by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
It was another good old-fashioned three-divisional-games-in-three-days battle this past weekend, and the Pack finished it on a high note with a 3-2 overtime win in Manchester on Sunday. The only downer was that losing a third period lead against last-place Springfield Saturday evening cost them a chance to come out of the weekend in first place. As it is, as of Monday morning, they stood a point behind the Monarchs for both the Atlantic Division and overall points lead.
The team enjoyed its first full week of practice in about a month-and-a-half the previous week, and the positive effects certainly showed. I don't know if "enjoyed" is exactly the right word, as some of the, ahem, elements of those practices didn't look particularly enjoyable, at least not to a lumpy, aerobically-challenged announcer. They certainly played Friday night as if they had enjoyed it, though, or maybe it was just that they were so happy to be back playing and done practicing. In any case, they swamped the Portland Pirates on Friday, catching a Pirate team that was off its game and jumping on them to the tune of a 7-2 thumping. That marked the first time since March of 2003 that a Wolf Pack team had scored as many as seven goals in a game, and they could have easily had three or four more. Alex Giroux and Joe Balej had four points apiece, Giroux for the second time on the year, and the Pack power play clicked for a season-high three goals. You had to feel for Quinnipiac product Justin Eddy, who was starting for the first time in 11 games for Portland. The Wolf Pack were charged up from the beginning, and Eddy's mates pretty much hung him out to dry. On the Pack side I was most impressed with Balej, who really seemed to have that gunslinger's swagger back that he showed so much of late last year. Every time he had the puck he looked like he expected to score, and was daring the Pirates to try and stop him.
After that night of wearing out the goal light, it was back to reality on Saturday evening. The Springfield Falcons are languishing in last place in the Atlantic Division and had lost four straight coming into Saturday, but they allowed the Wolf Pack none of the wheeling and dealing that had characterized Friday's win. If nothing else, the Falcons are a big team, and they used their size effectively to make the Pack work real hard to get the puck out of their own zone. Still, the Wolf Pack were up 1-0 as late as the 12-minute mark of Saturday's third period, before a track meet suddenly broke out. Springfield wiped out the Pack's lead with two goals just over two minutes apart, and then added a third one on a power play with only 2:46 left. The Wolf Pack showed some character by refusing to fold, and got a goal with Steve Valiquette on the bench for an extra attacker to make it 3-2. The Falcons scored into the empty net just 13 seconds thereafter, though, and oddly that ended up being the game-winner when Giroux got the Pack to within 4-3 at 18:59. They could not claw all the way back, however, and squandered a chance to tie the idle Monarchs for the division lead.
No disrespect to the Falcons, but the Wolf Pack had to be kicking themselves after that slip-up, and although I'm sure they wouldn't admit it, it certainly looked from the press box like they were looking a little bit past the Falcons to Sunday's showdown in Manchester. No doubt that's not a conscious thing, but the goals came so fast and furious on Friday, it's not terribly surprising that the Pack players in the backs of their minds figured it was going to be another positive night in Springfield, what with the Falcons having lost four straight and missing their captain and leading scorer Shane Willis. Give Springfield credit, though, they played a good, physical game against the Wolf Pack, and didn't panic when the Pack threatened to come back after the Falcons had grabbed the lead.
Then it was the Pack's turn to spring somewhat of an upset on Sunday, although with the Wolf Pack already having beaten the Monarchs twice before, they could hardly have been termed severe underdogs. And they certainly seem to like the atmosphere at Verizon Wireless Arena, which was sold out for the sixth time on the year Sunday with over 9,900 in the house. The Pack handed the Monarchs their first home loss in 11 games on the year back on December 5th, and they dominated play in the first period Sunday, building a 2-0 lead. The Monarchs played better in the final 40 minutes, although they didn't get it tied up until there were less than three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third. In contrast to Saturday, though, the Wolf Pack didn't let the life get sucked out of them when the lead slipped away, and they converted a power play 1:09 into the OT. The winner was Giroux' 16th goal of the season and his sixth in the span of seven games. He has really thrived on a line with Dominic Moore at center and Jeff Hamilton on the starboard side, and has continued to be tough to stop in those high-traffic areas around the opposition's net. Alex gets kidded by his teammates and coaches about his rather trim physique, but I've never noticed him showing any lack of strength, especially when there is a quality scoring chance to be generated.
The GEICO Connecticut Cup dominates this week of Wolf Pack action, with a pair of home games against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on the schedule, with another trap of a game sandwiched in between against an Albany club that came into the week in the throes of an 11-game losing streak. Saturday night will be an especially big night, with Scout Sleepover Night on tap. That game is just about sure to be sold out, and there will be a great buzz in the building, with tons of kids filling the place. Hopefully the Pack will supply them with plenty to get loud about.