Crawford's Corner: Several Re-acquaintances Highlight Pack ScheduleAug 31, 2015
I know that is easy to forget, as it’s been more than 13 years since the Pack and Amerks have seen each other, and since meeting in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals the two clubs have played only four times in 15 seasons, but the renewal of acquaintances between Hartford and Rochester is one of the interesting aspects of this year’s Wolf Pack schedule, which was officially released on Thursday.
It was sad to see good markets like Manchester, Glens Falls, Worcester, Norfolk, Hamilton and Oklahoma City leave the league, but the re-jiggering of the AHL map that was required by the westward move of five franchises caused Rochester, Toronto and Utica to be shifted to the Eastern Conference. That ensures that Wolf Pack fans will get a look at crops of prospects that they have basically never seen before. Rochester’s affiliate is Buffalo, and it’s been since 2010-11, when the Sabres were aligned with Portland, that the Wolf Pack has played a Buffalo affiliate. The Pack also last saw the Maple Leaf-affiliated Marlies in 2010-11, and haven’t gone up against prospects from Vancouver, which is Utica’s NHL parent, since playing a four-game series against the Manitoba Moose in 2008-09.
In their 18 seasons in the AHL, the Wolf Pack have never been in the same division with the storied Hershey Bears, alongside whom they will reside in the Atlantic Division. Same story with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who will be playing their 17th AHL season in 2015-16. And despite never having been in the same division with Hartford, those are two teams with whom the Pack have had some thrilling playoff series, including this past spring’s nip-and-tuck, six-game battle with the Bears.
Ken Gernander’s club will also be re-kindling some old animosities with the Providence Bruins, who were at one time the Wolf Pack’s biggest rival. The Pack and Bruins have played out of different divisions for the past four years, and were down to a four-game season series last year, after regularly duking it out at least eight times a year through the Wolf Pack’s first 14 seasons of play. It will again be an eight-game Hartford-Providence season series in 2015-16, and the Pack will be seeing a lot more of the Portland Pirates as well. Portland and Bridgeport will be the two most familiar opponents on the Wolf Pack schedule, with both season series’ featuring ten games each.
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will also be a divisional opponent this year, as the Phantom franchise was for the last three seasons of its run in Glens Falls, and the Pack will face Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton six times each, while seeing the other Keystone State club, the Bears, four times.
Aside from that relatively short season series with Hershey, the schedule is heavily weighted towards divisional competition. With ten games against Bridgeport and eight against Springfield added to the rest of its Atlantic Division slate, the Pack will play 52 of their 76 games against divisional rivals. And with the return of playoff qualification being determined by division, as opposed to conference, standings, key points will be on the line in all of those division games.
One fairly familiar foe from the past several seasons, the Albany Devils, have been moved out of the Pack’s division, but the two clubs will still meet six times during the season. That is good from a travel perspective, as Hartford and Albany are an easy day trip from one another, less than two hours apart. As far as the rest of the Devils’ North Division, the Wolf Pack play the Americans, Utica and St. John’s four times each and Binghamton, Syracuse and Toronto twice each.
Ah, the Crunch, we hardly knew ye’. Eight-game division series last season, after not playing one another at all the previous season, and having met only 18 times in the Pack’s first 17 years, and now back to separate divisions and only two meetings.
The Pack begin the 2015-16 season with four straight home games, then play seven of their next 11 on the road. By the time they get to December 27, they will have played only 14 home games out of 31 total outings, and then, from December 29 through January 10, they have six straight at home, their longest homestand of the campaign. The longest stretch of consecutive road games is five, which occurs twice, and the Pack finish with four straight on the road, including their only Canadian road trip of the year, with a morning-start game in Toronto and a season-concluding pair of games in St. John’s.
So the IceCaps, a team the Wolf Pack have played each year of IceCaps’ existence but who also will showcase an unfamiliar roster, due to an affiliation change from Winnipeg to Montreal, bookend the Pack’s schedule, as a Hartford-St. John’s matchup will kick off the Wolf Pack’s docket October 10 at the XL Center.
Finishing the regular season in Newfoundland, as the Pack did two seasons ago, is seemingly a good deal, as the chances of weather-related travel problems, the one negative to what is always a fun time in North America’s easternmost locale, are considerably less in mid-April than they would be in the dead of winter. Taking points out of Mile One Centre is no easy task no matter what the calendar says, though, and could be especially tough if playoff spots, or positioning, are on the line when the Wolf Pack and IceCaps bring down the curtain on the regular year April 15 and 16.