Born in the summer of 1997, the Hartford Wolf Pack has firmly established itself as one of the premier franchises in the American Hockey League, professional hockey's top player-development league.
Only seven current AHL franchises have continuously operated in the same city longer than the Wolf Pack have existed in Hartford.
Born in the summer of 1997, the Hartford Wolf Pack has firmly established itself as one of the premier franchises in the American Hockey League, professional hockey's top player-development league.
Only seven current AHL franchises have continuously operated in the same city longer than the Wolf Pack have existed in Hartford.
The Wolf Pack are the top player-development affiliate of the NHL's New York Rangers, and play at the XL Center, managed by Global Spectrum and the former home of the Hartford Whalers of the NHL and the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. The Pack joined the AHL for the 1997-98 season, after Madison Square Garden Corporation (MSG) bought the old Binghamton Rangers franchise and moved it to Hartford.
The Wolf Pack were a success right from the beginning, packing 12,934 fans into the Civic Center for their first-ever home game October 4, 1997 and finishing that season with 99 points under General Manager Don Maloney and Head Coach E.J. McGuire. The club kept its roll going into the postseason, knocking off in-state rival New Haven in the first round and coming from 3-2 down in the second round to oust Worcester in seven games. Unfortunately for Hartford, they lost their captain and inspirational leader Ken Gernander to a pulmonary embolism in the Conference Finals against Saint John. The series was tied at a game apiece when Gernander went down, and the Flames came down to Connecticut and swept three straight contests to advance to the Finals.
The next season, 1998-99, saw the Wolf Pack get off to an excellent start, winning their first four games and 10 of their first 14. The wins did not come as easily for the rest of the year, however, and the club finished at 35-31-6-5 for 83 points, the only time in the first five years of Wolf Pack history that the team did not hit the 40-win mark. The Pack closed the regular season on a roll, though, victorious in their last four games, and finished a solid second in the New England Division. Hartford swept close geographical rival Springfield in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a battle with the Providence Bruins, the regular-season champions, who had rolled up 56 wins and 120 points during the regular year. The Bruins would keep their magic going against the Wolf Pack with a four-game sweep, but with a few breaks, the Pack could easily have derailed the Providence express. Two of the games went to overtime (one a double-overtime marathon), one other was a one-goal decision and the fourth was a two-goal verdict.
Heading into the 1999-2000 campaign, the organization made a change behind the bench, bringing in veteran mentor John Paddock to guide the Wolf Pack. Upon joining the Pack, Paddock already had two Calder Cup championships on his resume, and he would enjoy another great season in his first year in Hartford. The Wolf Pack got out of the gate quickly again, and then got even hotter for the stretch run. The club would put together a stretch in which it lost only five out of 33 games (26-5-2), before clinching first-place overall on April 5th. The final record of 49-22-7-2 for 107 points would send Hartford into the Calder Cup playoffs as the league's top seed, and position them well for a long run.
The dream season nearly ended with a thud in the first round against Springfield, as the upstart Falcons grabbed a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five series. The Wolf Pack recovered, though, and battled through two elimination games to move on. The Worcester IceCats went down in five games in the second round, and that set up a classic rematch with Providence in the Conference Finals. Again, the Pack found themselves with their backs against the wall, down three-games-to-one in the series against the defending champs, and 2-0 late in the second period of Game Five. They fashioned a stirring comeback, however, in the third period of Game Five, and then won Game Six in Providence (snapping the Bruins' 16-game home postseason winning streak), setting the stage for a winner-take-all matchup that lived up to all expectations. Forced to come from behind again, the Wolf Pack found themselves down 2-1 in the third period, in front of a crowd of 10,623 at the Civic Center. The Pack forced overtime with a goal just prior to the halfway point of the third, and then sent the crowd into ecstasy with a goal by Terry Virtue (a former Bruin), which deflected off of ex-Wolf Pack Peter Ferraro, the first playoff overtime tally in the history of the franchise.
After that emotional high, the Wolf Pack had to come back down to earth for the Calder Cup Finals, and their opponent was a Rochester Americans team that was second only to the Wolf Pack in regular season points, with 104. The Pack's momentum was not to be stopped at that point, though. The teams split the first four games, but Hartford took control with a 3-0 victory at home in Game Five, and then blitzed the Amerks with three first-period goals in Game Six. By the time the final buzzer sounded at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, the Pack had won comfortably by a score of 4-1 and had brought Hartford its first-ever pro sports championship.
