New York Rangers management set an organizational goal for their AHL team to qualify for the 2023 Calder Cup playoffs, and those dreams were realized on Saturday. Two goals by Turner Elson, a go-ahead tally by Libor Hajek, three assists from Bobby Trivigno, and 35 saves from Dylan Garand propelled the Hartford Wolf Pack to a 5-3 road win over the Providence Bruins.
The victory was Hartford’s seventh straight and turned into a playoff-clincher when the Bridgeport Islanders were demolished 8-2 by the last-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins later that evening. Postseason hockey will return to the XL Center for the first time since their run to the Conference Finals in 2015, after being robbed of an opportunity in 2020, when the remainder of the season was scrapped due to the pandemic.
The Wolf Pack (34-25-11, 79 points) still has two games remaining on the regular season schedule which will determine to seed, but the main objective is to prepare for the 23-team tournament, set to begin the week of April 16th-22nd.
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
Like most AHL clubs, the Wolf Pack had to survive a season loaded with roster turnover, whether from an injury, a trade, or a promotion. Hartford hovered around the .500 mark for the majority of the season.
Still, thanks to their success against their state rivals in the Bridgeport Islanders, they remained alive for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot. Given their position in the standings, the front office was confident that this team could end the franchise’s postseason drought with a few additions at the trade deadline.
Also sharing that belief were the New York Rangers, who, in addition to their acquisitions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane bolstering their push for a Stanley Cup, strengthened their young farm team’s playoff chances by trading for minor league veterans Adam Clendenning, Cooper Zech, Anton Blidh, Will Lockwood, and Wyatt Kalynuk during deadline week.
In recent weeks, GM Chris Drury kicked things into overdrive as he sent Brett Berard, Adam Sykora, Adam Edstrom, and Bryce McConnell-Barker to Hartford following the conclusion of their regular league seasons.
The transactions acquired via trade were promptly followed by a 9-0 thumping at Bridgeport on March 4th, representing the most significant margin of victory in franchise history. The triumph kickstarted a five-game winning streak against the Islanders to secure the season series 7-5, ultimately serving as the primary reason for Hartford moving and the Islanders going home.
Winning games against other clubs down the stretch helped too, as a 5-1 victory at the WBS Penguins on March 26th kickstarted the Wolf Pack’s current seven-game winning streak, which also included the last two over Bridgeport, an overtime victory against the North Division-leading Toronto Marlies, a convincing 5-1 road demolition of the playoff-bound Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Flyers affiliate), in a game showcased on NHL Network, and two over the second-seeded Providence Bruins.
The team has been led in scoring by captain Jonny Brodzinski and all-stars Will Cuylle and Zac Jones. Brodzinski, 29, played in 17 games for the Rangers, recording only two points but has starred in 46 AHL games, registering 21 goals and 47 points. Cuylle, 21, who received a four-game stint with the Rangers in February, leads the team in tallies with 25 goals to go along with 44 points in 67 games. Meanwhile, Jones, 22, who played in 16 NHL games this season, has recorded 31 points in 52 Wolf Pack games.
Of the trade acquisitions, Blidh, 27, acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Gustav Rydahl, has 11 points in 15 games since putting on his Hartford sweater. Lockwood, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in the Vitali Kravtsov deal, has 12 points in 15 contests.
Meanwhile, although technically not a trade acquisition, the Wild Pack were fortunate no NHL team claimed Jake Leschyshyn, when the Blueshirts placed him on waivers in late February, as his five goals and 15 points in the last 18 games have proven instrumental to the team’s success.
Defensively, Kalynuk, acquired for cash considerations, and Zech, acquired in the Kane trade, each has 2 points in 13 games. In contrast, Clendening, who played for the Rangers in 2017, has 8 points in 18 games since coming from the Rockford IceHogs(Chicago Blackhawks affiliate) on February 28th for fellow minor leaguer Zach Jordan.
Between the pipes, Louis Dominque, is 11th in the AHL in wins(21) and GAA(2.57), while rookie Dylan Garand has served well in the backup role, with his 3.07 GAA ranking 10th among his fellow freshman.
HARTFORD 5 PROVIDENCE 3:
Spearheaded by head coach Kris Knoblauch, Hartford had been building to this day with their recent play.
A mere 2:42 into the game, Turner Elson scored his 14th of the season.
The Bruins would tie it when Josiah Didier’s points shot beat Dylan Garand at 6:31 before rookie Luke Toporowski put them ahead at 10:54 with a top-shelf snipe.
But late in the first, Elson found the puck at the top of the crease and scored to square the score after one.
Hartford would regain the lead in the second period when Tim Gettinger pounced on a rebound created by a Bobby Trivigno chance. Gettinger tried the wraparound but was denied. However, the rebound came to Ryan Carpenter, whose tally put the Wolf Pack in front 3-2.
Seeking insurance, Libor Hajek rifled one home from the left dot at 2:21 of the third period to make it 4-2. Another Didier blast made it a 4-3 game, but Tanner Fritz hit the empty net at 19:34 to seal the deal.
It was Fritz’s 10th of the season and 43rd point, a career-high for the Center.
Fans can watch the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs for free on AHLTV.com.
On Monday morning, it was announced Rangers GM Chris Drury had assigned goaltender Talyn Boyko to the Wolf Pack.
Boyko, selected by the Blueshirts in the fourth round, 121 overall, of the 2021 draft, just wrapped up his season as the backup netminder for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, who were swept by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the first round of the playoffs. In 40 games, the 20-year-old posted a 13-24-1 record with a save percentage of .898 and a GAA of 3.55 and didn’t receive any playoff action.