BY: Gerry Cantlon, Howlings
HARTFORD, CT – Ten games into the 2016-2017 season it shouldn’t talk should not be a critical three-in-three weekend, but for this Hartford Wolf Pack roster, wins and points are a requirement.
The team bus departed the XL Center heading North up I-90 for a pair of weekend games in upstate New York. The first comes Friday night against the Rochester Americans followed on Saturday night with a contest against the Utica Comets before the team returns to Hartford for a 5pm Sunday tilt with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
With a 3-6-1-0 record (7 pts.), the Wolf Pack has the fourth worst record in the AHL. The New York Rangers top AHL affiliates have lost five in a row with only Utica, the Cleveland Barons, and the San Diego Gulls below them in the AHL standings.
“We have been stressing that we don’t want things to take on a life of their own and put us in a position where our uphill climb is even greater,” Head Coach Ken Gernander said. “So certainly we have to have a good weekend.”
As one of the team’s veterans, Chris Summers, and a few others on the roster, are aware that lost points early in the season can come back to haunt them at the end of the season like last year in their late season playoff blitz that fell short.
“Points are always important,” Summers said. “We learned that last year because it would have been nice to have those points at the end of the season. Points matter and we can’t look too far ahead, just take care of this weekend. We just need to come together as a group and find our groove at this point.”
The team’s powerplay has been in a word, atrocious. The PP has floundered at the 20th spot in the league at a meager ten percent level.
“You have to outwork your opponents and create energy off (the power-play),” Gernander said. “You’re not always gonna score, but if you outwork your opponent maybe the shift or two after (a powerplay) you set up some chances,”.
The penalty kill, which has been making too many appearances, especially in key stretches of games, isn’t faring any better. They are ranked 26th of the 30 AHL teams with a success rate of 74.4%
One area that was supposed to be a bright spot, but has become of clear concern is the team’s goaltending. The Pack is 29th in goals against at 4.40, only San Diego is lower in 30th. The Pack has dispatched Mackenzie Skapski to their ECHL affiliates, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and recalled rookie, Brandon Halverson.
“We could use some saves early on,” Gernander said with a raised eyebrow. His expression indicated the extent of the team’s struggles that emanate from this portion of their game, “We let our opponents establish good play and leads, and it’s easier to play with a lead, right?”
Skapski, for the second year in a row, gets demoted to Greenville. The difference this time is that it’s not because he was recovering from an injury, but a cumulative result in sub-par play. That poor play peaked in a rough game for Skapski in Providence against the Bruins. There, Skapski was beaten high three times with the last one coming off the stick of Jake DeBrusk, the son of ex-Wolf Pack, Louie DeBrusk. Skapski could have gone for a puck well ahead of DeBrusk, but instead sat back in his net and was beaten over his right shoulder.
“He has to go to Greenville and find his game,” Gernander said. “We recalled (rookie Brandon) Halverson. He went there and put up some good numbers (3-1-0 and 1.70 GAA) and did everything we asked of him.”
For Skapski, who was a bright star two years ago, the question now, is this a confidence or a decision-making issue at this point?
“As a coach, I can’t give you confidence,” Gernander said reflectively. “You can go in, work hard, play well, be prepared, and win all the little battles, and all those little successes, they lead to confidence. As far as somebody reaching down in your pocket for confidence, you gotta do the work.”
The starting goalie would likely be Magnus Hellberg, but Gernander was non-commital and sounded a warning shot across the cage.
“Don’t assume, that could be Halverson who plays (Friday).”
The team’s scoring has also been less than sterling. The team’s defensive play has been questionable at best. The Pack has, thus far, been outscored in the first period, 17-7 and in the third period 14-9. They have had the lead just three times.
“We had four good days here of (working on) backtracking, defensive zone coverage and trying to get us moving forward as five-man units,” Gernander remarked.
The question arises, are Gernander’s troops trying to do too much?
“No, there not trying to do too much, they’re doing too little. If you’re just getting to the blue line, you’re not getting back. You’re trying to get more benefit with less (effort). If there was a shorter, easier way to do things, a coach much smarter than I am would have figured it out by now and everybody would be doing it. You gotta get back, work a little harder, Wanna play offense gotta play defense first,” Gernander said with a heavy helping of sarcasm.
Gernander clearly knew that faceoffs and the team’s struggles all over the ice have hurt them. “Everyday we show the stats and show videos about it. Faceoffs lead to puck possession and it gives us a chance at offense. Everything has been on the board (for them to see).”
Perhaps the poor start can be attributed to an unusually high roster turnover. Summers knows it’s tough to lose players from the locker room, but he’s also aware of the business side of this game.
“It’s battle and competition here and in this league. Guys can be replaced. We have to expect it when you don’t get the results we’re looking for. It’s necessary…well more unfortunate that it happens. Dylan (McIlrath), Calle (Andersson) or Skapski are great guys. You miss them. We have to do better, that’s all.”
Summers and Chris Brown welcome another alumnist of their growing University of Michigan “mafia” as defenseman Steven Kampfer, acquired for the fan-favorite and former first-round pick, Dylan McIlrath, in a mid-week trade with the Florida Panthers.
“I played with (Kampfer) in my four years at Michigan and he clearly brings some experience here. He has won at both levels playing significant games at the NHL and AHL level and brings some offensive talent here and he’s a very good team guy.”
Hopefully, the injection of some fresh blood revitalizes the Pack and they can get onto the path of more victories.
Gernander addressed Andersson’s departure. The defenseman headed back to Sweden after his contract as brought out after being put on unconditional waivers. “We wanted to send him to Greenville to get a lot of opportunity and ice time and help his overall game he didn’t see it that way.”
Andersson has not signed with a European team as of yet.
One player who the Pack won’t see in Rochester is UConn grad, Cole Schneider. Currently, Schneider is top scorer in the AHL with 15 points in 10 games. Schneider was recalled by the Buffalo Sabres.
Utica lost its leading scorer Michael Chaput early in the week to recall by the Vancouver Canucks.
Jordan Samuels Thomas, a former Quinnipiac Bobcat and Hartford Jr. Wolf Pack player from West Hartford, who has already been with two ECHL teams, the Utah Grizzles (4-3-3-6) and the Florida Everblades (5-0-2-2), has signed a PTO deal with San Diego.
Ex-Pack Alex Krushnelyski was recalled by the Binghamton Senators from Utah (ECHL)
Ex-Sound Tiger Bryce Aneloski was recalled from the Missouri Mavericks (ECHL) by the Bakersfield Condors.
Former Sound Tiger Taylor Beck (Bakersfield) was named AHL Player of the Week.