Heading into Friday night, the Chicago Wolves held an undefeated record and had just played some of their best hockey of the year against the Iowa Wild. On the other side of the ice, the Grand Rapids Griffins had just done the same. Their only two losses all year came against the Wolves. In their last three games, the Griffins held their opponents to one goal in each game. In this contest, the Wolves did something we have yet to see all season — they lost and, lost badly.
Friday marked goalie Antoine Bibeau's second game of the year and his first since returning from the Carolina Hurricanes' taxi squad. It was also the first game for defenseman David Warsofsky, who put forth a solid effort while the rest of the Wolves blue line struggled. As a whole, the defensive group's effort was a bit too relaxed. On the offensive front, the Wolves failed to make crisp passes which led to odd-man opportunities for Grand Rapids. The Griffins deserve credit, however, as they skated with a purpose and used active sticks to clog up passing lanes. Bibeau allotted rebounds galore, which gave the Griffins multiple bites at the apple.
In lineup news, the Nashville Predators recalled winger Tanner Jeannot before the Wolves and Griffins got underway, so he was missing from Chicago's forward corps.
The Wolves' defense started on their heels as the Griffins possessed the puck deep in their offensive zone all period and generated quality chances around to the net. Bibeau held strong initially, but a goal by Riley Barber in front of the net opened the scoring for the Griffins. Grand Rapids had another opportunity later in the period on a power play, but Bibeau held his own. He stopped eight of the nine shots in the opening frame as the Wolves headed to the locker room down 1-0 and in need of a wake-up call on defense.
In the previous battle, the Wolves were able to muster up some second-period scoring so a rebound was expected. That was not the case in this game. Off a face-off, the Griffins kept the puck deep in the Wolves zone, generated a pass to the net, and Dominik Shine potted on a rebound chance. A minute later, the Wolves finally had the puck in their offensive zone but couldn't apply any pressure. They turned the puck over and allowed a 3-on-1 chance which Barber capitalized on for his second tally of the night.
There was no defensive pressure and it was even worse than the first period. This was the Wolves' first real test of the season as they found themselves down three goals early in the second period to a veteran Grand Rapids on a three-game win streak. The Wolves had a chance to get back in the game on a power play but most of their passes did not connect. With 16 seconds left on the power play, the Griffins committed a boarding infraction to give Chicago an abbreviated 5-on-3 opportunity. They weren't able to generate much with the two-man advantage but no shot firsts but applied more pressure when 5-on-4 play resumed. However, The entire power play sequence only generated one shot on goal, which is embarrassing given the talent of the Wolves. The theme of the night, "shooting yourself in the foot" continued when the Wolves began to create some offense but Jameson Rees committed a cross-checking penalty.
Wolves' head coach Ryan Warsofsky tried to spark things by switching up his line combinations to start the period. With the depth this team has and the abundance of combinations used already this year, it was a move that could provide a spark. The Wolves gave up a quick chance but then began to control the puck as well as they would all night. Griffins' goalie Kevin Boyle allowed a rebound and Tyler Pitlick capitalized by potting his AHL-leading third goal of the season. The line change seemed to work, as the Wolves recorded four shots in the first three minutes of the final frame compared to logging just eight shots total in the second period. Jameson Rees applied pressure around the net but the offense was otherwise tame as the Griffins effectively defended passing lanes and forced the Wolves to handle the puck at the point.
Simply put, the Wolves looked flustered and frustrated all game. Even in Jeannot's absence from the lineup, Chicago's inability to apply defensive pressure was lackluster. When the Wolves' transition game is hindered by strong backchecking from the opponent, they don't have much to lean on. They thrive on speed and getting the puck deep in the zone to create chances. The Griffins owned those passing lanes all night, which forced the puck out to the point. Coach Warsofsky will have to find a way to maneuver around this blueprint on how to derail the Wolves.
Another glaring issue comes in the special teams department as the Wolves haven't scored on the power play all year. Given their reliance on speed to generate chances, they need to go back to the drawing board to figure things out when they start in the offensive zone with a man advantage.