In what has to be one of the more improbable feats in the AHL this year, the Wolves managed to chase down the Grand Rapids Griffins to win the Midwest Division on the season's final day. The Griffins had spent the previous 167 days in first place, only to see it slip away with two losses to lowly Lake Erie in the final weekend.
"God bless Lake Erie," Wolves coach John Anderson said moments after the Wolves' 6-0 defeat of the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday at Allstate Arena. "We never took our eyes off the prize."
Chicago (45-21-5-5) earned their second Midwest title in three seasons by finishing 25-7-3-3 in the second half of the season. They won their final four games to overtake the Griffins, who led the division by 13 points on Jan. 18, and by seven points only two weeks ago.
The Wolves got a jump on their second-half turnaround by righting the ship at home beginning in early December. Since winning only three of their first 10 home games, the Wolves went 22-1-3-2 in their final 28 games at Allstate Arena. Included in that was a franchise-best 17-game point streak. Their 25 home wins were the most since winning 29 in 2009-10.
The fans took note. After a sluggish start to attendance over the first two months of the season, the Wolves ended up averaging nearly 8,000 fans (7,927) per game, good for fifth in the league. Only Grand Rapids and Lake Erie outdrew the Wolves from the Western Conference. Hershey once again led the league by averaging 9,664, the only team to top the 9,000 mark.
By winning the division and grabbing the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, the Wolves are assured of home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs.
"Really it doesn’t matter in the first round because you have to decide on the 2-3 format," Anderson said. "I’m not too enamored with that. But afterwards as we go along, yes, I think it is important. I like our chances on home ice."
Anderson was referring to the AHL travel rule for the opening round best-of-five series. When teams are at least 300 miles away from each other, the rule gives the higher seed the option of playing either the first two or the final three games at home.
The Wolves chose the second option, and begin their series against the Rochester Americans on Friday in Rochester, N.Y.
CANNONE LINE LIGHTS IT UP DOWN THE STRETCH
Keeping lines together might be the most difficult task for a coach in the AHL. Rosters are constantly in flux because of callups and injuries.
Regardless of what future transactions may transpire, it's a good bet Anderson will do his best to keep Pat Cannone centering Michael Davies and Shane Harper. That line has exploded since March 5 when Cannone returned from missing 16 games with a broken hand.
During that stretch they've combined for 49 points in 20 games. Cannone led the way with 19 points (eight goals), while Davies totaled 16 (nine goals) in 18 games. Harper picked up 14 points (three goals) in 19 games.
"They’ve really picked it up for us and it really helps," Anderson said. "If you only have one line scoring, it’s easier to check. But now you’ve got two lines scoring, so now they have to think about what D is going out against who."
Their productivity came at a good time for the Wolves because of the aforementioned call-ups. Due to injuries to several forwards, the Blues brought up Keith Aucoin, Adam Cracknell and rookie Ty Rattie to play in the final regular-season games. Sergey Andronov was also recalled, but did not see any action with the Blues.
"With those guys going up, the spotlight was a little on us. Somebody’s got to step up," said Davies, who finished with a career-high 18 assists and 31 points in 46 games this season, the fewest he's played in his four-year pro career. "The three of us play well together. We think the game the exact same way. We like to play a fast game, we like to do cutbacks in the corners and throw pucks on net. We read off each other real well."
Before the hot streak, the unit was considered the Wolves' third line. These days it appears to be the Wolves second line, especially after the injury to Alexandre Bolduc and the unknown timeframe for his possible return, if he can play at all again this season.
"Third and fourth lines are what win you a championship," he said. "You look up at St. Louis right now with what Chris Porter and Cracknell are doing. Even last year with the (Blackhawks), their third and fourth lines came up big for them. So third and fourth lines are going to be huge going into the playoffs. Provides more depth. I’d put our third and fourth line up against anyone in this league."
WRAPPING UP THE TRIPLE CROWN
Not that he seemed to care much, but Jake Allen added a couple more accolades to his season resume after Saturday's win. His 20-save shutout gave him a franchise-best seven for the season, breaking a tie with teammate Matt Climie and general manager Wendell Young.
Allen also earned the AHL "Triple Crown" for leading the league in wins (33), goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.928). He's only the second goalie in AHL history to complete the feat since 1984-85 when save percentage became an official statistic. And his GAA was second-lowest in team history.
It's small wonder he was named to the AHL First-Team, as well as the winner of the Bastien Award as the league's top goalie.
After the game, Allen didn't sound too impressed by his own remarkable accomplishments.
"I’ll probably take the next couple days and figure out what my stats were," he said. "I honestly don’t pay attention to them during the year. It’s great to be recognized with that stuff, but we’ve still got a whole other season left and that’s what’s most important right now."
FINAL STATS LEADERS
Right wing Ty Rattie finished with a team-high 31 goals and 48 points to become the Wolves first rookie to lead the team in scoring for the regular season. Rattie's two goals against Milwaukee pushed him over the 30-goal plateau, not attained by a Chicago rookie since Brett Sterling scored 55 goals in 2006-07. Rattie also finished tied with Grand Rapids' Teemu Pulkinen for most goals by a rookie this season. ... Center Keith Aucoin led the team in assists with 32. ... Cannone paced the Wolves with a career-best plus-24. ... Cody Beach led the Wolves with 109 penalty minutes, though Eric Selleck had more combined with two teams. ... Not surprisingly the Wolves power-play unit ranked dead last in the AHL, cashing in only 12.6 percent of the time (43-for-342). Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin led the team with five power-play goal each. ... Their penalty kill made up for it, placing fourth overall with an 85.6 success rate. Bolduc scored a team-high three shorthanded goals.