SERIES PREVIEW: Marlies vs. Wolves

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Here we go again. Many were expecting a close, hard fought series against the Milwaukee Admirals, including the team and staff themselves. But sure enough, the blue and white came out storming in the first two games and shut things down in the third, Ending up with a sweep and a long break. The team just wants to play some hockey now. But they have to do more than play if they want to beat the Chicago Wolves. They need to play with purpose.

Who Are The Wolves?

The Chicago Wolves are not your typical AHL team. While they do develop prospects for whoever their NHL affiliate is, this is a team that has always been focused on championships over “look what we made” players. 

Since their inception in 1994, they’ve never been below 0.500, and have only  missed the playoffs on four occasions. In seven seasons in the International Hockey League, they won the division four times, went to the Turner Cup Finals three times, and won twice. In their first year in the AHL, the Wolves barely squeaked into the playoffs, but went on to win the Calder Cup. It was one of three appearances in the finals in just seven years, and in 2007/08, they added a second AHL championship to their collection, which involved eliminating the Marlies in the conference finals.

Despite the team name, the Wolves are by no means friends with the Chicago Blackhawks. If anything, they acted as attendance competition during the NHL club’s dark years. When your options were to pay more to see a team lose, or watch a lower priced club (that still ices a professional quality roster) dominate, the league begins to matter less. 

While the Hawks are now in arguably their finest form in history, the Wolves still carry on a constant win-now philosophy. Though they’ve missed the playoffs thee times in the past six years, they’ve also won division titles in the other years. Over the years, Chicago has served as the affiliate for the Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver Canucks, but currently are affiliated with the St. Louis Blues.

What Have They Done For Me Lately?

It was a tough race, but thanks to a four game winning streak to close out the year, the Wolves won the Midwest division by a single point, posting a 45-21-5-5 record. This isn’t a small feat; the Midwest had the second strongest top 3 in the league by total points, only trailing the Atlantic Division (Toronto’s North Division, by comparison, was the weakest). Milwaukee was also in the Midwest and trailed by nine points.

The Wolves narrowly beat out the Rochester Americans in a 3-2 best of five series, winning Game 1 in overtime, Game 3 in a 4-0 shutout, and Game 5 in a 4-2 victory (including an empty netter). They were more overwhelming than the series score shows, however, as they outshot Rochester 163-133.

Chicago is a more experienced team. Just two of their top 15 point getters this year are under the age of 23, in comparison to nine on the Marlies. They also spread out their scoring a lot better, lacking a Brennan or Abbott-esque point getter, but being filled with 25-35 point guys. This means that all of their lines, while not overwhelming, have a chance to score on you.

Leading the team in regular season points was Ty Rattie. The 20 year old was drafted 32nd overall by the Blues in 2011, and had 31 goals in his AHL rookie season. Also notable is Keith Aucoin, who while not as effective as previous years is still a scoring threat at 35 years old. He’s also familiar with the Marlies, having put up 37 points in 34 games last season before heading to Leafs training camp and not making the cut. Leading the way in the post season is Dmitrij Jaskin, who was picked 9 spots after Rattie and has 7 pionts in 5 playoff games. Their team captain is former Blues and Oilers defenceman Taylor Chorney.

Coaching the Wolves is former Leafs and junior Marlboros forward John Anderson. He’s in his first year on the job, having previously spent time as the head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers and assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. 

In between pipes is Jake Allen. The 2008 second round pick is considered one of the better goaltending prospects in his age group, Allen posted a spectacular 0.928 save percentage this season, his highest at any level. He’s been cold in the playoffs, putting up a 0.890 over five games, but him balancing his numbers back out could happen sooner and later and end up hurting the Marlies.

Obscurely, Christian Hanson is on this team. You may rememer him from the 42 games he played for the Leafs, putting up only 9 points. His AHL numbers aren’t particularly better, which obviously means he’s due for seven hat tricks in this series.

The Season Series?

This was a split season series, with two being games a week apart from each other in January.

The first game was very close, and actually had no even strength goals. David Broll and Spencer Abbott scored the first two of the game, Chicago tied it up early in the third, and Sam Carrick finished the job in overtime. All six goals came on the powerplay, which isn’t surprising when you consider that there were a total of sixteen of them. Garret Sparks got the start (he’s from just outside of Chicago), and stopped 25 of 27.

The second game was also very close in the shot count; the two teams are just three apart in the season series (in Chicagos favour). In a game that was also filled with small penalties (15), two of the three goals again came on the powerplay. Jaskin and Chris Porter (not playing in the series) scored the two goals for Chicago while TJ Brennan had the lone Toronto tally in a 2-1 loss. Sparks also played this game and stopped 28 of 30.

Based on these two games, it’s a close series that could be decided on special teams if one team gets chippier than the other. Also, the Wolves haven’t seen Drew MacIntyre at all, which is interesting.

Keys To Victory?

  • The Marlies should look to their players for a bit of scouting. Rattie is their biggest forward threat? Cool. Brad Ross played with in Portland the year where he put up 57 goals. Maybe he’d have some insight. Korbinian Holzer played regular minutes on the lockout superteam that Aucoin featured on, he probably knows how to shut him down. If not, he mentored Spencer Abbott, so you’d imagine he’d know a few of his tricks. 
  • The defence can’t afford to take many risks in this series. Chicago is full of fast skaters, and as Steve Spott said yesterday, this absolutely cannot become a track meet. Especially with this defensive core, which is based around positioning and strength more so than ability. This is the one series where you kind of wish that Morgan Rielly came down instead of playing for Team Canada.
  • They have to hope that first line of Abbott, Holland, and Ashton are ready for prime time. If they are, having way more rest than everybody will play nicely to their benefit. Abbott also adds more options to the top powerplay unit, something Milwaukee was shutting down once they realized that the group tended to fall back to “pass it to Brennan”.
  • Can Drew MacIntyre stay this hot? He has a shutout and a 0.955 after three games. That’s probably not something you bet will continue, but the Marlies should be cautious about allowing him to attempt to stop too much rubber.
  • I’d be cautious about playing Frazer McLaren at all in this series. He’s less mobile than most of Chicago’s forwards, and they don’t really have much of an enforcer presence, save for maybe Eric Selleck. But considering it’s the playoffs, David Broll should probably be enough backup.
  • Lastly, just like the previous series, they can’t take themselves too seriously. They’ve already exceeded the expectations of many. The best way to keep doing that is to not give yourself any more expectations.

The puck drops on the series tomorrow night, in Chicago. Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com