Archive for April, 2014

Wolf Pack Lose a Great Friend

April 30, 2014

The Wolf Pack organization lost a gentleman who could only be termed a member of the family, and the community a tireless force for good, Monday, when Ken Gwozdz passed away, after an extended battle with cancer.

A retired teacher and coach, Ken was a board member of the Wolf Pack Community Foundation and one of the founders of that entity.  In addition to his work with the foundation, Ken “preached the Wolf Pack gospel” everywhere he went, as he threw himself into all of his many community activities.  Ken and his wife Dana had no children, but he treated every kid that he met like his own son or daughter, particularly those who faced difficult challenges in their lives.

A pretty fair athlete in his day, as a basketball and baseball player at University of Hartford, Ken used the energy that made him successful on the playing field to help improve the lives of countless youngsters, and to make life around the Wolf Pack offices considerably more lively and entertaining.  Few were the days when Ken wouldn’t stop by, sometimes to pick up Wolf Pack tickets, which he would spread around to the many youth groups he worked with, but more often just to say hello, tell a self-deprecating joke, reassure the coaches and players what a great job he thought they were doing…generally reminding you of why life is precious, and that every day of being able to do something that you like doing is a gift.

Ken’s infectious enthusiasm and life-affirming humor will be impossible to replace, but I know I personally will carry with me eternal fond memories of the good vibes that Ken shared everywhere he went.

A great role model and inspiration, and most of all, a true friend.

Rest in peace, big guy, we’ll miss you always.

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Miller Helps Rangers to Big Playoff Win

April 28, 2014

J.T. Miller had been a healthy scratch for the first four games of the parent New York Rangers’ playoff run, but had one of his best NHL efforts so far yesterday, when given a chance to make his NHL playoff debut in Game Five against Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden.

Skating alongside Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, Miller had an assist and a +2, as the Rangers moved to within one game of winning the series, downing the Flyers by a score of 4-2.

The +2 was Miller’s best NHL mark of the season in that department, and matched his NHL career best, and he had the primary helpout on a key second-period goal by Richards that gave the Blueshirts a 2-0 lead.  Richards had strong praise for his linemate after the game, telling the media, “He (Miller) had a lot of energy. He held onto pucks and made plays. He’s fearless. He has that type of mentality. You can kind of predict that this wasn’t going to overwhelm him because he has that type of character.  It was a good first game in the playoffs for him to jump in. He played big minutes and played an important role.”

J.T. Miller (left) and Brad Richards celebrate Richards' second-period goal in Sunday's Ranger Game Five win over Philadelphia (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

J.T. Miller (left) and Brad Richards celebrate Richards’ second-period goal in Sunday’s Ranger Game Five win over Philadelphia (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ranger coach Alain Vigneault also liked Miller’s game, after choosing to slot Miller in for Dan Carcillo, who had been an important contributor to New York’s 4-1 victory in Philadelphia in Game Three.

“I thought he played well,” was Vigneault’s post-game assessment of Miller. “He brought us a good skill level , he did some good plays and I was just thinking he might be able to help us, and he did a good job today. He brings something else. Dan (Carcillo) brings a lot of good things, the energy and the physicality, but J.T. brings the higher skill level and protects the puck a little bit better, and I thought tonight that would help us out.”

This represents a strong bounce-back for Miller, who drew some pointed comments from Vigneault the last time he was assigned to the Wolf Pack, the first week of April.

“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis,” Vigneault said to the New York press at that point. “He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”

Good for Miller.  He was challenged and he responded the right way, and it turns out to be a good hunch by Vigneault.  I was quite frankly somewhat surprised that Carcillo was taken out, as his style of play seems to be effective against the Flyers’ aggressiveness, but it was clear from the first shift yesterday that Miller had good jump, and he looks to be gaining more and more awareness of how best to use his potent combination of size and skill.

Miller, Vigneault & Co. will go for the knockout blow Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, with faceoff set for 7:30.

