by Bob Crawford
Hartford Wolf Pack Director of Broadcasting and Media Relationswww.hartfordwolfpack.com
With three more wins this past week, the Wolf Pack have officially set a team record for longest-ever winning streak. That is no small accomplishment, considering some of the top-level talent that has played here in Hartford over the seven-year history of the AHL franchise. The Pack had won six in a row twice before, but had never hit lucky seven before Monday's school-day, 1-0 shootout victory over Houston.
That was the only win of the last three in which the Wolf Pack did not have to come from behind. They got themselves in penalty trouble early both Friday in Lowell and Saturday at Portland, but came back from 1-0 deficits both nights to take control of the games.
Friday night was a pretty entertaining game, against a Lowell squad that looks to be quite explosive this year. Steve Valiquette, valiantly battling to avoid being overshadowed by Jason LaBarbera's continuing excellence, turned in his second great effort of the year, against another of his former teams. Valiquette was terrific in the early going, helping the Pack kill off six Lowell power plays in the first 24 minutes of the contest and allowing only a somewhat fluky goal by Mike Zigomanis just shy of the halfway point of the second. The Wolf Pack drew even late in the middle frame on a picturesque three-way passing play among linemates Dominic Moore, Chad Wiseman and Jozef Balej, who tapped the puck in for the goal. Then with the penalty parade subsiding, the third belonged to Hartford, with most of the action in the Lowell end and Moore and Jed Ortmeyer scoring 1:07 apart to win the game for the Pack.
This was a quality triumph, as Lowell is a much-improved squad from the one that missed the playoffs the last two years in a row. They have received several high-end players from both of their parent clubs, Carolina and Calgary. I have always especially liked Chuck Kobasew, the former B.C. Eagle, who the most scoring chances of anybody on either side on Friday, and the Flames have also assigned NHL-seasoned defenseman Mike Commodore. The Hurricanes' top young player, Eric Staal, is also skating in Lowell this year, along with Ryan Bayda, and Zigomanis seems to have reached a higher level in his play as well.
For some reason, the Wolf Pack have enjoyed tremendous success in Portland over the years they've been tangling with the Pirates. Including last spring's playoff series, the Pack were 12-2-4-1 all-time in Vacationland, and the Cumberland County Civic Center treated them well again on Saturday. Things looked somewhat squirrelly at the start, with Layne Ulmer getting hit with a high-sticking major just 25 seconds in and Boyd Gordon scoring on a deflection off a Pack defender 1:15 later. LaBarbera came up with a stellar save on Pirate scoring leader Trent Whitfield about halfway through the period, though, and would blank Portland the rest of the way. The Pack offense then came alive in the second period, with Maxim Kondratiev, Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts and Jeff MacMillan all scoring their first goals of the season, on the way to a 4-1 win. The club was jumping all night in that game, which looked from the press box like their most complete effort of the season to date.
Then it was back home for the challenge of the 11:05 AM "Sonar's Edu-Skate" school day game, against a Houston Aero club that had traveled all day Saturday from Edmonton. The Aeros looked like the fresher team for much of that morning-start contest, though, outshooting the Pack 35-28 and holding the clear advantage in scoring chances. LaBarbera was magnificent, though, and neither team could manage to find the back of the net in regulation or in the five-minute overtime. So Wolf Pack fans got their first taste of the new shootout, and it ended positively for the Pack. After LaBarbera allowed a goal on the first attempt he faced, he denied four straight Houston shots, and Lucas Lawson and Wiseman beat Aero goaltender Josh Harding to secure the win.
I'm sure the concept of the shootout will be a much-debated one during the course of the year, and LaBarbera and Houston coach Todd McLellan went on record saying that they don't like it. I personally do like it. I think as long as you're not replacing the overtime with the shootout, you're just adding the shootout as a final determination of who gets the two points, and the loser in the shootout still goes away with one point, then it doesn't hurt anything, and it's kind of an exciting finishing touch to a hard-fought battle. I understand the argument of there being some distaste at using a skills competition to decide a team game, but to that I say, if you want to eliminate ties and give the ultimate result some finality, how else are you going to do it? You can't really play more than five minutes of overtime, and they've already gone to the four-on-four in OT.
I've also heard it said that it's unfortunate that the points won or lost in a shootout could decide a playoff spot, but I think you could say that about any number of factors...schedules, injuries, questionable calls, etc.. All the teams have to deal with the same system and they know that going in, so I don't see how the shootout system negatively affects any fairness or unfairness of the game. And I think there's something about the heart-in-your-throat excitement of the penalty shot that really adds to the entertainment value of a regular season game. I'd certainly never like to see it in the postseason, but I think it's a fan-friendly way to put some extra juice into a regular-season contest.
To no one's surprise, the AHL honored Jason LaBarbera with the season's first Koho Goaltender of the Month award. That had to be one of the easier decisions that the league is going to face, seeing as how LaBarbera was 4-0 on the month and was tops in the league in both goals-against average and save percentage. It almost seems like a broken record, singing the praises of LaBarbera's play. You almost run out of things to say about it. Amazingly, he just seems to get better and better, and he looked all but unbeatable in Monday's game. If anyone thought his season last year was a fluke, he seems to dead-set on proving that it wasn't. If he keeps playing like he is right now, it'll be fun to see what other records he might obliterate.
One dark cloud was the fact that Blair Betts left Monday's game in the third period with an injury to the troublesome shoulder that has bothered him for much of the past two seasons. To me Betts has been a huge part of the Wolf Pack's early success, a guy who, like Ken Gernander, always seems to make the right read in the defensive zone and is a wily presence in the offensive end as well. I'm crossing my fingers that his shoulder is strong enough to weather this latest difficulty and that he's back in the fray real soon.