‘This is where players are made’: Wranglers pumped for playoff opener

Flames’ farm team open its playoff quest this week with a best-of-three series against the Tucson Roadrunners, the top affiliate for Utah-bound Coyotes.

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Whatever happened over the past six or seven months, it doesn’t mean squat once the playoffs start.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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“For me, it’s a new season,” declared Calgary Flames forward prospect Jakob Pelletier, a guy who was not necessarily expecting to be back in the minors this spring but is nonetheless rarin’ to go for a Calder Cup push with the AHL’s Wranglers. “I think this is where players are made. You know, you can see what type of player you are in playoffs. It’s a new season. So whatever happened two days ago or two weeks ago or a month ago, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a huge first game coming up on Wednesday, and I think we just have to focus on that.

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“I’m really excited about the challenge that’s coming up here.”

Pelletier, along with Matt Coronato, Dustin Wolf and the rest of the Flames’ farm-clubbers, open their playoff quest this week with a best-of-three series against the Tucson Roadrunners, the top affiliate for Utah-bound Coyotes.

Matt Coronato
Calgary Flames right wing Matt Coronato celebrates scoring the third goal against the Golden Knights at the Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Calgary Wranglers underdogs in series against Arizona Roadrunners

After settling for seventh in the AHL’s Pacific Division stand6ings, the Wranglers are the underdogs in this opening-round showdown. The second-place Roadrunners have the advantage of playing all three games — set for Wednesday, Friday and Sunday — in front of their home fans, although their guests would have last change in the finale.

“I think if we play our hockey, we can beat any team in the league,” said winger William Stromgren, who emerged as an important offensive contributor for the Wranglers in the second half of his rookie season. “I mean, we’ve shown most of that. If we get everything going, I think we’re a pretty complete team. We can play tough hockey. We can play skilled hockey. We can be a really good all-around team.

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“It was a little bit of a tough period for us before playoffs. But as you come into playoffs, it’s a clean sheet. You’re starting over again, and I think the boys are ready to go.”

Despite stumbling into the post-season on a five-game losing skid, the Wranglers are indeed a frightening foe.

The biggest reason for that is the dude between the pipes. Wolf just returned from an extended stint with the Flames. When the NHL season ended, he was riding a four-game winning streak. And … oh yeah … he happens to be the AHL’s reigning MVP.

The rising-star netminder will need to be sharp to stop the likes of Dylan Guenther and Josh Doan. (Both beat him during a Flames-Coyotes matchup earlier this month, although the 23-year-old Wolf still earned the ‘W.’)

Dustin Wolf
Calgary Wranglers goaltender Dustin Wolf during practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday, January 5, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

‘As long as you’re not moving backwards’

He will also need Coronato, Pelletier, Adam Klapka and others to provide some offensive pop at the other end of the rink.

“These can happen quick — these best-of-threes. We have to make sure we have our best foot forward,” said Wranglers bench boss Trent Cull during his weekly appearance on Flames Talk on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “What my experience has been is that you have to outwork the other team, your best players have to play better than their best players and you have to make sure that you’re constantly moving forward.

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“It can be sometimes that you’re just even, just as long as you’re not moving backwards. But keep pushing forward, keep gaining a little piece of momentum, a little piece of ice here and there. That’s all it is.”

Pelletier, who recently turned 23 and remains a major part of the Flames’ long-term plans, is also looking to build some momentum for next season and beyond.

While most figured that this sparkplug winger was ready to be a full-time NHLer this winter, not much has gone according to plan for Pelletier in 2023-24. He sustained a shoulder injury in exhibition action, missed the next four months as he recovered from surgery (and another brief chunk shortly after), and struggled to find his place in the big-league lineup when he was finally healthy.

He has been back with the Wranglers since mid-March. While he has notched only three goals and six assists in 14 outings since then, Cull revealed his offensive analytics have been tops on the team of late. As the skipper put it during his radio interview: “He’s been providing what we need him to provide. Now, selfishly, I just need him to provide more of it.”

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Challenge accepted.

Because whatever has happened up to this point, it means squat. In Pelletier’s case, not a bad thing.

“If we all play like we know we can play, good things can happen for us,” Pelletier said as the Wranglers travelled earlier this week to Tucson. “Playoff hockey is kind of different than the regular season, right? I think we have a lot of guys that can step up in playoffs. Me first.”

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ICE CHIPS: Hoping to see some playoff action at the Saddledome? If the Wranglers can upset the Roadrunners, they would be guaranteed home dates in the next round, which would be a best-of-five … In the meantime, you can listen live on Sportsnet 960 The Fan, with play-by-play ace Sandra Prusina on scene in Tucson. Wednesday’s Game 1 is an 8 p.m. MT start … The Wranglers and Roadrunners split their four-game regular-season series … Highly touted trade acquisition Hunter Brzustewicz has joined the farm team on a tryout agreement. The 19-year-old blue-line prospect piled up 92 points, including a league-leading 79 assists, with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers in what will likely be his final junior campaign.

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