AHL: Chicago Wolves at Abbotsford Heat

BY THOMAS DRANCE
A week ago, independent goaltending scout Justin Goldman (AKA The Goalie Guild) ranked the Chicago Wolves 1st among all AHL clubs in terms of the quality of their goaltending. Per Goldman:
“Everyone loves Eddie Lack, and for good reason. Just like his predecessor Cory Schneider, and even if it takes him a few years to eventually get there, the Swedish prospect has “future NHL stud written all over him. Combine his skill with the reliance and steadying influence of veteran Matt Climie and newly-hired goalie coach Dan Cloutier, and there should be very few weak efforts in goal for the Wolves this season.”

Through three Wolves games this season, goaltender Eddie Lack and Matt Climie have lived up to their billing and then some. Eddie Lack has started twice, both times against a Rockford club featuring top-prospect Brandon Saad and NHL regulars Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes. In those two games he’s only allowed 3 goals – 2 of them on the power-play. Matt Climie got the nod in Wednesday night’s game against the Peoria Rivermen and he was similarly excellent, stopping 30 of 31 shots to pace the Wolves past the St. Louis Blues’ affiliate. Climie was dialed in on Wednesday, and the only shot that beat him was a slam-dunk T.J. Hensick finish to a lovely passing play orchestrated by Jaden Schwartz.
So far Scott Arniel’s Chicago Wolves have needed their puck stoppers to be stellar. The Wolves have only managed six goals in the three games they’ve played, which has left the club little room for error in their own end. In particular, the Wolves’ power-play has begun the season on an anemic run. Though the power-play unit got of the schneid with a Zack Kassian goal on Wednesday night, that goal came off of a pass attempt that redirected into the net off of a Peoria defenseman’s skate.
The offense will have to pick it up if Chicago wants to contend in the AHL’s Western Conference – as many, including the odds makers, expect them to do. This weekend’s games against Abbotsford will provide a stiff early season test. The Heat are an eminently capable offensive club, who will create scoring opportunities. Led by Swiss super prospect Sven Baertschi (who already has four points on the season), the Heat have managed to score ten goals in two games.
Obviously the Heat won’t be able to sustain a five-goals-per-game pace. But it’s not just Abbotsford’s gaudy goal totals that are impressive, it’s the way they’ve managed to absolutely take over in the two games they’ve played. Both of the Heat’s games were played against the Peoria Rivermen last weekend, and in both contests the Heat absolutely crushed their opponents in a game-deciding frame. In the season opener, schooled the Rivermen in the 2nd frame – out-shooting the Illinois club two to one in the period and scoring three times to put the game away. The next day they came out firing in the first, out-shot the Rivermen 17 to 7 and left absolutely no doubt.
Containing Sven Baertschi will be key for the Wolves if they hope to impress the hometown fans in Abbotsford this weekend. To that end, expect Kevin Connauton and in particular Chris Tanev – a young player who already has “shutdown” experience at the NHL level – to be “hard matched” against Baertschi and his line-mates (Ben Walter and Dustin Sylvester) throughout the weekend. Connauton has been a revelation in the early going this season and will look to continue his steady play, while Tanev hasn’t quite found his stride with the Wolves yet this season – but one expects that he’ll be fired up for this weekend’s games in the Fraser Valley.
Up front, all eyes will be on Zack Kassian. Kassian, like most of his teammates, hasn’t been setting the world on fire offensively in the early going this season – but he’s been quietly impressive. Through three games, Kassian has a goal and an assist. The goal was a lucky one, but the assist was hard-earned – as Kassian bowled over a Rockford defender on Sunday afternoon, stole the puck, and fed Bill Sweatt in the slot for an easy game sealing goal. Canucks fans who make the trip out to Abbotsford will be surprised by the burgeoning powerforward’s playmaking ability, and will be significantly less shocked if Kassian mixes it up with the likes of Akim Aliu at some point during this weekend’s games.
A dark-horse Canucks prospect to look out for is Anton Rodin. The Canucks’ second round pick in 2009 seems to be a lot stronger this year than last. He’s winning puck battles consistently and his speed, impressive array of dangles and his craftiness along the wall hint at his dazzling offensive potential. Rodin has played some minutes on a line with Jordan Schroeder and Kassian, and when that trio has skated together they’ve been borderline dominant. Hopefully Arniel will give the locals what they want, and lean on that line this weekend.