Archive for March, 2014

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?

 

 

Advertisements

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”.

Hughes “Out of the Nest” for the First Time

March 14, 2014

Just posted a feature to the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on Pack defenseman Tommy Hughes, and the fact that, despite having played a full Junior career in the AHL, Hughes is living away from the family home for the first time this season:

Wolf Pack rookie defenseman Tommy Hughes had three years of Major Junior hockey experience prior to joining the Wolf Pack this season, but this year’s Wolf Pack campaign marks the first time Hughes has actually lived away from home.

A native of London, Ontario, Hughes played his entire Ontario Hockey League career with his hometown London Knights, living at home with his parents, Brian and Laurie, instead of with a “billet” family, the usual living situation for a Junior player in a locale away from his hometown.Action Shot for Blog - 03-14-14 - Hughes

“It was a pretty unique experience,” Hughes said this week of staying home to play Junior.  “Not a lot of guys can live with their parents when they’re at home, but they obviously take good care of me, and they treated me like they were kind of billeting me, like with having meals prepared and things like that.  It was different, but at the same time, it was kind of the same as a billet family, in a sense.”

Nutrition and training meals are such a huge part of the regimen at the higher levels of hockey these days, and Hughes’ mom and dad were right on board as far as making sure his diet conformed to what he was expected to be fueling himself with.

“They’d buy all the chickens and all the pastas,” Hughes said.  “I gave them the input and they got the stuff I needed, so that worked out nicely.”

Seems like an enviable arrangement, considering most of his teammates saw their folks only once in a while and didn’t get to keep all their stuff in their boyhood bedrooms.  There was no jealousy on the part of the rest of the team, though, Hughes is quick to assert.

“They liked coming over for home-cooked meals,” he said with a chuckle, “and the year before last year, we had four guys who were from London that lived at home.  So it wasn’t popular, but there were a few guys in the same position.”

Playing with the Knights also afforded Hughes the chance to fulfill a dream of sorts, as he got a chance to wear the colors of a team he cheered hard for growing up.

“I followed them a bunch, we had season tickets, and I watched [current Wolf Pack teammate, and fellow former Knight, Danny Syvret] out there, winning the Memorial Cup,” Hughes said.  “It was a huge hockey town, and all the fans were really into it, so it was a great honor to actually wear the jersey when I was old enough.”

The Knights have enjoyed tremendous success under President/Head Coach Dale Hunter and his brother, Vice-President/General Manager Mark Hunter, both former NHL players.  Last season, in Hughes’ last year, the team won its third OHL championship in the past nine seasons, and the 2004-05 club that Syvret played on won the Memorial Cup, the championship of all of Canadian Major Junior hockey.  The Knights have not had a sub-.500 record since 2001-02, but Hughes did not feel all that success generated an inordinate amount of pressure, even on the “local boy”.

“It wasn’t unbearable or anything,” he said.  “Just like any team, their fans are pretty loyal, so they want results.  And if you don’t perform, then they’re not going to be too happy, but I think we gave them what they needed and made them happy.”

Playing for the Hunters, too, was a boon for Hughes and his fellow Knights, given the braintrust’s knowledge of what it takes to get to, and have a good career in, the NHL.

“They’re great guys to have leading the organization,” Hughes said.  “They obviously are experienced enough to guide us in the right direction, and it’s just a first-class organization, through and through.  A lot of great experiences from them.”

Now, however, the Junior days are in the rear-view mirror, and Hughes is truly on his own for the first time.  Through camaraderie with his Wolf Pack teammates, though, and solid life skills he learned from his parents, he has weathered the transition with no problem.

“There’s changes, but I haven’t been overwhelmed by them at all,” Hughes said.  “So I think they trained me well.

“A lot of the teammates pitch in and do meals together, so I haven’t found it too bad.  I think I was well trained growing up with my parents.  I was pretty active in the kitchen at some points, so I think that’s helped.  I’ve kind of welcomed the experience and change.

“You’re not used to playing with guys that are in their thirties or whatnot, so that’s a bit of an adjustment, but they’ve been great.”

While the Wolf Pack roster does sport some grizzled (compared to Hughes, anyway), over-30 veterans, there is also a large cadre of youngsters, single guys just starting out in the pro game.  The majority of those young guns live under the same roof in downtown Hartford, in the “Hartford 21” apartment tower right above the XL Center, and that situation has been excellent for team togetherness.

“That’s really nice, having a bunch of guys in the same building,” Hughes said.  “We do meals together and go to watch movies, or just hang out basically the whole day.  So that’s really nice, to have guys that you can go to and just hang out with.”

