📝 by Patrick Williams
Officially speaking, American Hockey League players will be in full preparation four weeks from today for the return of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Unofficially, however, the pressure that playoff hockey provides has already arrived. For AHL players, a strong postseason run can be the final stop before a career in the National Hockey League, and they know it.
But first they must secure an invitation to the event. With the Calder Cup Playoffs back for the first time since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented AHL postseason play, many players are experiencing that first pro playoff chase and what it is all about.
Said Hartford Wolf Pack forward Ty Ronning of stretch-drive play: “First and foremost, we’re getting this experience at a high-intensity level. I almost can only imagine what playoffs would be like. I’ve never played in playoffs, but I know I do enjoy pressure. I do enjoy those situations.
“Man, what a platform the AHL playoffs [are].”
Indeed, Hartford is one of those teams looking to nail down a playoff berth. They visit the Providence Bruins tonight, desperate both for points in the Atlantic Division race and to put the brakes on a recent stretch in which they have two wins in their past 12 contests. Hartford (29-26-5-2, .524) sits fifth in the Atlantic Division and faces oncoming pressure from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Bridgeport Islanders; the top six teams in the division will qualify for the postseason.
The Wolf Pack lost four games last week by a combined score of 24-10 and have allowed 4.7 goals per game over their last 12. Amid it all, the Wolf Pack are adjusting to the departures of defensemen Anthony Bitetto and Tarmo Reunanen along with key forward Morgan Barron in recent trades; captain Jonny Brodzinski remaining with the New York Rangers; and the arrival of new forwards Maxim Letunov and Nick Merkley. NCAA signees in forward Bobby Trivigno and blueliner Brandon Scanlin round out the parade of changes.
So that pressure is intensifying for Hartford, something that any AHL club in a late-season battle can relate to as the number of remaining games dwindle. Tonight’s journey to Providence begins a seven-game road stretch with every opponent on the itinerary (Providence, Charlotte, Belleville, Toronto, Rochester) still very much in playoff competition. Win or lose, this trip will provide more learning opportunities facing elite opposition.
“The more competition there is, it just helps with their development as the season goes on and when the games are on the line,” Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch said. “And they mean more. It just means more. Their shifts [and] what they do on the ice [are] more important. They have to be focused.
“[If you finish] the end of the regular season where you want in the standings, then it’s going to be a whole new level in the playoffs. In the beginning of the season, you make a mistake ― go back right out and hopefully learn from it. Now they make mistakes, it means more because of what’s riding on a win or loss.”
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Ronning is always a good choice to gauge the Wolf Pack’s collective mood. Ronning, the son of former NHL playmaker Cliff Ronning, carries himself with poise as a thoughtful, well-spoken, and honest leader in the Hartford dressing room.
In last season’s abbreviated campaign, Ronning broke loose with 10 goals in 18 games for Hartford. But now the 24-year-old has shown that he can maintain a high standard across the lengthy AHL regular season. No player has been in Knoblauch’s more lineup than Ronning, who has dressed for 59 of the club’s 62 contests this season. He is also the longest-tenured Hartford player, dating back to his 12-game audition with the Wolf Pack at the end of the 2016-17 season. Ranking third in team scoring with 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists), all bests in his pro career, the 2016 seventh-round pick by the Rangers continues to establish himself as a high-end player at the AHL level and keep himself in the conversation for future NHL work.
Ronning’s two-goal night was a highlight of the Wolf Pack’s 8-5 loss to Syracuse on Saturday. On his first tally, he used leading scorer Anthony Greco as a decoy to snap a right-circle shot through Crunch goaltender Amir Miftakhov’s pads. Then in the second period with the Wolf Pack down two goals, Ronning slipped loose from the left boards, took Alex Whelan’s feed, and ripped an off-wing shot from the right circle over Miftakhov’s left glove.
He looked every bit the player trying to carry his team to the postseason and boost a club that needed it.
For all the recent difficulty, the Wolf Pack have good reason for optimism. Hartford started 12-3-2-0, a good cushion for any team for when inevitable downturns do arrive during the grind of the AHL regular season. The Wolf Pack also have shown that they can dig out of slumps, too. After a 3-7-1-2 slide, the Wolf Pack rallied in the second half of January to take five of their next six games and offset some of that damage. Before this most recent difficult stretch, they had gone 4-1-1-0 to make up some additional ground.
“When the season starts,” Ronning said, “early on you’re getting a feel for what’s happening. You’re figuring out chemistry within the guys and the team.”
But Ronning’s tenure means that he is familiar with the level of play around the league continuing to intensify as teams come together and young players grow comfortable with a standard of play much higher than anything they had seen in college or junior play. He can sense it. Now the Wolf Pack, vying for their first postseason trip since 2015, have to make that adjustment to late-season play in this league. With that process come the challenges that an NHL organization wants to see young prospects face ― and the growth that can follow.
“I think we’re getting that experience, and as the season progresses, it gets more intense,” Ronning said. “With it getting more intense, it just leads up and builds up to that playoff.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.