It would be a difficult task to match that triumph, but the Wolf Pack followed up with another solid season in 2000-01, with Al Coates as the team's new Vice-President and General Manager. The Pack ended up 14 games over .500 and second only to league regular-season-champion Worcester in the New England Division. Once again, the club finished strongly, going 4-1-0-1 in the final six games of the regular season, but this time the positive results would not carry over into the postseason. The opening round would be another battle in the rivalry with Providence, and after winning the first two games at home, the Wolf Pack would have the tables turned on them. The Bruins battled back from a 3-1 deficit to win Game Three, and then would squeak out one-goal victories in Games Four and Five to triumph in the series. That marked the first time in their history that the Pack failed to get by the first round of the playoffs.
The Wolf Pack came back for the 2001-02 campaign and once again were strong in the regular season. The first 30 games were unremarkable, producing a 13-13-4 mark, but right after Christmas, the team took off. Led by the scoring exploits of the likes of Rico Fata and Jamie Lundmark and the puck-moving prowess of Mike Mottau, the Wolf Pack reeled off a 7-1-1-1 streak to get into the thick of the hunt for a division championship. Then in February and March, the Pack went more than a month without losing a game in regulation, ultimately losing out on the overall points championship on the final day of the regular season.
The playoffs carried plenty of excitement as well, with the Pack getting by Manchester in the first round by the slimmest of margins. The Wolf Pack fought off elimination after going down two-games-to-one in the best-of-five series, and the decisive Game Five at the Civic Center went into double-overtime. It took a goal by defenseman Marty Wilford (the first double-overtime tally in franchise annals) nearly halfway through the second extra session to sink the Monarchs. The Pack's luck ran out, however, in the second round against Hamilton. They won another double-OT contest (on another score by Wilford) to earn a split of the first two games, but then the Bulldogs reeled off three straight victories at home to deny the Pack another shot at the Conference Finals.
2002-03 was a season of change for the Wolf Pack, and the newness began in the coach's office. The Rangers replaced Paddock and Busniuk with Ryan McGill as head coach and Nick Fotiu as his assistant. McGill was fresh off a victory in the Memorial Cup with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League, and Fotiu a former long-time Ranger and Hartford Whaler. The cast of characters on the ice was largely new as well, and the new crew meshed well in the early season. After going 12-6-4-2 in their first 24 games, though, the club started to experience some difficulties. A rash of injuries in both Hartford and New York impacted the Wolf Pack's lineup, and the parent club was able to pick up some marquee players in trades by surrendering some individuals who had been part of the Pack's core. Still, McGill and Co. kept the ship sailing straight, and Hartford again made the AHL's postseason. This time, though, it was in a best-of-three qualifying-round series, and their opponent was a scrappy Springfield Falcon club. The Wolf Pack knew that there was little margin for error in such a short series, but they still found themselves playing from behind when they could least afford to. After falling behind 3-0 in back-to-back contests, the Pack dominated the late going of both games but could not climb all the way back. They were stunned to find their postseason over almost before it began.
That spring brought further personnel shuffling, as Coates moved on to a position with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks as Senior Vice-President of Business Operations. Jim Schoenfeld, a veteran of nearly 600 games as an NHL coach and over 700 contests as a player, took over as Wolf Pack G.M. after a year as an assistant coach with the Rangers. The combination of Schoenfeld in the executive chair and McGill and Fotiu back for a second season behind the bench proved to be potent, as the Pack reeled off a season that nearly equaled the lofty heights reached by the 1999-2000 squad.
The team got off to an outstanding start, going 8-0-3-1 in its first 12 games, and despite being hit by an avalanche of recalls for most of the season, consistently stayed atop the Atlantic Division. In contrast to the previous year, the team was hardly an offensive juggernaut, with Chad Wiseman’s 25 goals and 52 points topping the players who spent the bulk of the year with the Pack. Defensively, though, the team was a world-beater, led by an unlikely hero in goaltender Jason LaBarbera. A fourth-year pro who had spent much of his first two years in the ECHL and had never been a number-one man in the AHL until late in 2002-03, LaBarbera was slated to battle for the backup job in Hartford until 2001 Ranger first-round pick Dan Blackburn suffered a shoulder injury during offseason workouts. LaBarbera seized the opportunity and not only provided the Pack with a reliable go-to guy in net, but turned in a record-setting season.
No AHL backstop in the previous 67 years of league play had registered more than nine shutouts in a season, and LaBarbera surpassed that in mid-February. He finished with 13 whitewashes, to go along with 34 wins, a 1.59 goals-against average and a 93.6% save percentage, all new franchise records. That earned the former Western Hockey Leaguer AHL MVP honors, plus the Baz Bastien Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.
