck from the opposing circle. He caught Garnett flat footed and the pipes undefended for one of the most beautiful scores of the season. Minutes later, Rich Peverly broke away to the Chicago net, Chicago’s Delmore was in hot pursuit. As they passed through the hash marks Delmore reached around Peverly and caused Peverly to go crashing into the ice and the boards. Peverly was awarded a penalty shot by referee Brian Pochmara, which he lifted over Garnett’s shoulder and into the net for the final goal.

Garnett stopped just 22 Admirals shots in a game that saw the Admirals almost win with just 20 minutes of effort. The loss went to Rinne who stopped 30 shots. The only power play was scored by Chicago’s Sterling in the second period. The Wolves were one for nine on the power play. The Admirals were zero for six.

Milwaukee suffered from lack of discipline in the loss, although the Wolves were unable to convert more power plays into goals, the multiple penalties gave the Wolves a chance to rest compared to the Admirals.

Sunday afternoon’s game was a replay. Garnett started in the pipes again, as did Rinne. As on Friday, the Admirals failed to put many shots on goal in the first, five shots, and second, eight shots, periods. Although the Admirals were more disciplined, taking just ten minutes of penalties and affording Chicago five power plays, to the six minutes of penalties and three power plays given up by the Wolves, the die seemed cast already.

Haydar made a two on one break-away just six minutes into the game. Moving quickly through the near circle, Haydar held the puck as an Admiral cut off his cross ice pass. However the defensive move caused Rinne to become tangled as the blue liner slid into the goal. Haydar waited till Rinne was completely immersed in arms and legs, firing it in for the goal. Five minutes later Matt Anderson, a rookie from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst got his first professional goal. The Wolves were working the puck around, firing everything they could at Rinne when Anderson picked up a rebound outside the crease and put it through. Anderson was signed to an Amateur Tryout by the Wolves late in March. The game was his first appearance with the Wolves. The goal occurred on his second shift.

In the second period, Durno put one behind Garnett which somehow avoided crossing the goal line. Moments later, Haydar picked up a puck near center ice and crossed to the near circle, where he fed Sterling on the opposite circle. Sterling wristed it in for a goal.

In the final period of play the Admirals put more shots on goal than in the rest of the game combined. They held the Wolves to just four shots in the period. The strategy of putting the puck at the net paid off for the Admirals when Jason Guerriero and Peverly got a two on zero break away, easily beating Garnett to make the score 3-1. Rinne was recalled to the bench with a little over two minutes to play. With a six on five advantage, Garnett was under pressure, yet several shots at the empty Admirals net did not persuade the Admirals to take greater care of the puck. Finally, Cory Larose caught a puck that bounced loose of a check at center ice, and skating alone into the Admirals zone, he made an empty net goal, finishing the Admirals 4-1.

Garnett stopped 29 shots for the win. Rinne stopped 20 shots for the loss. Leading the best of seven playoff series now 2-0, play moves to the Milwaukee Bradley Center for two mid-week games.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Exciting loss closes regular season for Wolves

In the American Hockey League, the regular season ended Sunday. Two races were decided on Sunday involving three teams within a short driving distance of Chicago. The Chicago Wolves and the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights fought a fairly even game until penalties with less than four minutes remaining gave Chicago its best shot at evening the score.

Chicago needed a regulation win in the game to take the division crown from Omaha and was, at that point, behind by one goal. Pulling the goalie, Chicago put a 5-3 power play on the ice at 17.07 but failed to stop an Omaha empty net goal that iced the game and the season for the Knights at 19.09.

It was an outstanding effort by Michael Garnett, who took the loss. He stopped 29 pucks among an onslaught of Omaha. Warren Peters of Omaha and Cory Larose of Chicago both scored two goals in the game. Game winner Curtis McElhinney stopped 24 shots in a determined Chicago effort.

The Knights face the Iowa Stars in the first post season divisional semi-finals. Here are the results from this season in that contest:

2006-10-27 Omaha @ 2 Iowa 1 Final
2006-12-26 Omaha @ 2 Iowa 5 Final
2006-12-31 Omaha @ 5 Iowa 1 Final
2007-02-16 Omaha @ 2 Iowa 1 Final OT
2007-03-30 Omaha @ 3 Iowa 1 Final
2007-04-03 Omaha @ 2 Iowa 1 Final
2006-10-26 Iowa @ 3 Omaha 4 Final
2006-11-04 Iowa @ 3 Omaha 0 Final
2006-12-16 Iowa @ 1 Omaha 3 Final
2006-12-29 Iowa @ 3 Omaha 1 Final
2007-01-19 Iowa @ 1 Omaha 3 Final
2007-03-07 Iowa @ 3 Omaha 0 Final

Chicago will face the Milwaukee Admirals in their first post season divisional finals. The Wolves have been on the receiving end of the Admirals all season, with wins at the Bradley Center for the Chicagoans in the last two weeks.

