October 13 2012 11:17PM
Eddie Lack was often the 1st star for the Chicago Wolves last season, and he was again tonight.
It wasn't always pretty, actually with the exception of the shootout it was downright difficult to watch, but the Canucks' AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves won their home-opener on Saturday night over the Rockford IceHogs.
The Wolves deserved the win in Saturday's game, as they out-chanced their opponent 24-14 and 19-12 at even-strength. Until the shootout, however, the Wolves were unable to get to Icehogs' netminder Carter Hutton, who was dynamite through sixty-five minutes, before being beaten soundly by three of four Wolves shooters in the skill competition.
Read on past the jump for a full recap (with a focus on the Canucks' prospects, of course).
- Eddie Lack earned the shutout and was named the evening's first star. He was generally solid, and didn't miss a beat after being bowled over by Icehogs enforcer Brandon Bolig, but he was the second best goalie on the evening. Obviously you can't argue with a shutout, and Lack was solid in the shootout (stopping three of four Rockford shooters) but he had an easier task than Hutton and had some puck-handling difficulties at times. On one particular sequence late in the first, Lack was caught nearly four feet out of his net on a Rockford scoring chances, though luckily the shot was blocked by one of Lack's Wolves teammates.
I'd posit that Lack's puck-handling issues are nothing to worry about long-term, it's just the hallmark of any Canucks goaltending prospect.
- Zack Kassian was nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL in Rochester last season, but he had a mostly quiet Wolves debut and didn't take a single scoring chance for Chicago on Friday.
In the first period he had a strong power-play shift early and remained on the ice after Rockford's penalty-expired, as the Wolves continued to cycle in the offensive end. After battling in the slot for the better part of 70 seconds, Kassian finished the shift with a nice power move and a soft back-hand touch to a teammate. Good to see that his summer workouts have paid off.
Kassian had a second beastly shift later in the initial period, where he won a couple of consecutive battles behind Rockford's net before dishing to Anton Rodin who set up a quality Jordan Schroeder scoring chance.
On the power-play, Kassian seemed to be focussed on working in the slot in front of Hutton. While he managed several dangerous tips on a couple of low point shots, we tend not to count "tipped shots" as scoring chances. Still, he was battling hard and flashed some high-end hand-eye coordination. You have to think that a few of those tips will find the back of the net eventually.
- Jordan Schroeder took four scoring chances for the Wolves, and gave Rockford issues all night long with his speed through the neutral-zone. It seemed like he Schroeder was catching Rockford's defensive group flat-footed on nearly every shift, though he struggled to capitalize on that advantage through sixty-five minutes. In the shootout Schroeder shot first for the Wolves and dispy'd about before beating Huttong blocker-side high with a seeing eye wrister.
- Among Chicago's forward group, Bill Sweatt and Nathan Longpre had particularly solid games, taking three scoring chances each on Saturday evening. While Sweatt's finishing ability is often questioned, he scored an absolute beauty in the shootout. The Canucks prospect skated direclty at Hutton at full-speed, then executed what might be described as a "simple back-hand, fore-hand deke." Except there was nothing simple about it - that Sweatt was able to control the puck at the speed he was travelling at is stunning, was aesthetically very pleasing, and the move completely froze Hutton.
- Chris Tanev was his usual steady self for the most part, though it was clear that he was trying to be aggressive on the offensive side of the puck and was especially active jumping into the play on the rush. His aggression generated mixed results, Tanev only took one scoring chance though he had several "chances at chances."
Tanev also, uncharacteristically, got stripped of the puck and beat soundly in his own end by Brandon Bolig in the first period. The steady possession dynamo, who has only taken one minor penalty in his entire 64 game NHL career, ended up taking a hooking penalty in an attempt to halt the hulking Rockford enforcer, and in doing so, drove Bolig directly into Eddie Lack who was flattened on the play. It was a rare mistake from Tanev, who otherwise played a quality game.
- I was very impressed with Kevin Connauton on Friday. When people talk about Connauton's offensive game, his powerful shot and his defensive improvements - they often neglect to mention the fact that he's got legitimate NHL size. Connauton is a big defender, and he did well to use his size to his advantage against the boards in Friday's game. His speed, and offensive instincts are what set him apart however, and Connauton regularly gained the zone with his feet on Friday evening, and took three scoring chances for the Wolves (all of them off of one-timers).
- On Friday, Swedish speedster Anton Rodin skated on a line with Nathan Longpre and Andrew Gordon at five-on-five, and played on the second unit power-play alongside Schroeder and Kassian. He was noticable in his limited minutes, though he didn't put in a dominant performance or anything. Rodin, however, looks to be an improved asset. We expect him to flash some skill and puck handle extraordinarily well in traffic, but Rodin continues to impress me with his craftiness along the wall and appeared to me to be stronger in puck-battles tonight than what he showed last season.
- The quality of AHL Live simply isn't good enough to allow me to count zone-starts, but it didn't seem to me that Scott Arniel used the sort of specialized deployment patterns that we regularly see from Alain Vigneault. The Wolves were also more aggressive pressuring the puck-handler on the penalty-kill than the Canucks tend to be, and while they didn't "trap" like last season's Craig MacTavish coached squad, they seemed to rely heavily on "dump-and-chase" hockey.
Obviously it's premature to draw any conclusions about the strategic identity of this seasons Wolves, but my initial impression is that they remain a relatively conservative "defense first" club. That said it was definitely a solid debut for Arniel behind the Wolves bench. Arniel's club came out strong (they held an 8-3 scoring chance differential through 20 minutes), controlled play throughout the game, and didn't give the IceHogs much (only 14 chances against).
The Wolves play their second game of the season on Sunday afternoon, again against Rockford, at 1 PM PST.