The Wolf Pack’s Opening Weekend

By | October 6, 2013

The Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, played their first two games this weekend, garnering 3 out of the 4 available points from the contests. Almost as importantly, the contrasting games showed two different styles of play that the Wolf Pack will likely employ this season. Last night’s game, where Hartford lost 3-2 in a shootout, was gritty–reminiscent of the Connecticut Whale games of the past, with three fights and 22 combine penalties for the two teams. It was somewhat high tempo, but too gritty for the fact that the Wolf Pack have at least two and half lines of high skill players waiting to jump on the ice and do their thing.

The up-tempo and high skill-based game that Hartford won this afternoon (by a score of 4-3), however, was much more of what this team will need to be to succeed this season. And more importantly, it is what the Rangers’ prospects need to develop properly. When you look up and down the lineup, this is no longer a lunch pail crew. However, I believe that there will be differences of opinion here, as Wolf Pack head coach Kenny Gernander said this afternoon that he preferred the way his team played in game one and not in the game this afternoon.

Let’s recap the games tonight and review the play of the Rangers’ prospects that participated in the games.

In game one, the Wolf Pack faced the Norfolk Admirals, Anaheim’s AHL team. The game was pretty even through the first period, with Hartford getting a couple of power plays to start the game and both teams playing a high tempo game. During this time, however, Norfolk’s Zac Stortini proved to be a one-man wrecking crew, as he first took on Michael Haley, who got crushed although he kept coming back for more (tonight his face looked pretty bruised when I saw him without a helmet), and then fought Dylan McIlrath, which wound up a draw. As for offense during the first period, Andrew Yogan rang a puck off the pipe for the Wolf Pack and Chris Krieder did lots of little things right, but there was no scoring.

This changed in the second period, as Hartford’s Danny Kristo gave the puck away in his own zone, which led to a Norfolk goal at 1:15. Steve Whitney picked up the puck in the slot and quickly shot it past Wolf Pack netminder Cam Talbot to put Norfolk up 1-0. Kristo later told me that the puck jumped on him because of bad ice, but it looked absolutely terrible from the press box. Whitney stole another puck a couple of minutes later, but Talbot made an excellent glove save, and the bleeding stopped. What began at that point was a parade to the sin bin. Boarding, hooking, interference, tripping, roughing, slashing–one after another both teams were guilty of bad mistakes. Only about 8 minutes of the period were played at even strength. The penalty killers and Talbot beat back a five on three, and came out of the period unscathed by penalties, until, at almost at the end of the second period (19:48), Yogan took an instigating, fighting, and 10 minute misconduct penalty.

Yogan’s penalty quickly gave the Admirals a 5 on 3 advantage early in the third period. At 37 seconds into the period, one of Anaheim’s top prospects, Richard Rakell, scored for Norfolk. The Admirals had set up, and defenseman Dylan McIlrath threw himself into a shooting lane to stop a shot. However, by doing so, he completely took himself out of the play and Norfolk scored around him. Now down 2-0, Hartford woke up. Michael Haley drew a penalty and on the resulting power play, Kristo made a beautiful play putting the puck up high and through Norfolk’s netminder Frederik Andersen, making it 2-1.

There the score remained until literally the last second of the game. The Wolf Pack had pulled Talbot from the net and had the Admirals pinned in their own zone. the puck and all six of the Wolf Pack skaters went into the zone and eventually to the Admirals’ net. At 19:59 Darroll Powe put the puck past Andersen and the game was tied.

Overtime ensued, but ended without the tie being broken. The game went to a shootout, with Kristo scoring on a beautiful shot. Unfortunately though two Admirals’ scored–Rakell and Devante Smith-Pelley. It seemed like an anti-climactic end to the game, but the crowd of a little more than 6,500 filed out feeling like they got their money’s worth.

In this afternoon’s game, the Wolf Pack faced the Albany Devils. The Wolf Pack started off slow, but it was at least in part because of the type of game Albany plays. Lest you think that they play a different game than the parent club, you would be sadly mistaken. Although not quite as bad, the whole Devils culture is to slow the game down. Hartford finally found a way to beat this strategy this afternoon, although Jason Missiaen had several trying minutes. Just 51 seconds into the game, Scott Timmins put a goal right between Missiaen’s legs. It was a softie that Missiaen would have liked back, but the goaltender need not have worried, because the newest member of the roster, JT Miller, just reassigned from New York was about to have a big night. At 9:13 of the first period, Miller put in a rebound that Devils netminder Keith Kinkaid left right out there. Miller tied the score 1-1. At 13:35 of the period, Harri Pesonen cross-checked Marek Hrivik (they called it roughing, but it was a cross-check) and the baby Rangers went on the power play. Kreider was on the first power play unit with Miller and Kristo, and the three of them combined on a power play goal for Kreider at 14 minutes of the period.

