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Pack's strong season a sign of things to come

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Hartford's Al Montoya was the AHL's Goaltender of the Month in February.

Hockey fans who cheered recent news that the Wolf Pack will be staying in Hartford can hardly be blamed after watching the team's performance in 2006-07. While the Blueshirts' late-season surge heading into the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs was certainly thrilling, a very similar story also unfolded for the Pack.

After a slow start last fall, Hartford made an impressive run down the stretch to secure its playoff berth. The Wolf Pack then extended their first-round playoff series with the Providence Bruins to a Game 7 before losing 4-3 on April 29.

It was indeed a season to remember for the Wolf Pack, who entered their 10th anniversary campaign with the youngest team in the American Hockey League. By the end of December 2006, the Wolf Pack sat last in the Atlantic Division, yet by the time their regular season closed on April 15, 2007, they had gone 42-18-3 over the final 63 games to finish second with 98 points.

"It takes a while sometimes for players to acclimate themselves when they go from one league to another," said Wolf Pack general manager and head coach Jim Schoenfeld. "There was real big turnaround, and it was due in large part to the skill level of the players that came and their ability to keep working. It's difficult to lose games as we were, and some players would have given up, but this group was very resilient. Eventually, their games improved to the point where those that were scoring in juniors and in college that couldn't find their scoring touch here found it and so the last half of our season was very strong."

During the season, the league recognized many Wolf Pack players for individual accomplishments. Jarkko Immonen was named AHL Player of the Week for the week ending April 8, and Al Montoya, the Rangers' 2004 first-round draft pick, was named Player of the Week for the week ending Dec. 31 as well as Goalie of the Month for February.

Midway through the year, Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan were nominated to the AHL All Star Classic, but Girardi missed the game after being called up to the Rangers. Callahan scored the game-winning goal for Planet USA in the All-Star Classic and eventually found his way to the NHL as well.

In addition, Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers' first-round draft pick in 2003, received an AHL Man of the Year nomination for his charity and community commitment during the 2006-2007 season.

"Anytime our players get recognized for fine play in this league, we're all happy for them -- the coaching staff, trainers, office staff and all the other players," Schoenfeld said. "It's a player that's on the move, on the rise, and his accomplishments were recognized by the league, so that's a real plus."

Girardi, Callahan, Brad Isbister, Stephen Valiquette, Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky, David Liffiton, Bryce Lampman and Immonen all saw action with both the Pack and the Blueshirts during the season. By getting a taste of the NHL during their call-ups, these players gained valuable insight into what it takes to play at hockey's top level.

"The whole thing is a learning and growing experience," Schoenfeld said. "They realize they have to improve, so we get the benefit of having a player come back to us. Once he is over the emotional letdown (of returning to Hartford), he realizes that he still has a lot of work to do before he becomes a full-time New York Ranger."

In the midst of the NHL playoff run, Girardi and Callahan were called up to New York. The longtime friends played an important part in the team's success, and instantly became fan favorites with the Garden Faithful.

Schoenfeld sees the Rangers' future getting brighter and brighter with the influx of talented players in Hartford.

"It was four years ago where, organizationally, we made a strong commitment to having Hartford become a more developmental team," he said. "In four short years, if you look at the roster in Game 6 against Buffalo, there were 10 players who had come through Hartford who were on the New York roster. The commitment we made to development, and the expertise of our scouts in drafting fine young hockey players, combined with vision from the top, puts New York in a very good shape for the future."
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