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Wolf Pack on climb to series with Bears |

Patrick Features Writer

The Hartford Wolf Pack will readily agree. Things got worse.

It wasn't fun.

It forced difficult conversations.

One win from 14 games, including four defeats.

1-10-1-2 streak since Mar. 9 to April 7 threatened to derail what had been a promising season, which saw us start 15-4-3-0. At a time when they could be poised for a run in the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Wolf Pack instead find themselves scrambling to earn an invitation to the postseason at all.

“It was really difficult to get to the rank,” the goalkeeper said Dylan Garand agreed. “The attitude was difficult. The coaching staff sent a message that we need to raise our level. We were going into playoff mode now. We started fighting a lot in practice, the intensity was just high, and I think that helped us get out of it.

“It's very worrying. Everyone wants answers. We all work hard. Things were not going our way. It was tough, but we have a really good leadership team. Our coaching staff did a great job of sticking with it.”

Like many teams, the Wolf Pack had to deal with injuries and NHL recalls hitting their roster as the season progressed. But even as their lineup began to stabilize, struggles continued.

“To tell you the truth, we lost our way a little bit thinking it would be easy,” the interim coach. Steve Smith said. “We learned quickly that this is a big league. It's a really tough league to win, and it took us a while to get back on track.”

After winning four of their last five games in the regular season, Hartford saw Charlotte take a 1-0 series lead in the first round before fighting back twice on the road. And in the divisional semifinals against Providence, the Wolf Pack came back from a 6-0 deficit in Game 2 to take the series with a straight-sets victory in overtime.

While 24 other AHL teams have gone home for the season, the Wolf Pack are still playing, opening the division final against Hershey tonight at the Giant Center.

“We feel confident about ourselves,” said Smith, a three-time Stanley Cup winner who took over Hartford's bench in November. Chris Knoblauch was hired by the Edmonton Oilers. “We tried to stay the course.”

Hershey swept Hartford in the same round last spring en route to the Calder Cup championship. This season, the league-leading Bears finished 33 points better than the Wolf Pack in the Atlantic Division.

“We know there is a big challenge ahead of us,” Smith admitted.

But this is a loose and excited team led by the 61-year-old Smith, who is getting his first chance to run the bench after stints as an NHL assistant with Calgary, Edmonton, Carolina and Buffalo before joining the Wolf Pack in 2021. .

So where did it change?

Maybe their home game on Ephr. 12 made a far more significant difference than anyone had realized at the time. That night, Hartford officially won the playoff berth with a 5-3 victory over Springfield, capped by a goaltending goal. Louis Domingue. It was their first win at the XL Center in over a month. It also ended a six-game hitting streak in which they had scored a total of five goals, and helped send the Wolf Pack into the postseason with some confidence.

Perhaps it was the sheer desperation of their situation, but as the losses piled up, pressure to stand still built around the Wolf Pack. They had to manage that pressure or see their season fall apart around them. A rookie forward Brennan Othmann points for Smith's work in keeping the club in good stead.

“He is a very good man,” said Othmann. “When there is a time when it is difficult for us, he is there. You can say that you expect a lot from us, and at the same time you like to have fun. You know, right? He played for a long time. He has a couple of Stanley Cups. You know how it is. You know what year it is.

“He's still one of the guys, almost, and I think that's great. But at the same time he can also reveal it as a coach, and I think he is doing a great job since he took over.”

The club coached by Smith looks very similar to how he played during his 15 NHL seasons: straight forward, direct, and passive. Made for Calder Cup Playoff hockey.

“As coaches,” said Smith, “we try to convince them day and night that if you have a game, you will win.” If you don't do it, let's take it further, to the north.”

And there's a Garand on the net. The second-year veteran, a fourth-round pick by the Rangers in the 2020 NHL Draft, owns a 5-2 record to go along with his 2.32 goals-against average and .931 save percentage this postseason. With Domingue already out of New York as they embark on their playoff journey, the crease belongs fully to Garand.

And so here the Wolf Pack finds itself in Hershey. Their most difficult task at the moment. But they've been put in a mess, and they've been through it until now.

“The hardest work is still ahead,” said Garand, “and each game is getting harder and harder. It will be fun.” features writer Patrick Williams has covered the American Hockey League for nearly two decades at outlets including, Sportsnet, TSN, Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM ! Sports, and most recently was the host of The Hockey News On The 'A' podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL's James H. Ellery Memorial Award for the league's top scorer in 2016.

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