by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The Wolf Pack built a winning streak up to five, and a points streak to nine straight games, before suffering a disappointing 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Providence Bruins this past Sunday. That lapse cost them a chance to move to within two points of first place and make this Wednesday's contest against Manchester into a showdown for a share of the top spot.
The Pack have been right on the Monarchs' heels all season, and they've done a great job of keeping them in their sights and never allowing the gap to get unmanageably large. Whenever they have gotten within striking distance of Manchester, though, or even snuck in front of them, they have then suffered a key letdown and allowed the Monarchs to get the upper hand again. Hopefully for the Pack they are saving their final big push for the postseason. That is, if they can't find a way to grab that top spot in the division during the last week of the regular year.
You could kind of see that Sunday defeat coming, in that parts of the week's first two games were a little loose by Wolf Pack standards. They beat Worcester on the road 3-2 on Wednesday, but needed 41 saves from Jason LaBarbera to do it, and then they fell behind the Bruins 1-0 in the front half of the home-and-home on Sunday before waking up and scoring the final four goals of the game.
LaBarbera was nothing short of outstanding in the Wednesday game, as the Wolf Pack got outshot 43-24 and gave up 17 shots in the first period and 20 in the third. LaBarbera prevented the IceCats, desperate for points in their quest for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, from getting any momentum, and the Wolf Pack, although their team game on their own half of the ice was not where they wanted it to be, rang up some very timely goals when they were able to generate some offensive pressure. Alex Giroux reached the 30-goal plateau (nobody on last year's conference finalist club had more than 26), and a line of Jamie Lundmark centering Jeff Hamilton and Ryan Hollweg did the rest. That trio combined for six points, and Hollweg notched the game-winning goal on an impressive shot just 57 seconds into the third period.
Hollweg has spent much of this season establishing himself as one of the most consistent hitters in the AHL, as well as serving notice that he will drop the gloves to answer the bell for any scrapes that his banging and crashing might touch off. The former Western Hockey Leaguer has been primarily an energy guy for the Pack, but has shown flashes of a real good offensive touch. The Wolf Pack thought enough of him when he came up from Junior as a 19-year-old three years ago to play him in nine playoff games, so I see him as a dark horse to chip in some key offense in the postseason.
Wednesday was the Pack's last regular-season visit to the DCU Center (nee the Centrum Center, nee the Centrum) in Worcester. Barring a turnaround in the final week, there won't be a potential for a fourth playoff series between the Wolf Pack and IceCats either. While we'll all miss the short bus rides to Worcester and I'll certainly miss the top-shelf press room food, the Pack won't be nostalgic for that building in terms of the number of wins they have been able to take out of there. Although, happily, they've enjoyed good success in Worcester in the postseason, Wednesday's victory was only the Pack's ninth win in 33 all-time regular-season visits to that which is now called the DCU Center.
Saturday found the Wolf Pack facing the P-Bruins for the first time since the 304 penalty-minute slugfest they had with the Bruins in Providence back on February 4th, and the Bruins had just had their six-game winning streak snapped the night before in a 3-1 loss at home to Lowell. Again, LaBarbera was big-time sharp, as Providence seemed to have the territorial advantage for most of the first half of the game. The Pack definitely cranked it up a notch after Tomas Kurka gave the Bruins a short-lived 1-0 lead at 13:32 of the second period, and their renewed jump earned them a big break. Layne Ulmer was credited with the tying goal at 15:52 of the second on a play that was disputed by the Bruins, who claimed that the puck never crossed the goal line. I couldn't tell from my vantage point, although I had a fan who was sitting behind the net tell me Monday night that he saw it definitely go over the line. After that Jamie Lundmark put the Pack ahead with a shorthanded goal, on a shot that, if I may be permitted some hyperbole, was among the most impressive I ever remember seeing. He beat Hannu Toivonen over the glove with about a 45-footer, from his off-wing side, back across the grain, and a gorgeous replay showed that it went into the absolute top corner. The Bruins seemed deflated after that, and the Pack added two more in the first 7:47 of the third for a 4-1 verdict.
The P-Bruins had to be a little tight after that, having seen a lead that was seven points over Worcester going into the weekend shrink to three in the span of two nights. Give them credit, though, they righted the ship and came right back against the Wolf Pack in Sunday's game, making a pair of second-period special-teams goals within a span of 55 seconds stand up for the win. The Pack were hit with a bench minor at the start of the second period and Providence's dangerous power play converted, and then while a on power play of their own the Wolf Pack gave up a two-on-one and allowed Dan LaCouture to get three whacks at the puck from right on top of LaBarbera. LaCouture, the former Ranger, potted the third try and that shorthanded tally stood up as the game-winner. The Wolf Pack controlled much of the play thereafter but could never get closer than 2-1. I guess it just goes to prove that at this time of year, even a meltdown of less than a minute can cost you two crucial points.