by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The Pack seemed to kick their playoff push into high gear this past weekend, as they had what is basically going to be their playoff roster together in the lineup for the first time, and swept a trio of divisional games, two of them on the road. Neither of the first two wins, both requiring overtime, will go down as virtuoso performances, but the team built momentum as the weekend progressed, rounding it out with one of their more impressive wins of the entire year Sunday in Lowell.
Friday's contest was in Springfield and, as usual, the Falcons gave the Wolf Pack a hard battle. Springfield seems to play a real simple, grinding style on home ice, and once again in Friday's game their big forwards did a good job of establishing an effective forecheck throughout the game. The Pack backline never panicked in the face of all the bumping and grinding, however, and the penalty kill that night was outstanding. The Wolf Pack ended up six for six on the P.K., with the last shorthanded situation being on a high-sticking major to Craig Weller that was called with just 5:15 left in the third. The Pack put a real stranglehold on the Falcons on that one, and the kill clearly gave them some good oomph going into the OT. The first shot of the extra session was decisive, as leading goal-scorer Alex Giroux made a strong move to the net and snapped a shot past Springfield goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier. With his puck skills, Giroux always seems to get tons of scoring chances, and like the rest of his teammates he had a hard time finishing in that game, but one of the good things about Alex is he always keeps coming, and he made great use of the little space that the Falcon defense gave him on that overtime rush.
Jason LaBarbera rang up his sixth shutout of the season in the win, stopping all 21 Falcon shots. LaBarbera won't match his record-setting stats of last year, but I would argue that he has been just as effective. That zero Friday gave him a 0.99 goals-against average and a 96.8% save percentage over a span of six games, which is quite a run under any circumstances. His record was only 3-2-1 during that stretch, vividly illustrating how difficult the Wolf Pack have found it to generate offense at times lately.
The Pack were back on home ice for only the second time in three weeks on Saturday, wrapping up the eight-game season series with the Portland Pirates. Unlike the Falcons, the Pirates were still clinging to a thread of hope of making the playoffs, and had a lot more at stake in the game than the Wolf Pack did. For a while it looked like that desperation might spur Portland to a big road win, as they wiped out a 1-0 deficit in the second period with hard-working goals by veterans Trent Whitfield and Brian Willsie. The Wolf Pack got a bit of a break in the third, though, when starting Pirate goaltender Maxime Daigneault, who had allowed only one goal on 21 shots, suffered cramps and was forced to leave the game. That caused Kirk Daubenspeck, who had been battling the flu himself, to have to come in cold. Giroux tied it for the Pack on a one-timed rocket that came while the Wolf Pack were on a five on three power play, and Weller gave the Wolf Pack their second straight extra-time triumph with a goal off a nice individual rush at 3:16 of OT. Ironically, Weller, who at one point early in the season was challenging for the team goal-scoring lead, was on the defense side of his season-long yo-yo when he made the big offensive play in this game. Weller hadn't scored in 23 games prior to that, but all year he has made his goals count-that was his fourth game-winner out of the nine total he has on the year.
Then, after struggling to finish off two teams that occupy the lower reaches of the standings, the Wolf Pack faced a trip to meet the playoff-bound club that is directly behind them in the divisional ranks. This was one of those big four-point "swing" games, as with a win Lowell could have moved to within six points of the second-place Pack, while the Wolf Pack had a chance to open the margin to double digits if they emerged victorious. Despite putting in the extra time the previous two nights, the Pack seemed to have good jump right from the outset. The game was even at one after one, but the Wolf Pack outshot the Lock Monsters 17-7 in the first and could have been up by more. Then Garth Murray tied a Wolf Pack record for fastest goal to start a period when he beat Cam Ward just 10 seconds into the second, and Jed Ortmeyer chased Ward to the showers with a pretty shot over the glove at 6:26. Rough stuff marked the rest of the second, and Dominic Moore pretty much put the game out of reach with a lamplighter on a nifty backhand shot just 2:40 into the third. The final exclamation point was Martin Grenier's first Wolf Pack goal with 4:40 to go. That came as a result of an extremely classy play by Giroux, who looked to have a great chance to score himself, for what would have been his 30th of the year, but instead sent the puck to a wide-open Grenier, who had joined the rush on a smart read. Goal-scorers have to have a certain positive selfish streak just due to the nature of the role, and often they'll be accused of hogging the puck, but Giroux showed on that particular play that he is nothing but a team player.
Even the most nit-picking coach would be hard-pressed to find much not to like about that win, and as a bonus, Manchester lost at home to Providence, so the Wolf Pack woke up Monday morning just two points out of first place. And if the Wolf Pack see Lowell in the postseason, Ryan McGill and Nick Fotiu might be tempted to send Ortmeyer and Steve Valiquette out on to the ice by themselves. With his goal and two assists Sunday, Ortmeyer has five of his seven goals, and eight of his 26 points, on the year against the Lock Monsters, and Valiquette went 5-0-1 against Lowell, one of his several ex-teams, allowing a measly four goals on 176 shots. That's good for a 0.71 goals-against average and a 97.7% save percentage. Wow!
This upcoming week will be another big one for the club. They make their final regular-season visit Wednesday to Worcester, where they never seem to fare very well, and then take on the hottest team in the league twice over the weekend. That win over Manchester on Sunday was Providence's sixth in a row, and their eighth in their last nine.