by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
Through three games, the Wolf Pack's first-round series with the Lowell Lock Monsters has been everything promised, and more.
Although the Pack have scored a pair of three-goal wins, neither of those came easy, and the Lock Monsters' one triumph was a nip-and-tuck one-goal decision. There have been pretty goals, heavy hits, plenty of sniping and physical play...all the things that make playoff hockey, for my money, the most fun in sports.
The Lock Monsters came into the series on a good run, having won their last three games of the regular season by a combined margin of 13-2. With a few breaks, they could have easily won Game One too, as they outshot the Pack comfortably, 41-29. The Wolf Pack had two five-on-three power plays in the first period and didn't convert, and though they led 1-0 after one, you had to wonder if letting those opportunities slip away was going to come back to bite them. Then when Ryan Bayda tied it for Lowell just 1:42 into the second, it seemed as though the momentum was undergoing a major shift. The Lock Monsters did get 18 shots on goal in the second, but the Pack did a good job of keeping them from finishing their chances, with some help from the goalposts. Hartford Civic Center ice crew maven Wayne "Scoop" Knight had freshly painted the game nets beautiful, bright red for the postseason, and quite a bit of that red paint ended up on the puck, with both clubs ringing iron several times in the second.
The Wolf Pack power play finally got untracked on its seventh opportunity, as Alex Giroux buried a rebound of a point shot by Joel Bouchard, and then Jeff Hamilton forced a turnover and went the whole route to pop a high shot past Lock Monster goalie Cam Ward. That sent the Pack into the third up 3-1, and they quickly made it a three-goal lead on another power-play tally by Giroux, on a patented tip play that the Wolf Pack use on the PP to spring a forward on a breakaway. The Lock Monsters refused to go away, though, and quickly cut it to 4-2 on a deflection by Chad Larose. They would end up outshooting the Pack 16-3 in the third, but could get no closer than two goals, largely due to excellent goaltending by Jason LaBarbera. Some were surprised by Ryan McGill's decision to start LaBarbera in Game One, in view of the outstanding success that Steve Valiquette had in the regular season against Lowell, but McGill is truly in a situation where he can't go wrong either way he decides on that. LaBarbera certainly justified McGill's faith in him, and sparkplug Ryan Hollweg got his first pro playoff goal into an empty net to seal the deal.
Game Two started out as a mirror image of the opener, as the Lock Monsters scored just 4:22 into the contest, after the Pack had opened the scoring at the 2:07 mark of Game One. Both power plays got a workout for the second straight game, and the Pack's man-advantage unit did not do the team any favors, going 0 for 6 with a shorthanded goal-against. Hamilton got his second goal of the series on a long shot off a faceoff win by Dominic Moore in the second, but the Lowell power play came through to get what turned out to be the game-winner, a Bayda goal with 9:26 gone in the third. That tally, like Larose's in Game One, was a deflection from in front. Neither Bayda, at 5-11 and 190 pounds, nor Larose, who goes 5-8 and 185, is the biggest guy in the world, and it's a testament to their grit that they would venture consistently to the front of the Pack's net and be able to cause havoc.
There was a short turnaround between Saturday's Game Two and the 4:00 faceoff Sunday for Game Three in Lowell. I personally was very eager to see how the teams would come out, whether the Pack would be energized by having a chance to redeem themselves so quickly or whether the Lock Monsters would be able to carry the momentum right over, as if it was just the continuation of the same game. As it turned out, the Wolf Pack would take better advantage of the tight schedule, jumping in front on a goal at 5:02 of the first by Chad Wiseman, who seems to have returned to his pre-concussion form, and leading the whole way en route to a 4-1 win.
The Pack had suffered a personnel loss coming out of Game Two, as Garth Murray had been hit over the right eye by the puck and was unable to see out of the eye well enough to play Sunday. Murray had been centering Ken Gernander and Jed Ortmeyer on the line the Wolf Pack had been using to match up against Lowell's explosive unit of Eric Staal, Chuck Kobasew and Colin Forbes. For Game Three McGill kept Gernander and Ortmeyer together and put Jamie Lundmark in the middle, and the shift worked out perfectly. Gernander scored the game-winning goal, Lundmark had a goal and an assist, and they managed to keep Staal and his cohorts off the scoresheet. Meanwhile, Giroux lit the lamp again and Hamilton upped his point total to five with a pair of assists. Both Giroux and Hamilton, the Pack's top two scorers during the regular season, seem to be on a mission to prove that they have another gear to turn their game up to in the postseason. Giroux occupies a much more prominent role with this year's Wolf Pack club than he did with last year's conference finalists, and Hamilton, who has proven all he needs to prove in his regular season play, looks to be primed to show that he can carry a team in the pressure cooker of the playoffs as well. If those guys keep firing, and you throw in Moore, Lundmark and Wiseman as dangerous offensive forces, Gernander and Ortmeyer & Co. to play against the opponent's top threats, and the likes of Ryan Hollweg to make life generally miserable for anyone in an opposing jersey, it certainly shapes up as a nicely-balanced group.
It's funny how easy it is to write stuff like that after the team comes up with a solid win. Another thing that makes playoffs so entertaining is the up and down of it, with each game being so important. You tend to feel like the whole season is down the drain after a loss, and nothing is better than the excitement after a win. I guess it's the teams that deal best with that outhouse-to-penthouse-and-back fluctuation that have the best chance of being successful in the playoffs, and one thing about the Wolf Pack the past two years, they have had their share of bad games, but they rarely have strung a bunch of them together.