Since joining the AHL, the Wolves and the Admirals have only met one time in post-season play. That was in 2004 and the Admirals defeated the Wolves in six games, the Rochester Americans in five and when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins lost in four games, that gave the Admirals their first banner in more than a decade and the Calder Cup.

The Admirals and the Wolves have met two other times in post season play in the International Hockey League, with the Wolves topping the Admirals in 1998 and again in 2001.

Milwaukee has qualified for the playoffs every year since 2003. The Houston Aeros sent them home in 2003 after three games. The Admirals had beaten the Rochester Americans in three that year to get to the conference finals. In 2005 it was the team formerly known as the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, now the Portland Pirates, who sent them home in four games. Last year they made the Calder Cup finals, finally losing the series to the Champion Hershey Bears at the Bradley Center in six. Along the way, Milwaukee bested the Iowa Stars in seven, the Aeros in 4, and the Griffins in four.

Chicago qualified for post-season play every season of its eleven year history, except last. The Wolves won the Calder Cup in 2002 with wins over the Mighty Ducks in three, the Grand Rapids Griffins in five, the Syracuse Crunch in seven, the Houston Aeros in five to win the cup at home against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in five games.

The Wolves were eliminated from the 2003 cup race with wins against the Griffins in four and a loss to the Hershey Bears in five. The 2004 race saw the Wolves defeat the Griffins in four before losing to the Admirals. In 2005 the Wolves made it to the finals of the cup race, with series wins over the Aeros in five, the Ducks in five, the Manitoba Moose in four, before being swept by the Philadelphia Phantoms in four.

Milwaukee’s Sheldon Brookbank was awarded the Eddie Shore award for defense this season. While Pekka Rinne was ranked sixth among league goalies. The Milwaukee penalty kill is ranked third in the league at 86.1 percent. Rich Peverly is the ninth ranked player for short handed goals, with four and is the 18th ranked player for goals with 30 in the regular season.

Darren Haydar of the Wolves received the league’s Les Cunningham award for Most Valuable Player Award and the John B Sollenberger Trophy for leading scorer in the league. His +/- rating of +24 ranked him eighth among players in defense. Rookie Brett Sterling received the Willie Marshall award as the leader in goal production and the Dudley Red Garrett Award for Rookie of the Year. Defenseman Brian Sipotz tops all league defensemen with a +/- rating of +34 and was recognized by the club for outstanding public service. Derek MacKenzie, who is currently playing with the Atlanta Thrashers, tops all league players with five short handed goals. Brad Schell was named ECHL MVP and to the league's All-Star first team. He scored 110 points this season, including 85 assists which places him fourth in the league among all-time assists.

The Wolves power play is third ranked in the league at 20.4 percent.

Brookbank, Sterling and Haydar were all named to the AHL’s first team All-Stars. Chicago’s Nathan Oystrick was named to the second team All-Stars.

The contest between a high-powered offense and a high powered defense has been in Milwaukee’s favor this season. Results from the Atlanta Thrashers/ New York Rangers series and the Nashville Predators/ San Jose Sharks series will effect the AHL races if Atlanta and Nashville are terminated before either the Wolves or the Admirals. Here are the results for the season:

2006-10-13 Chicago @ 7 Milwaukee 5 Final
2006-12-26 Chicago @ 5 Milwaukee 4 Final OT
2007-01-06 Chicago @ 2 Milwaukee 4 Final
2007-04-06 Chicago @ 5 Milwaukee 4 Final
2007-04-13 Chicago @ 4 Milwaukee 3 Final SO
2006-10-14 Milwaukee @ 5 Chicago 1 Final
2006-12-16 Milwaukee @ 3 Chicago 2 Final SO
2007-03-10 Milwaukee @ 6 Chicago 4 Final
2007-03-17 Milwaukee @ 5 Chicago 4 Final
2007-03-30 Milwaukee @ 5 Chicago 1 Final

Also decided on Sunday was the last open berth in the playoffs. Peoria needed a win and for Grand Rapids to lose to take the fourth berth in the North Division. Grand Rapids got thumped by Toronto 5-1 in their final road game. However the Admirals shut the Rivermen down 4-0 in the final game of the regular season in Milwaukee. The Griffins go on to face the Manitoba Moose in the first round of the North Division playoffs.