So even though Mom and Dad aren’t as close as the next room any more, Hughes is hardly alone as he faces his first venture outside the family home.  Overall, he is upbeat about how it has worked out.

“I guess it’s a lot of responsibility, but I’ve welcomed the change,” he said.  “And I wouldn’t say I’ve really missed home, the change has been nice.  And I’ll be back there in the summer, so we’ll catch up then.”

Pack Start Another Three-in-three Tonight

It’s a third straight three-game weekend for the Wolf Pack starting tonight, when the Adirondack Phantoms make their last of five visits on the year to the XL Center.

The morning skate made it look like the same lineup for the Pack as Sunday in Manchester, with the exception of Dov Grumet-Morris starting in goal.  Appears as though Arron Asham will be out again, and Brendon Nash, Justin Vaive and Stu Bickel all skated after practice.

The Phantoms are coming off of a 9-3 pounding at the hands of the Providence Bruins Sunday in Providence, and are in the throes of a terrible stretch.  Adirondack has lost three straight, are 2-10-1-1 in their last 14 games, and since January 15, when they beat Binghamton to improve to 20-14-0-2 and were eighth in the Eastern Conference, the Flyer farmhands have gone 4-16-1-1 in 22 games, dropping all the way into a tie for last overall in the league.  The Phantoms had some fairly significant roster changes since that meltdown in Providence, though, including old friend Kris Newbury being moved to Hershey, in exchange for fellow veteran forward Derek Whitmore, and number-one goaltender Cal Heeter returning from a recall stint in Philly that saw him miss the last eight Adirondack games.  So it’s likely that they’ll be energized coming into this one, and they will definitely be eager to get some revenge on the Wolf Pack for four consecutive defeats in the season series.

After tonight, the Pack visit Albany, against whom they have won the last two meetings after losing four straight, Saturday and then travel to Providence on Sunday.  The Wolf Pack have had no success against the Bruins this year, going 0-3-0-1 in four earlier tilts.

Miller Nosed out for AHL Player of the Week

March 10, 2014

Thought that J.T. Miller might get the nod for AHL Player of the Week today, after his eight-point (two goals, six assists), +6 performance in the Wolf Pack’s three games this past week, and he probably would have, had it not been for the Providence Bruins’ explosion yesterday.

The P-Bruins swamped Adirondack 9-3 Sunday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and that game saw Alexander Khokhlachev erupt for five points, on a goal and four assists.  That gave Khokhlachev nine points (three goals, six assists) in three games on the week, and he ended up taking Player of the Week honors.Action Shot for Blog - 03-10-14 - Miller

I thought maybe Miller’s glittering plus/minus number (Khokhlachev was +3), as well as the fact that the Wolf Pack won two of their three games, while the Bruins had a regulation loss and a shootout defeat to go along with their blowout win, might swing the decision in Miller’s favor, but such was not the case.  It also might have hurt Miller that the P-Bruins’ Seth Griffith also had eight points on the week, and five of his were goals, including four in the strafing of the Phantoms.  Sometimes goals get weighted as more important than assists in these types of things, so the feeling might have been, if we don’t give it to Khokhlachev, then how do we give it to Miller over Griffith, with Griffith having scored three more goals?

Regardless of how the decision was arrived at, though, there can be no taking anything away from the strong statement Miller made in his latest return from the NHL.  He had chalked up a goal and an assist in the three games he had played with the Rangers before being sent back, and could have easily been wondering why that wasn’t good enough to keep him up, but if that kind of thought was going through his mind, he channeled it into his play in a very positive way.  His line was on the ice for only one goal-against the whole weekend, and he made some tremendous skill plays, like the nifty little deflection he scored on early in the third period of the Albany game, and a great pass to T.J. Hensick for the score that brought the Wolf Pack to within one goal in Manchester yesterday, in the last minute of regulation with the goaltender pulled.

As I was getting ready to interview Albany coach Rick Kowalsky before Saturday’s game, he bemoaned the fact that Miller had been sent back to the Wolf Pack just in time to play his team, and that sentiment proved to be prophetic.  The Devils certainly could have won that game, outshooting the Pack 36-21 and controlling significant stretches of play, but Miller and linemates Ryan Bourque and Jesper Fast, with important help from backstop Dov Grumet-Morris, ended up carrying the day in the end.

The Wolf Pack have two four-point games on the year and Miller has both of them, after scoring one of the Hartford goals Saturday and assisting on the three others.

The Wolf Pack haven’t had a Player of the Week in over two years, since Kris Newbury in the last week of calendar year 2011, but if Miller continues to dominate like he did last week, the only thing that will stop him from winning one of those nods will be if he doesn’t stay in the league long enough.

