by Bob Crawford
Wolf Pack Director of Broadcasting/Media Relationswww.hartfordwolfpack.com
The Wolf Pack enjoy a nice six-day break leading into the Christmas holiday this week, after a grueling schedule saw them play 11 games in a span of 17 days. They gained at least a point in nine of those 11 contests, too, so the rest is definitely well-earned.
The coaching staff is basically giving the team the whole week off, with the group not reconvening until the bus leaves for Bridgeport for the game the day after Christmas against the Sound Tigers. I think that's a good idea. The guys might see some rust form as they scatter to the four winds and relax during the holiday, and the club may pay a price for that in the first game or two after the break, but long-term, I think the benefits far outweigh the potential consequences. It's such a long grind for the players by the end of the season, and six days off to recharge the batteries is going to help them down the road, when we get into the dog days of February and March.
It will also help heal some injuries, which have really been piling up over the past couple of weeks. The Pack saw three players go down in one whack in a game in Manchester two Sundays ago, and since then it's been hard for the team to get through a game without losing a guy or two. The defense has been especially hard hit, with Bryce Lampman going down with a bad back in Wednesday's loss to Providence and Dave Liffiton hurting a shoulder Friday against Portland. That forced Kenny Gernander to drop back to the blueline, and he joined Craig Weller on a pairing of guys who had both been switched from the forward ranks. Throw in Trevor Gillies suffering a broken foot on Saturday and you've got a full-blown injury epidemic. There's no medicine like rest, though, and hopefully the week of down time will get some guys out of the trainer's room. Damien Hess will be running out of space to put them all if it doesn't.
Far from using the personnel losses as a crutch, the Wolf Pack pulled together and won three of their four games this week. Gernander did yeoman work on the D, as he did last year when he was pressed into service there, and Ryan Glenn came up from Charlotte and performed creditably in his first career AHL action. Lawrence Nycholat did what seemed to me to be a bit of an Eddie Shore impersonation also. From as much as I was saying his name, you might've assumed he was out there for all 60 minutes.
You could have hardly blamed the Pack if they had never wanted to see another shootout after they went 0 for 13 and lost to Lowell at home back on December 3rd. Since then, though, the shootout has been good to the Wolf Pack, and they prevailed in two shootouts over the weekend. That was largely thanks to the goalies, who went 7 for 7 against Providence and Portland, but the shooters seem to have figured out the shootout too, after getting shut out in two of their first three. Two out of three Pack shooters scored Saturday, and it took a great save by Hannu Toivonen on Jozef Balej to keep him from making it three straight, and three out of four attempts found the back of the net on Sunday in Portland. With some of the great skill players that the team has, you have to figure that the existence of the shootout could be a real plus for the Pack. It's looking like every point will be precious in the second half, so hopefully the guys will keep that penalty shot mojo going.
It was nice to see Steve Valiquette prevail on Saturday and get rewarded for what had been some great play of late. None of four Providence shootout attackers, including the ultra-dangerous Andy Hilbert, came close to scoring, and you could almost see from the broadcast booth the determination that the big guy had to make sure that the opportunity for the win didn't slip away. He'd been in there for that Lowell game, too, when he shut the Lock Monsters out for 65 minutes and stopped 12 shootout attempts and still didn't get a win, so he certainly deserved a break.
On the down side, it's a real tough loss for the Wolf Pack to be without Gillies, whose impact goes far beyond the scoresheet. For my money there isn't a tougher player in the league, and he seems to have the exact right mind-set for doing that ultra-difficult job of always keeping the opposition honest and ensuring that his less-physical teammates always have ample room to do their respective jobs. When one goes from having three fights in the same game (Wednesday) to having one's face gouged in the course of earning the team a key major power-play (Friday), you know that individual is earning his money.
The fates have helped the Pack by bringing the Manchester Monarchs, all but unbeatable the first month-and-a-half of the season, somewhat back down to earth, and hopefully the Wolf Pack will be able to keep the pressure on the league leaders. With the team carrying a 20-7-1-2 record heading into Christmas Week, you'd be hard-pressed to have asked much more from the club through the first half thus far.
Here's wishing everyone a most joyous and safe holiday!