The Wolf Pack certainly got the new season off to a positive start this past Saturday, with a solid 2-1 win over a Philadelphia Phantom team whose roster seemed loaded with excellent players. It looked like the Pack picked right up where they left off last season, getting solid goaltending from Jason LaBarbera, allowing precious few scoring chances-against and generating just enough offense to win.
Judging by the pure numbers, one might say the Wolf Pack are one of those "offensively challenged" clubs that are never going to score very much. I thought last year, though, the team was much more entertaining than the scoring figures suggested, with guys like Dominic Moore, Chad Wiseman et al. making plenty of exciting skill plays on a regular basis. All they lacked was a bit of a consistent finishing touch. Saturday was more of the same in a lot of ways, but with Jeff Hamilton in the fold now and Jozef Balej here at least for as long as the NHL is dormant, I think you're going to see a significant increase in the number of pucks finding the back of the net. Hamilton and Balej are legitimate snipers at this level, and scoring tends to be contagious. Once a few guys get going, everybody gets into the act.
It was good to see the summer hadn't robbed the Wolf Pack of their good team concept. Once the Pack's half of the ice was threatened, the guys played consistently like a five-man unit, keeping the running around to a minimum and making sure no one got open in the prime scoring areas. And this was against a Philadelphia team that boasts as many good names as anybody in the league. Seeing Joni Pitkanen live for the first time I'm certainly not surprised that he was a fourth-overall draft pick and spent all of last year with the Flyers. And guys like Peter White and John Slaney are among the few AHL players who can rival the Wolf Pack's Ken Gernander in experience and savvy. The Phantoms finished with 101 points last season, and although they lost again in Bridgeport on Sunday, I wouldn't be surprise to see them approach that total again this year.
Moore and Alex Giroux, two gentlemen whose potential for offense is vast in the American League, scored the Pack's goals on Saturday, and Layne Ulmer had assists on both goals and was First Star. Ulmer continues to get better and better as his career progresses, and may end up rewarding the Rangers' organization handsomely for their patience with him. Ulmer was a big star in Junior hockey and clearly underestimated the effort level that it was going to take to translate that success into dominating the AHL. To his credit, though, he learned from his rookie-year disappointment, and last season showed that he could be a force at both ends of the rink for the Wolf Pack. He lit the lamp 22 times in 2003-04, just three off the team lead, and earned his first career NHL action. If his great pass to Giroux for the game-winner on Saturday is any indication, he can be a lot more than a goal-scorer too. For those of us who watch the AHL closely, there are few things better than seeing a player who struggles initially stay with it and find his range, at it seems like as good as he was last year, Ulmer might still be on the upward part of the graph.
And finally, big kudos to the hockey fans of Hartford and the Wolf Pack's fine ticketing and marketing staffs for a great showing in the opener. With all the competition for the sports fan's attention on Saturday, to have a crowd of better than 9,200 in the building was an awesome accomplishment. It gets difficult, too, to come up with new wrinkles constantly in the game-night presentation, but those hard-working folks in the Wolf Pack office whose responsibility it is to do that continue to be unafraid to try any number of creative tweaks. I feel cheated sometimes in that I can't sit back and enjoy it all while I'm on the air during a home game, but what I saw of it sure looked like fun. If you didn't make it to Saturday's game, you'll definitely want to come check it out real soon.