Wolf Pack Arrive Safely on “The Rock”

April 10, 2014

A longer travel day than the Wolf Pack are used to today, but no hitches in a safe journey to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The traveling party spent Wednesday night in Boston, after busing from Worcester following that night’s 2-1 over the Sharks, and then caught an 11 AM flight out of Logan Airport in Boston, bound for Toronto.  After a short layover in T.O., it was back up in the air for a three-hour ride to St. John’s, and arrival time in Newfoundland was roughly 7:30 PM local time, which is 90 minutes ahead of Eastern Time.  My seatmate for both legs of the flight was recent addition Chris McCarthy, who, I am happy to report, seems a veteran and unruffled traveler.

Chris McCarthy

Chris McCarthy

A 2:00 practice is scheduled for Friday afternoon, and then the Wolf Pack will spend the evening rooting for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who will need to beat the Albany Devils in regulation in Albany, in order for the Wolf Pack still to have a chance to make the playoffs.  Wolf Pack world will be counting on the fact that the Sound Tigers are due, as Bridgeport is 0-7-0-2 in its last nine, and has won only one of 16 games (1-12-1-2) since the end of the Olympic break.  Albany has struggled a bit lately as well, though, 0-2-1-0 in their three games last weekend and winning only one of their last seven (1-3-2-1).

Goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris made the trip to Newfoundland with the Wolf Pack, and it sounds like he is ready to suit up, as Jason Missiaen headed back to Greenville from Boston.  It seems certain that David LeNeveu will retain his starting role when the Wolf Pack and IceCaps play their first of back-to-back games up here Saturday, as LeNeveu has been between the pipes for all of the Pack’s six consecutive wins in their current streak, and has allowed a total of only four goals on 185 shots in those six contests.  That works out to a goals-against average of 0.66 and a save percentage of .978.

It’s been over three years since the franchise has put together a win streak of as long as six games…last time that happened was December 3-17, 2010.  And after Wednesday’s victory in Worcester, the Wolf Pack is 15-5-1-0 in 21 games since February 22, a gaudy points percentage of .738.

 

Wolf Pack Hanging on to Playoff Hopes

April 8, 2014

Here’s the situation…

For those of you who are not AHL playoff-scenario geeks, the Wolf Pack remain alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but despite a five-game winning streak and a stellar 14-5-1 record since February 22, they are down to their last thread of postseason hope.

With 73 points and five more to play, the most points the Pack can get is 83.  Albany is currently in seventh place in the conference with 83, Hershey is in eighth with 82 and Norfolk is ninth with 81.  To grab a playoff spot, the Wolf Pack need to catch Albany and surpass either Hershey or Norfolk.  The Pack cannot get by both Hershey and Norfolk, because those teams still have two games against one another.

So, regardless of what else happens, to have a chance the Wolf Pack need to win all five of their remaining games, and they need Albany to lose all of theirs in regulation.  That sounds like a tall order, but don’t forget, last year’s Whale team was firmly in control of a playoff spot with six games still left on their schedule, and went on to go 0-5-1-0, when it turned out that all they would have needed was one win out of those six to get in.Action Shot for Blog - 04-08-14 - salute

The best the Wolf Pack can do is tie Albany in the points column, and the first tiebreaker is non-shootout wins, so in addition to having to win all five of their remaining games, the Pack must win at least four of those in regulation, as the Devils already have 30 regulation/overtime victories and the Wolf Pack stand at 27.  So Ken Gernander could conceivably be faced with a situation in which he has to pull his goaltender in overtime, because a shootout win would do him no good.

Hershey also has 30 non-shootout wins, and Norfolk is tied with the  Wolf Pack at 27.  The second tiebreaker is points in the season series, and the Wolf Pack hold that over Hershey and Norfolk, but would lose out on that to Albany.

The Devils’ remaining schedule shows four home games, vs. Bridgeport, Providence, Syracuse and Springfield, and a road game at Portland.  Hershey has four on the road, at Binghamton, at Springfield and two in Norfolk, and home games vs. Binghamton and Adirondack, while Norfolk, in addition to the two home games against the Bears, visits Providence, Worcester, Portland and Binghamton.

The Wolf Pack play their last three road games of the regular year this week, visiting Worcester Wednesday and then jetting off to Newfoundland, for games on “The Rock” Saturday night and Sunday afternoon against St. John’s.  The Pack then finish with a pair on home ice next weekend, hosting first-place Springfield and last-place Bridgeport.

