The 2019 American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals start on Saturday (schedule here). The Charlotte Checkers, who are affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes, take on the Chicago Wolves, the AHL affiliate of the Las Vegas Golden Knights. AHL teams only play against teams within their conference during the regular season, so this is the first time this year that the Checkers will take on the Wolves.
Jim Howard, Puck Junk’s resident “Caniac,” and Sal Barry, who has followed the Chicago Wolves the past 25 years, give their insight as to which team will win. Either way, it won’t be a sweep.
Why the Checkers Will Win the Calder Cup
by Jim Howard
Most of us probably don’t pay much attention to the AHL teams unless they’re directly associated with our own beloved NHL franchise, and that’s understandable. Most of these players are unlikely to make the jump to the NHL with any really gravitas or are waiting to grow their bodies beyond the 150-lbs., pimply faced boys that they are, or figuring out how to play at a much faster pace when they were able to push around the little kids in juniors so easily. But games are played nonetheless and eventually the cream has to rise to the top. This year, that cream is the Charlotte Checkers; a team who’s regular season record was Lightning-esque at 51-17-7 good for 110 points, despite Scott Darling’s best-worst efforts.
Alex Nedeljkovic (ned-DEL-kho-vick) (but seriously, everyone just calls him Ned) has been a Duncan the Walrus for this team posting a 34-9-5 record in the regular season with a 2.26 GAA and 0.916 SV%. Not to mention getting called up to play in his first NHL game this season making 24 of 26 saves for the win; Carolina’s first win in Vancouver since 1999! Ned really hasn’t missed a beat in the post season with an 8-3-1 record, similar 2.28 GGA and 0.914 SV%. While he was called up for the Hurricanes own post season run, his net-mate Dustin Tokarski was more than capable winning all 3 of his games and posting a hellish 0.974 SV%. But Ned can’t score the goals alone (oh wait, he does that too!)
Luckily Ned has help. Aleki Saarela is a Finnish born player that was acquired in when Eric Staal was traded to the NY Rangers, like 25 years ago. Showing improvement over the last 3 years, Saarela put up 54 points in the regular season and a very respectable 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) so far in the Calder Cup quest. Morgan Geekie, possibly the most tragic name to have to grow up with, has grown significantly with 27 helpers in the regular season but really blossoming in the spotlight of spring time hockey with 7 goals, 8 assists for 14 games so far. But Andrew Poturalski, a 24 year old American has been a tour de force with a team leading 70 points in the regular season and 18 in the leading up to the championship.
The defense has been an absolute log jam in Charlotte though. Thanks to their big club hogging a ridiculous blue line squad, most of the Checkers D-core has just been marinating in the AHL honing their skills. Former 1st round selection Jake Bean has adjusted well to his first professional season after a slow start collecting 44 points, but also becoming more defensively sound. Hayden Fleury, another former 1st rounder (because Ron Francis refused to draft anyone Jim Rutherford would have), finished his Stanley Cup run but still put up 4 points in only 6 games when he could slip down to the Queen City. Veteran Tough Guy Trevor Carrick leads the D with 9 points so far in the team’s run.
And really that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this team because they’re one of the most cohesive groups that Charlotte has pieced together since moving down from Up State New York where they undoubtedly enjoyed their steamed hams! Every member of the club is pulling their own weight from simple plays to highlight reel goals and saves. Does this bode well for the Carolina Hurricanes in the future? Oh who the hell knows, but as of now the Charlotte Checkers are the team to beat for the Calder Cup.
Prediction: Checkers in six games.
Why the Wolves Will Win the Calder Cup
By Sal Barry
An AHL team making it to the Calder Cup Finals is no small feat, considering that most of the players on the team are assigned by the parent NHL club. In other words, you play the hand you are dealt. The Chicago Wolves received the majority of its players from the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas GM George McPhee drafted a Golden Knights team good enough to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and has helped assemble an AHL squad here in Chicago that will make its first trip to the Calder Cup Finals since 2008.
Now, it would be easy to take cheap shots at the Charlotte Checkers, how their name is kind of silly, and how their mascot “Chubby” is really just the Icee Bear with bigger eyes. Instead, I’ll focus on the Chicago Wolves’ strong points, which will help them win their third Calder Cup since 2002, and fifth league championship — going back to the team’s IHL days — in the past 25 years.
Czech-born right wing Tomas Hyka leads the Wolves with 14 points (3G, 11A) through 17 games, while left wing and alternate captain Curtis MacKenzie leads the team with 8 goals in 17 games. Eight of the 12 Wolves forwards who have played 12 or more games have at least 5 or more points in the postseason.
Daniel Carr, who was named the AHL’s MVP, as well as a First-Team All-Star, has 5 goals and 5 assists in 12 playoff games. Carr led the Wolves with 30 goals in the regular season, and was leading the league on goals, assists and points until an illegal hit knocked him out of the final regular season games. Should Carr regain the scoring pace of 1.36 points-per-game from the regular season, he will provide a much-needed punch to a Wolves offense that have only outscored their opponents 50-45 in 17 playoff games.
That may not be a huge margin, but that is fine because the Wolves have prioritized a more defensive style of play after Brandon Pirri was called up — for good — to the Golden Knights, and Carr went down with his injury.
Head coach Rocky Thompson has not been afraid to play both of his goaltenders in the playoffs, particularly where there are two games in two nights. Both Oscar Dansk and Maxime Legace had solid records in the regular season, with Dansk playing 40 games and posting a 2.46 GAA and Legace playing 33 games with a 2.43 GAA.
In the playoffs, Dansk has gotten the lion’s share of work, going 9-5 with a 2.16 GAA in 14 games. Most recently, Dansk was stellar in Game Six of the Conference Finals. The San Diego Gulls came out on all cylinders, peppering Dansk with 10 shots — he stopped them all — before the Wolves even registered a shot, before eventually winning the game.
Legace, too, has been solid, going 2-1 in 3 games and posting 3.34 GAA. Heck, Legace even scored a goal in Game Five of the Conference Finals against the Gulls, though it was more of a Billy Smith goal than a Ron Hextall goal. Still, a goal is a goal! Considering that there are three times that the teams will play on back-to-back nights, don’t be surprised when Coach Thompson puts his trust in Legace to give Dansk a rest — especially if the first game goes to overtime. And speaking of which, the Wolves are 3-0 when playoff games have gone to OT this year.
The Wolves are also 2-0 in past Calder Cup Finals, having won in 2002 and 2008, back when the team was affiliated with the Atlanta Thrashers. I could go on and on about how it is the team’s destiny to win the championship in its 25th season, or how the Wolves were able to bounce back from losing their top two point-getters. But none of that really matters now. What matters is that the Wolves are in the Finals and will win the Cup due to their mixture of offensive outbursts and stingy defensive play.
Prediction: Chicago Wolves in six games. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.