Chicago Wolves pushed to brink after 5-3 loss to Checkers
Chicago Wolves coach Rocky Thompson loves talking about the many mountains a team must climb in order to reach its ultimate goal.
First there's the grinding, 76-game regular-season ascent. A best-of-five climb opens the postseason. Then there's the divisional round, the conference finals and -- of course -- the Calder Cup Finals.
Thompson's squad has done a sensational job navigating the peaks and valleys of the 2018-19 campaign, but now -- after losing Game 4 to Charlotte 5-3 at the Allstate Arena on Thursday -- the Wolves are truly in a do-or-die situation.
The Checkers, who erased a 3-1 deficit and got the winning goal from Aleksi Saarela with 7:08 remaining, own a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series. Charlotte can claim its first Calder Cup with a victory in Game 5 in Rosemont on Saturday. Puck drop is 7 p.m.
"They're the best team in the league all year," said Curtis McKenzie, who returned from a one-game suspension and registered an assist. "When you're that way you just have confidence in winning. They're so skilled. They don't need much room to make plays. …
"We just have to do a better job of holding out and closing games."
The Wolves built their lead on goals from Nic Hague, Zac Leslie and Brooks Macek.
The Checkers stormed back by scoring at 19:00 of the second period and 32 seconds into the third.
Those were tough blows, but Rocky Thompson's squad had plenty of opportunities to retake the lead over the next 10 minutes. Then, moments before Saarela's wicked wrister got past Oscar Dansk, it appeared Charlotte had committed a holding penalty on Cody Glass.
But no whistle came and play continued.
"It could have been a whole different situation there," Thompson said. "We could have been on the power play easily. I don't know why we weren't. But it ends up costing us."
Saarela, who has 55 regular-season goals for the Checkers the last two seasons, said he was surprised that Wolves defenseman Zac Leslie backed off him so much as he carried the puck deeper and deeper into the offensive zone.
"I think (he) was kind of waiting for me to go around him, so he gave me space," Saarela said. "I didn't think much after that. I just figured that I've got to shoot the puck."
Said Leslie: "My job's to keep him to the outside. Obviously I would like to close the distance as fast as possible, but at the end of the day I can't let that shot get off."
Dansk, who has stopped just 40 of 47 shots (.851 save percentage) the last two games, was upset at how he played and about Charlotte's fourth goal.
"It was a good shot, but in a series like this I've got to stop pucks and I don't think I've done that enough to give our team a chance," he said. "So here on forward there's no choice (but) to be better."
And that goes for all of the Wolves because they're going to have to beat a Checkers team that is 14-4 in the postseason three straight times.
"It's a really special group we have in this room," said McKenzie, who won a Calder Cup in 2014 and nearly won another last season with the Texas Stars. "Now it's just you win a game, you get to play another game with each other. That's what we're looking at. ...
"You can't look too far ahead. Just be ready for Saturday."