by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The Wolf Pack lost its first home game in more than two months this past Sunday, but on the bright side, they allowed a total of only three goals (one an empty-netter) in three games on the week, two of them divisional wins.
On Friday night at home against Worcester, the Pack stretched its home winning streak to 11 with a 4-1 victory over the IceCats. The final score makes it seem like it was a fairly easy triumph, but it was anything but. The IceCats outshot the Wolf Pack 11-5 in the first period and 11-4 in the third, and only great goaltending by Jason LaBarbera kept Worcester from building a comfortable lead early in the game. The IceCats got a bad break when starting goaltender Curtis Sanford was forced to leave the ice late in the first period due to back spasms, and Jason Bacashihua, who hadn't played in nearly a month because of a groin injury, had to come in cold. Bacashihua, I thought, showed some rust on Wolf Pack goals 2:56 apart early in the second by Chad Wiseman and Joe Balej. The Pack had built their lead to 3-0 by the time Ryan Ramsay spoiled LaBarbera's shutout bid on a power-play rebound with only 2:31 to play in the third. Dominic Moore then settled the issue with an empty-net tally with six seconds remaining.
LaBarbera had lost five out of six decisions, following his run of 14 straight wins, coming into Friday, but it looked like he carried some powerful confidence over from his performance in last Monday's All-Star Game. All-star games are hardly designed to perk up goalies, what with the usual absence of hitting and defensive play and the waves of great players coming at you, shift after shift. LaBarbera held the Planet USA team scoreless in the first period in his 20 minutes of All-Star work, though, and the four tucks that Planet USA put past the other two Canadian backstops proves that to have been no mean feat. Reassuring himself that, at his best, he can stop anything that the very top players in the AHL throw at him seemed to restore a good bit of the moxie that carried LaBarbera to that great streak earlier in the year.
Not to be outdone, stablemate Steve Valiquette stifled the Springfield Falcons, one of his many former teams (as he humorously referenced in his postgame comments), in Saturday's visit to the "Nest" in Springfield. Once again, the final score (4-0) indicated a breeze for the Wolf Pack, but by all rights this one probably should have been tied 1-1 going into the third. The Pack led 1-0 late in the second, but ended up down two men for a span of 0:47. Not only were the Falcons unable to get the equalizer, but Lucas Lawson scored a shorthanded goal, on a shot from an extremely sharp angle on Springfield goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier, with only three seconds left in the period. That seemed to take the air out of what to that point had been a typically spirited Falcon home-ice effort against the Wolf Pack. Falcon defenseman Mike Egener did the Pack a favor by picking up a major penalty for punching Alex Giroux early in the third, and two early power play goals by the Wolf Pack in the final session put the game out of reach.
That victory snapped a four-game road losing streak for the Pack, but they faced a very tough assignment on Sunday at home. The Admirals had Saturday night off, and were extra pumped-up to get a 10-game road trip started off on the right foot. Plus, it was the Wolf Pack's third game in three days, after they had played only one game in the previous 11 days. Norfolk had just two regulation losses in 12 games coming in, and they could have easily broken the game open early, were it not for another excellent effort by LaBarbera. He held the fort for two periods, turning away numerous excellent Admiral opportunities, before Norfolk finally broke through at 1:01 of the third. And on that goal, Wolf Pack defenseman Lawrence Nycholat got tangled up with LaBarbera, and the puck deflected off the dome of Admiral rookie Rene Bourque. The Pack and Norfolk had gone 65 minutes of play without a goal in their first meeting, so I guess it's appropriate that it took a play like that for one of the teams finally to find the back of the net. Bourque (not related to Bruins legend Raymond) is having a great first pro year after not having much fanfare attached to him coming out of the University of Wisconsin, and he's kind of typical of the whole Admiral team. Not a lot of big names and not a lot of flash, but they work like crazy and more often than not, they get the job done.
So, the Pack's long string of home-ice success is history, but hopefully they'll be able to start a new run this week as they continue a stretch of five straight home contests. We'll get a chance to see Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss & Co. (although, sadly, it appears not old friend Phil Osaer...he was returned to the ECHL Monday) with the San Antonio Rampage on Wednesday night, before the suddenly-resurgent Bridgeport Sound Tigers pay another visit on Friday. Then it's a great Saturday-night matchup, with the Pack entertaining division-leading Manchester. The Monarchs are ravaged by injuries (for which they'll certainly get no sympathy from Ryan McGill and his crew), but still managed to turn back the explosive Lowell Lock Monsters Sunday in Lowell, winning 2-1 in a shootout.