The Chicago Wolves advanced to the Western Conference Playoffs, sending the Iowa Stars home for the summer in a convincing 5-1 victory Saturday at the Allstate Arena. The Wolves wait for the victor of the Manitoba Moose versus Hamilton Bulldog series which will not end prior to May 14th and in any case by May 16th.
The game got off badly for the Wolves, who gave up their only goal at two minutes plus change into the first period. A long pass from behind the Stars goal line by Mark Ardelan found Chris Conner camped on the Wolves blue line. Wolves defender Boris Valabik was caught flat-footed as Conner advanced on the net, manned by Michael Garnett. Faking Garnett down, Conner twisted around the front door to the side and easily lit the lamp.
Iowa took two penalties in the first period, compared to just one for the Wolves. Neither team was able to capitalize on them. The Iowa penalty kill seemed to consist of spacing four men across the width of the blue line. Two of the players would force the Wolves into the boards by cutting the angle. Often a poke check would cause the puck to bounce loose from the Wolves into the Iowa team’s possession, where it was cleared. The Wolves began battling back against this by dumping the puck and chasing it down. Although, as discussed earlier in the year, this too often results in a turnover of the puck.
Late in the first period Andy Delmore was working to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He passed into the zone to Darren Haydar, who passed to Jason Krog on the back door for a tie score 1-1 with fifty seconds remaining. Just six seconds into the second frame, the Wolves lit the lamp again. Off the face-off Niko Dimitrakos received the puck and put the puck onto Stars goalie Dan Ellis. The rebound found Jordan LaVallee who put it in. From this point the wheels began to come off of the Stars bus quickly. Haydar put an unassisted goal in three and half minutes later, making the score 3-1. Then near the halfway mark of the period the third member of the top line, Brett Sterling put the score at 4-1 on a power play goal.
Three minutes into the final frame, Mark Popovic made the Wolves win certain with another power play goal. Wolves coach John Anderson sent in some players who hadn’t seen much ice time in the playoffs during the closing minutes. The game ended with Boris Valabik receiving a roughing call as a final Iowa push for a goal failed in the last seconds of the game. For his trouble Valabik received a vicious slash after the game from Konstantin Pushkarev.
Valabik was able to hold his temper this game, the bad penalties being taken instead by Marty Wilford, leading to the fourth Chicago goal. Chicago has played two teams in the playoffs with defenses that some people expected to overcome their offense. In the case of Milwaukee, Pekka Rinne was a clearly better goalie than Michael Garnett. Yet in each case the Wolves dominated their opponents.
Dominate might be open to debate by Stars fans. However, three of the four wins in the series were very convincing wins: a 7-0 shutout, a 6-1 and a 5-1 win. The other Chicago win is very problematic for the Wolves and the Stars. The Stars clearly dominated the game, however they were unable to put it away, and the Wolves squeaked out a win. If that game had gone to Iowa, this series would still be on and the Wolves might have been fighting back.
This season, the Wolves have not done well fighting back.
The other key in the last game was Valabik finally holding his temper. As the playoffs heat up it seems the ability of teams to get under each others skins also improves. If Valabik is going to advance in his career he must learn to control his temper. The long layoff will surely help this as Valabik is probably playing through an injury which occurred earlier in the season.
Garnett has held the nets nicely, only losing it in game five of the series. When Garnett is hot, he is dead on. It should be remembered that Garnett has not only played in the National Hockey League, he has also backed the Wolves previous effort to win the Calder. His experience now is paying off.
The defense has performed well in both series, holding Iowa and Milwaukee to 22 goals in ten games. (2.2 goals per game). However, it has also shown some holes, for example the first goal of the night and just about all of game five of this series. That the wheels went flat on the offense in game five, simultaneously, also needs to be marked as the team advances.
Garnett received the win, stopping just 17 Stars shots. Ellis received the loss, stopping 29 shots on goal. The Wolves next game waits for the decision of the North Division playoffs. If the Manitoba Moose win, they would hold home ice advantage. While Chicago would hold home ice if the Bulldogs win. In either case, the series would be set up as a 2-3-2 series.