As enjoyable as playoff hockey is, you've got to take the bad with the good. And the downside of the night-to-night excitement that the postseason brings is that a playoff series can turn sour seemingly in an instant, and before you know it your season is over. That's what happened to the Wolf Pack, as last week at this time the Pack were up 2-1 in their series with Lowell and we were starting to get a taste of moving on to the next round. Then, boom-boom-boom, the Lock Monsters grab the upper hand, win three straight games in the span of five days, and just like that the Pack are headed into the offseason. Tough to swallow, but that's playoffs.
The worm started to turn in the first period of Game Four Tuesday night in Lowell, in which the Lock Monsters outshot the Pack 17-3 and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. It probably should have been a more lopsided score than that, but Steve Valiquette bailed the team out with several excellent saves before Mike Zigomanis scored a pair of goals 1:47 apart late in the period. The Wolf Pack then got one back only 24 seconds into the second on a goal by Jeff Hamilton, but that momentum was short-lived. Ex-Pack Gordie Dwyer scored a power-play marker just 1:05 after Hamilton's goal, and that tally turned out to be the game-winner. That set of circumstances was a clear indicator that the karma was turning against the Wolf Pack. Dwyer is the kind of warrior and character guy that every team needs to succeed in playoffs, but he is hardly a goal-scorer (having netted only two in 56 regular-season games), and the only reason he was out there on the power play was that a penalty of his expired just as the Lock Monsters broke out of their zone on a rush. The Pack actually played much better after that and, I thought, controlled the rest of the game. They got to within 3-2 on a Jamie Lundmark goal with 5:10 left in the second but could get no closer, and the series was tied going back to Hartford for Game Five.
The Wolf Pack suffered a huge loss at that point in the series when Bryce Lampman was forced from the lineup by a broken foot that he had been playing on for several games. Lampman and Lawrence Nycholat had been the Pack's top defensive pair all season, and had been matched up against the Lock Monsters' big line of Eric Staal, Chuck Kobasew and Colin Forbes throughout the first four games. It appeared in the first period of Game Five, though, that the Wolf Pack had weathered the loss nicely, as they outshot the Monsters 13-10 and Lampman's replacement on the Pack blueline, Craig Weller, made a nice play on the first goal of the game, getting the puck quickly toward the net for a tip-in by Garth Murray. That was the only goal of the game until late in the second period, and it was looking like that Wolf Pack were going to take that 1-0 lead into the third, when the Lock Monsters suddenly struck for two goals in a lightning-quick span of 17 seconds. The first was a lucky one, as a long shot by defenseman Richie Regehr deflected and changed directions on Jason LaBarbera, but there was nothing lucky about the second one. Zigomanis got a lead pass in the neutral zone and started to get a step on the Wolf Pack defense. Then, on his off-wing side from about 40 feet out, he snapped a shot back across the slot and perfectly into the top corner over LaBarbera's catching glove. Definitely an NHL goal, the kind that makes you take a deep breath and go, "wow!".
As much as I had seen him over the last three-plus years, Zigomanis had never been a player whose game jumped off the ice at me. I thought he was a real difference-maker in this series, though. He scored one of his goals in Game Four while being knocked to the ice, and again, his Game Five goal ranks among the better shots I've ever seen in this league. That whole line, with Ryan Bayda and Chad Larose on the wings, was a real key for Lowell in the series. For the most part, the Pack did a real nice job against the Staal line five on five, but never could seem to contain Zigomanis' group, three relatively small guys, completely. Having said that, Staal scored a huge goal in the third period of Game Five on a power play, offsetting a late man-advantage tally by Hamilton, and the Wolf Pack's backs were pushed to the wall.
History was on the Pack's side going into Saturday's game, as the Wolf Pack had never in three tries lost a Game Six on the road when facing elimination. There's a first time for everything, though, and after a good start on Saturday the Pack found themselves playing from behind again. Lowell scored two power play goals in the second period, one of them on a five-on-three, and the Wolf Pack had an apparent goal disallowed late in the period, when referee Gord Dwyer (no relation to the previously-mentioned Lock Monster forward) ruled that Lundmark had directed the puck into the net with a high stick. Despite generating 20 shots in the third period and 40 in the game, the Pack could never find their finishing touch and went down to a 3-0 defeat. The Wolf Pack weren't very happy with the officiating work of Dwyer, with the power play opportunities ending up 7-3 for the game in favor of Lowell. I disagreed with the call on Chad Wiseman that put the Lock Monsters two men up before they scored the first goal, but it was only a 2-0 game going into the third, and the Pack certainly had ample opportunity to gain themselves some momentum with a goal in the final session, and never found the range. And you've got to give the Lowell power play credit. It's one thing to get the opportunities and it's another thing to convert them, and in the four games they won, they scored at least one huge PPG in each of them. You knew if the series went long enough the Staal-Kobasew-Forbes trio would make its presence felt, and although Forbes went the whole six games without a point, Kobasew popped in two goals in Game Six and Staal assisted on all three goals. Props to those guys, they probably won't see this league again when the NHL starts back up, and they proved that they still cared deeply about their AHL team succeeding in this year's playoffs.
It's not quite as much of a kick to the head as losing in overtime of Game Seven, but this still sets up a bit of a long summer of wondering "what if?" for the Wolf Pack. The regular season was indisputably impressive, with 50 wins and 106 points, but any time the postseason ends early you're left with the nagging feeling that more could have been achieved. If you had any doubt, however, that the league was totally up for grabs this year, then the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs should have erased that. The Pack were hardly the only successful regular-season team to get a comeuppance in the opening round, what with Manchester, Binghamton and Milwaukee all also finding themselves on the short end of first-round verdicts against lower-seeded teams. It was a strange year in a lot of ways, and the rest of this Calder Cup tournament should be as competitive and unpredictable as any in recent memory.
With that I'll close this last internet quickie analysis of the regular season. It's been great fun chronicling this entertaining season, both on the airwaves and here in cyberspace, and I greatly appreciate your listnership and readership. Hard to believe the offseason is here, but it's time to start thinking about next year. I'm sure that will be here before we know it, and until then, here's wishing you a great summer!