Rookie Matt Zaba stopped all 38 shots he faced to lead the Hartford Wolf Pack to a 2-0 shutout victory over the Worcester Sharks in game one of their Atlantic Division Semifinal Series in Hartford on Thursday night. Artem Anisimov picked up where he left off in the regular season, scoring the eventual game-winner early in the second period, and Dane Byers made a triumphant return to the line-up after a 71-game absence to give the Wolf Pack some breathing room with a goal at 7:20 of the third period.
It was a perfectly scripted return for the 23-year old winger, who tore the ACL in his right knee in a freak collision with teammate Tommy Pyatt on Halloween while playing against these very same Sharks.
Worcester was aggressive on the forecheck from the opening faceoff, keeping the Pack back on their heels, forcing poor passes and holding a decisive edge in puck possession and scoring chances through the first forty minutes. But Zaba, making his AHL playoff debut, was fabulous, stopping everything he faced to earn his third career shutout. The Colorado College graduate’s biggest test came in a second period during which the visitors outshot their hosts by an 18-7 margin, including six shots fired on his cage during a high-sticking call that sent rookie Devin DiDiomete to the box at 4:36.
Worcester’s regular season leading scorer, Ryan Vesce, put a seventh shot past Zaba on that man advantage, but the Sharks’ captain’s shot from the right circle rang off the crossbar, allowing Zaba to maintain his shutout bid at 5:38
Anisimov had given the Pack the lead only a minute and a half earlier when he finished off a three-way passing play for his second career playoff goal and tenth tally in his last 11 games. Defenseman Corey Potter set up Dale Weise at the right post, and the rookie winger passed up the shot in favor of a cross-crease pass that slid past linemate Brodie Dupont to Anisimov, who dove in from the left side to swat the puck behind Worcester netminder Thomas Greiss (21 saves) at 4:19.
Potter put a shot off the post with the man advantage at 11:58 of the middle frame, but it turned out to be a very rare scoring opportunity for the Wolf Pack power play, which struggled on each of its five chances in the match. Just over a minute later, with the Pack still a man up, Zaba was forced to come up big on a backhand attempt from in close by Tom Cavanagh.
The Wolf Pack finally got their skates under them in the third period, led primarily by the third line of Byers, Mike Ouellette and Jordan Owens, which was easily the Pack’s most consistent unit on the night. The threesome combined to give the Pack the 2-0 lead at 7:20 of the final period. Byers, who hadn’t played a game in five and a half months, freed the puck with a check in the defensive zone, springing Ouellette up ice. The Dartmouth graduate got jammed up along the boards, but fed the puck through to Owens, who passed to Byers at the right side of the crease. Byers showed some understandable rust, partially fanning on his shot, but the puck managed to roll over Greiss’ shoulder and into the net, giving Byers his fifth career playoff goal and the Pack a two goal lead.
Greiss battled his counterpart Zaba the rest of the way, matching the rookie save for save. At 9:52 the German netminder stopped a shorthanded breakway bid by veteran Mark Bell, who was unable to sneak a backhander between his pads. Zaba followed that with the save of the game at 14:59, when he made a diving stop on a rebound shot by Dan DaSilva that had been labeled for the empty side of the net.
It looked like Worcester had drawn within one with 4:10 remaining in the game after former Wolf Pack center Cory Larose batted the puck behind Zaba with a high stick during a four-on-four. But referee Jamie Koharski was in perfect position and waved it off immediately, without much objection from the Sharks players or coaching staff.
It wasn’t a pretty win by any means, and left the Pack with plenty of room for improvement heading into Saturday’s game two. Penalties continued to be a problem for the Wolf Pack, which allowed its opponent seven chances with the man advantage. The Pack penalty kill, which had struggled in the final few games of the season, thwarted all seven opportunities, thanks in large part to Zaba’s outstanding performance. On the other side of the ledger, the Pack power play continued its late season struggles, going 0-for-5 in the game. The unit is now 0 for 15 in its past four games, and has scored just twice in 32 chances in its last eight games.
The Wolf Pack were once again without the services of top forward P.A. Parenteau and left wing Pyatt. Pyatt, who’s been away from the team since the death of his brother’s fiancÃ©e on April 2nd, has returned to Hartford, and could return to the line-up on Saturday. Parenteau is also possible for a return for game two.
The Wolf Pack will look to take a 2-0 lead in the series on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Hartford.
Video highlights are available from AHL Live.
2. Anisimov (1) (Weise, Potter) 4:19
3. Byers (1) (Owens, Ouellette) 7:20
Bell – Rissmiller – Moore
Dupont – Anisimov – Weise
Byers – Ouellette – Owens
DiDiomete – McBride -
Potter – Sanguinetti
Urquhart – Sauer
Nightingale – Fahey
Zaba / Wiikman
1. Matt Zaba
2. Dane Byers
3. Artem Anisimov
- Zaba’s Shutout Leads Wolf Pack To Playoff Win (Hartford Courant)
- Zaba, Byers Help Wolf Pack Take Game One from Sharks (Hartford Wolf Pack)
- Sharks Drop Game 1 To Hartford, 2-0
- Wolf Pack off to fast start in AHL playoffs (NY Rangers)
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