Grumet-Morris, Wolf Pack Relish “the Process”

March 10, 2014

Here’s a feature I just posted on the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on the always-articulate Dov Grumet-Morris, and how his fine play has helped spark the Wolf Pack:

Even with their 3-2 loss Sunday in Manchester, the Wolf Pack have played better than .650 hockey over a span of 19 games (12-6-0-1), exactly a quarter of an AHL season, and no single factor has been more responsible for that run than the goaltending of Dov Grumet-Morris.

With his 33-save performance in the Wolf Pack’s 4-3 win over the Albany Devils Saturday at the XL Center, Grumet-Morris improved to 10-1-1 in his last 12 decisions, dating back to January 24.  In 22 total appearances since being acquired by the Wolf Pack from the San Antonio Rampage December 13, the ninth-year pro is 12-5-4, with a 2.32 goals-against average and a fine 92.5% save percentage.Action Shot for Blog - 03-10-14 - Grumet-Morris

Before Sunday’s game, in which he backed up David LeNeveu, Grumet-Morris spoke about the team’s recent surge, which has taken the Pack from last overall in the AHL to within two points of 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

“I think that this game is about momentum, both within a game itself, in between periods or during periods, and then also within a season,” the recently-turned-32-year-old said.  “You can see the power of the negative, downward momentum, and I think that’s what happened to the team in November, and now you see the effects of the positive, upward momentum.  Right now we’re not really focused on the points, we’re focused on appreciating and enjoying the process, because points happen when you take the proper steps.  And when you focus on the steps, the points usually just come.”

Saturday’s game against Albany featured several momentum swings, the most abrupt of which came in the seventh minute of the third period.  After giving up the first goal of the game in the second period, the Wolf Pack had countered with two quick ones, and then made it a 3-1 lead with a tally by J.T. Miller only 2:02 into the third.  Shortly after that, though, the Devils struck for a pair of scores only 28 seconds apart, starting at the 6:29 mark.  The Wolf Pack ended up shrugging off that punch in the gut, and got a goal from Ryan Bourque at 12:25 that would hold up as the game-winner.  From an outsider’s perspective, the team’s recovery from those two rapid-fire goals-against seemed significant, but the always-analytical Grumet-Morris dismisses that notion.

“Goals happen, both for and against,” he said.  “The fact that they could score quickly is not really indicative of anything, that’s just the way the game went.  There were two quick goals in 30 seconds, that’s not ideal, but it’s not really that unusual, especially in this league, and it doesn’t matter.  We just continued to play after that, they had some chances, we had some chances, and we ended up scoring and they didn’t.  And at the end of the day, what does it matter if they score one in the first, one in the second and one in the third?  It’s still three goals.

“People fixate sometimes on the number of seconds between goals, but it’s essentially irrelevant, if you, again, are focusing on each individual step, focusing on the process, because we scored four and they scored three.  I don’t think they gained any victory whatsoever over the fact that they tied the game three to three.  It doesn’t matter, they’re still [angry] about losing four to three.

“I don’t really focus on that, and I try to play my game accordingly.  Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, well you settled down after that,’ it has nothing to do with settling, it just has to do with playing.  What does it matter if I had made the save before?  I still have to make the next save.  So I don’t really focus on that.”

Similarly, Grumet-Morris is not about to turn handsprings over the record he has put together in a Wolf Pack uniform, even as compared to the 1-6-1 slate he compiled in his eight appearances with San Antonio prior to the trade.  In considering that point, he had some interesting things to say about the significance, or lack thereof, of individual goaltending statistics.

“If you want to digest blocks of the season, I started in San Antonio 1-6-1,” Grumet-Morris said.  “In my six losses, five of those games I had either zero or one goal scored-for, and in only one game did we have more than one goal.  So you can’t win games 1-0.  You can win one a year, maybe two.

“If my team had scored four goals each and every one of those games, I would have been 6-1-1.  Would that mean that I was playing better hockey because my team was scoring four goals?  No, it means that offensively we were clicking, and when I was there we weren’t.  And that’s just part of hockey.  I don’t blame anyone, it’s not my responsibility to worry about goal-scoring, and that’s why the record was 1-6-1.  And then you come here, and maybe you’re struggling one night but your team scores six goals, and you win 6-3.  Great, OK, good job, does that mean that it was a better game than the previous game that you lost 2-1, but maybe statistically you had a better game?

“It really doesn’t matter, I think people get fixated because it’s hard to watch every individual game, and every individual save, and analyze it down if you’re not doing it for your living.  I don’t really worry about the stats in that sense, I worry about the process and I worry about doing the right thing all the time.”

