Written by: Sarah Avampato
ROSEMONT, Ill -- “Sometimes, successful teams don't win championships.”
That was Rocky Thompson after his Chicago Wolves fell 5-3 to the Charlotte Checkers in game five of the Calder Cup Finals. The loud sounds of celebration spilled off of the ice and out of the Checkers’ room while Thompson talked to the assembled media. Other than a glance or two in the direction of the noise, Thompson largely blocked out the jubilant Checkers squad as he spoke about the end of the Wolves’ season.
The Wolves played perhaps their best games of the series in games four and five, but from the very start, the Checkers kept to their game plan, smothering any attempt by the Wolves to gain time and space on the ice. Puck carriers were pushed to the outside, shooting lanes were closed down, and star goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic shut down any pucks he saw — and some he couldn’t have possibly seen, either.
Repeating a pattern from previous games, the Wolves found themselves down 3-1, thanks to a goal from Checkers defenseman Trevor Carrick at the 6:15 mark of the third period. Gage Quinney scored at the 16:54 mark to bring the Wolves within one, but an empty net goal from playoffs MVP Andrew Poturalski at 18:13 appeared to seal the deal for the Checkers.
Cody Glass scored his seventh goal of the playoffs with 39 seconds remaining, cutting the deficit to one again. With Oscar Dansk still pulled in the closing seconds of the game, the Checkers found the empty net to finally put the game away. Forward Zach Nastasiuk scored the final goal for the Checkers, and only seconds later, they were celebrating.
The Checkers had been deadly with the empty net all throughout the series, a feat that Thompson recognized. “I give them credit,” Thompson said. “Every time we have an empty net, these guys are like sharpshooters, they throw it down there, it goes in there.”
While Thompson lamented some missed opportunities and untimely bounces of the puck throughout the series, his overwhelming pride for the team and what they accomplished this season was first and foremost on his mind immediately after the loss.
Said Thompson: “What I'm proud of most though is I thought our team played the best that we possibly could, I really do, to an individual. We really played the best that we could have played to give ourselves a chance with everything that we had.”
He spoke at length of what the team accomplished and emphasized to his players that they too should take pride in being one of the last teams standing. “I know it's tough when you don't win championships, but you shouldn't be sad, when that's all you have, you did everything you could. I'm proud of that, I'm really proud of that for them. Because that that's rare. It really is rare. And you don't see it very often.”
As a team that struggled through injuries all season long, in addition to losing one-time leading scorer Brandon Pirri to the NHL and budding top defenseman Erik Brannstrom to a trade, the Wolves have had to make do with a patchwork team, including in the playoffs.
In the critical elimination game, both Daniel Carr and Stefan Matteau were scratched due to injury. Carr’s injury was not season-ending and Thompson said that he would have likely been available had the series returned to Charlotte. Thompson revealed that Matteau lacerated a kidney during game four and was shut down for any remaining games. Tobias Lindberg, the usual “next man up” in the playoffs, was also injured and unavailable to play; he was spotted with an air cast on his foot after the game.
Tyler Wong, after a strong showing in game four, remained in the lineup for the final game; he, alongside Matthew Weis and Alex Gallant, were a surprising bright spot for a Wolves team that sometimes struggled with energy and momentum. The Wolves were flat for much of the early part of the game, but when the fourth line took the ice, they created chances and had the look of a line playing to extend their season.
Thompson acknowledged the tribulations his team faced — and the fact that they often came out stronger on the other side. “I think our team really epitomizes that the team was greater than the sum of its parts. Not that we don't have good parts, but the parts would go missing and things would happen and guys would just pick up and you wouldn't know it. [...] You're missing two key players, but you would never know it because we played a really good game.”
After the game, veteran player T.J. Tynan echoed the same message. “I'm really proud of all the guys, especially with how young our team was,” Tynan said. “For them to step in, it says a lot about the type of people they are.”
While there will undoubtedly be changes on this roster, due to the somewhat transient nature of minor-league hockey, and an influx of new faces as the Vegas Golden Knights continue to fill their pipeline with players, there are no doubts that this was indeed a special group of players. The Wolves may have fallen short of the ultimate goal, but for players like Cody Glass, Nic Hague, and Zach Whitecloud, the lessons learned from playing until the very bitter end will only help improve their games and prepare them for the NHL.