“Black Aces” Stay Sharp at Ranger Practice Facility

April 26, 2014

Just posted a feature to the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on the group of “black aces” who are skating down at the parent New York Rangers’ practice rink in Westchester County as a Ranger playoff taxi squad:

 

There will be no more Wolf Pack hockey until October, but a Wolf Pack presence is still very much a factor in the hockey world.  That is because a crew of ten Wolf Pack regulars from this season is still active, practicing as “black aces” for the parent New York Rangers.  That list includes goaltender David LeNeveu, forwards Ryan Bourque, Marek Hrivik, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg and Darroll Powe, and defensemen Conor Allen, Tommy Hughes, Dylan McIlrath and Danny Syvret.

For those who might not know, the term “black ace” refers to a playoff extra, a “taxi squad” guy who is on hand for NHL playoff depth.  An NHL team’s black aces will only get a chance to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game if the big club gets hit by a run of injuries, but they practice throughout the postseason run in case they are needed.

According to legend, calling these players black aces can be attributed, as can so many famous things in hockey, to Eddie Shore, who supposedly referred to players on his Springfield Indians clubs who had fallen out of favor, and needed to work their way back into his good graces, as the team’s “black aces”.  That apparently comes from a poker term, the “Dead Man’s Hand”.  That was the array of cards that famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok held at the point when he was shot and killed—a pair of eights, the jack of diamonds and the two black aces.

Despite that rather morbid name background, the experience of being a black ace is a positive one, according to Pack head coach Ken Gernander, who is running the black aces through their practice paces at the Rangers’ MSG Training Center in Tarrytown, NY, along with assistants Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller.  With fewer players on the ice, the coaching experience is even more enjoyable than the routine of the season.

Dylan McIlrath

Dylan McIlrath

“It’s fun,” Gernander said after the first taxi squad workout, which was four days after the Wolf Pack’s season ended.  “I like coming to the rink, I like working with players, and I think in this environment, because it’s a smaller number and there’s no game on the imminent horizon, meaning the next day or what have you, you get to take a different tack.  You get to know the guys a little better, a little bit more intimately.  Also, I think you can break things down or isolate certain things on an individual basis that gives them something to work for while they’re staying in top physical shape.

“It’s a fun experience for us (coaches) because you get to know them a little better in a small group, with no game to play later that night or three-in-three (three games in three days) on the weekend or anything like that.  It’s nice for us to get to work with them and break it down even on a smaller scale, and to get to know them even better.”

The organization has the black aces set up as a totally separate entity from the roster that is playing, as the Ranger club is holding its practices at Madison Square Garden.  From the perspective of the black aces, as articulated by McIlrath, that makes things easier.

“You can stay out of the way and just do your business,” he said.  “We can put in a good day’s work here (at the Training Center) and not worry about having to get out of the way of the big guys.  All the guys have the same mindset, we all want to still get better here and stay ready.”

Everyone throughout the Rangers’ chain is obviously hoping for a long playoff run by the Blueshirts, and that would involve the black aces spending an extended period of time in their practice mode.

“It’s going to be a challenge, just to stay ready, but we’ve got to have a little fun with it and keep it light,” McIlrath said.  “I know the coaches will do a good job, just to throw in little mini-games to keep our spirits up and also put in all of the work that is needed.”

Gernander is quick to point out that if one or more of the black aces is needed for the NHL lineup, he will be given ample time to switch from practice-only mode and get his “game face” on.

“It happens fast, but it doesn’t happen in a New York minute,” the Wolf Pack head man said, making an apt pun.  “As long as they stay in physical condition and things like that, and then maybe something transpires where, ‘listen, we’re going to need your services,’ they don’t get called at 5:00 to be there for a 7:00 game.  They usually give them a day or two’s practice, or they would certainly know the night before they’ve got a game, and then they just prepare mentally like they would any other game during the season.  So from our end of things right now, we’re just keeping them physically ready, and they’re disciplined guys, they’re professional guys, and really it’s not that big a task to keep them motivated.”

