Apologies for the delay in posting this — the web server this site lives on went down last night and didn’t come back up until this morning.
Each year as summer ends and NHL training camps get underway, my husband and I escape New Jersey for one final camping trip in the Adirondacks. This year’s trip was scheduled to end Wednesday, but when it was announced last week that the Wolf Pack would be playing in nearby Newark on that day, we opted to cut our vacation a dozen hours short and drive home Tuesday night so we could catch the game — with the added bonus of sparing our aching backs the discomfort of another night’s sleep on 3 inches of foam.
While the game was every bit the slow, sloppy effort you’d expect from a group of players who’ve had little opportunity to practice together as a team, it was worth every cent of the $11 we paid for parking — admission was free, seating first come, first serve, and the arena virtually deserted, meaning we took in the game from the comfort of center ice club seats.
Like their parent club the night before, the baby Rangers got off to a slow start and as a result played most of the game from behind. It took an unassisted, shorthanded tally from Dale Weise with 37 seconds remaining to tie things up and send the game into overtime. In the extra frame, Ryan Bourque had an opportunity to win it for the Wolf Pack on a penalty shot, but his wrist shot was stopped by goaltender Mike McKenna.
After five minutes of scoreless four-on-four play, the teams headed to a shootout, where 2009 fifth round draft pick Scott Stajcer out-dueled McKenna in net, and Paul Crowder, Corey Locke, and Andres Ambuhl each scored to give the Wolf Pack a 4-3 victory.
The entire New York Rangers brain trust — Glen Sather (including customary cigar), Mark Messier, Jim Schoenfeld, Benoit Allaire, Adam Graves, Anders Hedberg and Gordie Clark — were on hand to witness the come-from-behind win.
The Devils took their first lead late in the opening period after a pass from the half boards was delivered directly into Tomas Kundratek’s skates at the Devils blueline, handcuffing the defenseman and allowing Mike Swift to steal the puck, skate in on Miika Wiikman and beat the Wolf Pack’s starting goaltender from the right circle.
Veteran AHLer Locke tied things up five minutes into the middle period as a Wolf Pack power play expired. Tick-tack passing — started by pointman Ilkka Heikkinen — culminated in a cross-crease pass from Bourque (I think) to Locke at the right post for the easy score into the open side of the goal.
It only took the Wolf Pack a minute to give back the lead. Nathan Perkovich beat Wiikman on an unscreened slapshot from the right circle to make it 2-1.
As planned, Stajcer replaced Wiikman and McKenna replaced starter Gerald Coleman in goal at 10:34 of the second period. Wiikman’s debut could have been better — he made a couple of impressive saves, but probably should have had Perkovich’s shot from the circle. His replacement, Stajcer, proved solid, showing good positioning and decent rebound control. Only a pretty move on a breakaway got past him during his 35 minutes of non-shootout playing time.
The lone fight of the game saw Devin DiDiomete emerge the victor in a bout with the much larger Harry Young as the buzzer sounded at the conclusion of the second period. (The Devils’ fighting major was announced to Matt Delahey, but I’m 99% sure it was Young, and Tom Gulitti of the Devils’ blog Fire and Ice concurs.)
On his first shift of the third period Crowder was forced to leave the ice with what appeared to be a shoulder injury after a hard hit deep in the Devils zone. But he returned from the locker room to exact the sweetest kind of revenge a short time later, picking up Bourque’s blocked shot, skating in on McKenna and deking to the forehand to tie things up at 5:42.
Once again the Devils took the lead right back when Swift stole the puck from defenseman Trevor Glass and skated in alone to beat Stajcer with a backhand move through the 5-hole for his second unassisted tally of the afternoon.
The Wolf Pack had the perfect opportunity to tie the game when they were awarded over a minute of 5-on-3 time with a half dozen minutes left to play. Crowder had the best chance of the advantage when he took a centering pass right in front from Heikkinen, but somehow McKenna kept the puck out of the net to maintain the home team’s 3-2 advantage.
