Previewing the Stockton Heat versus Chicago Wolves AHL Western Conference Final

To be the best, you have to beat the best and that’s the situation the Stockton Heat find themselves in. They enter the Calder Cup semifinals and have a date with the top-ranked Chicago Wolves, the farm team of the Carolina Hurricanes. Both teams go into the series with identical 6–1 records in the playoffs, but neither has faced each other this season, leaving both teams with little experience of how the other plays on the ice. Here’s what to look for this series:

Details on the Heat versus Wolves series schedule

Unlike the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Western Conference Final will be a classic best-of-seven. The Wolves will get home ice advantage of the series requires all seven games, but unlike the norm in the NHL, this series is scheduled to start with two games in Chicago, followed by three games in Stockon, and finally two games back in Chicago. If the Heat can steal a win on the road in the first two games, then they have a strong home ice advantage.

Game 1: Friday, June 3, Stockton @ Chicago – 6 PM MT
Game 2: Monday, June 6, Stockton @ Chicago – 6 PM MT
Game 3: Wednesday, June 8, Chicago @ Stockton – 7:30 PM MT
Game 4: Friday, June 10, Chicago @ Stockton – 8 PM MT
Game 5: Saturday, June 11, Chicago @ Stockton – 7 PM MT (if necessary)
Game 6: Tuesday, June 14, Stockton @ Chicago – 6 PM MT (if necessary)
Game 7: Wednesday, June 15, Stockton @ Chicago – 6 PM MT (if necessary)

Both teams are very good, and it’s hard to imagine this series being over in a quick set. Expect this to be a very entertaining series.

What to know about the Wolves

The Wolves are incredibly impressive team, and also a very deep team. They have had forty skaters and eight goalies play at least one game for them this year. They boast a ton of high-end skill on their roster. Chief among them is Andrew Poturalski who put up an AHL-leading 101 points in 71 games. He was the only player this season to put up triple digits in the entire league.

He is followed by Stefan Noesen, a 2011 first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators who had 85 points and 112 penalty minutes in 70 games. Through the playoffs, a familiar name has led the way for the Wolves: former Flame Josh Leivo who has a league-leading 13 points in seven playoff games.

On the backend, the Wolves have been going with Alex Lyon in net through the playoffs, and he has boasted a very impressive 0.926 in seven playoff appearances. The former Philadelphia Flyer has played 24 NHL games in his career, but has mostly been a very good AHL netminder.

The Wolves were the best team in the AHL this year, finishing with 110 points in 76 games. Their points-percentage of 0.724 was also the best in the league. They are a very good team, and this Heat team will have their hands full against them.

What to know about the Heat

The Heat are not going to be an easy-out for the Wolves. Where Chicago were the best team in the AHL, Stockton were a very close second. They finished with 97 point in 68 games, good for a 0.713 points percentage and the Pacific Division Crown. Both teams had the same number of losses (16) and the same number of overtime losses (5) on the year, but the Wolves picked up more wins in their longer season.

Stockton has elite level production from their players, but has mostly been a team who has gotten scoring by committee. The two top scorers for the team this year have been Matthew Phillips, with 68 points in 65 games, and rookie Jakob Pelletier, who had 62 points in 66 games. Both have been around the point-per-game mark in the playoffs as well, with seven and six points respectively through seven playoff games.

The story of the playoffs for the Stockton forward group has been Justin Kirkland, whose game has found a new level. He also has seven points through seven games, but has been a threat every time he has been on the ice. He is a player to watch.

The Heat will also have a huge boost from the return of their best prospects who were with the Flames for their playoff run. This includes Connor Mackey, Juuso Valimaki, and Adam Ruzicka, who will each be a difference-maker in this next round of the playoffs.

Of course, no discussion of the Heat would be complete with talking about Dustin Wolf, the top goalie in the AHL this year. He backstopped Stockton to three shutout victories over the Colorado Eagles in the last series. The Eagles were one of the best offensive teams in the AHL this year, so to be able to limit them to scoring in just one game was enormous for the Heat. They will need Wolf to be at his best to win this series, and Wolf has shown he’s up for the challenge.

What will the conference final come down to?

This series is going to come down to two major factors: depth and goaltending. Both teams have very strong top forwards. The Heat will likely roll a top line of Phillips and Pelletier on the wing and likely Ruzicka in the middle. From there, the Heat likely have Glenn Gawdin centering Justin Kirkland and Martin Pospisil as the second line, which has also been very good.

However, the Heat will need to get more from players down the lineup. This includes Emilio Pettersen, Captain Byron Froese, Luke Philp, and particularly 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary, who has just one assist this postseason. If these players can be a factor against the bottom of the Wolves’ lineup, this will go a long way to helping Stockton reach the Calder Cup Final.

The other big area that will make or break this series is goaltending. The Heat have rode Wolf all season as their starter, and he has earned every minute of it, but they will need to continue to get a ton out of him in this round of the playoffs. Wolf is currently riding a 0.941 save percentage through seven games in the playoffs, and as mentioned, has three shutouts in that time. Going through the regular season with zero shutouts and then getting three in a series, Wolf is playing at the next level at the perfect time.

The Flames know just how important goaltending is to winning playoff rounds, and the Heat will need Wolf to be at his best if they want to beat the Wolves.

Game 1 tonight will be incredibly exciting. Both teams are going into it after a few days rest, and the game should be a ton of fun to watch. With the Heat moving to Calgary next season, this is a great chance to see what they will bring to the city before they arrive. They have a really strong team, and have a great chance to bring the Calder Cup to the organization for the first time in 20 years.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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