The team as a whole has seemed to feed off of that approach, and Grumet-Morris feels that the entire group is in a good collective rhythm at this point.

“It helps that we’re playing some home games, because we get the crowd behind us and we’re sleeping in our own beds and we’re just a little more comfortable, so that’s nice,” he said.  “And overall I think our team has been just much more consistent from day to day, and even from shift to shift.  So we’re getting better, it’s a process but we’re real excited, we’re making a great push right now.  We have to continue that, we understand, but we are excited.”

Grumet-Morris’ own situation has stabilized considerably as well, now that he has moved his wife, Rachel, and their two daughters, Gabriella and Leah, from San Antonio out to Connecticut.  Rachel was still pregnant with Leah when Grumet-Morris was traded, and Leah did not arrive until January 19.  Shortly thereafter, the three ladies relocated north to rejoin their favorite goaltender, who had made several trips back and forth to Texas prior to Leah’s birth.

“It’s great,” said Grumet-Morris of having the whole brood back under the same roof.  “It certainly is chaotic with a family, and it’s very difficult when you’re trying to move a whole crew and all your stuff, especially the toys, but it’s been great and I appreciate having my family here.  And I do think it makes a difference, and I think it helps.”

Pack Flirting with .500

March 9, 2014

The thing that jumped out most at me from the Wolf Pack’s two-out-of-three weekend, which got them to within three games of even for the season (25-28-0-6), was the team’s resilience in circumstances that I think would have sent them over the brink earlier in the year.

Given the final score of Friday’s 6-2 verdict over Springfield, the Wolf Pack’s most lopsided victory of the year, it’s hard to remember that was a one-goal game headed into the third period, or that the Falcons outplayed their hosts for much of the first frame. Twice the Pack grabbed the lead in the first, and twice they coughed it up to the division leaders, both on goals by Ryan Craig, the second coming with only 54.5 seconds left in the period.

I strongly suspect that the deflation of losing two leads like that would have derailed the Wolf Pack of earlier this season, but the team seemed to shrug it off pretty quickly. They threw a blanket over the Falcons in the second period, while getting a goal from Jesper Fast that turned out to be the game-winner, and then swamped their I-91 rivals with three goals in the third.

Jesper Fast

Jesper Fast

A side note…if I’m not mistaken, Craig actually scored four goals in the first period. In addition to the two that the Falcon captain put into the Wolf Pack net, Danny Kristo’s tally 1:45 into the game appeared to go into the Springfield goal off of Craig’s skate, and the replay made it look like J.T. Miller’s five-on-three goal later in the period hit Craig’s stick before getting by Falcon goaltender Jeremy Smith. Don’t mean to make fun of Craig, he’s a pro’s pro and a solid, gritty player, but what a run of luck, both good and bad. One of those funny kinds of things that make the game so entertaining.

After that, the Wolf Pack had almost no jump in the first half of Saturday’s home game against Albany, one of the teams that the Pack is going to have to try and pass if they are going to get into the playoffs. The Pack were outshot 13-5 in the first period, and needed some great work in goal from Dov Grumet-Morris to avoid falling into a big early hole. After Albany finally solved Grumet-Morris on a power play midway through the second, the Pack quickly got their feet under them, and would go on to score the next three goals of the game.

Another psychological challenge faced the Pack in the third period, when the Devils struck for a pair of goals in only 28 seconds, suddenly turning it into a tie game. Again, if this happens in November or December, I think the air goes out of the Wolf Pack balloon and they go into a shell, but Saturday night saw the crew recapture the momentum, close Albany out the rest of the way and get a great goal from Ryan Bourque at 12:25 of the third that provided the winning margin.

The Pack were slow out of the gate again in Manchester Sunday against the league-leading Monarchs, and were not so lucky this time on the scoreboard. It was 3-0 by the time the Wolf Pack even made a peep, and I was thinking, boy, this is going to be one ugly blowout. Then, though, Conor Allen makes a great play to find T.J. Hensick alone in front of the goal to stem the tide 22.6 seconds before the end of the first, and the Pack were nip and tuck with the Monarchs the rest of the way.

Hensick made it really squirrelly for Manchester with another goal inside the final minute of the third, with David LeNeveu pulled for an extra skater, and the Pack got some decent pressure after that as well, forcing the Monarchs back on their heels and making them really earn the two points.

So…plenty of progress continues to be made, and the Wolf Pack are to within two points of the tenth spot in the Eastern Conference. If they can get there, then one big jump remains to be made, as nine points currently separate tenth place from ninth. Above that, it’s anybody’s game, as the gap between fourth and ninth is only a mere nine points.