Tuesday buzz: Wolf Pack loading up to end drought

📝 by Patrick Williams

The message from Madison Square Garden came through loud and clear for the Hartford Wolf Pack last week.

Hartford has not qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs since making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. The Rangers made it clear that they want the Wolf Pack back in the postseason where their prospects can gain valuable high-pressure experience.

To buttress the Hartford roster, Rangers management acquired forwards Anton Blidh (Colorado) and Will Lockwood (Vancouver) along with defensemen Wyatt Kalynuk (Vancouver) and Cooper Zech (Chicago) in separate deals leading up to last Friday’s National Hockey League trade deadline. Hartford also brought in Adam Clendening from Rockford in an AHL deal, and Jake Leschyshyn arrived on loan from the Rangers after being acquired off waivers from Vegas in January.

The Rangers also hung on to veteran forward Ryan Carpenter, who has amassed 15 goals and 30 points in 34 games with Hartford.

“It’s an organization that is really pushing to win championships at both ends,” Wolf Pack captain Jonny Brodzinski said Tuesday. “They’re giving us all the assets that we need to win. It’s up to us now.”

Look up and down the Hartford roster, and it is a strong group capable of making a stretch-drive run. And if the Rangers decide to tinker more with the Wolf Pack, they have until the AHL trade/loan deadline this Friday at 3 p.m. ET.

“Right now we’re a really hard, deep team to play against,” Brodzinski continued. “Every line has skill, and every line has a guy who can get in on the forecheck and bang some bodies. I just think we’re a very well-rounded team right now.”

With some of those deals barely finished, Hartford went out and picked up a point in a 1-0 shootout loss last Friday in Springfield, and then routed Bridgeport on Saturday night, 9-0. Even after Sunday’s loss to Charlotte, the Pack remain in the thick of the Atlantic Division playoff race, tied with the Islanders for the sixth and final postseason spot thanks to a 5-1-0-1 mark in their last seven games.

Helping to welcome these new faces has been Brodzinski, Hartford’s second-year captain.

“I think it’s a very easy locker room to get acclimated to,” Brodzinski explained. “I try to keep it loose around the rink and on the ice whether you’re winning or losing, so everybody enjoys coming to the rink and has fun.”

Certainly the road will not get any easier for the Wolf Pack. They visit Springfield on Wednesday before making stops at Rochester on Friday and Toronto on Saturday afternoon.

As a rookie in 2016, Brodzinski experienced the Ontario Reign’s run to the Western Conference Finals. Last year, he made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut with the Rangers on their way to the NHL’s Eastern Conference Final.

He is ready for a run this spring with the Wolf Pack.

“It’s something that I really want to do, and I’ve wanted to do my whole career: make a deep playoff push and help these young guys get the experience that they need to make that next jump and be productive at the next level,” Brodzinski said.

“I think we’ve got the team right now that’s good enough to do it, so it’s an exciting time. We’re going to be a tough team to play against.”

A top NCAA free agent is on his way to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

Will Zmolek agreed to a one-year entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, one that goes into effect next season. In the meantime, the 23-year-old defenseman will report to the Phantoms, who are in a playoff race of their own.

Zmolek had 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 36 games for Bemidji State in wrapping up his fourth season with the program. His father, Doug, played 467 games over eight NHL seasons from 1992 to 2000.

Lehigh Valley has climbed into fourth place in the Atlantic Division but is just four points clear of Hartford and Bridgeport, who are tied for the final playoff position. The Phantoms are off until Friday, when they start a three-in-three weekend with a trip to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The Springfield Thunderbirds are getting help on the blue line as well. Bowling Green defenseman Anton Malmstrom signed a two-year entry-level contract with the parent St. Louis Blues and will head to Springfield.

The 22-year-old Malmstrom, who spent three seasons at Bowling Green, had six points (three goals, three assists) in 33 games for the club this season.