The physical-readiness standpoint involves full, crisply-paced workouts, with only about half of a normal roster on the ice.  That means not much rest between drills, which prompted McIlrath to quip, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, after the first practice, “I felt bad for ‘Lenny’ (LeNeveu) there, he had a lot of shots.  It’s a little different, I’ll have to let ‘G’ (Gernander) know there’s half as many guys, so take ‘er easy.”

Gernander took this in the spirit in which it was intended, and promised, “It’ll ebb and flow, and we have days off built in for recovery, both physical and mental.  And a lot of these guys have been through the rigors of a pretty long, 76-game (AHL) season, and they’re probably a little big banged up and beat up, but you want them to stay ready if the call should occur or the need arises, and it’s a great experience for them.”

McIlrath, who was part of the Rangers’ playoff taxi squad last spring as well, has found the experience somewhat different this time around.

“Last year we were coming off of a little bit of a disappointing end to the (AHL) season,” the former Ranger first-round pick explained.  “We had a tough way out because we had a chance right to the very end (to make playoffs), but this year we finished off really strong and it was really positive.  It’s a little more fun coming this time and I’m looking to make the most of it.”

The Rangers’ first-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers developed, not surprisingly, into a gritty, physical, hard-pounding affair.  That fits right into McIlrath’s m.o., something that he admits is in the back of his mind.

“Obviously it’ll be a very physical series, so anything can happen and I’m just trying to stay ready,” McIlrath said of the Ranger-Flyer battle.  “You try and stay out of the way of the big guys up here, but I’m looking forward to making the most out of this time.”

Pack among League’s Elite down the Stretch

April 24, 2014

OK, so it didn’t translate into a playoff berth, so maybe it doesn’t mean too much in the grand scheme of things, but in the last two-and-a-half months of the season, the Wolf Pack put together a record that stands among the best in the AHL.

After January 25, two games past the halfway point of the campaign, when the Pack were 13-22-0-5 for 31 points and last overall in the AHL, the team went 24-10-1-1 in 36 games.  That’s a points percentage of .694, which ranks sixth in the AHL, and third in the Eastern Conference, over that span of time.  Only St. John’s (.735) and Manchester (.717) had better points percentages among Eastern Conference teams than did the Wolf Pack.  What’s more, the Pack stood 29th among the 30 AHL teams in goals-against-per-game on January 26, with a mark of 3.35, and they were fourth-best in the league in that category from then on, with a GAA of 2.39.  On the offensive side, the Wolf Pack were dead last in the AHL in goals-scored-per-game on January 26, at 2.35, and they scored at a 3.00 goals-per-game clip the rest of the way, which ranked them 12th among AHL clubs and sixth in the conference.Action Shot for Blog - 04-24-14

If you take a snapshot from February 22 to the end of the season, the record is even more impressive.

On February 21, the Wolf Pack lost 4-3 at home to Bridgeport, seeing a 3-2 lead slip away in the last 2:25 of the third period in the process.  That ran the Pack’s record to 20-26-0-6, and they still stood last overall in the league.  The next night in Springfield, though, against a Falcon club that was tied for second overall in the AHL, the Wolf Pack scored three third-period goals to wipe out a 3-1 deficit and win, 4-3.  That was the start of a four-game winning streak, and Ken Gernander’s crew would only lose six more times in regulation the rest of the season, going 18-6-1-0 in the final 25 games.

That slate was good for a .740 points percentage, which was surpassed over that span of time by only three AHL teams, and among Eastern Conference clubs, only St. John’s, with a mark of .761, had a better points percentage.

And oh, by the way, the Wolf Pack reeled off wins in nine of their last ten games, with four of those victories coming by shutout, after the team hadn’t managed a zero all year through the first 66 games.

What does that all add up to?  Well, that’s a matter of debate, I guess, but I doubt that there would have been many teams eager to come across the Wolf Pack in the postseason, if they had managed to grab a spot.

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.”