By Bob Crawford
It is difficult to find many positives in a hockey season that does not yield a playoff berth, but the Hartford Wolf Pack’s finish to their 2013-14 campaign was so impressive that it left the entire team feeling that much had been accomplished.
The Wolf Pack, who finished nine points out of a playoff spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference with a record of 37-32-1-6 for 81 points, won nine out of their last ten regular-season games and went 18-6-1-0 in the last 25 games of the season, a points percentage of .740 and the second-best record in the conference over that time. That surge is a point of considerable pride for head coach Ken Gernander.
“I’m real encouraged and real pleased with the way the guys came together at the end of the season,” Gernander said last week, as he conducted workouts for the ten Wolf Pack players who comprise the parent New York Rangers’ playoff taxi squad. “I think, more than anything, we probably just ran out of season, because if there had been another half-dozen games and we kept trending the way we did, the playoffs were a reality for us.
“And really they could have thrown in the towel at the end of January there, when we were nine games under .500 at the bottom of the league, and I’ve been saying it all along, that’s a pretty good testament to the character of our veterans. A lot of times they kind of dictate how things are being perceived in the locker room and what direction a team’s going to take, and to their credit, they were top-notch down the stretch and really deserve a lot of credit for the way we finished.”
One of those veteran players, Captain Aaron Johnson, agreed with Gernander’s assessment, in an interview done just as he was leaving for the off-season.
“I think we’re really pleased,” the 11th-year pro defenseman said. “The second half was definitely more of our style of play, and the way we wanted to play throughout the year. It’s one of those things where, if we could get maybe just five or six more games, we could be playing for a lot longer. If you look back, I think the guys will be really happy with the way we finished.”
Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, one of the “Black Aces” who is continuing to skate at the Rangers’ practice facility in Tarrytown, NY, in case the big club needs reinforcements, added, “I was very fortunate to take something away from the end of the year, just to get on a nice run there. Obviously we would like the playoff experience, but we had a really good group of guys and if we had more games, I felt like we could have made playoffs, it was going that way. Definitely an up-and-down year, but nice to finish on a strong note.”
The Wolf Pack still had four games left on their schedule when the team was officially eliminated from playoff contention, but there was no letdown whatsoever. The first of those four games was a 7-2 win, the team’s most lopsided of the year, over a St. John’s IceCap club that had lost only three games in regulation in its previous 22, and the Pack took three of the four contests, finishing the season with their fourth shutout in ten games, a 2-0 home victory over Bridgeport.
“A lot of the credit goes to the goalies (David LeNeveu and Dov Grumet-Morris) throughout that strong finish, so it was nice to see those guys finish strong,” Johnson said. “And for us as players, it’s a strong finish, and to get a couple more wins, we were nine and one in our last ten, I think the team has to be commended on the way they finished.”
Gernander commented, “You look at the last two (games), with Springfield certainly in the playoffs but they weren’t going anywhere standings-wise, they were going to be the number-two seed, and Bridgeport, they had a bit of a rough go, but it’s no different for our guys. They weren’t going to change (playoff) seeds or anything like that. I think they were feeling pretty good about themselves, pretty proud of the way they finished, and they wanted to go out the right way. And to their credit, they won those two games at home.
“And I think a lot of times, you’re judged not on where the season starts, but how you finish. And even though playoffs weren’t in the picture there, winning nine out of your last ten and 18 of the last 25, if you judge them in that light I think it was a pretty successful finish for them.”
Each member of the Wolf Pack roster will now carry that momentum into the next phase, whether that is buttressing the Ranger playoff effort, preparing for next year’s Ranger training camp or, in the case of players like Johnson who are free agents, getting to work on the process of securing a new contract for next year.
“I guess it’s just sit back and start talking to the agent and start figuring things out,” Johnson said of his next move. “It’s tough, as you get older there’s more, and less, opportunities, depending on which way you go or where you’re looking. So I guess it’s just a matter of crossing your fingers and seeing if we can figure something out here in the next month or two.”
Gernander, no matter how high his opinion might be of the stretch run this year’s team displayed, is not about to get caught up in speculating about what next season’s Wolf Pack roster might look like, especially at this early stage. Experiencing more than two decades of AHL comings and goings, as a player and a coach, has taught him that is a fruitless exercise.
“There’s so many things to be decided, the big club is still in the throes of the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Gernander said. “They (the Rangers) have free agents that they’re going to have to re-sign. We have free agents, there’s injuries, and some of our guys might want to leave due to free agency. So it’s way, way too early to make any forecast as to who’s going to be returning for our club.”
Contracts do not officially expire until July 1, so much of the “hot stove” discussion is still well down the road, but one thing can be categorically stated right now, and that is that the entire Wolf Pack group, both individually and collectively, gave an excellent account of itself, in putting a distinctly positive finish to what could have been an extremely trying season.