Archive for January, 2015

Wolf Pack Head into All-Star Break in High Gear

January 27, 2015

It’s a moot point because of All-Star break, but it would have been a tough call on Wolf Pack practice today if there actually had been one scheduled.

For those who don’t know, the Pack practice in the morning, usually starting at 10:30, and because of the snowstorm there was a travel ban on Connecticut roads until 2:00 this afternoon. After a loss in their last game and a day off Sunday, the Wolf Pack coaching staff, I’m sure, would have been chomping at the bit to get back on the practice ice, and when they woke up this morning and saw that the snow amounts weren’t as cataclysmic as feared, there probably would have been a severe temptation to say, “Aw, heck, we can go ahead and have practice.” The idea of asking their players to defy a state order, though, would probably have at least made them think twice.

Saturday night’s defeat in Syracuse notwithstanding, the Wolf Pack entered the All-Star break on a solid roll. The loss to the Crunch was the Pack’s first in regulation in a span of eight games (6-1-1-0), and just the fourth in the last 20 games (13-4-1-2), and prior to the setback Ken Gernander’s group had climbed to within three points of first place in the Northeast Division.

That’s a far cry from last season at this time, when the Pack were dead last in the AHL and desperately scratching to save their season.

Chris Mueller

Chris Mueller

It seems as though there are precious few one-sided games anywhere in hockey these days—most contests are decided by a goal or two—and a big key to the Wolf Pack’s success this year has been the fact that they have been particularly good in close games.

Thirty-four of the Pack’s 42 games on the year have been decided by margins of two goals or less, and the Wolf Pack is a combined 22-7-3-2 in games decided by two goals or fewer. What’s more, Hartford’s 15 one-goal wins—they are 15-3-3-2 in one-goal games—are only one behind Springfield and Syracuse for the most in the league.

It’s significant to consider, too, that several of the Wolf Pack’s high-end players have yet to match their usual levels of production. That’s not to say that anyone’s effort has been lacking, far from it, and All-Star representative Chris Bourque has certainly been as advertised as an AHL point producer, but history tells us that there have to be hot streaks on the horizon for some others.

Chris Mueller, for example, was a 25-goal-scorer and a Calder Cup champion with Texas last season, and had 18 and 32 goals, respectively, in his previous two AHL seasons, but has been held to four in 30 games thus far this year. Joey Crabb had 15 goals in 62 games with San Antonio in 2013-14, and had a 24-goal season with Chicago in 2009-10, and he has six so far in 34 games this year. And two young guys who were big keys for the Wolf Pack last season, Danny Kristo and Ryan Bourque, have yet to get in a real scoring groove. Kristo was the Pack’s goal-scoring leader last season with 25, and has nine in 39 games in his second pro year, and Bourque broke out for 21 tallies in 2013-14 and currently has eight this season.

I would think those guys all have some good breaks stored up, and could lift the Wolf Pack to even greater heights post-All-Star break.

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Pack Begin Second Half Tonight in Norfolk

January 17, 2015

Hard to believe that the season is half over already, but that’s the reality, as tonight’s second of back-to-back games for the Wolf Pack in Norfolk is game #39 of the 76-game campaign.

After last night’s 3-2 overtime triumph over the Admirals at Scope, the Wolf Pack’s first-half record finished at 21-12-3-2 for 47 points, a high-water mark for the season of nine games above .500.  The Pack have at least a point in four straight games (3-0-1-0), one short of their season best, and have lost only three in regulation in their last 16 outings (10-3-1-2).

Of course, that recent slate could have looked a lot different, if it had not been for the Wolf Pack’s bountiful success in overtime.  Friday’s game was the team’s fourth straight trip to OT, tying a franchise record that was set March 10-18, 2001, and the Pack have won three of those four, giving them seven overtime victories on the season.  Only the Oklahoma City Barons, with ten, have more OT victories than do the Wolf Pack, and overall the Pack have been excellent in close games all year.  In the 31 of their games that have been decided by a margin of two goals or less, the Wolf Pack are 20-6-3-2, and their record in one-goal games is a terrific 13-2-3-2.

