The Wolves scored two goals 19 seconds apart late in the third period, then held off the Gulls in a 3-1 victory.
Maybe the Wolves won the Western Conference title in the most fitting fashion Monday night.
All season, there have been struggles. They’ve lost players to injury and a pair of standouts to roster moves that helped the parent-club Golden Knights but did nothing for them.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that their 3-1 victory against the San Diego Gulls in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals wasn’t easy. Facing a San Diego team playing for its season, the Wolves and goalie Oscar Dansk withstood an early rush. They hung in until they found their game in the second period, then took a 2-0 lead in the third with goals 19 seconds apart from Curtis McKenzie and Keegan Kolesar.
“It’s another game that we just found another way to get through,” said McKenzie, who scored twice in the third period. “A lot of the game, we probably weren’t the best team, but Oscar was so good in the net for us. We just found a way to get through. That’s been our season all along.”
The Wolves won the last three games of the series to reach the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since winning the 2008 title. They’ll face the Charlotte Checkers, who have home-ice advantage and will host Game 1 on Saturday.
“The work’s not done, but another mountain was climbed tonight,” coach Rocky Thompson said. “There’s one more yet to go.”
To reach the Finals and have a chance for their fifth league title, the Wolves survived a five-game series with the Grand Rapids Griffins after falling behind 2-1. Then came six-game series against the Iowa Wild and now the Gulls to return to the Finals.
The playoff success comes on the heels of a Central Division championship attained despite the losses of Brandon Pirri and Erik Brannstrom and the late-season injury absence of league MVP Daniel Carr.
“If you told me we’d be in this position at the start of the year, I’d be thrilled,” Kolesar said. “I completely am. It was a hard-fought series.”
If not for Dansk, the series could have been stretched to Game 7.
Dansk stopped 29 shots and helped the Wolves survive an early San Diego onslaught. The Gulls had the first nine shots of the game, but Dansk stopped them all.
“I think that’s something you expect when their backs are against the wall,” Dansk said. “They’re going to come out swinging. They’ve got a lot of skill. They can make plays. I think we expected that, but I thought we weathered the storm, then came back at them.”
The experience against San Diego will only help the Wolves against Charlotte. The Checkers led the AHL with 51 wins and 110 points and figure to be a challenge. But the Gulls were, too. The Wolves won two games in overtime and outscored San Diego by a slim margin, 17-14, over the six games.
Thompson said that’s the only way his team knows how to keep going. Everything, he said, has been tight, and a variety of players helped them get by.
“Our guys, they just keep coming,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘That’s good because that’s what the playoffs are all about. You’re going to have peaks and valleys. There’s a great belief in the room in each other, which is the most important thing.”