The last weekend of February was quite the wild ride for the AHL’s Central Division.
Simply put, anything that could happen…did happen.
From fights to short benches to win streaks that came to a close, it was an action-packed weekend that people will look back on for years to come.
Chicago Wolves vs. Grand Rapids Griffins
Heading into this weekend, the Chicago Wolves were undefeated, rocking a 7-0-0-0 record. At the beginning of the season, Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky told the media he had plans to go 30-0. The Wolves hot start felt as though the season was going to play out with Warsofsky’s goal coming to fruition.
Enter stage left, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Head Coach Ben Simon and his team had a different idea of how this season was going to end up. They entered the weekend with a three-game win streak of their own and were determined to keep it going. From the moment the puck dropped, the Griffins were firing on all cylinders.
Four minutes into the game, Riley Barber scored the first goal of the evening. Barber’s goal signified the first time the Wolves trailed in a game since the second period of their second game of the season. The Wolves were never able to take momentum back from the Griffins. Considering how lackadaisical they were in the neutral zone and with passing, it wasn’t a shock that the Wolves were unable to take control of the game.
Part of this lackluster play could have stemmed from the fact this was the Wolves longest road trip of the season. “It’s tough traveling the day of the game. In their (Chicago’s) defense, it’s the first time they’ve had to do it,” Coach Simon said of the Wolves’ game day travel, “The furthest they’ve had to travel was 45 minutes to Rockford. So, this is kind of their experimental driving day of the game and going through that.”
In a normal year, teams would typically arrive the night before an away game. As we all know, this is not a normal season. To cut down on the possibility of getting COVID, teams are travelling to their opponent the day of a game. For the Wolves, that meant travelling three to four hours on game day to play the Griffins.
Now, it wasn’t all bad for the Wolves. Rem Pitlick breathed a bit of life into the Wolves 42 seconds into the third period when he scored off of a rebound. Unfortunately, the goal also lit a fire underneath the Griffins, because according to Barber: “In a three goal lead, you never want to give one up early in the third.” Barber went on to say that he was pretty proud of how the team handled the Wolves taking momentum for just a moment. “I think the way we handled that goal is good to look at for the future,” explained Barber, “We didn’t stay off the course. We didn’t stop working. We kept getting pucks deep… it was good to see our team come back after that goal.”
Barber went on to praise the defense for the work they put in against the Wolves. “Our backend there with Lash (Brian Lashoff), McIlrath, Joey (Joe Hicketts)…those guys are cornerstones back there,” Barber said of his teammates, “Man, did they block shots and not give those skill guys on the other team very much time.”
Even though the Griffins dominated the Wolves for the bulk of the game, Simon acknowledged the fact the Wolves are a good team. “They have experienced defensemen. Their goaltending has been great. They do a lot of good things,” Simon explained, “That team is a good measuring stick.”
After a day off, the two teams were back at it again on Sunday evening. This time the venue was different, as the game was played in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
The Wolves were back to their old selves, scoring within the first minute of play. Phil Tomasino scored the go-ahead goal in his first shift back from an injury. Then the goals didn’t stop. At the end of game, the Wolves had bested the Griffins, 8-4. Two of the Wolves’ eight goals came courtesy of rookie Jamieson Rees.
Not only were the Wolves shooting net-seeking missiles, but they were playing a fast paced and energetic game. “I just think we came out a lot stronger today. We were ready to play,” Rees said of the Wolves’ play on Sunday.
The level of emotion and physicality was turned up on Sunday, as well. Coach Warsofsky explained the team knew that was going to be the case coming into the game. “We knew the energy was going to be up. There was going to be some emotion involved,” explained Warsofsky, “We saw that with the two fights, the chippiness, and the physicality of the game.” On the flip side, Coach Warsofsky would have liked to see “some of the stick infractions cut down on”, but understands that comes with the territory of playing an emotional game.
The Griffins and Wolves play each other six more times this season. It will definitely be fun to watch this rivalry grow over the next few months.
Cleveland Monsters vs. Rockford IceHogs
The Cleveland Monsters and Rockford IceHogs weekend series got off to an interesting start when the Monsters fielded a roster of 10 forwards and six defenders. By the end of the first period, Cleveland was down to just nine forwards and five defenders.
Despite having a clear advantage, the IceHogs consistently shot themselves in the foot. They would accidentally pass the puck to the Monsters while in their own defensive zone. On the other end of the ice, the IceHogs’ offense gave the Monsters complete control by skating directly into their defense with the puck. If it wasn’t for Alec Regula and Cody Franson, the Monsters would have won by a lot more than 6-3.
You can read more about this game in the full recap, here.
The second game of the weekend was cancelled due to COVID-19 protocols. If you’d like to hear a player’s view on what happened, Zac Dalpe and Adam Helewka discussed the short bench and the postponed game on the Minor League Madness Podcast. You can listen to Dalpe’s episode here.
Iowa Wild vs. Texas Stars
After almost 13 days off, the Texas Stars were back in action last Friday evening against the Iowa Wild. “Obviously, we had some time off due to the storm and COVID, but I think the coaches eased us back into it,” said Stars’ defenseman Ryan Shea.
Much of the first period involved the Wild and Stars trading breakaways. In fact, most of the season has been that way when they play each other. They constantly match each others energy, emotion, and skill.
The Wild struck first with 6:55 left in the first period. Cole Schneider was trying to get the puck to Josh Melnick but just missed. Mitchell Chaffee scooped it up and flung it towards the net. Mitch McLain was in the right place at the right time, knocking it into the goal.
Schneider redeemed himself for the turnover two minutes later by scoring the tying goal. Julius Honka threw the puck across the crease in an attempt to score. Dereck Baribeau sealed up the post, then relaxed because he thought Schneider didn’t catch the puck. The moment Baribeau opened the gap, the puck went in the net
Things started to heat up in the second period for the Stars. “It took us a little bit to get into the game. But the second period, I think we really took off,” said Shea. They started and ended the period with a goal to give them the 3-2 lead over the Wild. The Stars also fired off 17 shots while holding the WIld to six.
Unfortunately for the Stars, the game veered off path. Despite their best efforts to calm the Wild, the Stars ended up losing 5-3. They just couldn’t match the Wild’s energy in the third. “There was a lot of good. The final 40, we held our scoring chances against to a low number. We held shots to a low number,” explained Head Coach Neil Graham, “Yes, it would have been nice to capitalize on a few more. But at the end of the day, we were in a good spot and didn’t get it done.”
The Stars came back on Saturday to beat the Wild, 3-2.