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.'
The Wolf Pack continued to be great 'road warriors' this past weekend, as they traveled to Portland and snagged victories in Games Three and Four of their Division Semifinal series with the Pirates. The Pack have been an excellent road club all year, going eight games above .500 in enemy rinks during the regular season, and for some reason the Cumberland County Civic Center up in Portland has been very kind to the Wolf Pack throughout their history.
Including the two wins in this series, Hartford is now 12-2-4-1 in 19 all-time trips to Portland. I'm at a loss to explain that, as with the exception of one year, the Pirates have always had solid teams during the Wolf Pack's existence. Maybe our guys just really like seafood, I don't know.
It almost looked like two different teams out there in Sunday's Game Four, as the Wolf Pack surpassed their offensive output from the first three games combined in a 5-3 win. The Pirates, for that matter, had scored a total of only four goals in the first three, so they almost equaled that in a losing effort. Dominic Moore and Jed Ortmeyer, two guys who had played well but had been previously snakebit in the offensive end, got it going with two points apiece and Craig Weller chipped in with two goals, including the game-winner.
Weller, to me, exemplifies a lot of what's great about the AHL as a development league. He's a guy who wasn't on anybody's radar coming into this season, having played only 11 nondescript games as a defenseman with the Wolf Pack last year, with the rest of his rookie campaign spent in the ECHL. After being a healthy scratch for 12 of the Pack's first 20 games this year, Weller was moved up to forward by Head Coach Ryan McGill, who had Weller on his Memorial Cup-winning Kootenay Ice (WHL) club in 2001-02.
The move was made purely out of necessity, as the Wolf Pack were in a roster crunch due to injuries and recalls, but like so many things in life, it ended up looking like a stroke of genius. Weller did a great job of using his impressive physique (at 6-4 and a barrel-chested 224 pounds, he'd probably make somebody a pretty good pass-rushing defensive end) to pound opposing d-men, and quickly had the look of a guy who could turn into a solid NHL player as a grinding winger.
I've been covering this league for 16 years now, and I can't count how many good NHL players I've seen come through the AHL who looked very, very ordinary, if not completely lost, in their first year or two in this loop. It's amazing what a little playing time and confidence will do, and there's nothing better than seeing a young guy start to come into his own and really dominate.
The Pack have now pushed the Pirates' backs to the wall and after a couple of well-earned days of rest, will go for the knockout blow Wednesday at home in Game Five. As everyone figured, Portland has proved to be a resilient opponent, and I was very impressed by the fact that they didn't "cash it in" after falling behind 4-0 in the first period on Sunday. It was looking like a Wolf Pack rout at that point, but the Pirates "righted the ship" so to speak, and gave the Pack all they wanted and more for the final 40 minutes.
They say the hardest win to get in a series is the last one, and we'll see if the Wolf Pack can do themselves a favor and finish off the upstart Pirates without having to go to Games Six or Seven.RELATED LINKS:Crawford's Pack Report: Nothing Like Playoff OT (4/24/04) >>Crawford's Pack Report: Home Split, Off to Portland (4/21/04) >>WOLF PACK POST-GAME QUOTES:Courtesy of The Hartford Courant
Wolf Pack Head Coach Ryan McGill:
"The hardest game to win in a series is the fourth win. The guys know that. We've got a couple days to address that and try to use home ice to our advantage."
Wolf Pack forward Craig Weller:
"We don't want to have to come back here (Portland). We've put ourselves in a position to clinch at home (Wednesday), so that's what we want to do."