Scouting the Pack: Why is Hartford slumping
With less than 5 weeks remaining in the AHL regular season, the Hartford Wolf Pack are reeling. Having lost their last 5 games in a row in regulation and an overall record of 3-7-1-0 since February 15th. The Pack have gone from being a shoe in for the playoffs with a chance at winning the Atlantic Division to now being in 3rd place at 73 points, only 2 points ahead of the Charlotte Checkers who hold the last playoff spot in the division at 71 points entering Wednesday.
The Pack also find themselves 7 points behind the 2nd place Providence Bruins (80 points) and 8 behind the division leading Hershey Bears (81 points). Here are a couple of factors that have played a role in the Pack’s recent struggles
A strong suit over the first ⅔ of the season, the Wolf Pack’s defense has found a run of inconsistency over the last couple of weeks leading to a lot of the faster, high scoring teams to get a step past them and put the Pack’s goaltenders in a tight spot to make some difficult saves. Having mentioned several times before and even writing about Libor Hajek not performing up to expectations despite a recent surge in his game and being more offensive minded on paper, his timidness is still a concern while defending. Yegor Rykov’s short season had also hit a plateau over his last few games. With 5 points in his first 12 games, Rykov appeared to show the Rangers they had made a good choice acquiring him in the Michael Grabner trade. Since the new year however, while also plagued with nagging injuries, Rykov’s game began to fall off. Costly turnovers and a couple of questionable decisions have found Rykov a scratch in 6 of the last 8 games in favor of Brandon Crawley as his play in Maine this season had earned him a call up and significant playing time as of late.
While Vincent LoVerde, Darren Raddysh and Mason Geertsen continue to play somewhat well despite the defense’s inconsistency, likely the biggest reason for the defense taking such a downturn is the trade of Joey Keane to Carolina in exchange for Julien Gauthier. Keane had managed 8 goals and 22 assists in 49 games prior to the trade, provided and offensive spark while also showing he could play good defense, enough to earn an All-Star selection. Despite the numbers and good play, trading Keane was likely done because the Rangers do boast good depth on defense even with the struggles of Rykov and Hajek and with players like Nils Lundkvist, Tarmo Reunanen and K’Andre Miller looking to come into the fold over the next year or two.
Unfortunately for Hartford, a move for the future has hurt the defense now. With the recent signing of former Brown University defenseman Zach Giuttari to an ATO and the all-but-certainty of Miller leaving Wisconsin to sign and NHL contact with the Rangers and reporting here on an ATO, some much needed help will likely be coming but only time will tell if things pan out.
Injuries to key players:
Just after the All-Star break, it was reported that Boo Nieves would miss significant time due to an upper body injury. Prior to his injury, Nieves had been on an offensive tear with 3 goals and 12 assists in 13 games just before the break and injury. Nieves did return to the Wolf Pack lineup this past Friday against Hershey in a 1-0 loss and had a quiet game registering only one shot but his overall play, winning face offs, winning the battles for the puck along the boards and being set up for good scoring chances helped what was one of the team’s best efforts this season despite the loss. Despite also playing through a nagging injury over the last couple of weeks, Tim Gettinger has also been absent over the Pack’s last 3 games. With his play continuing to trend upward with 5 goals and 2 assists in his last 10 games played, the Pack have seemed to go as Gettinger has. When finding the score sheet, the Pack have been in the hunt for wins and points while seeming to struggle when Gettinger struggles, particularly on special teams.
While players like rookies, Ryan Dmowski, Shawn McBride, Nick Jones and Patrick Newell have stepped up well at times in the absence of players like Tim Gettinger and Boo Nieves, it’s been clear that their absence from the Wolf Pack lineup deal a blow not just in terms of goal scoring but also on the forecheck and protecting the puck in high leverage situations. It’s uncertain how much longer it will be before Nieves and Gettinger return to the lineup, which means current players will need to step up and play even bigger games down the stretch. It’s also expected that two more recent signings, Patrick Khodorenko out of Michigan State and Mike O’Leary out of Notre Dame, will be thrown right into the mix. Even with a new injection of young talent coming in up front and just like with the defense, only time will tell what it does to push the Pack bak into serious contention.
Another early season strong suit for the Wolf Pack was their ability to limit penalties, particularly unnecessary ones. The Pack had managed to win games early in the season by staying out of the penalty box and not letting their emotions get the best of them when playing from behind. Players like Mason Geertsen have never been one to shy away from dropping the gloves when having to stick up for their teammates but the Pack had done a good job at picking those battles and for most of the season and had been one of, if not the, lowest and least penalized teams in the AHL. While the Pack still rank 3rd lowest in the AHL in total PIM at 611, recently frustrations have boiled over. 28 penalty minutes on Saturday against Hershey included 2 fighting majors and a game misconduct by Matt Beleskey as a result of the second fight in the game. The next day in Springfield saw 56 more penalty minutes for the Pack helped by another fighting major from Beleskey and a later boarding major, game misconducts for Greg Chase (continuing an altercation), Vinni Lettieri (leaving the bench to start an altercation) and Mason Geertsen (leaving the penalty box to start an altercation). The Pack went on to lose both games by a 4-1 margin.
The last game proved costly though as Beleskey, Lettieri and Geertsen were each suspended for the Pack’s next 3 games as a result of their actions. With that, the Pack lose their best player, one of their top defensemen and a leader. Their suspensions will likely make it easier for Kris Knoblauch to insert the incoming players into the lineup as a stop gap but it’s uncertain what impact they will have on the score sheet and in the team’s overall play but they and the rest of the team will need to play some of their best games all season in the coming week.
There are many more factors that have played a role in the Pack’s latest slump but having covered areas such as the goaltending woes, lack of a power play and even some shoddy officiating having cost the Pack a few opportunities, these areas have stuck out more and more the last couple of weeks. It’s frustrating to see the Wolf Pack slumping this badly given how the season had gone just prior to the beginning of February and with the importance of each game growing bigger as the days go by, it’s abundantly clear that if this trend continues, fans in Hartford may not experience playoff hockey for a 5th straight season.