📝 by Alex Thomas | AHL On The Beat
Forty-five games have come and gone this season for a Hartford Wolf Pack team that has their eyes on one goal: returning to the Calder Cup Playoffs and making noise in April and May.
Currently, the team sits in a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, holding a record of 19-17-3-6 (47 points) with just 27 games remaining in their season. The Wolf Pack also control their own destiny, with a plethora of divisional games remaining on the schedule against teams like the Bridgeport Islanders, Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Springfield Thunderbirds.
The ride to this point wasn’t entirely smooth for the Wolf Pack. The club finished November with a record of 5-7-1-4, then suffered a pair of regulation losses in their first two December outings. Something happened in those two losses, however. Hartford began to find their game at five-on-five.
The Wolf Pack, since Dec. 7, are 14-8-2-1. They’ve jumped back into playoff position, and a big part of that turnaround has been lineup chemistry that has led to a strong, sustainable stretch of hockey.
A microcosm of that lineup chemistry comes on the blue line in the form of a perhaps unexpected yet highly successful partnership.
Rookie defenseman Brandon Scanlin and third-year pro Zach Giuttari have played almost exclusively together on a steady defense pair for head coach Kris Knoblauch. They aren’t just taking up space, either. The two defenders have played a key role at both five-on-five and on the penalty kill, two highly successful game states for the club.
“We communicate very well,” Giuttari said. “When one of us has the puck or is going to retrieve the puck, the other guy is always talking to him to let him know his options and where the next play can be.
“We also have similar styles, where we keep our defense fast and simple, and make sure we don’t cheat the play. Then we do our best to join the rush and help contribute offensively where we can.”
Scanlin, who signed with the New York Rangers out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha last spring, agrees.
“We both play fairly simple and similar games,” Scanlin said. “That allows us to read off each other and stay on the same page.”
They aren’t the only pairing that seems to have found chemistry. Zac Jones and Ty Emberson have enjoyed a lot of success together, as have, recently, Matthew Robertson and Hunter Skinner. Up front, veteran forwards Ryan Carpenter and Turner Elson have been a force since being united in December, while Jonny Brodzinski and Tim Gettinger have rekindled their chemistry in recent weeks.
“The longer you play with someone, the more you experience each other’s tendencies,” Scanlin continued. “That’s been great for us as a pair. We’ve had the ability to feed off each other and help each other as a result.”
The lineup chemistry isn’t the only thing going for the Wolf Pack as they return from the All-Star break. The club has played strong five-on-five hockey that has led to consistent results and put them in a position to return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
“We’re starting to find our identity as a team,” Giuttari said. “We have a system in place and, much like playing with the same partner, playing within the same system, for an extended period of time, creates predictability as a team. We know that our system works, so being able to have everyone on the same page and playing as a five-man unit allows us to pressure teams consistently until they make mistakes.”
Now, with chemistry established and an identity found, the Wolf Pack will look to their final 27 games. Like last year, the club has their destiny in their hands. They are hoping to take the lessons learned from a painful stretch drive a season ago and apply them to their current identity.
“We know that we can’t take any games off,” Giuttari said of lessons from last year. “We have a lot of divisional games left, and there are six teams basically tied in the standings and fighting for the final four playoff spots. We have a good chance to make the playoffs, but we can’t be focused on that.
“We have to be focused on winning the game we are playing that night and then, when the regular season ends, we will see where we are in the standings. Hopefully, it’s a playoff spot.”
Trusting the process has already allowed the Wolf Pack to mesh together after an off-season full of roster changes, building chemistry throughout the lineup. It’s also led to a strong stretch of play from the club. Now, the Wolf Pack hope it will lead them back to the Calder Cup Playoffs.