by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Director, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The weather outside was frightful...
But the action inside was delightful, as the Wolf Pack won their ninth straight home game this past Saturday, 6-4 over a Lowell Lock Monster team that came into the contest with seven straight wins. The Pack then got an unexpected Sunday off, as the snowy conditions in Massachusetts caused the postponement of the second half of the home-and-home series with the Lock Monsters to February 6th. That was the first weather-related postponement in the history of the Wolf Pack franchise and only the second I've been involved in during nearly 17 years of covering the league.
The Pack started last week in fine fashion, dominating the Springfield Falcons in a Wednesday-night game at the Hartford Civic Center, to the tune of a 5-0 decision. That was Steve Valiquette's second consecutive shutout, and until the final five minutes or so, he hardly had to break a sweat to get it. The Wolf Pack had suffered a pair of vexing letdowns in recent games against the Falcons and the Albany River Rats, but the Pack certainly showed up at the top of their game on Wednesday, and it was hard to believe that it was the same team on the other side that had given the Wolf Pack all kinds of problems in the last meeting in Springfield and had eventually beaten them that night by a score of 4-3. The Pack outshot Springfield 46-21 in Wednesday's get-together, including 22-3 in the second period, and a good five or six of those Falcon tries came in the dying minutes of the third, when they were already down by five. I guess that has kind of been the story of Springfield's season...great one night and seemingly outclassed the next.
Wednesday was a bit of a weird game in that it featured two penalty shots-the first time I have ever seen that happen. Jozef Balej scored on one for the Wolf Pack in the second period, and then 6-8 Springfield tough guy Mitch Fritz was awarded the one-on-one opportunity with 3:32 left in the game. With Valiquette's shutout at stake he stopped Fritz' bid and is now two-for-two on penalty shots for the season. The Pack are 4-0 at home against the Falcons this year and have outscored them by a total of 14-2 in those games.
Then the Wolf Pack pulled a bit of a 180 in their next game, a visit Friday to the Worcester IceCats, losing by a count of 4-1. The IceCats really dictated play for the first 45 minutes or so of that one, outshooting the Pack 19-11 through the first two periods. After Worcester made the score 2-0 at 6:45 of the third, though, the Wolf Pack seemed suddenly to decide it was time to start playing, and they controlled the tempo for a long stretch thereafter. The Pack cut the lead to 2-1 and had several good chances to tie, but then a messy defensive change allowed Worcester rookie D.J. King to score on a breakaway, and the Wolf Pack would give up a shorthanded empty-netter as well, for a final margin of 4-1.
Pack coach Ryan McGill was fuming after that loss, and he had to be concerned about facing a Lowell club Saturday that had lost only three times in regulation since the end of November and had NHL-caliber guys like Eric Staal and Chuck Kobasew firing on all cylinders. The Lock Monsters looked like a pretty passable NHL team in the first half of Saturday's game, touching up the Wolf Pack for three goals in the first 11:33 of the affair. Even when they were falling behind, though, the Pack didn't look from the press box as though they were playing that badly. Lowell was just in such a good groove that they were able to pounce on every Wolf Pack breakdown. The Wolf Pack stemmed the tide with a Jed Ortmeyer goal late in the first, and even though the Lock Monsters got a shorthanded goal at 6:40 of the second to make it 4-1, the Pack never hung their heads. McGill switched goalies after the fourth goal, replacing Jason LaBarbera with Valiquette, and as you see happen so often, the change seemed to give the team a shrill wake-up call. Ortmeyer and linemates Ryan Hollweg and Jamie Lundmark played the body relentlessly on their every shift, and the rest of the club appeared to feed off their energy, cutting the lead to 4-2 by the end of the second and setting up a big third period.
Jeff Hamilton, who not only hadn't played but hadn't practiced in over a week due to a viral illness, showed that he was still in top form, notching a goal and an assist in the third, and Ortmeyer knocked home two more scores, including the eventual game-winner, giving him one more goal (three) in the game than he had tallied previously in the entire season. Lundmark finished with three assists, Hollweg continued to spark the squad with several big hits, and Dwight Helminen also had a key goal, his second marker of the season
Not to be forgotten is the goaltending of Valiquette, as he made a couple of big saves on a Lowell power play early in the third, when the Lock Monsters easily could have put the game out of reach. Valiquette finished the game carrying a shutout streak of nearly 155 minutes.
The Wolf Pack now head out on their first extended road swing, riding to Norfolk on Tuesday for a date with the Admirals on Wednesday night, then on to Philadelphia after that game to meet the Phantoms on Friday, then back on the bus that night to Hershey for a Saturday-night battle with the Bears, before busing to Bridgeport post-game to meet the Sound Tigers on Sunday. Some teams in the AHL would laugh at the relative ease of this road trip compared to what they go through, but for a New England team like the Wolf Pack, it qualifies as a long trek. And as great as they have been at home, the Pack have lost four of their last five road games, so hopefully the extra togetherness on the bus and in the hotels will get the guys in a more road warrior-like mode.