Jesper Fast has arguably been the Wolf Pack’s most consistent player as of late, and he earned a well-deserved callup from the Rangers Monday.  It wasn’t because of a new injury, sounds like the Rangers are searching for a winger to fill the void left by the loss of Chris Kreider, who has missed the last six games with his hand injury.  According to reports, Fast has been installed on right wing on a line with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, and with the Rangers playing at home both Tuesday and Thursday nights, it seems like a long shot that Fast would be available for the Wolf Pack in their visit to Worcester Wednesday.

Roster Moves Aplenty

April 3, 2014

It’s been a week full of player moves, mostly additions, although there was one subtraction, with Kyle Jean being moved back to Greenville on Wednesday.

That portended the return of J.T. Miller later that day, after he was a healthy scratch in Ranger wins Sunday in Edmonton and Tuesday at Vancouver.  Daniel Carcillo has proven to be a good fit in the big club’s lineup since being inserted in place of Miller, scoring a goal in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over former Ranger coach John Tortorella’s Canucks, so Miller is back to the AHL to resume his all-situations role with the Wolf Pack.  Interestingly, at Wolf Pack practice today Miller was not back between Ryan Bourque and Jesper Fast, the spot he occupied before his latest callup.  The Wolf Pack coaches left Marek Hrivik, who had taken Miller’s place on that line the last three games, in that slot today.

Chris McCarthy (hockeyeastonline.com)

Chris McCarthy (hockeyeastonline.com)

Two more Amateur Tryout signees were added to the roster in the last couple of days, forward Chris McCarthy on Tuesday and defenseman Justin Baker today.  Both just finished their Senior college seasons, McCarthy at University of Vermont and Baker at St. Lawrence.  McCarthy has an NHL contract for next season with the Rangers, while Baker is a free agent.

From the looks of things today, it seems as though McCarthy might get a chance to play Friday, when the Pack start another three-game weekend with a visit to conference-leading Manchester.  Baker, meanwhile, was out late with the injured players.

Only two defensemen in the whole of Division I had more points this year than the 33 that Baker had in 38 games for the Saints.  McCarthy was a better than point-per-game guy at UVM, with 18-24-42 in 38 games, leading the Catamounts in points and assists, and had both of UVM’s goals in the team’s season-ending 5-2 loss to Union in the NCAA East Regional Friday in Bridgeport.

Will Versatility Carry Hrivik to NHL?

April 2, 2014

Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on Pack all-purpose forward Marek Hrivik:

The Wolf Pack’s Marek Hrivik has not been asked to play goal or defense yet, but as far as forward positions go, Hrivik has done it all this year.

Hrivik originally joined the Wolf Pack, two years ago at this time, as a left-winger, but this season he has spent a significant amount of time at center, and has even played right wing on occasion.  The 22-year-old Slovak has proven to the Wolf Pack coaches that he can handle the differing assignments, and the back-and-forth between the middle and the flank has almost become old hat at this point.

“I’ve been doing it for a while, so I guess I’m getting used to it,” Hrivik said Wednesday.  “It’s not that different to play wing or center.  You just have a little bit more defensive responsibilities as a centerman, but it’s not that big of a difference.”

Although he admits to wanting to be better on faceoffs when playing center, Hrivik is encouraged by the progress he has made this season, after injuries last year limited him to 40 games-played with the Whale in his rookie campaign.  His latest assignment has been to center the Wolf Pack’s top line, playing between Ryan Bourque and Jesper Fast, after J.T. Miller, who had been filling that role, was recalled by the parent New York Rangers.Action Shot for Blog - 04-02-14 - Hrivik

Bourque scored twice in Saturday night’s 4-0 home win over Bridgeport, and Hrivik netted his tenth of the season in Sunday’s 3-0 road blanking of the Sound Tigers, leading Hrivik to the conclusion that the threesome was a good fit.

“I think we were playing good [last] weekend,” he said.  “Bourquie’s a guy that skates a lot, and he can skate behind D-men and get the pucks, and Jesper’s a smart guy who can make plays, make passes.  We just have to continue doing what we did last weekend and keep scoring goals.”

And what does Hrivik think his role is on that line?

“I’ve just got to be between them, I think, I’ve just got to do a little bit of both,” he said.  “I think I’ve just got to make sure I win those draws, and get the pucks out of our defensive zone as quick as possible and get to the offense.”

Which is not to say that Hrivik is always thinking defense when he is skating with players like Bourque and Fast.

“This is a hard league to play in, it’s always, pucks are up and down, and you want to spend the least time that you can in your zone,” Hrivik explained.  “As soon as you get out of your zone, you can go for it.  But you have to take care of the D-zone first, and then you can go.”