A flurry of trade-deadline moves by the Rangers helped round out the Wolf Pack’s roster for the playoffs, and one acquisition, winger Jozef Balej, proved to be particularly key. He played in only five regular season games for the Pack, but established himself as the team’s top offensive force in the postseason. The Slovakian import would score nine goals, including four game-winners, and add seven assists for 16 points in 16 playoff contests, as the Wolf Pack treated the fans of Hartford to another exciting playoff run.
The club finished the regular season 7-2-1 in their last 10 regular season tilts to amass 44 wins and 102 points and grab the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They fairly breezed through the first two rounds, losing only one of nine games on the way to ousting Portland and Worcester. After a second-round sweep over the IceCats, the Pack had a 12-day layoff before the beginning of their Conference Final matchup with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and the club could never quite regain its previous sharpness.
The series with the Penguins still turned out to be a classic, though, the third seven-gamer in Wolf Pack history. The two teams split the first two games in Wilkes-Barre, and then the Pack took a two-games-to-one lead with a 3-2 home win in Game Three. The Penguins rebounded to win Game Four, 5-4, and then took the next contest 3-2 in overtime, forcing the Wolf Pack into a must-win situation on the road in Game Six. This time it was the Pack’s turn to fight back, as they disappointed a sellout crowd at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre with a 4-1 victory, setting up a climactic Game Seven, the very next night at the Hartford Civic Center. While the Wolf Pack had won their first two trips to Game Seven in team history, they were not so lucky this time. The game was scoreless through the first two periods, before the two clubs traded goals within a span of 1:49 near the midpoint of the third. The tension mounted as the contest headed into sudden-death, and as so often happens, the winner came out of nowhere on a seemingly innocent play. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Colby Armstrong intercepted a Wolf Pack clearing attempt along the boards and simply threw it at the net. Matt Murley, with his back to the cage, deflected the heave and it eluded a stunned LaBarbera, sending the Penguins to the Calder Cup Finals and the Wolf Pack to a summer of pride about an excellent season, but also of disappointment in not achieving their final goal.
The next year, 2004-05, was a strange one for the whole hockey world, as the NHL lockout wiped out the entire season at the top level. Most teams, including the Wolf Pack, were strengthened by having players on their teams who would probably have stayed in the NHL if that league had been playing, and as a consequence the level of play in the American League was extremely high. No club was better than the Pack in the early going, as Ryan McGill’s crew burst out of the gate with a franchise-record nine consecutive wins. The team slowed down somewhat after that, but still put together a tremendous regular season, finishing with a franchise-record 50 wins and 106 standings points. That was only good for second place in the Atlantic Division standings, however, as the Manchester Monarchs were even more successful, with 51 wins and 110 points. The most clear illustration of the strength of the league, however, was how the postseason played out. The Wolf Pack and Monarchs were among four 100-point teams to fail to make it out of the first round. The Pack were knocked out by a Lowell Lock Monster club that had a 100-point season of its own and came back to win three games in a row in the Division Semifinal matchup, after the Wolf Pack had taken two of the first three.
With their 50-win season in 2004-05, the Pack finished the campaign with a .606 all-time winning percentage and the most total wins of any AHL club during the eight years that the Wolf Pack had been in the league.
The Pack began a new era in July of 2005, as Jim Schoenfeld added head-coaching duties to his title, and two new assistant coaches were brought on board. One of the new lieutenants was the long-time pillar of the franchise, Ken Gernander, who retired from his playing career as the Wolf Pack’s all-time leading scorer and as the AHL’s record-holder in the category of most career playoff games-played. The other was Ulf Samuelsson, who began his 16-year NHL run with seven seasons in a Hartford Whaler uniform, went on to win two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, and spent four years with the Rangers.
The new coaching staff shepherded an extremely young team that was without the veteran goaltending that had backboned the previous two Wolf Pack clubs. Several of the fresh faces proved to be more than ready for AHL competition, however, and once again the Pack would be among the elite teams in the league. A young line of Dwight Helminen centering Nigel Dawes and Colby Genoway would combine for 93 goals on the season, and defenseman Thomas Pöck would set franchise records for points (61), goals (15) and assists (46) by a blueliner. Finnish import Jarkko Immonen touched up the AHL for 30 tallies and 70 points, and netminder Al Montoya, the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft by the Rangers, racked up 23 wins. Alexandre Giroux, a relative graybeard at the ripe old age of 24, posted career highs of 36 goals and 67 points, and Brad Smyth made a late-season return to the Wolf Pack and the scene of so many of his triumphs, via a loan deal with the L.A. Kings.
