📝 by Alex Thomas | AHL On The Beat
For every action, there is a reaction.
When it was announced in late December that taxi squads would be making a return until the NHL’s All-Star break, there was uncertainty throughout the American Hockey League as to what teams would look like. Which players would get recalled to their NHL affiliate?
For the Hartford Wolf Pack, the transactions were at times dizzying. Nearing triple digits, the Wolf Pack saw players come and go at a rapid rate. Among those leaving for stretches were Jonny Brodzinski, the club’s captain and leading goal and point producer; Anthony Greco, the club’s second leading scorer; Lauri Pajuniemi, the club’s rookie goal-scoring leader; and Tim Gettinger, a constant top-six presence.
While the headline grabber may have been the production missing from the lineup, the real intriguing story is about the ones who remained in Hartford. It’s about the players who received opportunity that perhaps was unexpected. It’s about players like Austin Rueschhoff, players who stepped up in a major way and put themselves on the map over the course of the last month and a half.
“Losing your top guys always brings a team to that next-man-up mentality,” Rueschhoff said. “I feel it was a good opportunity for me to play more minutes. I felt ready for that opportunity. I feel things fell into place and the team as a whole stepped up with guys gone.”
Feeling it’s a good opportunity is one thing. Acting on it and producing is an entirely different thing. Not only did Rueschhoff talk the talk, but he also walked the walked. Since returning from the Christmas holiday break, Rueschhoff has scored eight goals and four assists. That includes a career-high four-game goal scoring streak during the month of January.
It’s not just the offense for the 6-foot-7 forward, either. Rueschhoff has been a menace on the forecheck since getting an increased role and has forced head coach Kris Knoblauch to keep him in the lineup on a nightly basis even with players like Brodzinski, Gettinger, Greco, Pajuniemi and Morgan Barron returning from New York.
“I think just working on small things in practice such as net front, getting a shot off quick, and just playing my game,” Rueschhoff said when asked about what has made things click as of late. “I think what has clicked for me is just things falling into place, getting opportunity with the taxi squad and a newfound confidence in my game.”
The taxi squad isn’t the only thing that has made this 2021-22 season unique. For the first time in his professional career, Rueschhoff is playing in front of fans. He’s playing for a chance to lead the Wolf Pack back to the postseason, and he’s making those road trips that bring teams together for the first time. After a shortened season with only two opponents, no playoffs, and no fans, it almost feels like his rookie season, not his second.
“I would agree this feels like my rookie year,” Rueschhoff remarked. “So far it has been totally different from last year. Games are just more intense with fans in the building and a playoff push going on. There definitely is more of a grind with the road trips, more practices, and more games closer together.”
That adjustment to life in pro hockey, and the adjustment of playing a bigger role on the fly due to the taxi squad, has made this season one of a kind for not just Rueschhoff, but the Wolf Pack as a whole. Adversity is a positive, though, and at the end of the day Hartford entered this weekend as the top club in the Atlantic Division. In fact, it was the first time since the 2008-09 season that the Wolf Pack started the second half on top of their division.
With players like Rueschhoff having played bigger roles and having stepped up in the team’s moment of need, an interesting side effect has cropped up. The Wolf Pack appear to be a deeper, more well-rounded team than the one that started the season. There are no easy shifts against this group.
Take, for example, Mike O’Leary. The strong two-way pivot has found his offensive game over the last month and a half, scoring four goals and four assists in 14 games. Defenseman Matthew Robertson has arguably played the best hockey of his rookie season in this stretch as well. Two more young players who have made strides in Hartford’s time of need.
“I believe our team is very deep,” Rueschhoff proclaimed. “Having our top guys back is always a plus but having all the guys that stayed here play a more elevated role has given everyone confidence in their games and it has shown over the past few weeks. I think this will favor well for us going forward for the rest of the season and into playoffs.”
The playoffs, a place the Wolf Pack haven’t been since 2015, doesn’t feel so far away anymore. With a confident group building on more responsibility and experience, anything is possible in the Connecticut capital this spring.