While it’s not like the Swedish Fast and the Slovakian Hrivik grew up around the corner from one another, both cut their hockey teeth on the bigger European ice surfaces, and according to Hrivik, there is a certain shared thought process that comes from that.

“I would say it’s more that he (Fast) was playing in the Swedish League, and he would rather make a play than, let’s say, dump the puck in,” Hrivik elaborated.  “That’s the kind of thing you’d expect all the time, that’s he’s going to somehow get the puck to you.  So you’ve just got to be ready to receive it, and score, eventually, if he passes to you in the offensive zone.”

When Hrivik first came to the then-Connecticut Whale at the end of March, 2012, signed to a tryout agreement out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he made a good splash offensively, leading the Wolf Pack in postseason goals that spring and tying for the team lead in playoff points.  Since then, the offense has not flowed as freely for him, with 26 points in 40 games last season and 10-13-23 in 66 games thus far this season, but Hrivik feels that his all-around game has grown by leaps and bounds.

“Obviously I think I’m a better player than I was when I first came here,” he said.  “Sometimes they (goals) go in and sometimes they don’t.  The points are not everything that is going on out there, there are a lot of other things that matter.  As long as the team is winning and other guys are scoring, it’s not that big of a thing.  I’ve just got to make sure that I play good hockey out there and help my teammates.”

Another thing that has factored into Hrivik’s development curve is the battles he has had with injuries.  He played barely a half-season last year, and missed significant time his last two Junior campaigns due to injury as well.

“This is probably my first full season for the past three years, I would say.” Hrivik pointed out.  “It’s a lot of games here, it’s not easy to go through a season, but everyone out there is tired, it’s not like it’s just me.  So you’ve just got to make sure that you battle harder than the other guys.”

What makes that battle even more challenging, Hrivik has found out, as so many other young players have, that the jump from Major Junior to the AHL is a big and demanding one.

“The biggest difference between Junior and the AHL is the strength of the players,” he said.  “The guys are stronger, faster.  So you’ve got to adjust to that, you’ve got to get stronger during the summers, when you train and stuff.  I think I’ve done a good job, I got stronger, I got faster, now it’s just time to cash in.”

The offensive opportunities that Hrivik has cashed in this season have tended to be less of the dazzling, highlight-reel variety and more of the hard-battling, gritty kind.  Several of his ten goals, for example, have been scored from nearly impossible angles, from along, or below, the goal line on his off-wing side.

“I have a history of goals like that,” Hrivik laughed.  “I don’t know, I just try to throw it in the net.  My first AHL goal was from behind the net, in Portland.  I have no play, I just try to throw it at the D-man’s skate or something and hope something happens.  It’s never a bad play to take a shot.”

Similarly, it’s never a bad thing to be able to play many different roles and help a team in a variety of ways, as has been Hrivik’s calling card this season.  That versatility may turn out to be just as good a ticket to the NHL as would be the kind of high-end offensive production that he showed a spark of in his first look at pro hockey.

“It’s the best hockey league in the world,” Hrivik said of the NHL.  “If you’re going to get there, you just try and prepare for it the best you can.  It’s just a plus if you can play all the positions out there, because you never know what’s going to happen.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think it’s something that could help me to get there.”

LeNeveu Finds Shutout Magic

March 31, 2014
David LeNeveu

David LeNeveu

The Wolf Pack had not had a shutout in over a year going into this past weekend’s home-and-home with Bridgeport, and now they have two in a row, both by a goaltender who had played all of about 70 minutes in the ten games preceding Saturday’s home contest.

David LeNeveu had never put up consecutive zeros before in his AHL career, and the 11th-year pro had been all but a forgotten man the last three weeks, but he stepped up huge when Dov Grumet-Morris was lost to an injury suffered in Friday’s desultory 6-1 home loss to Springfield.

Friday was Grumet-Morris’ seventh straight start, and ninth in ten games, and LeNeveu’s Wolf Pack goals-against average and save percentage were a rather unsightly 3.42 and 87.2, respectively, going into Saturday’s game, but LeNeveu prevented the depleted Sound Tigers from ever getting even a breath of life throughout 120 unblemished minutes.

Bridgeport didn’t make him work all that hard Saturday night, putting only 22 shots on net the entire night, and a total of only ten through the first two periods.  If you didn’t see the game, to give you an idea of how good a team win it was, LeNeveu was only the Third Star, which should tell you all you need to know.  Sunday’s road game was a much bigger test, though, with it being a 3:00 game and the Wolf Pack playing their third game in three days and Bridgeport having had Friday off.  The Pack seemed to be running on fumes by the third period, in which the Sound Tigers outshot the visitors 11-5, but LeNeveu’s confidence was clearly off the charts by then, and it certainly didn’t seem a surprise when he finished off the second consecutive blanking.

