The New York Rangers have an organizational goal for the Hartford Wolf Pack to snap their eight-year playoff drought this season and displayed their commitment by handling the trade deadline for them, as in addition to their big stars for the parent team, lured veteran depth players, to aid their minor league affiliates playoff push.
Following the AHL’s playoff expansion to 23 teams, including six spots awarded to the Wolf Pack’s Atlantic Division, there’s no solace any GM can take in failing to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs, and Chris Drury is no exception. Regarding Hartford, they’ve been good enough to remain in the race throughout the campaign and control their destiny.
However, before the deadline, they struggled to maintain their ground with their rivals in the Bridgeport Islanders(NYI), who they’re battling for that coveted spot. Yet since the deadline, the Wolf Pack have flipped the script, and three consecutive “Battle of Connecticut” wins later, they find themselves on the doorstep of history with 11 games remaining.
The first signs of a change in the landscape came in the rivals’ March 4th tilt, the first for Hartford since the Rangers acquired Anton Blidh from the Colorado Avalanche and Wyatt Kalynuk from the Canucks outrighted them to the AHL while saying goodbye to Gustav Rydahl.
Playing with renewed energy, the Wolf Pack struck five times in the second period, and Dylan Garad made 11 saves en route to a 9-0 road thumping, the most significant victory by either of the two teams in the rivalry’s history, which pulled Hartford even with Bridgeport in the standings.
Captain Johnny Brodzinksi scored twice with two assists, while Ryan Carpenter scored twice, Tim Gettinger had a season-high four points(1 goal, three assists), and Will Cuylle earned second star of the game honors with a goal and two assists.
Though, the moment of the night came from Jake Leschyshyn, who, in his Wolf Pack debut after not being claimed by anyone on NHL waivers, announced himself with a tally of his own in addition to his assist. Overall, it was a picture-perfect evening with the Wolf Pack going 3/4 on the man advantage.
Eleven days later, with Bridgeport leading by three points in the standings after Hartford struggled against the upper-class of the Atlantic and the rest of the AHL, the teams met again on Wednesday, this time at XL energy center in front of a raucous Wolfpack crowd, who previously set a season-high in attendance with 7,808 attending a 6-3 March 5th loss to the Charlotte Checkers, the Florida Panthers AHL affiliate.
The contest had the look and feel of two clubs playing desperate hockey, as both lit the lamp within three minutes after the opening puck drop as part of a five-goal first period, which would see Bridgeport take a 3-2 lead into the intermission, which they would make a stand up for a 4-3 advantage heading into the third period.
An early goal by Carpenter, 1:39 into the frame, tied things for a third time and kickstarted a four-goal barrage by the Wolf Pack, with Gettinger, Brodzinski, and Tanner Fritz(Empty-net) all finding the net to give Hartford a 7-4 cushion before they held off a late Islanders push for a 7-5 victory.
Also, helping matters was the play of Will Lockwood, who the Rangers acquired from Vancouver for Vitali Kravtsov last month, as the 24-year-old registered three assists and has four points in his first six games sporting his new threads. The win gave the Wolf Pack a 7-3 lead in the 12-game season series, clinching the tiebreaker should the two teams finish with identical points.
Yet the momentum was short-lived as on Friday, Hartford fell 4-2 to the fifth-seeded Springfield Thunderbirds(ST Louis), and Bridgeport defeated the Syracuse Crunch(TB) 5-2, restoring their three-point advantage, with an opportunity virtually land the knockout punch if they could defend home ice against the Wolf Pack.
As they did Wednesday, the Islanders scored first when Cole Bardreau fired a puck from the left-wing faceoff circle that whistled Louis Domingue by the blocker 58 seconds into the game, sending Bridgeport into a frenzy.
At the same time, Hartford’s shoulders sagged after letting up their fastest road goal of the season. Sensing his team required a spark, captain Brodzinski encouraged his teammates before leading by example, as the 29-year-old scored 29 seconds into the second period to tie it.
Then at the 7:54 mark, Carpenter deposited his 17th of the season off a feed from Gettinger; Bronzinki showed off his speed, going top shelf on a partial breakaway for a 3-1 Wolf Pack lead. Although the Islanders drew closer with a strike from Ruslan Iskakov 1:58 into the third period, they couldn’t get the equalizer past Louis Dominique, who made 21 saves on 23 shots in a 3-2 Hartford victory.
With 61 games played and 11 to go, Kris Knoblauch’s crew are 25-24-4-7(Shootout losses), and have 63 points, one behind the. 28-25-7-1 Islanders, who they’ll host two more times this season. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride, and without the recent generosity of the AHL, it wouldn’t be feasible. Still, the Wolfpack are here and have an opportunity to reward their long-suffering fanbase and a front office yearning for success in the farm with some playoff hockey. It’s safe to say; there’s a lot of heart in Hartford.