They’ve scored more goals than anyone else in the Ontario Hockey League — 37 of them in seven games so far.
So, while it’s still early, it sure seems like the local squad won’t be struggling to fill the net this season.
Put it this way, Quinton Byfield’s line with Blake Murray and Shane Bulitka has combined for 14 goals — seven, four and three, respectively.
The North Bay Battalion have 13 and the Kingston Frontenacs have 11.
All of that suggests that keeping the puck out of their own cage will go a long way to determining if the Wolves will be an elite team in the Eastern Conference or perhaps one merely fighting for a shot at having home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
At this point, I would offer the same advice that novice coaches give to their players when their team is about a win a game — do not jump on the goalie.
This year’s tandem of Christian Purboo and Mitchell Weeks has enjoyed the luxury of a high-scoring outfit in front of them, which essentially means the team can outscore any problems it might have on the defensive side of the puck. That’s exactly what happened last Friday when the Wolves erased a 5-3 deficit and beat the Peterborough Petes 9-6 at Sudbury Community Arena.
Purboo got the hook after allowing three goals on just five shots. He was also pulled in the Wolves’ season-opening 5-2 loss at Niagara, after surrendering three goals on six shots in that one.
To his credit, though, Purboo bounced back both times with better efforts and wins in his next starts, including last Saturday’s 4-3 victory in Sault Ste. Marie.
For Weeks, he has looked pretty good in relief when Purboo has faltered. He got his only win of the season in the Peterborough game and even though he somehow got tagged with the loss in Niagara, the 18-year-old Barrie, Ont. native stopped 28 of 30 in replacing Purboo against the IceDogs. It’s a very small sample size, but so far the challenge for Weeks has been playing at the same level in his own starts. But we’re talking two games, so there’s plenty of time to shake off any early season jitters.
The goaltending Wolves fans have witnessed so far is pretty much what you could have expected — flashes of brilliance mixed with bouts of inconsistency.
The duo came into the season with a combined 32 games played at the OHL level — 28 for Purboo and just four for Weeks.
One is a rookie and the other has never been a No. 1 goalie in the league. To make matters worse, look at the act they had to follow. No one will replace Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, not this season and maybe never. He was that good and fans in Sudbury were that spoiled.
But Purboo and Weeks can definitely develop into a 1 and 1A type of goaltending duo, and it’s debatable which goalie will grab which position.
Purboo is older and more experienced in the OHL, so he’ll be given every opportunity to grab the bull by the horns. The fact that coach Cory Stillman went back to the former North Bay Battalion puck-stopper last Saturday against the Greyhounds suggests he wants Purboo to grab the reigns and go. But Weeks has shown enough skill and ability that it’s possible he could slide into the lead dog role over time. Some friendly competition is never a bad thing.
The team is 5-2 despite the fact Purboo’s save percentage is at .884 and Weeks sits at .885. You could choose to look at that in a negative light, but truthfully, it’s actually a positive. As the goalies settle in and get more playing time, the team stands to get even better.
Having Peter Stratis healthy and working his way back into game shape will make a difference. He’s the Wolves’ most experienced defenceman and gives the coaching staff more depth on the back end.
Quite frankly, Purboo and Weeks need more time in the crease to keep improving and to blossom into whatever they’re going to become. The decision to send Weeks to play a ton of hockey in Tier II last season, rather than being Luukkonen’s backup, was clearly a wise one, but it may take time for the strategy to pay dividends. He’s a raw rookie in the OHL, experiencing everything essentially for the first time.
There will be growing pains, but the team is good enough to give the goalies the time they need to gain both comfort and confidence in their roles.
You only need to look up front at some of the guys helping the team lead the league offensively to understand the lessons that come from adversity and inconsistency. The team’s patience is paying off with players like David Levin and Owen Gilhula, who are off to a red-hot start.
The same may hold true for the goalies.
There are still 60 games to go before one of them needs to step up and lead the way in the playoffs.
Last season, Luukkonen was so outstanding that he literally bought a young team all the time it needed to develop and reach a level of success not seen in a while. I would contend that his presence, even for one short season, can still be felt in the confidence of the players on this year’s team.
It’s their turn now to provide that same buffer for a couple of goalies learning on the job. And so far, they’ve done a pretty good job.
Wolf Tracks runs weekly during the hockey season.