I said up above that it had been more than a year since the Pack’s last shutout, and that’s true, by a matter of one day.  The last bagel tossed by a then-Connecticut Whale goalie was March 28 of last season, when Cam Talbot hung a zero on Worcester, making 29 saves in a 3-0 home victory.  Speaking of Talbot and shutouts, he kept the theme going in Edmonton Sunday evening, backstopping the parent Rangers to a 5-0 win over the Oilers with 26 saves, after Henrik Lundqvist had started eight straight and 14 out of 15.

Action Shot for Blog - 03-31-14 - Talbot

Cam Talbot (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

That makes it three shutouts in 18 NHL starts for Talbot, and I know it’s only a small sample, but a 94 save percentage and a 1.67 goals-against in 20 appearances?  Wow.

Talbot also had the Wolf Pack/Whale’s last back-to-back shutouts, those coming in the first two games of the 2012 first-round playoff series against Bridgeport.  To find the last consecutive regular-season shutouts, though, you have to go all the way back to November of 2009.  That’s when rookie Chad Johnson (remember him?) blanked Manchester 2-0 (26 saves) on the 13th at home and then beat Worcester 4-0 on the road the next night, making 35 saves.

It’s now nine times in franchise history that the team has had back-to-back shutouts, and there’s never been a streak of three in a row.  In case you’re wondering, the Pack has been shut out in consecutive games six times in its nearly 17 full years.

The two victories over the Sound Tigers allowed the Wolf Pack to move four points closer to a playoff spot–they’re now ten points out of eighth with eight more to play.  Something else for the team to hang its hat on is the fact that the season record is now to within one game of the .500 mark, 30-31-1-6 for 67 points.  The last time the Pack’s mark was as high as one game below .500 was, incredibly, November 30, 46 games ago, when they were 9-10-0-2 and had fallen below the even mark for the first time on the year.  Seems like an awfully long time ago, don’t it?

 

 

Syvret Talks Wolf Pack Power Play

March 26, 2014

Posted a feature today on the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on veteran blueliner Danny Syvret and the Wolf Pack power play:

Wolf Pack veteran defenseman Danny Syvret is the quarterback of a Wolf Pack power-play unit that was 0-for-17 in four games, and 1-for-31 in a span of seven games, going into Saturday night’s visit to Adirondack.

The power play exploded in that contest, though, going 3-for-5 against a Phantom penalty kill that entered the game second overall in the league, at 86.6%.  Syvret, who had two assists in Saturday’s win, pointed to a subtle change in the Pack’s power-play setup as a key to its outburst.Action Shot for Blog - 03-26-14 - Syvret

“We sort of changed up our strategy a little bit,” he said, “into a power-play called a 1-3-1, which means there’s one defenseman, me, guarding the whole blue line.  We have one forward in front of the net, which was (Ryan) Bourque, and then we have three forwards sort of across the offensive zone, one being (Jesper) Fast, in the middle was (Danny) Kristo and to my right, looking at the net, would have been (J.T.) Miller.  It actually works really well, because for a team that pressures the puck on the penalty-kill, there’s options everywhere on the ice.  We were able to move the puck quicker than they could skate, and in return we got a lot of scoring opportunities from it, and scored as well.”

While the effects were hard to miss, the shift in formation was barely noticeable, as lately the Wolf Pack had been going largely with an “umbrella” look on the man-advantage.  That also featured Syvret as the only real point man, with forwards fanned out on either side.

“Our structure’s sort of the same,” Syvret said, “but we usually have two guys sort of near the net, one being a guy that’s on the goal line, and we since then have moved that player to the middle of the ice, which actually makes a lot more sense because every player on the ice has two, or three, passing options.  And they (the opposing penalty killers) just don’t have enough bodies to cover passing lanes and shooting lanes.”

In either scenario, Syvret is usually the only individual stationed high in the offensive zone, giving him the opportunity to be the true “field general”, looking over all of the available options and selecting the best one to exploit.  It also makes him responsible for ensuring that the opponents aren’t able to break the other way with speed, but that obligation is fine with Syvret.

“We have very creative players on the ice, smart guys that can read plays quickly and adjust to different scenarios,” the ninth-year pro said.  “So as long as we have options for each other, I trust that the other guys on the ice, as well as myself, will make smart decisions in moving the puck, like it happened at Adirondack.  We had plenty of chances and we actually scored on quite a few of them.”