Action Shot for Blog - 01-17-15The Pack led for most of last night’s game, before seeing the Admirals tie it with their goaltender (old friend Jason LaBarbera) pulled for an extra attacker and only 1:20 left in the third.  It was a quick rebound for Ken Gernander’s club, though, and the Pack also shrugged off giving up a great chance to the Admirals’ Max Friberg just moments before Ryan Haggerty scored the winner.

“That’s kind of been a characteristic of this team,” Gernander told me this morning, “is that we’re pretty familiar with overtime, and we don’t let near misses really rattle us.  We’re able to bounce back quickly and get right back to work.”

And they will need another big effort tonight, facing the difficult task of trying to beat the same team on back-to-back nights.  The Pack have almost always played two-game sets when they have traveled down here to Hampton Roads, and only once, in 2007-08, have they managed to sweep a pair from the Admirals.

“It’s always kind of hard to come in and win two,” Gernander said.  “We got off on the right foot yesterday, but we certainly don’t want to let our guard down.  They had some pretty good opportunities to cash in and maybe win that game, as did we, so I think we have to come with that same spirit and fight.  I think we had pretty good jump in our legs yesterday, and we need to again bring our best game.”

The desperation level will no doubt increase for the Admirals, who despite having standings points in six of their last seven games (3-1-2-1) are last in the Eastern Conference, and nine points out of a playoff spot.  On the other side of that equation, there is no room for complacency for the Wolf Pack, either.  The Pack currently sit in fifth in the conference and are only four points out of fourth, but they are also only six points out of ninth.  Should be an entertaining second half.

Wolf Pack’s McIlrath Rounding out his Game

January 17, 2015

Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website, on defenseman Dylan McIlrath’s recent goal-scoring prowess:

Despite having been the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, the Hartford Wolf Pack’s Dylan McIlrath harbors no illusions about making his way to the NHL as an offensive defenseman. The 6-5, 230-pound McIlrath’s calling card is physical play and hard-battling defense.

Still, every hockey player loves to score goals, and after a 2013-14 season that saw him light the lamp six times in 62 AHL games, tied for second-most among Wolf Pack defensemen, McIlrath could not buy a goal for much of this year’s first half. The first 32 games of his season, in fact, went without McIlrath getting off of the zero in the goal column.

That changed in a significant way this past Friday night, though, as McIlrath broke his drought with a flourish, scoring his first career pro overtime goal to give the Wolf Pack a 3-2 win over the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Syracuse Crunch. Then, as if to prove that huge tally was no fluke, McIlrath connected again the very next night in Springfield, helping the Pack to a 4-3 victory, also in overtime, over the Northeast Division-leading Falcons.

McIlrath Action Shot 7McIlrath had hardly been sitting around fretting about his dearth of goals, but he admits that banging the puck into the back of the Syracuse net in overtime sent him to a certain level of euphoria, even though it appeared that a Marek Hrivik try seconds before had actually found its way over the goal line.

“It felt really good,” McIlrath said of the OT winner. “I think it (the puck) might have squeaked in before, but I was definitely making sure it was getting to the back of the net. I usually don’t celebrate that hard, but it was a long time coming and it felt good.

“It’s funny, I started gripping the stick a little tight. I don’t usually think about that (not scoring goals), but when it’s that big of a drought, I really wanted to get one, and then came that big OT one and then another big goal in Springfield. It feels nice.”

The goal against Syracuse came as a result of McIlrath’s moving down deep in the offensive zone, crashing right down the middle and pouncing on a loose puck, after Syracuse goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gloved Hrivik’s bid right out into the slot.

“I’m not one for jumping in like that usually,” McIlrath said with a chuckle. “I saw the green light, saw a lane right down the middle, so I thought I’d take it.”

That play is typical of what McIlrath sees as the key to the Wolf Pack’s overtime success. The victory over the Crunch was Hartford’s sixth extra-time triumph of the season, and McIlrath points to a “go for broke” mentality as having been the most contributing factor.