The Pack spent most of the season chasing a powerful Portland Pirate squad for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and they were never able to run the Pirates down. They did, however, run up outstanding totals of 48 wins and 104 points, and entered the playoffs a solid second in the Atlantic.
Their first-round opponent in 2005-06 was Manchester, which had finished 11 points behind the Wolf Pack in the regular season. The series was an entertaining, back-and-forth affair, although it started out with a defensive battle, a 1-0 Manchester victory in Hartford. The Pack came back with a 3-2 overtime win in Game Two, but fell behind 5-2 in the third period of Game Three in Manchester. Schoenfeld's troops then staged a furious rally, scoring three times to tie the score and force another extra session. The contest ended up being extended into a second overtime, before the Monarchs finally triumphed.
The momentum shifted again in Game Four, as the Wolf Pack dominated on the road from start to finish on the way to a 7-0 laugher. Things then got even wilder in Game Five back in Hartford. The Pack rolled to a 4-0 lead in the game's first 14 minutes, and led 4-1 when Montoya suffered what would turn out to be a season-ending shoulder injury. The Monarchs stormed back against reliever Robert Gherson, tying the game at four before the 11:00 mark of the second. The Wolf Pack broke back to jump out front by a 6-4 count, but the third period belonged to Manchester. The Monarchs put up a four-spot against Gherson in the third, charging to an improbable 8-6 victory and a 3-2 lead in the series.
Needing a spark for Game Six on the road, the Wolf Pack turned to first-year goalie Chris Holt, who had seen action in only nine AHL games during the regular season, and all of one since November. True to the script of the series, Holt came up with a gem of a performance and the Wolf Pack forced a seventh game with a 3-1 win. Holt carried his solid play over into the deciding game, and the Wolf Pack raised their all-time record in Game Sevens to 3-1 with a tight 2-1 victory.
That set up a showdown with the regular season division champion Pirates, and though the Wolf Pack continued to battle valiantly, they did not have enough to get past the top seed. The two clubs split two games in Hartford to open the series, and then, due to scheduling difficulties, the Pack faced four straight games in Portland. They were able to get as far as a sixth game, but ran out of gas in overtime of that encounter, losing by a count of 5-4, one goal short of forcing another Game Seven, which would have been back at the Hartford Civic Center.
The Pack led into their 10th-anniversary 2006-07 season with another change to the coaching staff, as Ulf Samuelsson returned to the NHL ranks as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes. Moving into his slot alongside fellow assistant Ken Gernander was former long-time NHL defenseman J.J. Daigneault.
That 2006-07 campaign saw the Wolf Pack get off to an uncharacteristically slow start. Plagued by scoring difficulties, a team that was even younger than the previous year’s edition won only one of its first seven games and five of its first seventeen. Around Thanksgiving weekend, however, rookie Ryan Callahan began to emerge as an offensive force, and the Pack started to turn games that had been one-goal losses into tight wins. Callahan reeled off a team-record eight-game goal-scoring streak from late November through mid-December, and a five-game winning skein for the team started Jim Schoenfeld’s club on a steady rise.
The Wolf Pack were still in last place in the Atlantic Division as late as the Christmas holiday, but starting New Year’s Eve they strung together a 12-1-1-0 run. That hot streak catapulted them all the way from the division basement to contending for first place.
Callahan would continue sniping goals at a regular clip, and even notched the game-winning goal for the Planet USA side in the 2007 AHL All-Star game in Toronto, with only three seconds left in the annual showcase contest. Just prior to the All-Star Classic, Callahan’s Wolf Pack teammate, and ex-Junior teammate, defenseman Dan Girardi, who was to have opposed him for the Canadian team, would earn a callup to the Rangers that would last the rest of the season. Callahan would join him just over a month later, and those two youngsters would make strong contributions to the parent club’s playoff push, and to the first Ranger playoff series triumph since 1997.
Even with losing those two key young stalwarts, though, the Wolf Pack’s confidence was not shaken. Fellow young guns like Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky, Dane Byers, Lauri Korpikoski and others were able to ensure that the team sustained the momentum it had built since the turn of the new year. The Pack finished the regular season with only three regulation losses in their last 12 games (8-3-0-1) and compiled another glittering record, ending up 47-29-3-1 for 98 points and in second place in the Atlantic.
The playoffs began with yet another exciting series that went the limit, but this time the Wolf Pack would find themselves on the wrong end. The matchup was with their Rhode Island arch-rivals the Providence Bruins, the fourth all-time playoff meeting between the two clubs but the first since 2001.