As by far the most experienced player on the first power-play unit, and the only defenseman in a four-forward alignment, Syvret sees his role as being most prominently to help direct traffic.

“Just sort of keep things composed I think, for the most part,” is how Syvret described it, “but in saying that, Millsie (Miller) does a pretty good job on the half-wall of doing the same thing.  And we’ve been distributing the puck very well, it’s not been the traditional one or two guys always getting the goals or setting up plays.  Especially at Adirondack, I think everyone on the ice had a point for us on the power play and created chances.  Hopefully we’ll keep being able to do that and continue our success.”

Two of the Wolf Pack’s team season-high three power-play goals Sunday were scored by Fast, who also added an assist for his first career three-point outing in North America.  Both goals by the right-handed-shooting Fast were from the left circle, one on a one-timer and the other on a perfectly-placed slap shot.

“He’s obviously a really good player, a real smart player, good with the puck and intelligent,” Syvret said of Fast.  “And I think a big part of being in your first year is confidence, and if you look at our standings obviously he’s been scoring, but then if you look at his shots on net, they’re really low.  So I think part of it for him is having confidence in himself to shoot the puck, because I think 25 percent of all of his shots go in, and that’s a high percentage.  So hopefully he continues playing confident and shooting the puck, and they seem to go in for him.”

Saturday’s game was the last in a ten-game season series between the Wolf Pack and Phantoms, with whom Syvret played for most of three of the past four seasons, before being traded to the Ranger organization last summer for Kris Newbury.  The fans at the Glens Falls Civic Center seemed jilted that Syvret was no longer wearing their team’s jersey, as his every touch on the puck Saturday was met with a chorus of boos.

“It was fun,” a smiling Syvret said of hearing the catcalls.  “Their fans are pretty animated, and it didn’t really help that last game when we were in there I scored an empty-netter, and I was getting heckled the entire game, and it was sort of out of character for me, but after I scored an empty-net goal which would have put us up by two, I sort of celebrated to the crowd in the section where the hecklers were giving it to me the entire game.

“I knew coming in that they were going to be all over me, and it was actually pretty comical to listen to them pretty much the entire game when I’m on the bench.  I think they wasted a lot of energy on me, which is fine.  I got a kick out of it, and then obviously any time I touched the puck, they were for sure booing me.  It was fun, it was a good atmosphere to play in, and obviously winning helped, for sure.”

There has been much more winning than losing for the Wolf Pack over the past two months, after the frustration that marked November, and much of December and early January.  The team has not given up on a miracle run for a playoff berth, and Syvret feels that, on balance, it has been a reasonably positive year for him.

“It seems consistent with my last few years,” he analyzed.  “I think the last four or five years I’ve finished with forty points or more, and I’m trying to get to that 40-point threshold.  I’ve felt offensively I’ve been playing well, and defensively my plus/minus, which, as an offensive guy, is sometimes in the negative, that’s sort of your knock against you, has been in the positive sector for the year.  So, I’ll keep playing the way I have been and hopefully the numbers will keep falling, as will the wins.”

Syvret has also made a significant contribution to the organization’s development this season, spending substantial time partnered with both Dylan McIlrath and Tommy Hughes, two very young, but very promising Ranger defensive prospects.

“I really like it,” Syvret said in reference to skating alongside either of those two big young horses.  “It doesn’t really matter who I play with.  I feel like I just try to support my partner and make it as easy as possible for them to play the game.  And obviously having two big bodies beside me helps in the defensive portion of the game, and any time they’re in trouble, hopefully I’m there to support and try and break out the puck for them.  I really enjoy playing with both of them, and I feel like we have pretty good chemistry.  It’s easy for us to transition from one player to the other throughout the game, so it makes life on the coaching staff pretty easy.”

As does having a player like Syvret to help choreograph the power play, and to lend a calming veteran presence to the locker room.

Kreider Goes down, Miller Moves up

March 26, 2014

Action Shot for Blog - 03-26-14 - MillerJ.T. Miller was on the verge of being recalled by the Rangers Monday morning, when several Rangers were ailing from a flu bug prior to that night’s home game against the Phoenix Coyotes, but as it would turn out, Miller was not needed, as both Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan were able to suit up.

Today, however, Miller did head to the NHL, and word is he will be in the Ranger lineup for tonight’s huge Metropolitan Division game against Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden.  That is because Chris Kreider has been lost to the parent club, at least for long enough that he will not go on the four-game western road trip that follows tonight’s game.  Kreider suffered a hand injury in Friday’s 3-1 win in Columbus, a problem that he was apparently able to play through for the last three games, but which now has doctors worried that continuing to play would risk much more serious problems.

