CHICAGO, Ill. –The Chicago Wolves swept the weekend’s series against the Rockford IceHogs in a battle of interstate rivals to begin their 19th season as a hockey staple in Chicago. It is very rare that you see the Chicago Wolves begin the season at home but it may now be a good thing.
Who would’ve have thought that the their opponent in back to back games would be the other “Chicago” team as they faced the NHL Blackhawks AHL affiliate in the Rockford IceHogs. The atmosphere was almost playoff like and the red carpet was rolled out for opening night. A number of NHL scouts were on hand with the likes of Don Waddell who current works for the Pittsburg organization, also the two head coaches of the parent clubs as Alain Vigneault and Joel Quenneville were spotted watching their young players and prospects duke it out on the ice. Even the lovable Rocky Wirtz, the owner who turned the team around when his father passed, made an appearance.
The Wolves goaltending corps remained intact as Eddie Lack and Matt Climie returned bringing stability in the net. Wingers Guillaume Desbeins and Brett Sterling return to team after roaming around the league since the last Wolves Championship bringing a gritty and experienced resume with them. Darren Haydar who has played with the Wolves for four seasons became a free agent during the off season and had many opportunities to play elsewhere, especially Europe, this year decided to stay with the team and was awarded accordingly with the captaincy of the team.
With this year’s Chicago Wolves there will be a sense of consistency at the team returns 17 of the 28 players from last year’s roster. But this year we have a new head coach in Scott Arniel. His NHL experience and familiarity with the Vancouver system will go a long way in leading this team as he led the late Manitoba Moose to the 2009 Calder Cup Finals. Mike Foligno will be one of his assistants while the other is Nolan Baumgartner who was the Captain of last year’s Wolves team. Baumgartner and Arniel have a history together as the 16-year veteran played under Arniel during the Moose years.
With Saturday’s season and home opener, you know the game is going to be tight. Of the 52 games that they have played against each other they are split right down the middle at 26. The Wolves started Eddie Lack in goal while across the ice we saw Carter Hutton. Hutton, who was a free agent signee of the IceHogs last season, rose to the top as the number one goaltender and was awarded with a NHL contract for this season.
The first period started out fast for both teams with the nerves and adrenaline build up for any debut. The Wolves had the upper hand though as the team kept the puck away from their zone leaving Lack to face only four shots in the period but couldn’t get the puck in the net.
The second and third periods were more even as each team started to get more quality shots to the net but couldn’t get past their opposing net minders. This even carried on into the overtime period and the still ended up tied at naught.
Even with nine total power play opportunities combined neither team could convert as Chicago had six chances to Rockford’s three.
Into the shootout we go, Chicago on the fourth round needed Captain Haydar to score to carry the win as Peter LeBlanc was turned away. A large crowd of 14,505, mainly Blackhawks fans, saw Eddie Lack turn away 25 shots for the win while Carter Hutton was equally strong deflecting 31, and unfortunately due to a technicality was not given a star in the game. At third star was Jordan Schroeder who scored the first shootout goal, number two went to Haydar with the shootout winner, and of course number one went to Lack.
Just 15 hours later, the two teams would do it all over again. Both teams returned their netminders from their stellar games the night before to start in goal. This time we didn’t have to wait for overtime to see a goal. Actually we saw them in bunches.
The Wolves scored their first official goal of the season in the first. Rockford could not clear the puck in their defensive zone as defenseman Kevin Connauton stopped the puck just before it could escape the blue line. He passed it forward to Brett Sterling who in turn dished it back to center Andrew Ebbett for the wrister that floated up and in over Hutton’s shoulder at the 7:46 mark, which was the first goal that the Wolves were able to get past him in two games going into last season.
In the second period, the Wolves added to their lead on special teams as another lapse in the defensive zone allowed forward Nathan Longpre to strip the puck from Jeremy Morin who skated in untouched for the goal top shelf right above the blocker.
The third turned into a shooting match though after the Wolves seemed to have the game in hand after as the IceHogs Brandon Pirri couldn’t clear the puck out of his zone, Brett Sterling took the puck and shot it on goal hitting defender Dylan Olsen in the boot and deflected in to give the Wolves a 3-0 lead. But Rockford came back with two of their own, but gave Lack 110 minutes of shutout hockey. The next two goals were scored on the power play by the IceHogs as Morin scored the first goal of season followed just under two minutes later by a shot from Marcus Kruger.
Chicago answered back to as Rockford was getting back to full strength. Center Steve Pinizzotto took the rebound from behind the next and fired a centering pass that first got deflected by a defender Brett Lebda but was hard enough to get to Longpre who whipped a shot to Hutton’s right side halfway through the period.
Morin then quickly wanted to make up for his defensive lapses as he got his team back within one as he took a feeder from defenseman Nick Leddy on in untouched and in for a goal with 9:45 left to play. That we pretty much all they could muster up as wingers Zack Kassian and Bill Sweatt both battled ‘Hogs on the boards. Kassian held the puck and defender at bay behind the net, Sweatt has already broken off the boards and centered himself at the near point. Kassian saw the opening to Sweatt and fed it back for the shot back through Hutton.
Hutton wasn’t as stellar as the night before as he only stopped 14 of the 19 shots he faced while Lack turned away 25 of 28. Defenseman Kevin Connauton was given the third star with 2 assists and a plus-4, Brett Sterling was the number two with a goal and an assist, and at number one was Nathan Longpre with two goals.
The Chicago Wolves will play one more home game to start the season as the face another divisional rival in the Peoria Rivermen on Wednesday, October 17th at 7:00pm at the Allstate Arena
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