by Bob Crawford
Wolf Pack Director of Broadcasting/Media Relationswww.hartfordwolfpack.com
The Wolf Pack finished off 2004 in fine style this past weekend, with a 3-1-0 week that brought to a close what was an outstanding calendar year. With a 23(w)-8(l)-1(otl)-2(sol) record this season prior to the turn of the year and a 26(w)-11(l)-8(t)-1(otl) mark after January 1st last season, the Pack compiled a total slate of 49(w)-19(l)-8(t)-2(otl)-2(sol) in 80 games during calendar year 2004. According to my abacus, that's a tidy .688 points percentage. Throw in an 11-5 record in last year's playoffs and you've got one heck of a 12 months.
The Wolf Pack started out last week on Monday in Providence, continuing a rare Sunday-Monday-Tuesday three-games-in-three-days schedule. It would turn out to be the team's fifth straight win, although they had to go to a shootout to get it, and the coaching staff would be none too happy about how the club played. The Pack had a great first period that night, dictating the physical play and jumping out to a 2-0 lead. They came off their game, though, in the succeeding 40 minutes, allowing the advantage to slip away and being outshot by a combined margin of 29-13 through the final two periods of regulation and the overtime. Once again, however, the penalty shot contest went the Wolf Pack's way, as they notched their third shootout win in a span of four games and their fourth in seven. Jason LaBarbera moved into the AHL lead in shootout victories with his fourth and finished with 31 saves on the night. Incredibly, he was not one of the three stars, although without his excellent play there would have been no way the Wolf Pack would have crept out of the Dunkin' Donuts Center with even one point, let alone two. It's rare that you have a quiet and tense bus after a win, but the ride home to Hartford that night was without a ton of levity.
The next night, the Pack were back in Atlantic Division action in another tough building, the DCU Center in Worcester. The Wolf Pack had embarrassed the IceCats in their last visit to Worcester, winning 6-0 on December 4th, so you knew that the 'Cats were going to come out hard. That they did, and it was looking very much like it wasn't going to be the Wolf Pack's night when the Worcester scored the game's first two goals, and then chased LaBarbera with a third on 14 shots 12:38 into the second, making it 3-1. The Pack refused to cash it in, though, and were as close as 4-3 by the end of the middle period. The worm turned completely in the third in terms of territorial play, with the Wolf Pack outshooting the IceCats 9-1 in the frame, but the Pack never could get the equalizer. It ended up being a hard-luck loss for Steve Valiquette, too, as the only goal he allowed, a shorthanded breakaway tally by Blake Evans, turned out to be the game-winner. That allowed LaBarbera to keep his win streak alive, and he would extend that to 11 straight decisions by the end of the week.
Then, after facing divisional opponents in 14 out 15 games, the Wolf Pack hooked up with only their second Western Conference adversary of the year, the Utah Grizzlies, in a two-game series. The Grizzlies came into the weekend trailing the field in the AHL, having won only nine out of 31 games on the year. Utah is comprised largely of ex-Springfield Falcons, however, Phoenix having shifted its affiliation from Springfield to the Grizzlies after last season, and like the Falcons of the last couple of years, the Grizz battled the Wolf Pack hard. The Pack won both of the games over the weekend, but Friday's New Year's Eve contest was a one-goal verdict, and until the Wolf Pack erupted for three scores in a span of 6:33 in the second half of Saturday's third period, that game was nip and tuck as well.
Chad Wiseman had the game-winner on Friday off a strong drive to the net by Jamie Lundmark, and Lawrence Nycholat scored the goal that made the difference in Saturday's win, and also added an assist. With the Wolf Pack continuing to see their blueline bedeviled by injuries, Nycholat's strong play has stood out more and more lately. He was +9 over a span of 12 games after Saturday, and was scoring at better than a point-per-game pace through 10 contests. Jeff Hamilton had goals in three straight as well, and is rounding into the point-producing form that led him to a league goal-scoring championship last year. The first month-and-a-half of the season was all but a total loss for the former Yale Eli because of injuries, but now that he is getting his timing back, we're seeing all of the craftiness and skill that made him a premier offensive force down the road in Bridgeport the last two years.
It will be tough for Ryan McGill and company to top the success they put together in 2004, but as they near the halfway point of this 2004-05 season, they certainly have a fine storehouse of wins to build on. They have played exactly half of their home schedule and still have 25 of their 40 road games yet to play, so the 2005 portion of the campaign may be an even bigger challenge. The Atlantic Division wars begin anew on Friday when the Pack host Portland, then they try for their first victory of the year in Springfield on Saturday before getting a shot at division-leading Manchester on the road Sunday (and wouldn't it be nice if that was a showdown for the top spot!).