This post originally appeared over at SNY Rangers Blog.
Like it did for the parent club in New York, the 2009-2010 Hartford Wolf Pack season came to an end on Sunday, though with decidedly less excitement and suspense. Thanks to a 9-2 trouncing by the Worcester Sharks on Wednesday and a Bridgeport Sound Tiger victory over the Lowell Devils on Friday, the Pack’s extremely slim playoff hopes were officially dashed Friday night, even as the team rebounded to take a rematch against the Sharks, 3-2.
To their credit, the Pack came out and gave fans a good show in their final game at the XL Center on Saturday, riding a franchise record seven goal second period to a scrap-filled 7-5 whitewashing of the lowly Springfield Falcons. They wrapped up the season in Bridgeport on Sunday with a 2-1 win over the Sound Tigers, capping off a 10-5-0 end-of-season run that proved to be too little, too late.
I’ll dig deeper into the whys and wherefores behind the Wolf Pack’s first finish outside the AHL’s playoff picture, and take a closer look at some individual performances, in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are three high-level issues that helped sabotage the Wolf Pack’s unlucky thirteenth season:
The Goalie Carousel
It’s unfair to blame the Wolf Pack’s failures on good soldier Steven Valiquette, but it was his meltdown in New York which ultimately precipitated rookie Chad Johnson’s three month long imitation of a yo-yo. The constant back-and-forth between New York and Hartford would have been difficult for even the most experienced veteran, but it proved disastrous for the first year netminder. Johnson had raced up the AHL leaderboard with a 1.61 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in the month of November, but by the time the organization finally acquired a full-time back-up for Henrik Lundqvist, he was coming off a January in which he’d posted a dismal 4.96 goals-against average and .827 save percentage in six AHL games.
It’s no coincidence that the team’s record improved once Johnson was allowed to settle in and get some consistent playing time in Hartford after Alex Auld was brought into New York at the NHL trading deadline. As his comfort level increased, so did confidence, ultimately peaking with five straight wins to end the season, during which he notched an impressive 2.20 GAA and .930 save percentage. The team in front of him fed off his confidence, picking up wins in all but four of his final 14 starts.
The Injury Bug
Injuries are an issue for every team and shouldn’t be used as an excuse, but not even the best built teams would have been able to come through the stretch the Wolf Pack suffered in late January completely unscathed (and the Pack was far from the best built team.) While they were by no means playing well before they lost two of their top three scorers (P.A. Parenteau and Dale Weise) and five starting defensemen (Corey Potter, Michael Sauer, Bobby Sanguinetti, Mathieu Dandenault and Brent Henley) to the infirmary, the plague of injuries sent the Wolf Pack on a confidence-crushing five game losing streak from which it took them the entire month of February to recover.
The Shortage at Center
Going into the season centers Patrick Rissmiller and Tyler Arnason were expected to fill two of the four center positions on the squad. It quickly became apparent that Rissmiller’s attitude hadn’t improved after a summer to ponder his position, and that led to his expeditious exit to Grand Rapids of the AHL. Arnason lasted a couple weeks longer, but his play was even less impressive. When he realized he had no hope of an NHL call-up, he beat a hasty path to Russia, where he finished the season in the KHL with Dinamo Riga.
While it can’t be said either of their contributions were missed, their absence left a gaping hole down the middle for the Wolf Pack. With Corey Locke the lone natural center on the roster with significant AHL experience, rookie free agent signing Paul Crowder was thrust into a more prominent role and Ryan Garlock, a 24-year old pivot who’d spent four years bouncing around the AHL and ECHL, was recalled from Charlotte. The Pack filled the final center slot by sliding left wing Brodie Dupont into a position he hadn’t played in his two years of professional hockey.
Dupont’s experience and defensive acumen landed him the checking role against opposing teams’ top lines, and while he performed that job admirably, he couldn’t provide much in the way of offense. That left Locke’s line as the Pack’s only real offensive threat. Shut down Locke’s line and there was a good chance the opposition would emerge victorious. Kris Newbury’s eventual addition — almost four months later at the NHL trade deadline — finally provided balance to the line-up and gave the Wolf Pack a bona fide secondary scoring threat. The result: The Wolf Pack went 10-6-1-1 in the 18 games after Newbury’s arrival.
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