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Strength of the Pack sets up Wolves early season success

 

What a difference a year makes.

Last October the Sudbury Wolves started 2-6-0-0 before finishing at the bottom of the OHL standings.  This time around that record is reversed and their 6-2-0-0 mark leads all 20 teams heading into the season’s fourth week.

A five-game win-streak powered by their first three-game road trip sweep since 2012 helped vault the Wolves into the CHL’s Top-10 for the first time in over a decade giving fans in the Nickel City lots to be excited about.

“I think the biggest thing right now is believing we can win,” second year head coach Cory Stillman told Jeff Giffen of the Sudbury Star after Sunday’s OT win in Kitchener. “Night after night, we have a different line stepping up or a different player.”

While it’s no surprise one of the early season difference makers has been first overall pick Quinton Byfield with three goals and three assists, the strength of the Wolves has been the pack scoring by committee with a league-high 14 players finding twine through eight games.

Former first overall pick David Levin leads the charge with seven points including three goals, 6’4” forward Nolan Hutcheson has six points delivering a career-high four on Friday night in Erie, and last season’s top producer now NHL Draft prospect Blake Murray came up big on Thursday night with a goal against Niagara and on Sunday with the winner in Kitchener.

And then there’s the play between-the-pipes by Buffalo Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who has helped stretch the streak from the crease with a perfect 5-0-0-0 record and Player of the Week honours to start his OHL career.

“He (Luukkonen) stole us a game, flat out,” Wolves head coach Cory Stillman told the Sudbury Star’s Ben Leeson after Thursday’s win in Niagara where the Finnish netminder stopped 46 of 48. “He was the first star of the game. He held us in there early when we gave up 20 shots in the first period and continued to do that through the second and third.

“It gives you belief that you can win every hockey game. And again, it wasn’t pretty for us, but we’re counting on a save and he’s giving it to us every night.”

Transitioning to a new league, and country for that matter, the first European goaltender chosen in the Import Draft since 2013 couldn’t have asked for a better debut endearing himself to teammates while acclimatizing to life in the OHL.

“Of course, it’s surprising. I didn’t expect it,” Luukkonen said of his scorching start in an interview this week with Jourdon LaBarber of Sabres.com. “But we have a good team and our team has been playing really well. It’s easy to play behind those guys.

“Especially when you’re with a new team and new environment, you have to prove yourself a little,” he added. “It helps to make big saves and help the team win.”

The 2017 second round NHL pick will likely get the call on Friday night against fellow Sabres prospect Matej Pekar and the Barrie Colts in the third meeting between the clubs with the season series knotted at one apiece.

A home date with the IceDogs on Sunday rounds out the weekend ahead for the country’s eighth ranked team who can truly stake their claim in the Central Division standings and among the CHL’s elite.

“Good start with the road trip and we have to come home and continue to play the same way we are,” Stillman noted. “Otherwise, all the hard work you do early in the season fades away fast and you’re back in a battle.”

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