The Wolves hit back-to-back Calder Cup Finals, this time taking on the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Ryan Warsofsky’s been here before. He’s even been here before on this exact same ice, in front of some of the exact same fans as he’ll be seeing today. Only back in 2019, Warsofsky was behind the visitor’s bench, with Andrew Poturalski, Jesper Sellgren, and Stelio Mattheos all skating out for the Charlotte Checkers. The Checkers faced a Wolves team run by Rocky Thompson and featuring Vegas Golden Knights prospects — a Wolves team that had run out of gas after three physically grueling playoff series.
Warsofsky and the Checkers lifted the Calder Cup on the ice at Allstate Arena back in 2019 while the Wolves had to listen to the festivities from their locker room.
Well, as a wise man once said: if you can’t beat them, become them.
The Wolves’ affiliation with the Hurricanes brought some of the same personnel and the same organizational philosophy to town that helped capture the last awarded Calder Cup, and now the team’s set to attempt to capture their first league championship since the 2007-08 season.
Aside from the trio of former Checkers, the Wolves don’t have a ton of players to lean on with significant post-season experience. Josh Leivo’s accumulated 35 AHL playoff games as part of the Toronto Marlies organization, but wasn’t on their roster in 2018 when they lifted the Calder Cup. Richard Panik, who also has 20 NHL playoff games under his belt, has 34 AHL playoff games to his name, having captured the Cup in 2012 with the Norfolk Admirals. Jack Drury is the only other player to have won a professional championship; he spent last season with the Växjö Lakers in the SHL, recording 11 points in 14 games en route to that league’s title.
Warsofsky will be leaning on his veteran players like Poturalski to help lead this group of young players across the finish line. His message to his players, whether first year pros or savvy veterans, has always been the same, all season long: tomorrow is a new day. Speaking after the Wolves’ series clinching win over Stockton, Warsofsky continued to emphasize the importance of taking things one day at a time. “You don’t know when this moment’s gonna come again. You really don’t. You could be 21 years old and play 15 years and never play in the conference finals, whether Stanley Cup or Calder Cup,” he said. “So you have to enjoy this, you have to enjoy it every time you get on the ice and practice and play. I think that’s something that maybe got away from us a little bit. […] We lost two on the road and it’s a good learning experience for myself, for the rest of the coaches, the young players to go through it because it’s gonna happen again. But the same time you don’t know when it’s gonna happen, so you try to learn from those situations, for sure.”
Poturalski’s message for his younger teammates was similar in its simplicity: “Honestly, just keep going along. We had good success all year long. I wouldn’t try to change anything of what we’re doing,” the Wolves’ captain said last week. “We played hard as a team, all year. We play together, and we had success for a reason. So, don’t try to change too much, stay, together and just keep going and have fun.”
The Wolves will have to stick to their game plan as they face the Springfield Thunderbirds. While Stockton was the toughest team the Wolves have faced yet, the Thunderbirds aren’t necessarily going to be an easy out. Springfield has the same 10-3 record as the Wolves, with two consecutive three-game sweeps over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Charlotte Checkers before a seven-game series against the Laval Rocket in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Much like the Wolves, the Thunderbirds have relied on two goalies, turning to both Joel Hofer and Charlie Lindgren throughout the playoffs. Lindgren won the decisive game seven against the Rocket. Lindgren had spent his entire pro career with the Montreal Canadiens organization, including parts of four seasons in Laval, but signed with the Blues in free agency after he was not re-signed by the Canadiens.
The Thunderbirds have a few players who will be familiar to Wolves fans. They’re led in scoring by Will Bitten (17 points in 13 games) and Sam Anas (14 points in 13 games), both of whom have spent much of their careers with the Iowa Wild previously. Both played for Iowa in 2019, when they lost to the Wolves in the Central Division finals. Both players are pesky undersized wingers, and both put up near-career high performances this season with the Thunderbirds. Bitten’s four-goal performance helped drive Springfield to win in a wild game three, where he scored four straight goals (interrupted by one Laval goal) en route to a 6-3 victory.
Much like the Wolves, the Thunderbirds have seen their share of drama in the playoffs. Three of the games in the series were decided by one goal, all in overtime. (Springfield won two of the three overtime games.) Springfield did not win consecutive games in their conference finals, and during their first chance to eliminate the Rocket, struggled mightily with a 5-1 loss.
The Thunderbirds play a physical game, something with the Wolves’ previous series with Rockford and Milwaukee will prepare them for, but they also have the skill to back it up. While the Wolves penalty kill was outstanding against the Heat, they still spent entirely too much time in the penalty box. The Heat’s power play was unable to break through, but giving the Thuderbirds opportunities may prove costly for the Wolves. So once again, as it has been all postseason long, the Wolves need to limit their penalties. The penalty kill is going to run out of luck eventually, and the Calder Cup Finals would be a terrible place for that to happen.
To learn some more about the Thunderbirds, I turned to Ryan Smith (@RyanSmithHockey), the Manager of Media/Community Relations & Broadcasting, as well as the play by play voice of the team.
Will Bitten has 17 points in 13 games, sitting right behind Josh Leivo for the scoring lead in the playoffs. What’s been behind his string performance in the postseason?
Bitten is a player who thrives on being a pesky forechecker. His line of he, Dakota Joshua, and MacKenzie MacEachern is a puck possession machine in the offensive zone when they are at their best, and they have been nothing short of dominant in spurts of all three T-Birds series thus far. He uses his blazing speed and fearlessness to his full advantage, as he is willing to hit basically anything that moves.
Who are some other key players to watch out for?
Joshua and MacEachern, along with Bitten, are the three most important players to me in this series. If they can possess the puck and wear down the Wolves defense over a longer series, it plays into Springfield’s hands. The T-Birds also need Sam Anas, Klim Kostin, and James Neal to take over games the way they are capable of doing. At times, Laval has each of them shut down in the last round, but Springfield cannot rely on just the Joshua line to beat the Wolves.
What benefits Springfield more: even strength play or special teams?
Last round, it was even strength play that, in essence, saved the series for Springfield. The power play did not connect until Game 7, but they had, for the most part, a definitive edge 5-on-5. In rounds 1-2, though, the Springfield power play was nearly unstoppable at 11-for-29. They likely will need both to be at their best to take down the league’s top team.
Springfield has relied on both Joel Hofer and Charlie Lindgren in net in the playoffs. Is the plan to keep rotating them for this series? Does either player have the edge in net?
I can’t speak for Drew Bannister, but I would be stunned if there is not a rotation in this round, especially with up to three sets of back to back games. Both goalies have stolen games in these playoffs, and like Lyon and Kochetkov, they’re a great mix of veteran experience and raw, young talent.
What’s one reason the Thunderbirds will win the Calder Cup? What’s one reason they won’t?
Springfield will emerge victorious if they can use their rugged, possession-based forecheck to slow the game down and keep the Wolves’ high octane offense from getting multiple transition chances.
If the T-Birds power play takes 7 games to find the net, especially against a Chicago team that has left the door open for opponents due to penalty trouble, it’s going to be very hard to top the league’s best regular season team.
Calder Cup Finals (all times Central)
Game 1: Sunday, June 19 — Allstate Arena — 3 p.m.
Game 2: Monday, June 20 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, June 22 — MassMutual Center — 6:05 p.m.
Game 4: Friday, June 24 — MassMutual Center — 6:05 p.m.
Game 5*: Saturday, June 25 — MassMutual Center — 6:05 p.m.
Game 6*: Tuesday, June 28 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.
Game 7*: Wednesday, June 29 — Allstate Arena — 7 p.m.