Wolf Pack continuing hot streak in postseason

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Hartford Wolf Pack have seen a few things in the past two months.

First came a significant roster overhaul at the National Hockey League trade deadline, with the parent New York Rangers and Wolf Pack general manager Ryan Martin seeking to end Hartford’s eight-year absence from the Calder Cup Playoffs.

In came Anton Blidh and Will Lockwood in a pair of deals to solidify the Wolf Pack up front. Adam Clendening and Wyatt Kalynuk arrived to fortify the Wolf Pack blue line. Forward Jake Leschyshyn came down from New York.

But Hartford started March with just one win in its first six games, and sat three points behind Bridgeport for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division heading into a meeting with the Islanders on Mar. 15.

Was this the start of a repeat of the Wolf Pack’s 2021-22 downfall? That club looked like a solid bet for a postseason trip in mid-March, only to lose 17 of 20 and miss the playoffs by a single point.

No. This Hartford team pulled itself together and rallied. Down 3-1 to the Islanders, the Wolf Pack put together a four-goal third period and took a 7-5 decision. Do-everything captain Jonny Brodzinski keyed that comeback with a three-point night.

The Wolf Pack were on their way, and would go on to win 11 of their final 14 games — including four victories over rival Bridgeport to effectively knock the Isles out of the playoff picture — to clinch a playoff spot on Apr. 8.

But even then the drama continued. After a 4-0 win against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in their home finale April 14, the Wolf Pack roster took a hit. Brodzinski, Leschyshyn, goaltender Louis Domingue and defenseman Libor Hajek were summoned to New York as extras for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Hartford’s regular season ended with a 1-0 loss in Springfield on Apr. 15, and the Wolf Pack were back at the MassMutual Center four nights later to open a best-of-three first-round series with a Thunderbirds team that had taken nine of 12 meetings in the regular season. Springfield netminder Joel Hofer, a Second Team AHL All-Star, had shut out the Wolf Pack in each of his previous three starts against them.

Then something happened: The Wolf Pack got to Hofer. Lauri Pajuniemi dented him just 3:37 into the series.

“Hofer, we could never get to him,” said Wolf Pack forward Tanner Fritz, who served up three assists in Game 1, a 6-1 Hartford victory. “Then [that] first game we scored, and everything kind of started clicking for us.”

Surely it seemed that the Thunderbirds would come with a full-on strike at XL Center two nights later. Instead the Wolf Pack attacked first and buried Springfield under three goals in the opening 12:03. They didn’t let up either, eventually ending Springfield’s season with a 7-1 victory.

“I think we surprised a lot of people,” said Fritz. “[This] was a good opportunity for some other players to step up. In those two games, everyone played well. Everyone kind of chipped in and contributed.

“Once we kind of found our stride together, we haven’t really looked back.”

With the division champion Providence Bruins up next, the Wolf Pack made the short bus trip to Rhode Island a day early, leaving Thursday to allow for plenty of time together leading into last night’s Game 1 at Amica Mutual Pavilion. The result was a stifling 1-0 victory that gave Hartford the early series lead with Game 2 on tap for this evening.

It was the Wolf Pack’s 11th win in their last 12 games — a stretch in which they have outscored the opposition 50-12.

With Domingue still in New York, Dylan Garand has done his part, stopping 57 of 59 shots in his three playoff starts (3-0, 0.67, .966).

“The way Dylan stepped up and played for us, that was huge for our team,” Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch said.

“On defense, [Zac] Jones, [Ty] Emberson, [Brandon] Scanlin, I think really elevated their play. There are three highly regarded prospects within the Rangers organization that we needed to step up, and they certainly did. Up front, Pajuniemi [had] a heck of a series finding chemistry with Blidh and Fritz. Karl Henriksson, who was a fourth-line guy playing minor minutes throughout the season, really has been relied on heavily.”

Fritz has been Hartford’s top scorer with six playoff points so far.

“You hope the Rangers go all the way, but you obviously [would like] those guys back,” he acknowledged. “But I think we’re going to have guys here keep stepping up and doing some good things against Providence.”

Said Emberson, “Everyone in our locker room — even if they’re not playing, I think everyone has confidence in themselves. When your number is called, you’re ready to go.”

The series with Providence unites two long-time rivals in their sixth postseason meeting, a history that includes one of the most memorable playoff series in AHL history. Facing the defending Calder Cup champion Bruins in the 2000 Eastern Conference finals, the Wolf Pack prevailed with a Game 7 overtime victory en route to a championship of their own.

Now the Wolf Pack are attempting to make new memories. Hartford hockey fans have noticed, and the Wolf Pack notched some of their best home turnouts of the season during the push to the postseason.

“There’s some excitement in the air right now that the Wolf Pack are back in the playoffs, and when we head to the rink we like to feed off that energy,” Fritz said.

Maybe another Wolf Pack run can keep that energy going inside XL Center.

“With the confidence that we have in our room,” Fritz said, “we believe that we can beat anyone right now. We’re just trying to ride the wave as long as possible.”