by Bob Crawford
After a leisurely, one-game-in-a-weekend start to the new season, it was back to business as usual this past weekend, with three games in three days and scrums with familiar rivals Worcester, Bridgeport and Springfield. The record remained perfect and though the Pack are hardly blowing teams out, they remain impressively poised and seemingly willing to use their excellent depth to wear opponents down without making the game too wide-open.
You could make a solid argument that Jason LaBarbera stole a game for the Pack against Worcester on Friday night. Two first-period goals gave the Wolf Pack the lead and then LaBarbera held the fort, as the IceCats poured 37 shots at the Hartford net. LaBarbera stopped a number of good chances, and very nearly denied the only goal that Worcester scored as well. South Windsor's own Jon DiSalvatore (who has the look of an excellent prospect) got free on a breakaway and LaBarbera appeared actually to have his shot in his trapping mitt, but it ultimately dropped out and fell over the line.
It's almost scary to think of LaBarbera actually being better than he was last season, when he took MVP honors and won 13 games by shutout. He has talked several times about all the help he has gotten, though, from new Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and seems to relish the challenge of surpassing all he accomplished in 2003-04. LaBarbera mentions getting quicker moving across the crease, and I always have been amazed with the quickness he already had in doing that. Even before his breakthrough season, he seemed to have a noticeable knack for making spectacular diving saves on shots that he appeared to have no chance on. With his size, if he can make his lateral movement even better he may be absolutely unbeatable.
Saturday's game was a great battle, in the first installment of the GEICO Connecticut Cup against the Sound Tigers in Bridgeport. Something about the Arena at Harbor Yard seems to disagree with the Wolf Pack, and I was worried when the Pack took a penalty with only 18 seconds left in the third period and faced a six-on-four man disadvantage, with the Sound Tigers' goaltender on the bench, and a defensive zone draw. Blair Betts calmly and cleanly won the faceoff, though, the Wolf Pack seamlessly cleared the zone and a 3-2 win was assured. You couldn't have scripted better story lines, either, with former Sound Tiger Jeff Hamilton scoring his first Wolf Pack points with the game-winning tuck and an assist, and fellow ex-Tiger Steve Valiquette registering several picturesque glove stops on the way to beating his old mates in his first outing of the year.
It sure is a lot more fun watching Hamilton on your team than on a club your team plays ten times a year, isn't it? It's amazing how guys like him just seem to have an other-wordly tendency to appear out of nowhere just when a scoring chance is about to happen, and what a goal-scorer's goal he put behind a pretty fair netminder in Wade Dubielewicz Saturday. If I had a buck for every time I saw Brad Smyth put one in off a goalie's skate or pad from behind the net I'd be rolling in dough, and how Hamilton was able to slide the puck between Dubielewicz' left skate and the post I'll never know. If you could only bottle that instinct!
Sunday's game was a dangerous contest in a lot of ways for the Pack, in that the Springfield Falcons had to be hopping mad at themselves after taking a 9-0 pasting from the IceCats in the Falcons' home opener the day before. And with Jamie Storr sharp in the Springfield net, Sunday's contest had all the earmarks of one that might bite the Wolf Pack in the derriere. Chad Wiseman scored a huge goal late in the third, however, extending his goal-scoring streak to three games, and the Pack kept their record perfect with a 3-1 triumph. Springfield is really struggling off the start as they try to mesh a roster of guys who for the most part are either rookies or have never played together before, but I think they're going to be fine ultimately. Tampa has brought in some excellent veteran players like Terry Virtue, Jarrod Skalde, Darren Rumble, Brian Chapman, Craig Darby and Shane Willis, and kids like Adam Henrich and Darren Reid were definite factors in Sunday's game. And I have to admit that I have a soft spot for the Falcons' new coaching staff. Both head man Dirk Graham and assistant Phil Russell were stars in Chicago when I was just a young 'un and breathed, ate and slept Blackhawk hockey.
With Hamilton, Wiseman, Jozef Balej & Co. flying around, who would've thought that one of the other offensive stars of last weekend would be...Bryce Lampman? I thought it was Bobby Orr for a second breaking in and deking Curtis Sanford for Friday night's first goal, and "Lamps" lit the lamp again Sunday, jumping confidently into the play to bury Ken Gernander's pass for what turned out to be the game-winner. Two years ago when he first joined the Wolf Pack, Lampman showed virtually no confidence on the offensive half of the ice, and when he shot the puck he never seemed to get all of it. Even in the Junior ranks before he joined the Wolf Pack that year, he had only one goal in 29 games with Kamloops. Ever since he returned from his first career NHL stint last year, though, the Rochester, Minnesota native has seemed like a different player in terms of his contribution to the attack. He scored twice in his last eight games of 2003-04 and then had an overtime game-winner in the series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a bomb of a shot from almost center ice. Now he's leading the rush when he gets a chance, and hey he's on what, a 40-goal pace. Not bad.
This weekend the Pack head off on their first real road trip, although they're not venturing too far afield. We'll be in Lowell on Friday night to get a look at Eric Staal and the Lock Monsters, who went 3-1-1 in their first five games, then it's on to Portland where the Pirates' club that had a hard time buying a goal last year has racked up 18 goals in its first five games, of which it won four. Three of the Wolf Pack's first four tilts have been at home, so it'll be significant to see how they respond to the challenge of a couple of divisional games in the enemies' rinks.RECENT WOLF PACK BOX SCORES:
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