Throughout the 2004 American Hockey League Calder Cup Playoffs, Hartford Wolf Pack Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Bob Crawford will be checking in with his thoughts and analysis during the AHL's 'second season.'
Just twice before in their playoff history have the Wolf Pack seen a best-of-seven series go the full route, and both times they've come out on top in the deciding game. And the Pack forced their Eastern Conference Final series with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a winner-take-all finish when they pulled off a 4-1 victory in Wilkes-Barre on Friday night in Game Six.
The Wolf Pack needed to come up with an unbelievable effort to fight off elimination, and that they did, disappointing a sellout crowd at the Wachovia Arena and answering the bell in their first must-win situation of the 2004 playoffs.
The Penguins had won the previous two games and once again seemed to have the Pack on the run after tying Friday's game at one early in the third period. The Wolf Pack got a great break though, when a clearing effort by Penguin defenseman Ondrej Nemec hit a hard-charging Jed Ortmeyer in front of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton cage and got by Penguin netminder Andy Chiodo. Then Cory Larose, back to action after two games on the injured list, converted a Garth Murray pass just 50 seconds later, and the Wolf Pack had assured themselves of another home game.
The last time a Pack playoff series went to Game Seven was the 2000 Conference Finals against Providence, and that resulted in one of the most memorable hockey games I've ever seen, culminating in Terry Virtue's goal (which deflected into the Bruin net off of former Wolf Pack Peter Ferraro), that Hartford a 3-2 win on the way to the Calder Cup. The other previous Game Seven in Pack history was in their first year of existence, 1997-98, in the Conference Semifinal round against Worcester. After Dan Cloutier had come up with a superhuman effort in net in Game Six to help tie the series, the Wolf Pack had a big third period in the deciding game and swamped the IceCats by a score of 8-2.
I was amazed at how loose the Pack were going into Friday's elimination game. Jamie Pushor brought a Trivial Pursuit game on the bus and there was all kinds of laughing and joking from the back as the guys played it all the way from Hartford to Wilkes-Barre (these guys can't turn off the competitive juices, no matter what they're doing to pass the time). Then at the team meal on Thursday evening and the morning skate on Friday, there were plenty of smiles and one-liners. It seemed like anything but a team that was one loss away from extinction. That steadiness will get its most extreme test on Saturday, but as the team got on the bus after the win in Wilkes-Barre, Ryan McGill was already challenging Lucas Lawson to "get his team ready" for the post-practice "east-west" game to come at Saturday's skate (Ryan and Nick Fotiu have been re-living some past glories with contests against the Pack's extra players), so I guess the pressure has not cowed anyone yet.
Obviously goaltending will play a big role in the result of Game Seven, and what a recovery by Jason LaBarbera in Friday's contest, after two outings that I don't think he was very happy with in Games Four and Five. The only goal that was scored against LaBarbera on Friday was off a mad scramble around the goalmouth, and he raised his road record in the postseason to 6-1. The big backstop is now 12-1-3 in his last 16 away contests, which might be the most outstanding of all his many great accomplishments of this season. The Wolf Pack have now beaten Andy Chiodo three times in this series, and I'll be interested to see whether Michel Therrien comes back with the rookie, who won a Game Seven in Bridgeport in the first round, or goes to veteran Sebastien Caron, a winner in Hartford in Game Four despite four goals-against.
Either way, we get to see one of the best things sports has to offer, a battle where both teams have everything on the line. The consensus after Friday's game in Wilkes-Barre was that it was a shame that one of these teams had to lose this series, and I wouldn't be surprised to see both take their play to new levels in Saturday's clash. Don't miss it!
- Bob CrawfordRELATED LINKS:Crawford's Pack Report: Up Against a Wall in Game Six (5/26/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: A Best-of -Three Series Now (5/24/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Extra Rest May Benefit Pack (5/22/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Down in Game One, But Not Out (5/20/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Next Stop ... Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (5/17/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Looking to Stay Sharp, Focused (5/11/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Great Finish to a Hockey Marathon (5/6/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Looking to Close Out the Series (5/3/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: A Big Win to Open Round Two (5/1/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: On to the Second Round! (4/29/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: 'Road Warriors' Return Home (4/26/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Nothing Like Playoff OT (4/24/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Home Split, Off to Portland (4/21/04) >>