SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … New coaching staff, new-look roster, same results. The Hartford Wolf Pack underwent some significant changes during the off-season, but are once again challenging for supremacy in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
The 2004-05 Wolf Pack won a team-record 50 games and qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the eighth year in a row. But gone are seven of last year’s top 10 scorers, including one-time AHL All-Stars Jeff Hamilton, Lawrence Nycholat and Jozef Balej, while the three returnees from that group – Alexandre Giroux, Chad Wiseman and Bryce Lampman – have all missed time due to injury during the 2005-06 season. Also departed are both halves of last year’s top AHL-leading goalie tandem, retired captain Ken Gernander (now an assistant coach) and head coach Ryan McGill, who won 127 games in his three years in Hartford.
Despite the turnover, this year’s version of the Wolf Pack is currently the hottest team in the AHL, having gone 13 games without a regulation loss (9-0-1-3) coming out of the Christmas break and sitting just two points out of first place in the Atlantic Division. Dwight Helminen scored two goals in 41 games as a rookie for Hartford last year, but currently leads the Wolf Pack with 16 goals and 23 points in 29 outings this season, including a current nine-game scoring streak (9g, 6a). Nigel Dawes, a junior scoring star at Kootenay (WHL) the last three years, has 22 points in 29 games and is tied for the team plus/minus lead with rookie defenseman Daniel Girardi, who is a plus-14 in just 16 games for Hartford.
Jarkko Immonen (10g, 12a) has been a key contributor in his first season in North America. Rookie Colby Genoway has nine points in his last eight games (1g, 8a). Thomas Pock has 21 points on the year, including the first four-point performance ever by a Wolf Pack defenseman against Bridgeport on Dec. 17. Jeff Taffe has added 18 points in 22 games since joining the club in early November.
Following in a line of talented Wolf Pack goaltenders that includes Dan Cloutier, J.F. Labbe and Jason LaBarbera, highly-touted rookie Al Montoya, the sixth overall pick by the parent N.Y. Rangers in the 2004 NHL draft, has been outstanding for Hartford, winning his last seven decisions and posting a record of 8-1-0 with a 2.20 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Robert Gherson, signed in November when injuries plagued the crease in Hartford and New York, is 5-1-2 with a 1.95 GAA in eight games with the Pack.
Led by general manager and head coach Jim Schoenfeld, whose career AHL coaching record now stands at 34-14-7 (.682), the Wolf Pack are back in action on Wednesday when they visit league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in a battle of AHL heavyweights.
NATIONAL PRIDE … Five American Hockey League players are headed to British Columbia to represent their countries at the 2006 World Junior Championships.
Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque (United States), Houston Aeros forward Roman Voloshenko (Russia), Manchester Monarchs forward Lauri Tukonen (Finland), Portland Pirates defenseman Ladislav Smid (Czech Republic) and Albany River Rats forward Nicklas Bergfors (Sweden) are all hoping to bring home medals from the prestigious annual event, which begins today in Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna, B.C.
Canada has also turned to the AHL to help ice its team for the 79th Spengler Cup tournament in Davos, Switzerland. Defensemen Brett Skinner of Manitoba, Zenith Komarniski of Omaha, Doug Lynch of Peoria and Ian White of Toronto are among the 19 players with AHL experience on Team Canada for the six-team event, which also begins today.
STARS BRIGHT … The Iowa Stars improved to 9-1-1-1 in their last 12 games with a 6-3 win over Milwaukee at the Wells Fargo Arena on Friday night. The win moved the Stars within one point of third place in the West Division.
Dan Ellis made 34 saves for his fifth straight win and Mathias Tjarnqvist added a goal and an assist, giving him nine points in eight games with Iowa.
SHOOTOUT NOTES … With Bridgeport’s seven-round loss to Hartford on Friday night, every AHL team has now participated in at least one shootout during the 2005-06 season… Manchester leads the way with 10 shootouts, going an impressive 7-3… Chicago’s Kevin Doell is 4-for-5 on shootout attempts this season; the rest of the Wolves are a combined 2-for-19… Houston’s Patrick O’Sullivan is also 4-for-5… Carsen Germyn is 0-for-8 for Omaha, which has lost seven of its eight shootouts this season… Five different goaltenders have participated in shootouts for Hartford (2-5), while San Antonio has utilized a total of 13 shooters and four goalies for its four shootouts (3-1)… Iowa’s Dan Ellis and Milwaukee’s Pekka Rinne have each stopped 17 of 20 attempts (.850).