by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Director, Media Relations and Broadcasting
The injury-depleted Wolf Pack showed some real character this past week, scratching out three out of a possible four points on the road against the two teams right around them in the Atlantic Division, Manchester and Lowell. The Pack are in the midst of a stretch that sees them play five out of six games, and seven out of nine, on the road. An uneven road team for much of the year, the Wolf Pack seem to be figuring out what it takes to win away from home, having gained at least a point in six of their last eight road contests (5-2-0-1).
The club got a nice breather in its schedule last week, playing just on Friday and Saturday after a run of five games in seven days the week before. The coaching staff gave the players Monday and Tuesday off before returning to the regular practice routine, and the Pack seemed to be well rejuvenated by Friday. Unfortunately, though, only Jed Ortmeyer was able to make his way back off the injured list, and despite the week of rest the team was still forced to play the weekend without such key guys as Layne Ulmer, Jeff MacMillan, Chad Wiseman and Jake Taylor.
Even though the Wolf Pack ended up losing a point to the Monarchs as a result of Friday's 2-1 shootout loss, it was hard not to feel good about having experienced that game. It was a real good, back-and-forth game, featuring great goaltending, a good pace and plenty of scoring chances for both sides. Jason LaBarbera was absolutely at the top of his game, and it was starting to look like he might keep the dangerous Monarchs at bay all night and hang a zero on them in their own barn. Manchester got a break at 8:27 of the third, though, as winger Dustin Brown (remember that name, he played 31 games for parent-club L.A. as a 19-year-old last year and has had an excellent campaign this season for the Monarchs) managed to drive a shot past LaBarbera off the rush from a fairly extreme angle. LaBarbera said in his postgame comments that the puck knuckled on him, and it certainly looked that way from the broadcast booth. LaBarbera more than atoned for that, however, with a brilliant save on old friend Shooter Smyth about four minutes later and ended up with a Wolf Pack season-high 41 saves. The Wolf Pack had won six straight shootouts and LaBarbera was 5-1 in the breakaway contest, but their luck ran out on this night. Leadoff man extraordinaire Lawrence Nycholat solved LaBarbera's counterpart Mathieu Garon, but Garon was perfect thereafter and after Matt Ryan had scored on the Monarchs' first shot, Brown came up big again, netting the winner on a drive that LaBarbera got a big piece of but could not quite keep out of the net.
Some might argue that it is a shame that a great game like that between two intense rivals would come down to a shootout. I personally think it was a great ending, although obviously I would have preferred that the Wolf Pack come out on the winning side. There was plenty of excitement all night long and both teams more than earned their point, and in my opinion the tension of the shootout was the perfect "cherry on the top". There were nearly 9,200 people in the building, and I can't imagine any of them leaving with a feeling that they didn't get their money's worth and more.
After a tangle with the first-place Monarchs things didn't get any easier Saturday night, as the Wolf Pack had to deal with a Lowell team that not only has been very tough on the Pack this year, but was coming off back-to-back losses after a 3-1 win in Hartford the Saturday before. The Wolf Pack had allowed Lowell to control most of the play in that previous game, but Saturday was much more even. The flow of play was disrupted by a steady stream of penalties in the first 40 minutes, and the Wolf Pack fell behind by scores of 1-0 and 2-1, but they never allowed themselves to be thrown off their game plan. They took advantage of a five-on-three power play to get a goal from Jamie Lundmark in the second, and Alex Giroux scored a huge goal in the third period, getting his career-high 26th of the season just 37 seconds after Lowell had gone up 2-1. Then Ken Gernander, who as I love noting again and again, seems always to save his goals for the biggest possible spots, knocked in a centering pass from Jed Ortmeyer with just 3:46 left to win it for the Pack. That line, with Garth Murray centering, is certainly not a flashy one, but those three guys are the kind of heady battlers who you need to help form the backbone of your team in the postseason. Ortmeyer doesn't score a ton, but he moves well and keeps the opposition honest with his banging and crashing, and Murray has shown great versatility by filling a role at center in Ulmer's absence. The win in Lowell was a huge four-point swing, as the Lock Monsters beat Springfield on Sunday so if the Pack had lost that game Saturday, their lead over Lowell would have been down to five points, with the 'Monsters having three games-in-hand.
The other excitement of last week was generated by the "Clear Day" playoff roster deadline, which was Thursday. While a lot of the electricity was taken out of Clear Day by the absence of the NHL, there always is some serious wheeling and dealing around the deadline. The Wolf Pack talked turkey with a number of different organizations and weren't able to swing any trades or loans, but they did make a major signing in bringing D-man Joel Bouchard on board. Wolf Pack fans will remember Bouchard from his 22 games here with the Pack in 2002-03, during which he had 20 points. An 11th-year pro, Bouchard will obviously need some time to get to a level of game sharpness, but he is an NHL-level skater and offensive defenseman, and possesses the kind of veteran savvy that is so important in the pressure cooker of playoff hockey.