Three days ago, the Checkers clinched a playoff berth. Two days from now the puck will drop on Game 1. That’s not a lot of preparation time. So how is the team getting ready?
For video coach Myles Fee, it’s pretty simple.
“No sleep and abuse of our laptops,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think the RAM is overheating as we speak, I’m baking some video back at the rink so when we get back there’s more to give to Ulf. It’s a culmination of work.”
Even before scouring the video, the coaching staff is confident in their assessment of Chicago, a team that the Checkers have faced eight times this season and will again square off with in the first round.
“Chicago can score a lot of goals,” said head coach Ulf Sameulsson. “They’re a fast transition team and they have a lot of good players.”
“They have a good offense,” said Phil Di Giuseppe. “They tend to win games 5-4 or 4-3. They give up goals, but they do a good job of scoring them too.”
A quick look at the numbers backs up those descriptions – the Wolves finished the season tied for the fourth-best offense in the AHL, averaging 3.3 goals per game.
So the job this week for the coaching staff is examining what specifically drives that high-powered offense.
“They’re really good in their system and they’ve got a really strong first line,” said Fee. “Give them respect, the team is really good, but those three guys in particular have a really good knack of finding each other and getting in the sweet spot to get those shots off and crash the net.”
Those three guys Fee is referring to are the trio of AHL MVP and leading scorer Kenny Agostino, AHL leading goal scorer Wade Megan and 54-point scorer Andrew Agozzino. Not only did those three lead the team in scoring, but they torched the Checkers, with Megan netting 11 points in eight games and Agostino chipping in 10 in six.
With Chicago’s biggest strength identified, the team has shifted their focus this week to slowing down the Wolves’ high-end weapons.
“Ulf is grabbing video for a couple guys and we’re really watching those guys,” said Fee. “As a coaching staff, we made today’s practice all about our defensive mindset – coming in, boxing out, tracking back. Not just skating with abandon, but skating with a purpose and finding the open men and killing their plays.”
The Checkers got a first-hand look at just what Chicago’s offense is capable of in the season finale, when the home team rushed back to erase a two-goal deficit and win in overtime. Granted, there were extenuating circumstances that may have led the Checkers to let down their guards late in that game, but make no mistake about it, Thursday will be different.
“They turned on their jets and we were just playing for a tie, which is something we obviously can’t do in the playoffs,” said Fee of Saturday’s overtime loss. “We’ll have to go for the throat, so to speak. Not to say our guys let up, but there was a culmination of fatigue from these 30 games where we’ve been fighting for a playoff spot. It was so close that we were just trying to box out and hold on. Our mindset is going to be a lot different in Game 1 and we’ll be a much more gelled and stronger team as we’re going to get three or four guys back into our lineup.”
Those returning players who Fee spoke optimistically of are Lucas Wallmark, Danny Kristo and Aleksi Saarela. All three were deemed “close” and labeled day-to-day on Monday by Samuelsson and, while there was no update to their statuses Tuesday morning, both Wallmark and Kristo were full participants in the team practice. Saarela took part while wearing a yellow no-contact jersey.
Receiving any combination of those players back into the lineup will give the Checkers an immeasurable boost, one that should help them go toe-to-toe with Chicago’s offense.
“It’s amazing to watch our guys,” said Fee. “One guy turns it on each game. That’s not to say the others don’t, but every game there’s one guy who wants it and he takes it up that much higher. It’s really nice to see.”
The team will continue to prepare for the impending Game 1 with another practice today, as well as video sessions and meetings leading up to game time. All that work and studying will come to a head with this opening-round series, bringing with it an air of confidence.
“It’s all about our tactics,” said Fee. “If we stay in our structure I think we’ll have a really good chance.”