McIlrath Rounding out his GameJan 15, 2015
Despite having been the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, the Wolf Pack’s Dylan McIlrath harbors no illusions about making his way to the NHL as an offensive defenseman. The 6-5, 230-pound McIlrath’s calling card is physical play and hard-battling defense.
Still, every hockey player loves to score goals, and after a 2013-14 season that saw him light the lamp six times in 62 AHL games, tied for second-most among Wolf Pack defensemen, McIlrath could not buy a goal for much of this year’s first half. The first 32 games of his season, in fact, went without McIlrath getting off of the zero in the goal column.
That changed in a significant way this past Friday night, though, as McIlrath broke his drought with a flourish, scoring his first career pro overtime goal to give the Wolf Pack a 3-2 win over the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Syracuse Crunch. Then, as if to prove that huge tally was no fluke, McIlrath connected again the very next night in Springfield, helping the Pack to a 4-3 victory, also in overtime, over the Northeast Division-leading Falcons.
McIlrath had hardly been sitting around fretting about his dearth of goals, but he admits that banging the puck into the back of the Syracuse net in overtime sent him to a certain level of euphoria, even though it appeared that a Marek Hrivik try seconds before had actually found its way over the goal line.
“It felt really good,” McIlrath said of the OT winner. “I think it (the puck) might have squeaked in before, but I was definitely making sure it was getting to the back of the net. I usually don’t celebrate that hard, but it was a long time coming and it felt good.
“It’s funny, I started gripping the stick a little tight. I don’t usually think about that (not scoring goals), but when it’s that big of a drought, I really wanted to get one, and then came that big OT one and then another big goal in Springfield. It feels nice.”
The goal against Syracuse came as a result of McIlrath’s moving down deep in the offensive zone, crashing right down the middle and pouncing on a loose puck, after Syracuse goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gloved Hrivik’s bid right out into the slot.
“I’m not one for jumping in like that usually,” McIlrath said with a chuckle. “I saw the green light, saw a lane right down the middle, so I thought I’d take it.”
That play is typical of what McIlrath sees as the key to the Wolf Pack’s overtime success. The victory over the Crunch was Hartford’s sixth extra-time triumph of the season, and McIlrath points to a “go for broke” mentality as having been the most contributing factor.
“Honestly, I think it’s just taking some chances,” he said. “In those types of situations, it’s just kind of run-and-gun, so you’re going to have to take advantage of the time in-zone (in the offensive zone) and just hope you don’t get caught coming back. We’ve got some skilled players that have stepped up for us in those situations.”
McIlrath’s goal the next night was less dramatic, but still important, coming past the halfway point of the second period in a game in which the Wolf Pack had been blanked up to that point by Springfield goaltender Oscar Dansk. This one was off of a rush, as McIlrath took a back-diagonal pass from Ryan Haggerty and found Dansk’s five-hole, threading the puck through some net-front traffic on the way.
There is no real art, according to McIlrath, to getting the puck past sticks and bodies in that situation. The most important thing is to get it towards the net, and try to set your teammates up to help.
“You’ve just got to get it through, if you can find a way,” he said. “I think that’s a good team goal. We got a good net-front drive, a good post-up by Haggs (Haggerty), so if I just hit the net good things will happen, usually, when the goalie’s screened.”
McIlrath’s two-game goal streak actually gave him points in a pro career-high three straight games, as the Winnipeg native had registered an assist the previous Saturday against St. John’s. That was on a nifty setup to Chris Mueller, and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary 7-3 loss. It was also significant in that it came on the power play, after the Wolf Pack coaching staff had installed McIlrath in the net-front spot in which the injured Justin Vaive had excelled.
“I think I’m getting put in some different positions and getting some opportunity to kind of play in that (offensive) role,” McIlrath said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can, still knowing my bread and butter is my defense but trying to round out my whole game.”
Assistant coach, and former long-time NHL defenseman, Jeff Beukeboom, who runs the Wolf Pack defense, said of installing McIlrath net-front on the power play, “We needed someone who was going to play that role. Everyone knows that since Vaive’s been out, it’s hurt us. He’s been such a good presence there, whether it’s power play or five-on-five, so we looked around to see what we had, and we said, ‘Well, there’s a situation where maybe we could use him (McIlrath), and he might be effective.’ And to his credit, he’s worked hard at it, and hopefully Vaive’s back sooner rather than later, but at the same time, we’ll try anything to make the team better and to make the player better.”
Beukeboom, who was a big, bruising, shutdown-type of defenseman, like McIlrath, in his playing days, encourages McIlrath and his other more defensive-minded pupils, like Tommy Hughes, not to neglect the offensive side of the game.
“It’s not so much taking chances, as much as developing that part of the game,” Beukeboom said. “Even the guys who are so-called offensive guys, we don’t want taking chances. We want them recognizing situations, jumping in and being part of things. That’s been the focus all along, and especially a guy like Mac (McIlrath), and Tommy Hughes, that’s what it’s all about.
“You see the game, that’s what it’s all about, it’s got to be a four-man, five-man rush, consistently, and I think they recognize that. It’s not so much that you’re going to get offense out of it—you’re going to maybe contribute some offensively—but it’s going to create better defense, with gap control and getting up on the rush.”
Offensive production isn’t a must for a guy like McIlrath to establish himself in the NHL, says Beukeboom, but he can help himself by, in a way, using offensive pressure to set up defense.
“In his situation, it’s going to be more of being a sound, strong defenseman who wins his battles and who’s tough to play against.” Beukeboom said, “But if he can contribute a little bit offensively here and there and have good gap control, and get up on the rush so he does have good gap control, that’s going to pay dividends.”
For McIlrath, it’s all about proving that he can contribute in all areas of the game.
“You’ve got to just sometimes play your game, just play the way you grew up, like you can’t be too single-minded, just focusing on defense,” he explained. “Making plays on the blue line, that’s going to make or break your career, so you’ve got to keep the pucks in, and also when you’ve got good opportunities to shoot, you want to make sure they count.”
And as far as the goals go, the big fella won’t lose sleep thinking about them, but will enjoy them when they come.
“It’s going to feel good while it lasts, but I don’t know how long it will,” he said of his recent goal-tucking prowess. “I’m just trying to make the most of it, it’s always fun to score goals.”