It appeared any hopes of a comeback were dashed when try-out veteran Dan LaCouture took an unsportsmanlike penalty, canceling out an impending Wolf Pack power play, followed by back-to-back hooking calls on Weise and Crowder that gave the Devils over a minute of 5-on-3 time as the final minutes of regulation ticked down. But the Wolf Pack penalty kill held its ground, allowing Weise to emerge from the penalty box and tie things up with the unassisted shorty with just over a half a minute left to play.
The teams traded chances in the extra session, with Bouque’s penalty shot being the best opportunity for either side. Both goalies stood tall, however, and after five minutes of extra play, the game went to the shootout, where Ambuhl earned the Wolf Pack the 4-3 win when roofed a forehand-backhand deke over McKenna’s shoulder. Crowder and Locke also scored on pretty moves in the shootout, while Weise (wrist shot) and Horak (backhand deke) were stopped by McKenna. Stajcer saved attempts by Matt Halischuk and Nick Palmieri and forced Swift to shoot high, while Adam Henrique and Alexander Vasyunov were each able to beat the young netminder.
If you missed it, I posted updates live from the Prudential Center via Twitter, so for stream-of-consciousness tweets, complete with poor grammar and bad spelling (with apologies in particular to Dan LaCouture and Ilkka Heikkinen for butchering their names — it’s preseason for me too) check out @byndblueshirts.
Some thoughts on individual players:
- Weise, one of three alternate captains along with Locke and Brodie Dupont, continued where he left off in the playoffs last season and was one of the best players on the ice. He’s deceptively fast for his size, good along the boards, and tireless in his effort.
- Locke is small but skilled and should gel well with P.A. Parenteau should he find himself back with the Pack. That line will need a grinder like Dupont or Dane Byers to do the work along the boards and in front of the net in order to be successful, however.
- Dupont, unfortunately, was largely invisible. This is a crucial year for him, and he’s going to have to step up and become more of an impact player in the AHL if he ever wants to take the next step.
- Crowder played a bit part in Hartford last season after he finished his college career and didn’t really make much of an impression at the time. He certainly made one on Wednesday, both with his goal in regulation and with his shootout score — a beautiful fake to the forehand that turned McKenna inside-out. He and Weise seemed to read off each other well, and could make up two thirds of the Wolf Pack’s second line, should coach Ken Gernander keep them together.
- Heikkinen had his moments offensively, including a pretty end-to-end rush in the third period. He’s definitely not afraid to jump in on the play in the offensive zone, but looked lost in his own zone at times and overmatched physically early on. He did improve as the game went on, and started the third period with a pair of big hits, so it may just be a matter of needing to adjust to the North American game and get his legs under him. He looks like a lock to be quarterbacking the Wolf Pack power play when the season starts next month.
- Bourque didn’t really stand out as much as I hoped. That said, had they actually kept proper score and announced assists on the goals, he would have finished with two. He also had a couple nice takeaways in the game, including one that turned into a good scoring chance in the second.
- Roman Horak has really soft hands. He had a couple great scoring opportunities, including a chance where he stickhandled around the defenseman and goaltender, but couldn’t tuck the puck into the net. As reported from Traverse City, he and Daniel Bartek have some nice chemistry together. Unfortunately, they were saddled with LaCouture in Wednesday’s game, who hopefully played himself out of consideration for a contract with a pair of stupid penalties.
- While physically Kundratek could probably benefit with another year in the WHL, he also showed enough to suggest he can handle the AHL game. He’s got a great outlet pass — he found Horak breaking through two defenders in the third — and anticipates well, which allowed him to break up a number of plays defensively. He’ll need to work on his positioning and improve his upper body strength to handle the bigger AHL players down low, however.
Soryal – Crowder – Weise
Bourque – Locke – DiDiomete
Dupont – Werek – Ambuhl
Bartak – Horak – LaCouture
Heikkinen – Williams
Kundratek – Klassen
Glass – Urquhart
Wiikman / Stajcer
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