This put the Wolf Pack ahead 2-1, but Pesonen wanted some revenge and he got it at 18:57 of the first period when his pass to David Wohlberg put Wohlberg behind the defense in what became a one on none. When Wohlberg put the puck through Missiaen, the Devils tied the score 2-2. The Devils jumped out ahead early in the second period when Joe Whitney scored on a power play which resulted from an Aaron Johnson penalty. It was the last two goals, both Hartford scores, that really were exciting.

The first was still in the second period. Ryan Bourque, who had been playing on the fourth line in the first two games, made a beautiful pass to Miller standing on Kinkaid’s right–alone at the top of the crease. Miller later said that he never saw the pass until it was on his tape. Miller quickly shot it past Kinkaid for a goal.

The last goal of the game was from the stick of McIlrath, who took a shot from the point and put it past a completely screened Kinkaid. There was only one body in front of Kinkaid–Kreider–but he stood so big, Kinkaid never saw McIlrath’s shot until it was past him. That was the game winner, with the Wolf Pack defeating the Devils 4-3.

A little scouting report on players:

Conor Allen–Played in all situations; second pairing. The rookie had a very up and down weekend. Sometimes the play moved too fast for him. Others, he had good anticipation. Will need some time to adjust to this level.

Andrew Yogan–Had a better game tonight than last night, but does not look like more than a borderline NHL player at this point. Has skill but decision-making needs lots of work.

Dylan McIlrath–A work in progress, McIlrath took himself out of position many times last night, but was a little better tonight. Pairing with veteran and new Hartford captain Johnson should be helping as they talk to each other while on the ice. McIlrath did decently in his fight last night and let go an excellent shot from the point this afternoon, but he still needs to work on gap control and blocking out opposing players.

Ryan Bourque–Great timprovement sinc elast season. I noticed it in the pre-season too. Much more north-south play. He has been the fastest skater on the team over the last two days. He is excellent on the PK and has good instincts. He also made a beautiful pass to Miller for the tying goal today. The problem is he just cannot seem to finish and sometimes he gets knocked off the puck when he should not. Gernander had many good things to say about Bourque’s effort this afternoon. I expect that he will see more playing time next week.

JT Miller–Just arrived yesterday and played his first game today. Besides the two goals and an assist, Miller looked like a complete player on the ice today (he also had the most SOG). Miller was playing with a passion, a fire, that exceeded every other skater on the ice. He certainly looked NHL-ready. When I spoke to him after the game, he indicated to me that the Rangers are looking for consistency from him. Not just one game of this intensity and production, but every game. That seems to indicate that he will be here for at least a week or two, trying to prove that he has right now what the Rangers want from him over the long haul.

Michael Kantor–Great hitter, but did not much else in the two games this weekend. He was -2 today with no hitting–it would have been better having another skilled or semi-skilled player on the ice (maybe Brodie Dupont–who was scratched?).

Marek Hrivik–Was demoted to the fourth line today. When I asked why of Gernander, he said it was the situation. Not sure what that means, but I thought he played fine today. Yesterday he took a bad penalty and he was not particularly productive, but there were several other forwards on the team who were worse.

Oscar Lindberg–I keep waiting for him to contribute, but basically most of the offense on the team has been created by Kreider, Miller and Kristo. Lindberg has been pretty invisible. He can play center, but he needs to make some plays happen or score. So far, I haven’t seen a thing from Lindberg since the start of the pre-season that gives me the impression that he is a budding star.

Chris Kreider–Over the two night span the best player on the ice. He has been doing everything to help the team. Even when he does not get a point (like when he stood in front of Kinkaid’s goal and screened the netminder), Kreider is performing the way he should. And just talking to his very confident, funny self over the last two days, you can see a big change in him. Kreider, who is always a perfectionist on the ice, is clearly enjoying the game and his position in it. He should be NHL-ready very soon.

Danny Kristo–With further to go than either Miller or Kreider, Kristo has tremendous offensive skill. His greatest assets are his creativity, quick release and hard shot. He does need to learn how to get to the places he needs to be defensively, so he is not a liability, but there is no question that lots of offensive tools are in his arsenal.

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