Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Manchester Monarchs 2 at Hartford Wolf Pack 3 (SO, AHL) - April 4, 2015

My AHL tour continued on the weekend with a brief trip to Hartford, home of the Wolf Pack. The Insurance Capital of the World is just a couple of hours north of New York City yet I had never been here before. Sadly, my sports road tripping hobby had yet to develop when the Whalers moved to Carolina in 1997, so I never got to enjoy an NHL game in Connecticut's capital. Fortunately for Hartford hockey fans, the New York Rangers moved their top affiliate here to replace the Whalers, and the Wolf Pack have remained since, including three seasons where they were renamed the Connecticut Whale.

The team plays in the XL Center, which used to be known as the Hartford Civic Center. Located right downtown, it doesn't look a pro sports venue from the outside. Street parking is free after 6 pm and you should be able to find a spot within a block or two. Inside the building, before entering the actual seating bowl, you will find a wall that holds dozens of pictures of both past Whaler and Wolf Pack players, a testament to the interesting history that this building has witnessed over its 40 years.

The Civic Center was first opened in 1975 and hosted the WHA's New England Whalers for three seasons. In January 1978, the arena's roof collapsed due to excessive snow and ice, forcing the team to Springfield for two years while repairs were completed. During that time, the WHA merged with the NHL and the Whalers dropped New England in favour of Hartford (as demanded by the Boston Bruins). They returned to the Civic Center midway through the season and even made the playoffs that year, not a particularly difficult task with only 21 teams in the league. That was one of their highlights as over the next 17 seasons, the Whalers were the poster boys for futility, finishing above .500 just three times and winning only a single playoff series. As the NHL expanded and grew in popularity, it became clear that the Civic Center was not large enough to keep the franchise and new owner Peter Karmanos eventually moved it to Raleigh, where they became the Carolina Hurricanes. To add insult to injury, the 'Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, defeating fellow WHA refugee Edmonton in a 7-game final.

Despite the relatively unsuccessful stint in the NHL, the Whalers were one of the more interesting franchises, having had signed Gordie Howe and his two sons Mark and Marty. The "first family of hockey" is honoured with a banner, which hangs alongside a few Whaler numbers and a banner from their WHA days.

Of course, the Wolf Pack is the tenant now, and they have a long history of their own. In fact, the Wolf Pack is the oldest continually operating minor league hockey franchise, having formed in 1926 as the Providence Reds. As I mentioned in a previous post, minor league franchise moves generally don't retain the team's successes, so there are no banners from Providence or Binghamton here, but still a good number for the Wolf Pack, who won the Calder Cup in 2000. Along with all the UConn basketball banners, this is one of the most decorated ceilings in the minor leagues.

The arena just underwent some renovations and it seems quite new. The concourse is wide enough for the crowd, with plenty of concessions spread around. There is a premium beer stand with Guinness and Harp that is well worth the extra buck or two; the Harp I had (thanks to Dom) was the coldest arena beer I have ever experienced.

As you can see below, most of the upper bowl is blocked off with curtains and seats are generally not sold for this area, although there were a few fans sitting there without being harassed. The ticket window is inside the main entrance and standing around before the game might net you a freebie as it did for me - turned out to be a great seat just five rows behind the visiting bench.

Still, if you want an unobstructed view of the nets, sit about 15 rows from the ice (below). Overall, I really liked the XL Center and found it hard to believe it was nearly as old as I am. I don't see the need to replace it with a brand new facility but there are discussions taking place toward that end. Either way, Hartford is close enough and a worthwhile destination in its own right (the Wadsworth Atheneum is one of the nation's better small art museums) and I'm sure I'll return in the very near future. At the latest, that would be 2016 when the Hartford Yard Goats begin play in the Eastern League.

The Game

The visitors were the Manchester Monarchs, setting up a minor league rematch of last year's Stanley Cup Final. Manchester led the league and had already clinched a playoff spot, while Hartford was fighting for a berth. Early in the first, with Justin Vaive (son of former Leaf Rick) in the penalty box for Hartford, Nic Dowd capitalized on a rebound to give the visitors the lead. Late in the second, veteran Paul Bissonnette (mostly famous for his Twitter usage) and Dylan Mcllrath squared off in a good scrap. Mcllrath earned an extra 2 minutes for interference and Manchester made good on the power play when Michael Mersch scored on a pretty wraparound play.

In the third period. Monarch netminder Patrik Bartosak was called for delay of game after touching the puck outside the trapezoid. A minute later and Sean Backman was sent to the sin bin for slashing and Hartford had a 2-man advantage. It didn't take them long to score as Oscar Lindberg beat a helpless Bartosak with a backhand from the slot. As the seconds ticked away, it looked like Manchester would escape with the win, but Lindberg slapped one past Bartosak with just 40 seconds left to send the game to overtime (below, that's Lindberg to the right of the net).

In the AHL, the extra period is seven minutes, and the teams skate 3-on-3 after the first whistle with less than four minutes remaining. It is certainly more open than the typical NHL overtime and the teams managed 10 combined shots but nary a goal and it was shootout time.

Danny Kristo, who had assists on both of Lindberg's markers, scored to open the proceedings. The next three shooters missed, giving Joey Crabb a chance to win the game for Hartford. Crabb skated in and blasted the shot right at Bartosak's pad, surprising the goalie quite a bit as he had not heard the whistle.  Bizarre. That left Zach O'Brien as Manchester's only hope and he beat Yann Danis, only to have the puck ring off the goalpost. Hartford completes the comeback with a 3-2 shootout win that ended up being one of the more entertaining AHL games I've seen.

Next Up

I'm heading up to the Scranton area to check out the Binghamton Senators, my 19th active AHL venue. I was also planning to add the Utica Comets on the trip, but the weather on Sunday looks to be perfect for baseball, and the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders are home that day so I might just do that instead and save Utica for the AHL playoffs. Check back next week to see what happened.



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