Chicago Wolves forward Josh Leivo had a productive post-birthday celebration last night.

Leivo, who turned 29 on Thursday, supplied a hat trick for the Wolves as they finished off the Milwaukee Admirals with a 5-1 win in Game 4 of the Central Division Finals. The Wolves can now rest up while the Colorado Eagles and Stockton Heat settle the Pacific Division Finals.

Leivo’s first two goals had the Wolves fully in control with a 4-0 lead by 1:01 of the second period. Chicago decisively closed out the series following a 4-2 loss in Game 3.

“I don’t think we were happy with our last game, so we knew we had to come in and respond this way,” Leivo told the Wolves’ Alli Vellucci after the game.

“I’m proud of everyone on this team.”

A 50-16-5-5 regular season helped the Wolves to edge Stockton for the American Hockey League’s top record and earn the home-ice advantage throughout the Calder Cup Playoffs. They went 25-7-3-3 at Allstate Arena in the regular season and have gone 4-0 during the Calder Cup Playoffs, posting a plus-17 goal differential (24-7).

With both the Admirals and Rockford IceHogs behind them, the Wolves will now move their focus to Stockton and Colorado. The Western Conference Finals will begin in Rosemont with games June 3 and June 6.

The Wolves intend to enjoy that extra time at home.

“We love playing in front of our fans, and we’ve got that advantage now,” said Leivo, who is tied for the league lead with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) this postseason.

But the Wolves are searching for something much bigger than winning a couple of playoff rounds, even if they did come against two of their biggest Central Division rivals. They are eight wins away from the franchise’s third Calder Cup championship.

“We’re a happy team right now,” Leivo said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do still.”

The end of an AHL season means that a team has played together for the final time. Milwaukee Admirals players will compete for National Hockey League jobs next season with the Nashville Predators, return to Milwaukee, or chase their pro ambitions elsewhere.

But for a team that was sputtering with a 13-18-2-2 record in mid-January and at risk of falling out of playoff contention, to have knocked out a second-place team like Manitoba and still be playing into late May against the likes of the Wolves can count as a success.

“We’re just proud of the group,” Milwaukee head coach Karl Taylor told the team’s radio broadcast following the season-ending loss. “The guys gave us everything they had. Guys playing hurt, blocking shots. You can’t say enough about this group. You can’t say enough about the season we went through and the path we were on. It was incredible.”

Still, the Admirals have not become a premier supplier of NHL talent to Nashville for more than 20 years simply by settling. Taylor and assistant coaches Scott Ford and Greg Rallo are demanding, and Admirals players benefited from that teaching process this season despite the difficult first half.

“We’re not satisfied with the season,” Taylor continued. “You always want to win your last game. But you know, these guys gave pretty much everything they had. We had a chance to play against Chicago, the best team in the league. I thought for most of the series, we were right there, and unfortunately we couldn’t get it done.

“I just told them we’re really proud of the group. There are a lot of guys who sacrificed in there in multiple different ways. That’s a tight group, and they really care about each other, so this hurts a lot.”

Patrick Williams

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