by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
Finally, the second season is here!
Congratulations to Ryan McGill, Nick Fotiu and Jim Schoenfeld for leading the Wolf Pack to another great season, the winningest in Wolf Pack history and this current administration's second in a row of better than 100 points. The Pack fell just short of a second consecutive conference title, but finished second in the conference standings and third overall, a terrific record by any standards.
The last week of the regular year started on a downer, as the Pack squandered a chance to move to within two points of first-place Manchester with a 5-1 home loss to the Monarchs. The Wolf Pack have rarely been outplayed on home ice this year, but they certainly were in that game, as Manchester outshot the Pack 16-7 in the first period, jumped on top with two goals in the first nine minutes of the game and never took their feet off the gas pedal. The NHL-caliber line of Mike Cammalleri, Shooter Smyth and Dustin Brown was dynamite, combining for two goals and seven points, and the Monarchs looked every bit the conference-championship club that they would eventually be. The Pack looked out of sync from the start, uncharacteristic of them for such a big game, and were forced to make a goaltending change for the first time in 19 games (and only the eighth time all season), when Steve Valiquette came in to replace Jason LaBarbera after the Monarchs' third goal at 3:18 of the second period.
After that convincing verdict it looked like Manchester all but had the division and conference crowns sown up, but as it turns out the Wolf Pack would find a way to claw back into contention. They went from playing a first-place team to a cellar-dweller when Albany came to town on Friday night, but the Rats were a wolf in sheep's clothing, as evidenced by their 5-1 thumping of the Wolf Pack in the only previous meeting between the two teams and their 8-0-1 streak coming into the game. It was almost a mirror image of Wednesday's game, though, as the Wolf Pack came out hard in the first and jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead. Joe Balej continued his resurgence with a shorthanded tally just 2:33 into the game, and that set the tone for one theme of the contest, which was shorthanded scoring chances. I don't think I've ever seen as many shorthanded opportunities as there were in that game. Albany goalie Scott Clemmensen looked a little off his game on the first two Pack goals, but he came up with a bunch of glittering stops thereafter, many of them against the Pack penalty-kill. The Wolf Pack got the one shortie, but legitimately could have had three or four more, that's how aggressive the PK was. On the downside, though, the River Rat power play managed to survive all of those chances-against and score two goals of their own, and by the 14:00 mark of the third period the Wolf Pack found themselves in a tie game. The Pack really showed some character after the Rats drew even, though, and quickly grabbed the advantage again on goals by Joel Bouchard and Layne Ulmer. That was it for the River Rats, and the Pack earned a split in the season series with a 4-2 win.
With a two-game losing streak stopped, the Pack's final two games consisted of a home-and-home series with Springfield, another club that had long since been eliminated from a chance at the postseason. Like the Rats, though, they had significantly upgraded their play in their previous 10 games or so. With Manchester having lost Friday night, Saturday's game in Springfield still held importance for the Wolf Pack, but they had a hard time getting going in their last road contest of the regular season. The Falcons went in front just 2:25 into the game and dictated the play for most of the first period. A nasty brawl broke out when former Falcon Marty Grenier, apparently upset by a hit on his partner Bouchard by Falcon antagonist J.F. Soucy, grabbed Soucy and unleashed a flurry of punches. Other players from both sides jumped in, and when the smoke cleared, non-coincidental major penalties to Grenier and Trevor Gillies put Springfield on a five-minute five-on-three power play. I don't ever remember seeing a two-man advantage with two majors, and it looked like that would give the Falcons a chance to put the game away, but it actually ended up being a turning point in favor of the Pack. The Falcon power play seemed to suffer a collective breakdown in confidence, Adam Henrich took a minor penalty in the midst of the five-on-three, and the Wolf Pack were able to kill the whole thing off, even with Bryce Lampman being hit with a high-sticking major before Grenier and Gillies' penalties even ended. What's more, the Pack managed a shorthanded goal by Dominic Moore to tie the game. That obviously demoralized the Falcons, and Thomas Pöck's first AHL goal put the Pack ahead on a power play of their own. Alex Giroux then scored a pair late in the third to salt away a 4-1 win.
It was a costly victory, though, as Grenier, Gillies and Steve MacIntyre all ended up being hit with suspensions as a result of the rough stuff, and Jamie Lundmark and Balej were unable to play in Sunday's rematch due to injuries. Manchester lost again on Saturday, so the Pack still had a chance to finish first with a win and a Monarch regulation loss. The roster was so depleted, though, the Wolf Pack had to call Lee Falardeau and Rory Rawlyk up from Charlotte even to get to 16 skaters, two below the normal roster limit of 18. The Falcons were charged up to play spoilers, too, with a chance to end their disappointing season on a positive note by denying the Pack a shot at first place. The short-staffed Wolf Pack managed to put 45 shots at the Springfield net in the regular-season finale, but their finishing touch was lacking, as the Falcons got 44 saves from goaltender Brian Eklund in a 3-1 win.
The Wolf Pack now head into the postseason on a pretty good run, as Sunday's loss was only the third time in the last 14 games (9-3-1-1) that they failed to register at least a standings point. It should be an interesting matchup in the first round, as the Lowell Lock Monsters boast as good a group of forwards as any team in the league, and also are backstopped by two excellent young goaltenders in Cam Ward and Brent Krahn. The Lock Monsters were one of only two teams (Manchester was the other) to beat the Pack twice here in Hartford, and the Wolf Pack played a couple of their best games of the year at Lowell, so it has all the earmarks of an evenly-matched series and a real good first test for whichever team comes out on top.