by Bob Crawford
Wolf Pack Director of Broadcasting/Media Relationswww.hartfordwolfpack.com
The AHL has 28 teams, but this month for the Wolf Pack, the League has been boiled down into a seven-squad battleground.
The Pack continued a stretch this past week of 12 straight games, and 14 out of 15, against Atlantic Division foes, with the one non-divisional game coming vs. Bridgeport, which might as well be a divisional game, the Wolf Pack plays the Sound Tigers so often. By the time this stretch is over the season will be nearing its halfway point, so although it is still awfully early in the year to be talking about key games, you could certainly make an argument that the Wolf Pack are in the midst of a very important segment of their eighth season in Hartford.
Thus far, they are rising to the occasion for the most part. Head Coach Ryan McGill was steamed but good on Friday night after his lads let a 2-1 third-period lead slip away in Providence and lost 3-2, and he wasn't thrilled with the effort in Wednesday's 2-0 home win vs. Springfield either, but no one could help but be impressed with the team's show of character in the Wolf Pack's Saturday-night victory over the powerful Manchester Monarchs, and the club exhibited good moxie on Sunday as well, wiping out a 1-0 deficit against Worcester with an extra-attacker goal with only 1:32 left and winning the subsequent shootout.
On Wednesday the team looked to be suffering somewhat of a hangover from its two excellent games over the previous weekend, a 6-0 thumping of the IceCats in Worcester and a 4-3 overtime win at the Monarchs. Also, the Pack had to play with a re-shuffled lineup after losing three regulars, Blair Betts, Layne Ulmer and Thomas Pöck, in the Sunday game. They still had enough to hold the Falcons at bay, though, in what was essentially a 1-0 game (Ken Gernander got his first goal of the year into an empty net with less than a second remaining to create the final margin). Jason LaBarbera continued to shine in the cage, posting his third shutout in four starts. It was the third straight loss for the Falcons, who still find themselves trailing the field in the Atlantic. I thought they'd have it going by now, and they did get on a bit of an uptick after swapping a couple of players with Utah and signing Derek Bekar, but they can't seem to establish any consistency, although they rarely fail to give the Wolf Pack a good game.
Friday's visit to the Dunkin Donuts Center-Providence saw the Pack do a good bit more running around in their defensive zone than we are used to seeing out of them. The club's d-zone coverage and team defensive concept has been so good over the last year that I think we've come to take it for granted, and it stands out like a sore thumb when it isn't there. Still and all, the Wolf Pack were ahead 2-1 for nearly a full period of that game and were only 8:46 away from winning it before the Bruins came back with a pair, the second of which was scored with only 1:06 to play by old friend Jayme Filipowicz. I think it's safe to say there is still a strong sense of mutual admiration between "Flip" and the Wolf Pack (when they aren't playing each other, of course), but that still had to be a pretty sweet goal for him to get. An unjust fate for Steve Valiquette, though, who put forth an acrobatic effort to keep the Pack in the game. Like the hurler in baseball who somehow cosmically finds a way to start every game in which his team isn't going to score any runs, Valiquette seems to be finding himself in net quite a few times lately when the Wolf Pack's game is somewhat off. As I write this he leads the AHL in save percentage and is second only to LaBarbera in goals-against average, yet his record is only 4-3-1.
After that disappointment the Pack had to be hungering to redeem themselves, and they were solid again in action against Manchester, which was coming off its first back-to-back losses of the season. Saturday's game turned chippy and was basically a power play contest for much of it, which can degenerate into a real ugly and uninteresting type of hockey. The Wolf Pack shrugged off a run of second-period penalties, however, and kept their focus despite losing a 1-0 lead. After the Monarchs had tallied two five-on-three goals within 26 seconds to go up 2-1, the Pack tied it on a sweet backhander by Ryan Hollweg, and then Gernander netted what turned out to be the winner just 3:42 before the final horn. That tagged Monarchs 'tender Adam Hauser with his first defeat of the year after seven wins, and lifted the Wolf Pack to 2-0 against the division leaders. No surprise either to long-time Wolf Pack fans that Gernander saved his first real goal of the season for such a big spot. The Monarchs won their last game of the weekend, 4-3 at home on Sunday over Springfield, but clearly three consecutive defeats made them concerned about their depth on defense, as Sunday they signed Jason Holland, who logged 132 games with Manchester in 2001-02 and '02-'03 before spending all last year with parent club Los Angeles. He had been playing in Italy and is one of those solid veteran blueliners who can really stabilize a team.
Once again on Sunday, it appeared as though the Wolf Pack had expended all of their energy beating the Monarchs and didn't have much left in the tank. Luckily for them, though, the IceCats are in one of those funks right now where they keep generating chance after chance but can't put anything into the back of the net. They jumped on top 1-0 in the first period and had lots of good opportunities to take control of the game, but let the Wolf Pack hang around a little bit too long. Jamie Lundmark and Jozef Balej were due to get some points, and they combined on real good, hard-working play to set up Lawrence Nycholat for the late tying goal. After that you kind of sensed that something good might happen in overtime or the shootout. And sure enough, after the Wolf Pack had squandered no fewer than 13 attempts in their last shootout against Lowell, and Alex Giroux missed the first one Sunday, they buried three straight, and LaBarbera stopped three out of four, to secure the win.
That marked LaBarbera's franchise-best seventh straight win, as he continues his personal re-write of the team record book. He got number seven the hard way, and it's ironic that it came via shootout, a concept that he is already on the record as detesting, but that only magnifies his great work during the streak. In those seven games he allowed a total of only eight goals on 185 shots (a 95.7% save percentage) and pitched three shutouts.
The Wolf Pack's second straight four-games-in-five-days stretch is on tap this week, before a leisurely wee off leading into the Christmas holiday.