by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
It was a frustrating week for the Wolf Pack last week. They had a chance, with three home games on the docket and a Saturday-night date with Manchester, to take over first place in the Atlantic Division and they ended up losing two out of three to remain four points out of the top spot.
The week started out nicely enough, as the Pack ran their record against Western Conference competition to 4-0-0 with a 3-1 conquest of San Antonio. The Rampage were getting toward the end of a 12-game, 29-day stretch away from home, and they seemed somewhat road-weary. It was one of those games where, for a lot of it, there weren't a multitude of scoring chances for either side, and the two clubs went back and forth in the neutral zone. San Antonio has some premier young players with strong NHL resumes though, like Jay Bouwmeester and Stephen Weiss, and they forced the Wolf Pack to play a smart game in order to keep them from generating any momentum. The Rampage will get a rematch this week at home, and it will be interesting to see if those young guys approach the game any differently in their barn.
Jeff Hamilton had the game-winning goal in Wednesday's victory, which at that point tied him for the league lead in that category (7). Hamilton set an AHL record for game-winning tallies last year with 15, and to me the play on which he scored Wednesday perfectly illustrates the magical phenomenon of a natural goal-scorer. Hamilton had been having a fairly nondescript game and hadn't been very much in evidence, and as I said before, both teams had been doing a good job of limiting scoring chances. When the Wolf Pack did force a turnover (on a real good play by Garth Murray) though, there was Hamilton, appearing as if out of nowhere wide-open at the side of the crease. He buried Murray's pass with a nifty backhand, and it was two points for the Wolf Pack. Wednesday's game was also notable for Jamie Lundmark scoring a pair of goals, his first multiple-goal game since joining the Pack. Lundmark has had a heck of a time finding the back of the net since coming back from Italy, but his overall play has been excellent lately. He has been showing a lot more of a sneer out there, and has quietly been racking up a highly-respectable point total. As of the end of last weekend he was the Wolf Pack's leading scorer in the second half, with 15 points in 19 games.
It was another hard-fought battle Friday night against in-State rival Bridgeport. The Wolf Pack had almost all the pressure through the first two periods, outshooting the Sound Tigers by a total of 22-9, but reigning CCM AHL Player of the Week Dieter Kochan was outstanding in the Bridgeport cage. The Sound Tigers jumped on top with a goal inside the first two minutes of the third session, but the Wolf Pack answered at 13:36 on a perfectly-executed power-play faceoff win. That set up what would turn out to be an amazing finish. With the period into its final minute, the Wolf Pack forced the Bridgeport defense into a turnover inside its own end. Lundmark made a perfect pass to Chad Wiseman, who popped the puck into the net behind Kochan. As the fans whooped it up and the Wolf Pack celebrated, however, referee Dean Morton made his way to the penalty box area with arms outstretched, making the "washout" signal. Not only was the goal disallowed, but to add insult to injury the Pack found themselves facing a power play, as they were called for having too many men on the ice when the apparent goal was scored. Luckily the Wolf Pack were able to kill off the 50 seconds that remained in regulation time and thereby assure themselves of a standings point, but the Sound Tigers pounded home the winner on the first shot of overtime.
It's kind of hard to believe that a team could end up with too many men on the ice with the puck being turned over in the offensive zone, and I was watching the puck the whole time so I certainly didn't see it. Ryan McGill showed me the tape in his office the next day, though, and there isn't a shadow of a doubt, it was the right call.
That was certainly a bitter loss, and it cost the Pack a chance to move into first place on Saturday, which they could have done with a regulation win over Manchester had they beaten Bridgeport. The Monarchs were charged up, with key players Brad Smyth, Tom Kostopoulos and George Parros returning from the injured list, and it looked like some of the disappointment of Friday night carried over into Saturday for the Wolf Pack, as Manchester carried much of the play in the first period, drew four power plays and outshot the Wolf Pack 15-8. Steve Valiquette was real sharp in the Pack cage, though, and when it was still scoreless heading into the second you kind of thought this might be one of those games where the goalie holds the team in long enough for everybody to get going and pull out a win. The Monarchs scored just 34 seconds into the second, however, starting a nightmarish period for the Wolf Pack. A bad bounce led to a second Manchester goal, then Valiquette was beaten for the first time in three penalty shots faced when Matt Ryan was pulled down on a breakaway by Craig Weller. By the end of the period it was 4-0 and though the Pack won the other 40 minutes 1-0, that 20-minute letdown cost them two big points in the divisional race.
Now that it appears that some of the home-ice magic the Wolf Pack had going has evaporated, the guys will head out on the road for four games after Manchester visits again on Wednesday. The Pack will be going as far afield on this trip as they will all year, and no doubt will look for a tonic in the mountain air of Utah and the Tex-Mex dining of San Antonio and Houston.