by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The Wolf Pack rang out the month of January with a split of four road games this past week, keeping their road record at just above the .500 mark (11-10-1-1). Considering the home slate is a lofty 21-3-0-1, you'd have to term the road results disappointing, although by conventional wisdom most teams would kill for an even record on the road.
Last week was quite the Magical Mystery Tour by Wolf Pack standards, comprised of a nine-hour bus ride to Norfolk on Tuesday, five more hours in the Iron Lung to Philadelphia after Wednesday's game, a quick postgame jaunt from Philly to Hershey on Friday night, and a ride of four more hours to Bridgeport immediately after the Saturday game. We here in the Atlantic Division get pretty soft travel-wise, so it was good to get a little bit of a taste of how the other half of the league lives.
With the exception of meeting the Sound Tigers for the seventh time on the year, this past week's games also featured some teams that the Pack hadn't seen a lot of previously this season. Wednesday's game in Norfolk was our first look at the Admirals, who every year seem to have a team that generally lacks much flashy star power, but rarely fails to win more than it loses. As befits a contest between two stingy defensive teams, there were precious few scoring chances in Wednesday's game, and neither team managed a goal through 65 minutes of regulation and overtime. That brought on the shootout, and for the sixth straight time, the Pack emerged victorious in the breakaway contest. Jeff Hamilton scored twice in the shootout, and Steve Valiquette denied Norfolk's leading scorer Rene Bourque twice. That gave Valiquette shutouts in three straight starts, the first time in franchise history that a goalie had accomplished that feat. The Admirals had won four straight and eight out of 10 coming into the game too, so beating them in their own barn was a good accomplishment.
Norfolk is affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team I grew up rooting for, and for the first time this year is wearing the 'Hawks' colors. I've got to say I got a little tingly when I saw them come out in those red jerseys with the black and white stripes. I'm prejudiced, but I don't think there's a better jersey in sports than that one. It did bring me up short, though, when I saw Matt Ellison wearing the #9 made famous by the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, and Mike Brown in Stan Mikita's #21.
OK, enough of that sentimental nonsense. The Pack's next stop was the City of Brotherly Love, and it didn't show the Wolf Pack any love. Any suspense about whether Valiquette would be able to surpass the AHL record for longest scoreless streak ended early, as Ben Stafford scored on him only 1:26 in, and that seemed to set the tone for the whole night. I didn't think the Pack got badly outplayed by any means, but they definitely didn't make their own breaks and Philly did, leading to a 5-1 Phantom win. The Pack's power play, which had been on a 16/57 tear coming into the week, really let them down in this one, going 0/7, including a staggering 9:26 of man-advantage time in the third period.
The Phantoms drew their largest crowd of the season with a "Tribute to Tough Guys" promotion, with the likes of Dave "the Hammer" Schultz, Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly, (current Rangers scout) Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Paul Holmgren and Don Saleski in the house to sign autographs and re-kindle memories of the old "Broad Street Bullies" days. If you were a hockey fan in the early to mid-'70's, you certainly would have gotten a chuckle, as I did, out of seeing those guys back out on the Spectrum ice, albeit in jackets and ties, with the flowing hair and fu Manchu 'staches long gone.
The Pack went on from there to Chocolatetown, Hershey, PA, which actually has a much longer hockey tradition than Philadelphia does. The Bears also have a beautiful, still almost-new arena, which the folks of south-central Pennsylvania regularly fill with much larger crowds than one would think possible driving around the largely-rural environs of Hershey. The way Saturday's game started, it looked like an even bleaker result than Friday's was awaiting the Wolf Pack, as the Bears dominated the first few shifts and got the crowd rocking. After Hershey scored at the 4:14 mark, however, the Pack suddenly seemed to wake up, and they took it to the Bears for the rest of the period. Although they didn't score in the first, they outshot the home side 16-10 and clearly wore them down, as the second session was all Wolf Pack.
The Pack would equal a franchise record by scoring five times in the middle frame, which was most notable for the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" registered by Steve MacIntyre. "Big Mac" not only had a tilt with AHL penalty minutes champ Dennis Bonvie, but he notched the first multiple-point game of his pro career with a goal and an assist. He ended up being named the game's First Star, and the press box there is about five stories above the ice, but when he took his little turn after the announcement, I could see his smile from all the way up there, and I think he was sky-high enough that he could have flown to Bridgeport after the game without the aid of a plane. Steve is one of those guys who does a lot of dirty work for the team, always gives his all and carries himself as though he feels privileged to be getting paid to play hockey, so it was great to see him get rewarded with some marks in the scoring column and a little share of the spotlight.
The Pack then had the tables turned on them the next day at the Arena at Harbor Yard, as the Sound Tigers roared back from a 3-0 first-period deficit to post a 6-4 win. It looked like the Wolf Pack players, in their fourth game in five days, subconsciously relaxed a little bit when they jumped out to the early advantage, and the Sound Tigers showed a good sense of desperation, knowing they could have fallen to 19 points out of a playoff spot with a loss. A pall was cast over the afternoon by an apparently serious injury to Bridgeport forward Blaine Down, who had to be immobilized and removed from the ice on a stretcher after being hit by the Pack's Garth Murray early in the second period. The Sound Tigers were upset by the hit, but on the one replay I saw, it looked clean to me, and I've never seen any shred of an indication that Murray isn't a clean, straight-up player. You always hate to see a guy have to be carted off like that, though, and I think I echo the thoughts of everyone in the Wolf Pack organization when I say that my fingers are crossed that Down is back flying around the ice real soon.
After an all-East Division road trip, it's back to Atlantic Division action this week, as the Pack finish up a string of seven straight away games with trips to Manchester, Providence and Lowell. Then, with over 50 games of their season already out of the way, the Wolf Pack will play only one game in a span of 11 days around the All-Star break.