By Bruce Berlet
Jeremy Williams has seen plenty in seven pro seasons and scored some NHL-type goals while in the AHL, as he did Saturday night for the Hartford Wolf Pack.
So while his highlight-reel goal that ended a 159-minute, 18-second scoring drought couldn’t prevent the Wolf Pack from losing their fourth in a row at the XL Center, 2-1 to the Syracuse Crunch in overtime, Williams said it isn’t time to panic only one-tenths of the way through the season.
“It’s early in the year,” Williams said, “but at the same time, we can’t keep losing because when April comes around, you look back and see some games you lost in October that you should have won, and they can come back to bite you. I know. I’ve been there. But there’s a lot of the season left, so we can get back on the right track.”
The hardest part of the slide has been the Wolf Pack (3-3-1-1) are 0-3-1-0 at home since a season-opening, 4-2 victory over the Charlotte Checkers on Oct. 9 in which Williams was the No. 1 star after getting the winning goal and six shots, which tied for a game high.
But the Wolf Pack had only two goals last week in losing 5-1 to Norfolk, 1-0 to Binghamton and 2-1 to Syracuse. Amazingly, the Pack had a 20-10 shot advantage after two periods in each of the last two games before losing on a disputed goal with 3:10 left and then yielding a sixth-attacker goal with 24 seconds to go in regulation and the winner 45 seconds into extra time.
The Wolf Pack hopes to avoid another disheartening loss when they host the Albany Devils on Wednesday night at 7. They lost 3-2 in a shootout in Albany on Oct. 15, when Devils captain Stephen Gionta scored in the sudden-death sixth round.
“You want to establish things at home, and I think we did the last two games,” said Williams, who played four seasons in Toronto with the NHL Maple Leafs and AHL Marlies and made his Rangers debut Sunday night against the New Jersey Devils, playing six shifts for 3 minutes, 43 seconds. “We out-chanced Binghamton, and once we start scoring … We’ve got a group of guys who can score. The goals are going to come. We just have to be patient. Guys can’t be squeezing the sticks. I’ve been there.
“Especially in my years playing in Toronto, you realized with the media that you can’t get too high or you can’t get too low. The last game is over, and tomorrow is a new day.”
Williams said many players took Saturday’s loss hard, especially after Josh Green’s goal came when Luca Sbisa’s wraparound took a crazy bounce, hit off Ryan McDonagh’s skate and the stick of defensive partner Lee Baldwin and laid in front for Green to tap past Dov Grumet-Morris.
“Just an unlucky bounce,” Baldwin said.
Kyle Palmieri’s tying goal through a screen off an assist from former Farmington High School and Avon Old Farms standout Nick Bonino prevented Grumet-Morris from duplicating Cameron Talbot’s feat of notching a shutout in his Wolf Pack debut six days earlier. Ironically, Grumet-Morris is in Hartford on a call-up from the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors because Talbot sustained a groin injury in a 41-save effort in a 3-0 victory at Providence.
“Unfortunately the puck had eyes and he made a good shot,” Williams’ said of Palmieri’s goal, “but we did a lot of good things. But I think we can generate a little more offense five-on-five. We’ve got to start scoring or it’s going to be tough to win hockey games 1-0.
“Every guy in the room hates losing, so of course there’s going to be initial frustration after a game. But I think we’ve got a good core group of guys that knows how to lead and what this league’s all about. I think we took our frustration out sitting in our stalls thinking about the game and then you recharge at home and come back to work. If you dwell on every loss, you’ll never get to go forward, so we’ve got to try and take the positives out of the (last) game.”
Coach Ken Gernander tried virtually every line combination imaginable in the three losses and even used Evgeny Grachev at all three forward positions. Brodie Dupont alternated between center and left wing as he did last season and finally registered a point when he assisted on Williams’ goal. Gernander again changed lines in practice Tuesday for the game against the Devils.
“What we had the other night didn’t work, so we’re trying to tweak things and find some combinations to score some goals,” Gernander said. “I think our defensive effort was good and the shots and chances were limited on the weekend, but we’ve got to generate some more (chances) ourselves, so that’s why we’re tinkering with chemistry and the combinations.”
“(Gernander) is trying to find overall scoring ability,” said Williams, a free-agent signing of the Rangers on July 12. “You want to put lines together where each line has an opportunity to score, each guy can work off each other’s strengths.”