“Honestly, I think it’s just taking some chances,” he said. “In those types of situations, it’s just kind of run-and-gun, so you’re going to have to take advantage of the time in-zone (in the offensive zone) and just hope you don’t get caught coming back. We’ve got some skilled players that have stepped up for us in those situations.”

McIlrath’s goal the next night was less dramatic, but still important, coming past the halfway point of the second period in a game in which the Wolf Pack had been blanked up to that point by Springfield goaltender Oscar Dansk. This one was off of a rush, as McIlrath took a back-diagonal pass from Ryan Haggerty and found Dansk’s five-hole, threading the puck through some net-front traffic on the way.

There is no real art, according to McIlrath, to getting the puck past sticks and bodies in that situation. The most important thing is to get it towards the net, and try to set your teammates up to help.

“You’ve just got to get it through, if you can find a way,” he said. “I think that’s a good team goal. We got a good net-front drive, a good post-up by Haggs (Haggerty), so if I just hit the net good things will happen, usually, when the goalie’s screened.”

McIlrath’s two-game goal streak actually gave him points in a pro career-high three straight games, as the Winnipeg native had registered an assist the previous Saturday against St. John’s. That was on a nifty setup to Chris Mueller, and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary 7-3 loss. It was also significant in that it came on the power play, after the Wolf Pack coaching staff had installed McIlrath in the net-front spot in which the injured Justin Vaive had excelled.

“I think I’m getting put in some different positions and getting some opportunity to kind of play in that (offensive) role,” McIlrath said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can, still knowing my bread and butter is my defense but trying to round out my whole game.”

Assistant coach, and former long-time NHL defenseman, Jeff Beukeboom, who runs the Wolf Pack defense, said of installing McIlrath net-front on the power play, “We needed someone who was going to play that role. Everyone knows that since Vaive’s been out, it’s hurt us. He’s been such a good presence there, whether it’s power play or five-on-five, so we looked around to see what we had, and we said, ‘Well, there’s a situation where maybe we could use him (McIlrath), and he might be effective.’ And to his credit, he’s worked hard at it, and hopefully Vaive’s back sooner rather than later, but at the same time, we’ll try anything to make the team better and to make the player better.”

Beukeboom, who was a big, bruising, shutdown-type of defenseman, like McIlrath, in his playing days, encourages McIlrath and his other more defensive-minded pupils, like Tommy Hughes, not to neglect the offensive side of the game.

“It’s not so much taking chances, as much as developing that part of the game,” Beukeboom said. “Even the guys who are so-called offensive guys, we don’t want taking chances. We want them recognizing situations, jumping in and being part of things. That’s been the focus all along, and especially a guy like Mac (McIlrath), and Tommy Hughes, that’s what it’s all about.

“You see the game, that’s what it’s all about, it’s got to be a four-man, five-man rush, consistently, and I think they recognize that. It’s not so much that you’re going to get offense out of it—you’re going to maybe contribute some offensively—but it’s going to create better defense, with gap control and getting up on the rush.”

Offensive production isn’t a must for a guy like McIlrath to establish himself in the NHL, says Beukeboom, but he can help himself by, in a way, using offensive pressure to set up defense.

“In his situation, it’s going to be more of being a sound, strong defenseman who wins his battles and who’s tough to play against.” Beukeboom said, “But if he can contribute a little bit offensively here and there and have good gap control, and get up on the rush so he does have good gap control, that’s going to pay dividends.”

For McIlrath, it’s all about proving that he can contribute in all areas of the game.

“You’ve got to just sometimes play your game, just play the way you grew up, like you can’t be too single-minded, just focusing on defense,” he explained. “Making plays on the blue line, that’s going to make or break your career, so you’ve got to keep the pucks in, and also when you’ve got good opportunities to shoot, you want to make sure they count.”

And as far as the goals go, the big fella won’t lose sleep thinking about them, but will enjoy them when they come.

“It’s going to feel good while it lasts, but I don’t know how long it will,” he said of his recent goal-tucking prowess. “I’m just trying to make the most of it, it’s always fun to score goals.”