Wolf Pack on upswing heading into series with Bears

Photo: John Mrakovcich

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

The Hartford Wolf Pack will openly admit it. Things got very dicey.

It was unpleasant.

It forced some difficult conversations.

One win in 14 games, including four shutout losses.

A 1-10-1-2 slide from Mar. 9 to Apr. 7 threatened to derail what had been a promising season, one which had seen them start 15-4-3-0. At a time when they could have been fine-tuning for a run in the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Wolf Pack instead found themselves scrambling just to secure an invitation to the postseason at all.

“It was real tough coming to the rink,” goaltender Dylan Garand acknowledged. “Just the mood around was tough. The coaching staff sent a message that we needed to raise our standards. We were going to get into playoff mode now. We started battling harder in practice, the intensity was just up, and I think that helped us get out of it.

“It’s a lot of frustration. Everyone’s kind of searching for answers. We’re all working hard. Things were just not going our way. It was tough, but we have a really good leadership group. Our coaching staff did a really good job of sticking with it.”

Like so many teams, the Wolf Pack had to deal with injuries and NHL recalls hitting their roster as the season moved along. But even when their roster started to stabilize, the struggles persisted.

“To tell you the truth, we kind of lost our way for a little bit thinking that it was going to be easy,” interim head coach Steve Smith said. “We learned pretty quickly that this is a great league. It’s a really difficult league to win, and it took us a while to get back on track again.”

After winning four of their last five games in the regular season, Hartford spotted Charlotte a 1-0 series lead in the first round before fighting off elimination twice on the road. And in the division semifinals against Providence, the Wolf Pack bounced back from a 6-0 thumping in Game 2 to take the series with back-to-back overtime victories.

While 24 other AHL teams have gone home for the season, the Wolf Pack still are playing, opening the division finals against Hershey tonight at Giant Center.

“We’re feeling confident about ourselves,” said Smith, a three-time Stanley Cup winner who took over the Hartford bench in November after Kris Knoblauch was hired by the Edmonton Oilers. “We’ve tried to stay in the course.”

Hershey swept Hartford in this same round last spring on their way to the Calder Cup championship. This season, the league-leading Bears finished 33 points better than the Wolf Pack in the Atlantic Division.

“We know there’s a huge challenge in front of us,” Smith acknowledged.

But this is a loose, excited group led by the 61-year-old Smith, who is getting his first chance to run a bench after being an assistant in the NHL with Calgary, Edmonton, Carolina and Buffalo before joining the Wolf Pack in 2021.

So where was the turning point?

Maybe their home game Apr. 12 made a more significant difference than anyone had realized at the time. That night, Hartford officially clinched a playoff berth with a 5-3 win over Springfield, iced by a goalie goal from Louis Domingue. It was their first win at the XL Center in more than a month. It also ended a six-game winless streak in which they had scored a total of five goals, and helped to send the Wolf Pack toward the postseason with some confidence.

Maybe it was the sheer desperation of their situation, but as the losses accumulated, the standings pressure built around the Wolf Pack. They either had to manage that pressure or see their season crumble around them. Rookie forward Brennan Othmann points toward Smith’s work in keeping the club’s mood in a good place.

“He’s a super good guy,” Othmann said. “When the time is there to be hard on us, he is. You can tell that he expects a lot of us, and at the same time he likes to have fun. He knows, right? He played a long time. He’s got a few Stanley Cups. He knows what it’s like. He knows how long the year is.

“He’s still one of the guys, almost, and I think that’s great. But at the same time he can also dial it in as a coach, and I think he’s been doing a great job since he’s taken over.”

A Smith-coached club looks a lot like how he played during his 15 NHL seasons: straight-ahead, direct, and no-frills. It’s tailored to Calder Cup Playoff hockey.

“As coaches,” Smith said, “we’re trying to try to convince them night in and night out when you have a play, make it. When you don’t, let’s move it forward, and move north.”

And there is Garand in net. The second-year pro, a fourth-round selection by the Rangers in the 2020 NHL Draft, owns a 5-2 record to go with his 2.32 goals-against average and .931 save percentage this postseason. With Domingue remaining on recall in New York as they go through their own playoff journey, the crease fully belongs to Garand.

And so here the Wolf Pack find themselves in Hershey. It’s their toughest task yet. But they’ve been put through the grind, and they’ve come through it so far.

“The hardest work is ahead,” Garand said, “and each game it gets harder and harder. It’ll be fun.”