When the Michigan Gray Wolves were swept out of last year’s Western Division playoff, some observers felt it was a watershed moment for a team that has regularly been among the SHL’s best. Were the Wolves getting complacent after multiple seasons of success? Was their aging roster starting to catch up to them? Were they about to be passed by the rising young teams in Seattle or Saskatchewan?
As it turns out, rumors of Michigan’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The Wolves are playing their most dominant hockey to date, smothering the life out of their opponents and threatening to turn the Western race into a battle for second place.
“The way they’re playing right now, no one can even lay a glove on them,” said Seattle Sailors LW Rod Argent. “They’re not even on the same dimension as the rest of us.”
The Wolves are relying on their tried-and-true formula, built around airtight defense and goaltending. They’ve been able to dictate the pace of games, often forcing high-flying opponents to play at Michigan’s preferred deliberate tempo. They’ve held opponents to 27.3 shots and under a goal per game. Even by the Wolves’ usual rugged standards, that’s domination.
They’ve already recorded six shutouts, more than most teams manage over an entire season. You might be tempted to credit elite goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist for that achievement, but two of those shutouts were recorded by backup Art Cowan.
Michigan’s sternest test yet came on Tuesday, when they faced off against the Anchorage Igloos, the longtime rivals who knocked them out of the playoffs last year. The Igloos are off to an underwhelming start, and they were eager to deal the Wolves their first loss. Anchorage managed to break Michigan’s defensive pressure and outshot them 41-20. But thanks to a sterling performance from Lundquist, the Wolves walked away with another shutout victory, this time by a 2-0 margin.
Ask Michigan players for the secret to their success, and they’ll point to coach Ron Wright. The Wolves’ bench boss is a master motivator, and he reinforced the team’s commitment to hard work coming into the season.
“Coach Wright knows how to get the most out of this team,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes. “He knows just how hard to push us without going too far. He demands a lot from us, but he’s taught us to demand even more from ourselves.”
Throughout the offseason, every time Wright came across an article or broadcast segment suggesting Michigan might be on the decline, he texted it to the team group chat. “We saw every bad thing anyone said about us,” said D Fritz Kronstein. “We were too old, too slow, over the hill. We were overconfident and rested on our laurels. The game is favoring youth and speed, and we were dinosaurs. It just fueled our fire. When we got to the first day of camp, Coach just smiled and said, ‘So, ready to prove them all wrong?’”
As great as the Wolves have looked, they know full well that this won’t guarantee them anything. They’ve had a history of getting off to hot starts, although never quite this hot. Both last year and in 2015, they started strong but ended up without a title. Michigan’s players, however, show no sign of letting up, which can only be bad news for the rest of the league.
“We know that we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win the Vandy,” said Bailes. “But we’re in it for the long haul. We’re all in to get the title, and we’re not going to let up until we get there.”