The Vegas Golden Knights' AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, defeated the Iowa Wild in six games to advance to the Western Conference Finals in the Calder Cup Playoffs on Monday night in Chicago.
The Wolves, who finished first in the Western Conference with 98 points during the regular season, will face the San Diego Gulls in the third round. That series opens Friday at 5 p.m. PT in Chicago.
Head Coach Rocky Thompson said reaching the conference finals is the latest summit the team has reached and, while they're excited to be there, they know there is still a climb to complete.
"It's always a process," Thompson said. "You're always growing, especially in the playoffs. You want to get better and you're trying to improve yourself every day because you know that once you're done with one mountain, you're going to have a breath, you're going to be happy and you're going to look ahead and you're going to see another mountain that's even taller than the first one."
One of the most rewarding parts of Chicago's journey for Thompson this season has been the team's ability to step up when called upon. When players like Brandon Pirri and Daniel Carr were called up to the Golden Knights for stretches of the season, other players had to fill in their shoes to make sure the Chicago ship stayed afloat.
As the young defensemen on the team continued to develop throughout the season, they had to deal with an increased workload when Erik Brannstrom was traded to the Ottawa Senators. Injuries to key players were another hinderance Chicago had to overcome en route to sealing the top seed in the Western Conference. Thompson said all of these different challenges during the season brought the Wolves closer as a group.
"Late in February, injuries started to plague us, especially long-term injuries," Thompson said. "It really could have been the make-it or break-it point of our year. We were heading into the toughest part of our schedule, we were going to be on the road for most of March and February hadn't been an easy month by any stretch of the imagination either and that's when all of this hit at once. It really galvanized our team in the end. It strengthened our group and guys had to step up and were called upon to play bigger roles and play more minutes. Our guys did that as a whole."
When opportunities presented themselves for players to take on an expanded role, different individuals took extra weight on their shoulders at different times. This helped alleviate pressure on the team as a whole and allowed each player to experience getting counted on by the group as a whole.
"It was individual performances that stepped up and it was different individuals consistently," said Thompson. "During our series in Grand Rapids, we lost three guys to in Game 3 so, once again, individuals had to step up and they continued to do it. They rely on each other, they rely on the team and it brought us into our last series. It's been a process the whole year of wanting to grow, strengthening one another and relying on the team to get us through."
The growth of each player on the team, regardless of experience level, is something that Thompson takes pride in because of the way each has gone about maturing as a player. Honing one's individual skills is helpful to their on-ice output, but being a team player is what makes someone a well-rounded teammate.
"It doesn't matter what league you're in when you're part of a team sport," said Thompson. "The team is the most important thing. That's the culture. It starts in Vegas and we're no different. The team comes first, but development in this league is very important so you do both."