How Chicago Wolves used a team meeting to help turn their season around
Four wins. Ten losses.
That's how this season began for the Chicago Wolves, and four of the team's veterans finally said enough is enough. After suffering back-to-back losses at Manitoba, the team's leadership core approached coach Rocky Thompson before a morning skate on Nov. 19 and asked for the room to be closed for 20-30 minutes.
Captain Paul Thompson, alternate captains Brandon Pirri and T.J. Tynan, 33-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and others spoke up and delivered a message that helped turn around the season.
"It wasn't pointing guys out," said Pirri, who ended up sharing the team lead with 29 goals. "It was taking a look in the mirror.
"We (the veterans) were even saying, 'We have to be better. We need to lead by example. We're the guys playing those power-play minutes, those shutdown-role minutes.' "
The meeting wasn't an immediate cure as the Wolves lost in overtime that night to the Rockford IceHogs and went 2-3-3 over the next eight games. They were just 6-12-5 on Dec. 8 -- a whopping 19 points behind Manitoba in the Central Division.
But after that? Oh, man, what a run.
The Wolves picked up a point in 14 straight games -- going 12-0-2 -- and started playing the kind of hockey that was expected from a talented, offensive-minded team.
"We weren't playing up to (our) standards," said the 29-year-old Thompson, who scored 24 goals and has been with five AHL teams. "We talked over some things and just said, 'It's time to figure it out and bear down.'
"We had put ourselves in a pretty bad spot. We knew we had to start winning a lot of hockey games even to get into the playoffs."
The Wolves accomplish that feat and claimed a second straight Central Division title by going 36-11-6 over the final 53 games. The Wolves open the Calder Cup playoffs against the Rockford IceHogs in a best-of-five series Saturday at the Allstate Arena.
Pirri and Thompson are big reasons for the team's success, but the Wolves have many contributors. Among them:
• Orland Park native Tynan, who centered the top line and recorded 13 goals and 36 assists in his last 46 games.
• The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Garrison, who has played in 538 NHL games and scored 16 goals for Florida in 2011-12, ranking third among defensemen that season.
• Teemu Pulkkinen, who scored 29 goals (1 short of his third 30-goal season in the AHL). The Vantaa, Finland native was a fourth-round pick by Detroit in 2010 and has appeared in 85 NHL games.
• Beau Bennett, who played 33 games for the Stanley Cup champion Penguins in 2015-16. He had 12 goals and 45 assists in 60 games for the Wolves.
• Wade Megan, who led the AHL with 33 goals in 2016-17. On a team this deep, he's now centering the third line.
Led by this talented core, the Wolves averaged 3.45 goals in their last 53 games. Goalie Oscar Dansk, who missed three months with an injury, also has been strong since his return. He went 13-3-3 with a .918 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average.
In addition to the early struggles, coach Rocky Thompson managec a roster that combined players from both the Vegas Golden Knights and the St. Louis Blues. The melding came about because the AHL didn't expand to a 31st team after Vegas started the season.
While the Wolves are Vegas' affiliate, they still have a few players who belong to St. Louis, such as Bennett and Megan.
"I've been a part of that before, so I knew how to deal with it," Thompson said. "At the beginning, that was one of the obstacles. (We had) to earn the trust of the St. Louis Blues players, knowing that we had their best interest at heart as well as the Vegas Golden Knights players."
Calder Cup playoffs
Chicago Wolves vs. Rockford IceHogs(Best of 5 first-round series)
Game 1: Saturday at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Sunday at Rockford's BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.
Game 3: Thursday, April 26 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
* Game 4: Sunday, April 29 at BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.
* Game 5: Monday, April 30 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
* If necessary