According to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, the decision to recall Miller was not made until it was determined that Dan Carcillo was not going to be able to play tonight, due to stomach flu.  If that is true, then Miller might not necessarily be assured of staying up for as long as Kreider is out, but it was sure sounding like Miller was going on the road trip.  Either way, I would imagine that the Ranger coaches are eager to get another look at the organization’s 2011 first-round pick, after his latest stint with the Wolf Pack produced 11 points and a +6 in nine games.

“It’s about learning the game with and without the puck,” Ranger head coach Alain Vigneault said to the New York media this morning. “I think the coaches (in Hartford) have done a real good job of helping him understand what to do when he doesn’t have the puck. We know he’s got a real good skill set, but he needs to be dependable. … He’s been playing real well offensively and generated some real good chances. They’re real happy with his progression.”

The callup of Miller was not an emergency recall, so the big club would not have to send him back if they wanted to put Carcillo in the lineup during the western swing.

The Wolf Pack should have enough bodies on the roster to ice a full lineup without Miller, as Kyle Beach was a healthy scratch the last two games, and Justin Vaive is ready to return from the injured list, after missing the last 12 games.  The loss of Miller costs the Pack its top-line center, though, and its half-wall guy on the first power play, and it will be interesting to see who assumes those roles.  Nick Latta, who has been centering the fourth line between Kyle Jean and Shawn O’Donnell, could see his responsibilities expanded, and Jean could move back to the middle after playing mostly wing since his return from Greenville 12 games ago.

Line Shuffle Leads to Wolf Pack Bounce-back Win

March 23, 2014

A demoralizing 6-1 home loss to St. John’s on Friday convinced the Wolf Pack coaching staff that the Pack’s line combinations were getting stale, and they shuffled up the deck for Saturday’s visit to Glens Falls.  The result was a 4-2 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms, the Pack’s sixth straight in the season series and their eighth in ten games between the two clubs on the year.

The only line that remained intact was the fourth line, with Nick Latta centering Kyle Jean on left wing and Shawn O’Donnell on the right side, and that threesome gave the Pack some real quality forechecking shifts, against an Adirondack defense that was missing five regulars to either illness or injury.Action Shot for Blog - 03-23-14 - Jean, Latta

J.T. Miller between Ryan Bourque on left wing and Jesper Fast on the right side had been a dynamic combination for quite a while for Ken Gernander and Co., but Miller had been held without a point for four straight games going into Saturday and Bourque and Fast had combined for only three points in the previous six games.  So Danny Kristo took Fast’s spot on the right side on that line, and Fast moved on to an all-European line with fellow Swede Oscar Lindberg at center and Marek Hrivik on left wing.  The third line was a “graybeard” group of seventh-year pros T.J. Hensick, Micheal Haley and Darroll Powe.

Of course, all of the scoring in the game was on special teams, with the Wolf Pack scoring three power-play goals and a shorthander, so you could argue that the regular line combinations were irrelevant, but the new groupings seem to provide an overall spark.  Fast had his first three-point game in North America, with two goals and an assist, Kristo got his 20th goal of the season and had an assist, Miller had two assists and Lindberg scored his first shorthander in North American pro.

Whatever the Wolf Pack have had against the Phantoms this year, it’s too bad that they couldn’t have bottled it and used it against the rest of the league.  The Pack finished the season series 8-1-0-1, with wins in the last six straight, and went 12/43 (27.9%) against an Adirondack penalty-killing unit that has been challenging for tops in the league throughout the season.  And the Wolf Pack power play had been 0/17 in the previous four games heading into Saturday, and 1/31 in the previous seven.

Saturday was the Pack’s last visit to Glens Falls to play the Phantoms, who are moving to Allentown, PA for next season.  The Pack were 7-4-2 in 13 games at the Glens Falls Civic Center over the five years that the Phantoms have played there, and were 18-5-2-1 overall against the Adirondack franchise.

This is the second time Glens Falls has seen the AHL leave, and there currently is no team set to replace the Phantoms, although the city has not given up on attracting a replacement for next year.  The old Adirondack Red Wings called the Glens Falls Civic Center home for 20 years from 1979-80 through 1998-99, winning four Calder Cups, and the market then was without the AHL for 10 seasons before the Phantoms moved from Philadelphia for the 2009-10 campaign.

