Wolf Pack clicking in season’s early going

Photo: WBS Penguins

📝 by Patrick Williams

Hartford Wolf Pack forward P.C. Labrie has lived what it takes for an American Hockey League roster to grow early in the season, become a second-half force, and then make a Calder Cup run.

Want proof? Labrie’s name engraved on the Calder Cup.

That the veteran forward believes that the Wolf Pack could be a team that plays deep into the spring means something. Labrie, after all, won the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals, a team very much in the conversation for the greatest single-season performance in AHL history. That season’s Norfolk club set an AHL record with 28 consecutive wins to close out the regular season before they ripped through the postseason with only three losses, including sweeping the final two rounds.

“I have a little bit of the feeling, the same kind of chemistry between the young guys and the veterans, I think,” Labrie explained. “And same for the coaching staff.

“It’s a good team all around. We’re well balanced. And in the pipes, honestly, I wouldn’t be scared to say that we have the best goalies in the league. I think it’s a good combo [of] rookies and veterans. Right now we’re having a lot of fun, and it’s clicking.”

They are clicking, especially following a pair of emotional home wins last week against Atlantic Division rivals at XL Center. Signed to provide leadership in Hartford, Labrie has been right in the middle of those wins for the 11-3-2-0 Wolf Pack, whose .750 points percentage ranks third in the Eastern Conference.

Labrie’s Norfolk club featured plenty of personalities and emotion, ingredients that took a team that was 27-18-1-2 in early February of that season and propelled it to a championship four months later. A winning American Hockey League club requires any number of personalities. Emotion and stoicism are two such key components that can become a potent combination, and the Hartford Wolf Pack have those ingredients.

Head coach Kris Knoblauch’s unflappable personality has found chemistry with his hungry, eager-to-learn roster to pose a challenging combination for AHL opponents this season. Labrie brings a gregarious personality. Second-year defenseman Zach Giuttari contributes his confidence. And though the Wolf Pack have had their share of rocky moments, they are still finding ways to sock away early-season points to set themselves up well later in the season. Last Wednesday night, the Wolf Pack endured a shaky first period against their in-state rival, the Bridgeport Islanders. Outshot 17-9 in the first period, Hartford trailed 3-1 at the first intermission.

Then the Wolf Pack got down to work, scoring three second-period goals as they limited Bridgeport to 17 shots in the final 40 minutes of play to take a 4-3 win.

“There was disappointment in the first period,” Knoblauch said. “They didn’t like the results, and they came and played really hard.”

Two nights later on the road against the Providence Bruins, Ty Ronning’s third-period goal pulled the Wolf Pack into overtime to allow them to take a point in 2-1 defeat.

And Saturday night back in Hartford, the Wolf Pack ran over the Hershey Bears to make it a winning week. Down 3-2 after coughing up a two-goal lead, Hartford rocked the visitors with five goals in the third period, Labrie’s insurance goal sending the Wolf Pack on their way to a 7-3 victory. Labrie’s three-point night – his first since a hat trick with the Rockford IceHogs on March 8, 2016 – earned him second-star honors.

“We’ve had [some] slow starts this year, and we’ve been able to come back in most of them,” said Giuttari, whose assist on Alex Whelan’s goal started Wednesday’s comeback against Bridgeport. “You don’t always want to start from behind, obviously, but knowing we have the firepower, we have the defensemen to put the puck up and join in, and we have the forwards to put the puck in the net, it’s always good seeing that work.”

Like any young AHL team, there are early-season points of emphasis, and the Wolf Pack certainly have their ongoing projects. That is where the goaltending duo of UConn product Adam Huska (2-2-1, 1.81, .938) and the fiery Keith Kinkaid (8-1-1, 2.55, .918), who has appeared in 166 NHL regular-season contests, becomes a major factor.

Some moments call for Kinkaid’s fire, like when he gloved a Hershey shot for a whistle before rather animatedly tossing the puck aside to grab his teammates’ attention. Or Tanner Fritz’s self-sacrifice with two blocked shots on a single shift when the Bears had Hartford under heavy pressure. The Wolf Pack knew that they were letting down Kinkaid.

“We faced the mirror,” Labrie said, “and we’re just like, ‘Right here this guy is building a wall, one save at a time.’”

Photo: Kelly Shea

Other times, Knoblauch’s calm serves the Wolf Pack well. When those bad periods have hit the Wolf Pack, Knoblauch’s steadiness has come through.

“He knows we didn’t play well,” Giuttari said. “We know we didn’t play well. But he is a very calm, cool, and collected guy. He tells us what needs to be done. No real yelling and screaming.

“He just tells us what to do, and we just go out there and do it.”

Said Labrie, “I feel like the work that’s being put behind the scenes is smart work. We’re not trying to do too much during the week. I think we’re really working smart, and we’re putting our energy where we really need to improve our game.”

How so?

“So, traffic in front of the net,” Labrie explained. “Coach always takes us one-on-one, just tipping pucks in front of the net. We all get our five to 10 minutes in front of the net with all the D, and we make sure we’re doing it the right way, straining the eyes of the goalie, and little details like that. We worked every day during the week, and it shows up every night, and it’s just those little details that we’ve got to keep bringing.”

“We’ve been down numerous times… there’s no quit,” Knoblauch said. “There’s no frustration with these guys.

“The veterans’ leadership is outstanding. The young guys, they’re very respectful. They’re hard-working. They want to get better. They really respect the older guys, the way they play, and what they have to say. We’ve got a great team dynamic.”

One of those veterans is Labrie, who has eight points (two goals, six assists) through 15 games. That season in Norfolk, Labrie played a key role as a 25-year-old crash-and-bang checker for a team stocked with future NHL players including Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik and Radko Gudas. He also made his NHL debut with Tampa Bay that season, collecting two assists in 14 games.

Ten years later, Labrie is playing a similar role on a Hartford club featuring young New York Rangers prospects like Morgan Barron, Lauri Pajuniemi, Zac Jones and Braden Schneider.

“P.C. has brought a lot, probably a lot more than we expected,” Knoblauch began. “So that’s been a nice surprise for us. But [he is] probably one of the most popular guys in the dressing room. So many guys just respect and love the way he plays. He provides so much energy.

“He’s focused, he knows when his shift’s up. But also sitting there, a lot of guys kind of get out of the game, but he stays in. He’s encouraging his teammates to stay with it. His linemates, whoever he’s playing with, he’s making sure they’re ready for their shift up. He’s another coach.”

Off until opening a home-and-home set with division-leading Springfield on Friday, the Wolf Pack have another week of practice ahead. They also have those two come-from-behind wins, the type of efforts that can send a team on its way.

“It can say a lot about your team,” Knoblauch said of falling behind. “[Those] circumstances, a lot of teams would quit or not try as hard as they ought to. I’ve found with our team there was none of that.”