The Wolf Pack has shown plenty of strength on defense and in goal, but they must start burying some scoring chances or there will be more frustration as shown by center Kris Newbury when he broke his stick against the glass after Crunch goalie Timo Pielmeir slid across to deny him on a 2-on-1 with Chris McKelvie in the first period.
“In my early years, I had times where I’d dwell on games and then would just squeeze the stick and then try to force plays,” Williams said. “But you can’t do that. You’ve got to move forward.”
Hall of Famer Messier Visits Wolf Pack Practice
The Wolf Pack can only hope that some of the goals that a first-time visitor to practice Tuesday scored rub off on them.
Hall of Famer Mark Messier, a special assistant to Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather, was at practice and likely will attend the game Wednesday night. He saw the Wolf Pack win 2-1 at the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Oct. 16.
“Development is a huge part of the game now,” said Messier, who won six Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and Rangers and is second in NHL regular-season points (1,887) and playoff points (295) to former teammate Wayne Gretzky. “I want to help any way I can, whether it’s supporting on helping on the ice. Whatever it is, it’s probably the most important part of the franchise coming out of the lockout (in 1994) was developing your own system. We’ve done a better job of it, and we have to continue to do better. Once you draft them, you’ve got to turn them into pros, and it takes the whole organization to do it.”
Messier, considered one of the game’s all-time best leaders and the only person to be captain of two Stanley Cup champions, didn’t go on the ice with the Wolf Pack as he did with the Rangers earlier this season but said he might in the future. Instead, he observed from the stands and then chatted with many players in the locker room, including veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who had a smile on his face as they discussed Redden’s first child, five-week-old daughter Leni.
Messier hopes the visit and future skate(s) with the Wolf Pack can help continue a recent Rangers development trend that has players such as alternate captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal having graduated from Hartford.
Gernander said having Messier around shows “everyone in the organization is trying to pull in the same direction.”
“There’s not an itinerary for his visit,” Gernander said. “He’s just here to take in practice, make some observations, probably watch the game tomorrow night and talk to a guy or two. It’s not a real formally structured thing.”
Messier liked hearing that Howard Baldwin, chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, is doing everything possible to try to revitalize the hockey market in the area before the Wolf Pack become the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27 for a game against the Sound Tigers.
“You’ve got to put a stake in the ground with the people,” Messier said, “especially at the grassroots level because they’re the ones when they get interested want to come see the games.”
That’s what the Whalers did when they were in town and what Baldwin wants the Wolf Pack to do.
Talbot Resumes Skating; Donati Won’t Debut Wednesday Night
Talbot resumed skating on his own Monday and hopes to participate in team drills by the weekend.
“(The groin) is getting better, but I’m not going to rush it, especially in my position,” Talbot said. “I’ve still got a little problem when I move a certain way, so I don’t want to tweak it and be out for a month.”
… New forward Tyler Donati practiced for the third time but needs a few more days to get in game shape. Donati signed an American Hockey League-East Coast Hockey League contract Friday after leading the ECHL in scoring (114 points) and being named league MVP last season with the Elmira Jackals. He was hoping for contract earlier and had been just working out in a gym for the month before signing with the Wolf Pack.
“He’s been off the ice for quite some time,” Gernander said, “so after three days of skating, I don’t think he’s quite ready to go since he didn’t have a training camp. But he’s going to get an opportunity because he’s put up good numbers.”
Donati might play Friday night, when the Wolf Pack concludes a season-high, five-game homestand with the first of 10 meetings with the Springfield Falcons (4-4-0-0, including 3-1-0-0 on the road). The Falcons have a new coach, former longtime Army coach Rob Riley, and new affiliation, the Columbus Blue Jackets, after three seasons as the top affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. Veteran Tom Sestito is the Falcons’ leading scorer (four goals, five assists), and Michael Blunden leads the team in goals (five). This is a Guida’s Family Value Night that starts as low as $48 and includes three tickets, three hot dogs or pizza slices, three sodas and Wolf Pack souvenir. Guida’s Family Value Night packs are available at the XL Center box office or on-line at www.hartfordwolfpack.com.
… A correction on a note I wrote last week: Newbury’s 8-year-old son is named Jacob, not Jason. Jacob has been an occasional visitor to practice since he, his mother and sister traveled to Hartford last week from Brampton, Ontario, Canada. The family moved into a new home in West Hartford on Sunday, and Kris is waiting for his son’s paperwork from customs to arrive so he can start school.