Latta’s Heritage is both German and Canadian

March 20, 2014

Here’s a feature I wrote on new Wolf Pack addition Nick Latta for the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com:

Nick Latta, a native of Pelting, Germany, is the first German-born player to suit up for the Wolf Pack in its 17-year history.  You’d never know, though, that Latta was not North American by talking to him.

The 20-year-old centerman, who signed an Amateur Tryout (ATO) deal with the Wolf Pack on Tuesday, speaks with only the slightest trace of a European accent, having grown up in a totally bilingual household.  Latta’s mother Karin is German, but his dad, Ken Latta, was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario and played in the Ontario Hockey League, roughly 30 years before his son would do the same.Action Shot for Blog - 03-20-14 - Latta

“My dad, he was drafted to Philadelphia in the fourth round in ’81,” Latta said Thursday.  “He played over here (North America) for a bit, and then he went over to Germany, played first league over there, and that’s how he met my mom.  And obviously I got right into hockey when I was young, and fell in love with the game right away.”

Latta played hockey in Germany until the age of 17, when he headed over to his dad’s home province to follow his footsteps into the Canadian Junior ranks.  Although Germany boasts one of Europe’s more prosperous pro leagues, the level of interest in the game is much different from what Latta found in North America.

“It’s (hockey in Germany) not as big as over here,” he said.  “Here Junior hockey fills rinks, back home you’re lucky if you get a hundred people for a game.  I like it a lot more over here to play hockey.”

On the other hand, Latta is grateful for his international background, and for the ability to switch seamlessly back and forth between two very useful languages.

“I think it’s helped me a lot along the way here, with my dad speaking English and my mom speaking German all the time,” he said of his upbringing.

Also, his being of German nationality has allowed Latta the opportunity to represent his country a number of times in international events, a chance he might not have gotten if he had grown up in Canada.  Many Canadian kids would give their eye teeth to be able to go to even one World Junior championship, and Latta has been to three with the German National Junior Team.

“That was always a blast,” Latta said.  “The first time I played at World Juniors was in Buffalo, I was just 16 years old and it was a great time.  Even though we moved down (relegated to a lower level), it’s just unreal how much they (North Americans, particularly Canadians) care for Junior hockey and how good the level is.”

And although there have been a number of good NHL players to come out of Germany in recent years, Latta always looked toward the land of the Maple Leaf for his hockey heroes.

“Ever since I started playing hockey, my goal was to play in North America,” he said.  “I always followed the NHL, and I kind of picked my favorite players through that.”

The top sporting icons in his native country are soccer players, and Latta is proud to identify himself as a big fan of the iconic Bayern Munich soccer club.

“I actually used to play soccer,” Latta said, “until a soccer coach actually gave me the option between soccer and hockey, so I obviously went with hockey on that one.”

Right around his 17th birthday, Latta moved across the Atlantic to Sarnia, Ontario, where he would play four OHL seasons with the Sarnia Sting.  Culturally, that transition was no big deal for Latta, considering he had spent many a summer in Thunder Bay, but hockey-wise he found it quite a step up.

“I thought the biggest thing at the start was the small ice surface,” Latta said.  “Over there (in Europe) you have a lot more time and space.  So I think that was really the biggest thing when I came over, and then obviously the speed too.”

With every new step he has taken in hockey, Latta has had the advantage of being able to benefit from his dad’s experience, as well of that of his uncle, David Latta.  David was a first-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1985, and played ten years of pro hockey in the NHL, AHL, IHL, WCHL and Germany.

“They always tell me how it is, and how you have to work so much harder every level you get to,” Latta said of his dad and uncle.  “I don’t speak to my uncle too often, just in the summer when I go up to Thunder Bay, but my dad, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what he’s done so far in my career.”

Latta’s Sting had a tough season as a team this year, finishing with the worst record in the OHL at 17-44-2-5 for 41 points, but he had a good year individually.  Latta’s career-high 38 goals were good for a tie for the team lead, and he added 28 assists for 66 points in 65 games.  After landing the ATO from the Wolf Pack, Latta stepped right into the lineup and had an assist in his first game, helping set up a key third-period goal in the Wolf Pack’s 4-1 home win over Bridgeport Wednesday.

“I was happy with my game,” Latta said of his pro debut.  “I was a little nervous at the start, but after the first couple of shifts I got settled in, and it was good to get an assist my first game, too.”

As for the difference between the OHL and the AHL, Latta found that to be a mixed bag.

“On the one side it’s harder, on the other side it’s easier,” he said.  “In Junior hockey, I’m not going to say no one knows their place, but here everyone knows their job, and not too many guys make mistakes.  Obviously the pace is quicker, and it gives you less time to make plays.”