Here are the results of the season for that series:

2006-11-07 Grand Rapids @ 1 Manitoba 2 Final
2006-11-08 Grand Rapids @ 1 Manitoba 2 Final
2007-03-23 Grand Rapids @ 2 Manitoba 3 Final SO
2007-03-24 Grand Rapids @ 3 Manitoba 4 Final SO
2006-11-03 Manitoba @ 0 Grand Rapids 4 Final
2006-11-04 Manitoba @ 4 Grand Rapids 5 Final SO
2007-03-16 Manitoba @ 3 Grand Rapids 2 Final SO
2007-03-17 Manitoba @ 3 Grand Rapids 2 Final

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Wolves win two over IHL rivals; home ice advantage

To start with, the Wolves have clinched home ice advantage in the first round of the Western Division playoffs, which will start in about ten days. In addition, the Wolves have won two games in a row this weekend, which is putting distance between them and the Milwaukee Admirals, but also keeping them on the heels of the now first place Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights.

The Knights won one game this weekend. They faced two weak opponents in the San Antonio Rampage and the Houston Aeros, and came up with three points despite the loss because of an overtime point in Houston.

The victory of the Wolves over the third place Milwaukee Admirals was a surprise. The Admirals, who have dominated the Wolves this season, had billed the event as a guaranteed overtime in a ticket promotion to fans. The first period action, and the start of the second period was dominated by the Wolves, who went up 4-0, before the Admirals came back and tied the game 4-4. A power play goal by Nathan Oystrick put the Wolves over the top to best their old International Hockey League rivals at the Bradley Center Friday.

On Saturday night, at the Allstate, the Wolves dominated another IHL rival, the Grand Rapids Griffins, in the Griffins eighth straight road game loss. The Wolves came out and were cruising along beating on the Griffins when a mishandled puck allowed the Griffins to score on an empty net during a Wolves power play, tying the game 1-1 in the first period. The Wolves came back to dominate the first period, putting 14 shots on Griffin goalkeeper Stefan Liv, compared to the Griffins just five shots on goal and ended the period up 2-1. However the Griffins answered in the second period, again tying the game 2-2 before the Wolves scored three more times. The final here was 5-3, Chicago.

Peoria was given some hope with the Wolves win. The Rivermen are chasing the North Division Griffins, and trail them by three points for the last North Division berth. The Griffins face the third place North Division Hamilton Bulldogs three times in the next seven days, and then face the last place North Division Toronto Marlies at home to end the season. The Rivermen face the first place Admirals and then play a home and home series against the Knights before ending the season against the Admirals in Milwaukee on Sunday.

The Manitoba Moose have captured the North Division banner for the year. They shut out the Rivermen last night for the honor. If Peoria plays in the North Division, they would face the Moose in the playoffs. It is the first ever division crown for the Moose franchise, who have a hot new goalie in the pipes. Dov Grumet-Morris has stopped 105 of 106 shots on goal in three starts, with a GAA of .32 and two shut outs.

The Norfolk Admirals will probably not place first in the East Division at this point. The East is very tight, with the Hershey Bears leading the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins by two points and the Admirals by four points. The Admirals, an affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, with the affiliation, and the players and coaching staff, moving to Rockford next season, lost to the Bears on Saturday 6-1.

One of the tightest races still to be determined is for the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Division, with the Albany River Rats and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers now separated by just one point in the standings. They actually faced each other last night and, as if this race couldn’t get any more interesting, the final score was 3-2 in a shoot-out, thus the one point lead by the Rats.

There is a rumor that there is a division in New England that goes home to their beds after every game. There is reportedly a race here too, with the sixth place team, the Portland Pirates, holding 82 points and the third place team, the Worcester Sharks, just 89 points.

Over in the United Hockey League, congratulations to the Chicago Hounds. In their inaugural season, the team has made the playoffs. They will be playing the Fort Wayne Komets in round one. The Rockford IceHogs have been assured of a playoff bid for sometime, and Illinois hockey fans, we will see one of the biggest rivalries in the state for the last time ever here: the Hogs face the Quad City Mallards in round one.

Friday, April 06, 2007

2nd Place Wolves

The Wolves are neither here, nor are they there. Now trailing the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights by two points, all without playing a game, the end of the season and the tightness of the Western Division race is now so marked that I can foresee an end to this season with the Wolves tied with the Milwaukee Admirals and the Knights.

