by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Director, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The Wolf Pack finished up arguably the most grueling week of their season thus far on Sunday in Portland. The Pack played five games in a span of seven nights, including a trip back to Hartford from Utah and three conference games in three nights over the weekend. And as often happens when the schedule is that busy, the team got banged up and were scrambling to ice a full lineup by the end of it. Still, the Pack managed to grab first place, albeit briefly, and stayed 20 games over the .500 mark.
The Wolf Pack completed a season series sweep of the Utah Grizzlies Wednesday night in West Valley City, as Steve Valiquette posted his sixth shutout of the season, and solidified his hold on the league goals-against average lead, in a 3-0 win. Give the Grizzlies credit for making things tough on the Pack in all four games the two teams played on the year, as Utah is playing for pride only at this point and the Wolf Pack had to scramble to put them away in both of the games the teams played out there. Wednesday's game was scoreless through the first two periods, with Utah outshooting the Pack 19-17, but the Wolf Pack's top snipers got going in the third. Jozef Balej started the scoring with a shorthanded goal, and Alex Giroux and Jeff Hamilton both victimized Grizzly netminder David LeNeveu thereafter. Rangers President and G.M. Glen Sather was in the house for this win, and he saw the Pack take 11 penalties, but might very well have been impressed with the way the Pack put Utah away at the end.
Then the Wolf Pack came home for a pair, and Friday night's action featured the usual tooth-and-nail battle that characterizes a Pack game against Bridgeport. The Wolf Pack led it 1-0 through the end of the second period, and it was starting to look like they might snuff the Sound Tigers out, but Bridgeport got the tying goal from Rob Collins only 3:30 into the third. Then after Bridgeport goalie Dieter Kochan made an unbelievable save on what looked like a sure goal for Lawrence Nycholat, Hamilton once again showed his knack for making a big play at exactly the right time. The ex-Sound Tiger saw a loose puck come to him in the right-wing circle and let go a bullet drive that Kochan had no chance on. The Wolf Pack and Jason LaBarbera held the fort after that and the Pack prevailed 2-1. That clinched the inaugural GEICO Connecticut Cup title for the Pack, marking the first time in the four seasons of the Sound Tigers' existence that they had lost a season series to the Wolf Pack. The winning goal was Hamilton's ninth winner out of his 20 on the season, after he set an AHL record with 15 game-winning goals last year.
The Wolf Pack had a chance to equal a franchise record in their game against Lowell on Saturday, as they pursued their 27th home win of the year, which would match the 1999-00 Calder Cup-winning team's home victory total. The Lock Monsters had other ideas, however, as they became the first team to beat the Pack twice in their own barn this year (one was a in a shootout) courtesy of a 3-1 verdict. This one could have been over early for the Wolf Pack, as LaBarbera made a number of sharp saves in the first period-and-a-half to keep Lowell's lead down to 1-0. When Dominic Moore tied it at one in the second and LaBarbera was playing so well, you thought maybe the Pack would pick up their game and pull out a win. That was not to be, though, as Mike Zigomanis scored on a second-period Lock Monster power play and the Monsters and goalie Cam Ward kept the Wolf Pack from getting much of a sniff. That Lowell team looks awfully dangerous to me, as even if you shut down their explosive top line of Eric Staal, Chuck Kobasew and Colin Forbes, which the Wolf Pack basically did, you've got a guy like Zigomanis who can burn you. He had 22 goals and 46 points after a two-point performance on Saturday, and that point total would be tops on the Wolf Pack.
By the time the Pack reached Portland on Sunday, Layne Ulmer, Jake Taylor and Jeff MacMillan were already hurt, and Jed Ortmeyer got sufficiently banged up in Saturday night's game that he too was held out of action against the Pirates. Unlike when the Wolf Pack came up against them earlier in the year, the Pirates are on a pretty good roll now, and they never let the Pack get much going against them in what turned out to be a 2-0 Portland win. LaBarbera again was excellent, but the Wolf Pack couldn't get a ton of serious pressure on his counterpart, Kirk Daubenspeck, and the Pirates skated off with their first regulation win vs. the Pack in seven tries this season. If you had parachuted into the arena not knowing anything about the teams I think you wouldn't have been surprised to find out that it was the Wolf Pack's fifth game in seven days. It seemed like the spirit was willing throughout the affair but the flesh was weak. That ended an amazing streak of Wolf Pack success in Lobsterland. The Pack hadn't lost a game in regulation in (if you count playoffs) their last 15 visits to the Cumberland County Civic Center, a run that dates back to November of 1999. It's not like the Pirates have had a bunch of slouch teams in there either. Portland used that victory to move within 10 points of a playoff spot, so now it looks like it's a six-team battle for four playoff positions in the black-and-blue Atlantic Division.