Compounding the challenge is the fact that Latta plays center, a position that carries with it a host of different responsibilities on both sides of the puck.  That, however, is one thing that does not seem to faze Latta a bit.

“I’ve been actually playing center my whole life, except for the first two years in Sarnia, so I think I know my job real well as a centerman,” he said.  “You’ve just got to be solid defensively.”

Being good on faceoffs is obviously another component of being a successful pivot, and it was that element of the game that led to Latta’s first mark on the scoresheet as a pro.  He won a draw in the offensive zone, getting the puck back to defenseman Danny Syvret, and headed right to the front of the net, screening Bridgeport goaltender Kevin Poulin as Syvret fed to McIlrath for a shot that would beat Poulin low to the stick side.

“I always work on my draws,” Latta said.  “I think it’s a big key in the game to get the puck right off the start and have puck possession.  On that play, the defensemen made a good pass and nice shot.”

So a fine start to Latta’s first taste of pro hockey, but he is being careful not to look too far ahead, mindful of the fact that the ATO arrangement offers no guarantees.

“I’m just happy to get the opportunity here,” he said.  “I always want to make sure I play hard and keep working hard here.  I’m happy to get the chance here, and hopefully I can make the most of it.”

Wolf Pack Face Red-hot St. John’s Friday

The Pack will get a stern test at the XL Center on Friday, when the St. John’s IceCaps come to town, bringing with them a 10-1-0-1 record in their last 12 games.  Keith McCambridge’s IceCaps are 18-4-0-1 in 23 games since January 20, and a huge part of that run has been the play of goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who grabbed the number-one role with a 2-0 shutout of league-leading Manchester January 20 in St. John’s, the first game of a run that saw him start 20 out of 22.  Hutchinson was called up to Winnipeg on Saturday, though, with Ondrej Pavelec hurt, and IceCap scoring leader Kael Mouillierat, who has eight points (three goals, five assists) in his last two visits to the XL Center, and had a hat trick and an assist in a 6-2 win in Hartford January 25, has missed the last four IceCap games with an injury.  Other big offensive threats that have been absent due to recall include John Albert and Eric O’Dell, and Patrice Cormier was called up Saturday along with Hutchinson.  None of that has knocked St. John’s off stride, though.

On the Wolf Pack side, today’s skate was optional, and there were no rumblings of any lineup changes for tomorrow.  The only healthy scratch in Wednesday’s win was Kyle Beach, and gotta figure that Dov Grumet-Morris will get his fourth straight start in net.

Infusion of New Blood has Begun

March 18, 2014

Hard to believe it’s here already, but it’s ATO season.

The college and Junior regular seasons have ended, and players from those teams that did not make their respective playoffs are starting to make their way into the pro ranks, via Amateur Tryout (ATO) contracts, and the Wolf Pack inked their first newcomer today.

Nick Latta (sarniasting.com)

Nick Latta (sarniasting.com)

He’s Nick Latta, a forward from the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.  Latta, 20, scored 38 goals for the Sting this season in his fourth year with the club, a total that tied him for the team lead.  He also added 28 assists for 66 points, third-best on the team, and had 87 penalty minutes, the fourth-highest total on the Sting squad.  Latta was an ugly -41, but that seems to be more of a reflection of the tough season the team had than of any particular deficiencies on Latta’s part, as Sarnia finished with an OHL-low 41 points, and their top four scorers were all -30 or lower.

Latta’s heritage is Canadian, but he was born in Pelting, Germany, where his father, Ken Latta, was playing.  Ken Latta was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1981 and played one year in the old Atlantic Coast Hockey League (the predecessor of the ECHL), before heading overseas.  He had a long playing career in Germany and is still coaching there, and his brother, Nick’s uncle David Latta, was an NHL first-rounder in 1985, selected 15th overall by the Quebec Nordiques, and got into 36 NHL games with the Nords during an 11-year pro career.

So Nick Latta has some good bloodlines, and he may get a chance to get some game action in with the Wolf Pack.  Oftentimes guys on ATOs are just in to get a taste of the pro life and show their stuff in practice, but the Wolf Pack right now have only 13 healthy forwards on the roster, counting Latta.  That’s after Josh Nicholls was returned to Greenville today following practice.  Justin Vaive practiced today for the first time since he was shut down two weeks ago, but it sounds like he might still be a game or two away from returning to the lineup.

Latta lists his hometown as Thunder Bay, Ontario, but it seems as though part of his heart resides in Deutschland.  The first item on his Twitter profile is “fan of FC Bayern Munchen”.


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