So, the season comes down to the final week and probably even comes down to the final games, in the case of the Wolves that is next weekend, playing the Admirals in the Bradley Center on Friday the 13th, the fourth place Iowa Stars on Saturday night at the Allstate Arena and Knights on Sunday afternoon.

Why did the Wolves, so hot and scoring with abandon early in the season, end the season so cool? And, with the Knights having trailed the Wolves for so long, why not look even further behind and realize the hot team in the Western Division is the Milwaukee Admirals?

I’ll repeat that in a different way. The Wolves turned cool in the second half of the year. The Knights came within three of the Wolves weeks ago. The Wolves haven’t significantly improved to hold the Knights off, so it has to be that the Knights have, along with the Wolves, been cool.

It is time to look at the leadership. For years I have held off criticizing John Anderson. But I have felt his work behind the bench in the Philadelphia Calder season was disappointing. There were structural problems, too, for the Wolves that season, which finally came into clear view during the playoffs. So, I’m not blaming Anderson entirely for the loss. But, he didn’t seem to be able to adapt to the Phantoms play.

And the Phantoms won. And the Phantoms deserved the win.

Now, with four top-scoring players and also some key defensive players, such as Andy Delmore, the Wolves face a tougher opponent, who they have not beaten at home all season.

Claude Noel. I had to eat crow about the Milwaukee Admirals last season, significantly underestimating them. I haven’t done that this year, though I have always felt that the Wolves were the better team, on raw talent.

Yet they have taken all of the games the Wolves have played against the Admirals at the Allstate. Guys, put on the burgundy. Sleep in a hotel. Do what it takes to take the last two games against the Admirals.

And coach, you need to stop trying to look cool among the season ticket holders. You need to explain your philosophy. Among the season tickets holders there is an increasing volume belonging to the people who want your contract terminated.

Why did the team peak early? Let’s think back about the Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins that peaked early last season (if my memory serves me), and the Rochester Americans who peaked early the season before. Both exited early.

Meltdowns in the second half should not happen.

As far as Claude Noel… god bless this man. He deserves a shot at the NHL. Take a look back at my comments when Denis Savard was picked to lead the Blackhawks. Kick the great Savard upstairs and offer that Chicago position to Noel. It would be a great choice for the Madison Avenue minor league team and would strike a great marketing blow against the Wolves too.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2-1 Loss to Griffs = Playoff Berth!

Another loss for the Wolves, who have been cold in the second half of the season, 2-1 overtime against the Grand Rapids Griffins in Grand Rapids on Saturday. The one point game and a loss by the Peoria Rivermen, however, placed the Wolves into a playoff berth.

The game winning goal came after Michael Garnett stopped 37 shots on goal. The power play blow was delivered by ex-Wolf Kip Miller with just 54 seconds remaining before a shoot out.

Chicago took the lead in the first period of the contest. Mark Popovic’s loan goal stood till about 3.37 left in the game, despite 39 shots on Jimmy Howard by the Wolves offense. At that point Scott Parse put a rebound in off of a Matt Ellis shot, 1-1 and overtime.

In the overtime period, only one shot (the game winner) was registered. Nathan Oystrick took a hooking penalty at 3.35 giving the Griffins a 4 on 3 advantage for the remainder of the overtime. Miller’s goal was his 25th of the year. Howard received the win with 34 saves.

Omaha also received a berth despite its loss to the Manitoba Moose on Saturday. The Knights trail the Wolves by two points and have three games in hand. They play Iowa tonight in Des Moines. The Iowa Stars are in a race for the final Western Division playoff spot with the Peoria Rivermen. Iowa has been on a surge lately, and has six points on the Rivermen with the Rivermen having one game in hand. Peoria plays the fading Houston Aeros tonight in Texas.

The Wolves next game is against the Milwaukee Admirals in Milwaukee, Friday. Milwaukee is making a late run at first place. They could overtake both the Knights and the Wolves, they are currently four points behind the Wolves, two points behind Omaha, with Omaha holding three games on the Admirals.

In the North Division, the Griffin win helps it put distance on Peoria, which has the opportunity this year to hop over to the North Division for the playoffs. The Griffins have five points on the Rivermen. The Manitoba Moose also gained a playoff berth in the post-season, despite their loss to the Stars.

In the Atlantic Division the Manchester Monarchs were the first to gain a playoff berth. They defeated the second place Hartford Wolfpack for the berth. With three berths already gone in the East Division, there is a very interesting race for the final playoff spot developing. Both the Albany River Rats and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have 74 points and 73 games played for the final spot.

Both teams play weak opponents tomorrow: Albany at Springfield and Bridgeport at Philadelphia. The two teams face each other of Saturday in Albany.