The Pack and Bruins split the first two games in Hartford, sending the series to Providence for three straight. The Wolf Pack had been dynamite on the road all year, going 25-15-0 during the regular season, and they carried that over into the postseason. The Pack won two of the three games in Providence, including a 1-0 shutout in Game Five that gave them two chances to win the series at home. The Bruins, however, would dig deep and shrug off that seemingly bleak set of circumstances. The visitors captured Game Six rather easily, 5-2, and then managed to pull off a victory in the deciding Game Seven as well, squeaking by the Wolf Pack by a margin of 5-4 despite being outshot in the game by a count of 44-21.
Despite the first-round disappointment, it was a very successful developmental year for the Pack and the Rangers organization. Callahan became the first Wolf Pack forward to earn AHL All-Rookie honors, Dubinsky and Immonen both cracked the 20-goal mark, defensemen like Dave Liffiton, Ivan Baranka and Corey Potter made big strides, and Montoya had another strong campaign, winning 27 games, posting six shutouts and finishing fifth in the AHL in goals-against average (2.30).
The Wolf Pack’s launching of its second decade of play in the AHL came with franchise icon Ken Gernander advancing to another new level of identification with the team.
The parent Rangers named Jim Schoenfeld their assistant general manager, player personnel July 23, 2007, and that opened the door for Gernander to assume the Wolf Pack head-coaching reins, after two seasons as an assistant to Schoenfeld. Daigneault was back for a second year as a Pack assistant, and the organization moved Pat Boller from the Ranger staff to Hartford as a second assistant to Gernander.
The transition sparked the Wolf Pack to another dominating season in 2007-08, as veteran defenseman Andrew Hutchinson (named in January to captain the team), led the Pack to a team-record 110 standings points and a franchise record-tying 50 victories. Only the brilliance of the division-rival Bruins, who steamrolled to 55 wins and 117 points, kept the Wolf Pack from being the top team in the Eastern Conference.
Hutchinson, a full-time NHL’er the previous two campaigns, posted the best season ever by a Wolf Pack defenseman and became the first Pack blueliner to capture the Eddie Shore Award, given to the AHL’s top D-man. Hutchinson led league defenders in points, with 64, and assists, with 46, and set Wolf Pack team records for points and goals (18) by a defenseman. The sixth-year pro also notched the first-ever hat trick, and five-point game, by a Pack blueliner.
Hutchinson’s defense partner for most of the season, and fellow former Michigan State University Spartan, Potter, also had a great year, going +33, the best single-season plus/minus figure in Wolf Pack history. Top-notch offensive threat P.A. Parenteau, too, was a key cog, as he registered the fourth-most points in the AHL with 84.
For the second straight season, however, the Wolf Pack were unable to make their way out of the first round of the postseason, and for the second time in three years, it was Kevin Dineen and the Portland Pirates who frustrated the Pack.
The Wolf Pack captured Game One of the best-of-seven series, 3-1 at home, but then dropped four straight one-goal games, a longer losing streak than they had suffered all regular season.
The Pirates would go on to prove that series win was no fluke, as they ousted the regular-season league-champion Bruins in six games in the second round, but the Wolf Pack were left to ponder a quick and vexing end to what had been one of the most positive seasons in a long run of success.
The second year behind the bench for the coaching trio of Gernander, Daigneault and Boller, the 2008-09 campaign, saw the Wolf Pack capture the Atlantic Division title, the third division crown in team history. The Pack also made the Calder Cup playoffs for the 12th time in 12 seasons in 2008-09, the longest active such streak in the AHL. Once again, though, the club could not get past the first-round playoff hurdle.
Led by the goaltending of Matt Zaba, who went 14-3-0 in his last 17 regular-season appearances after spending much of the first half as a little-used backup, and the offense of Parenteau, who earned First-Team AHL All-Star honors for the first time in his career, the Wolf Pack roared down the stretch. The club played .800 hockey in the season’s last 25 games, going 19-4-1-1, the best record in the league over that span.
After salting away the division championship, the Wolf Pack won the first two games of their first-round series against the Worcester Sharks. Their fortunes, however, took a downturn in Game Three, which they lost 3-2 in double overtime, and never went back on the upswing. That was the first of four straight losses, and the Sharks would go on to win the first-ever playoff meeting between the two New England rivals, in a significant upset.
The next season, 2009-10, proved to be an “Unlucky 13th” year for the Wolf Pack.
For the first time in team history, the Wolf Pack would miss the postseason in 2009-10, ending the longest active streak of consecutive playoff appearances in the AHL.
Corey Locke’s 2009-10 campaign was one of the most productive individual performances ever by a Wolf Pack player, as the sixth-year pro totaled a career-high 85 points and 31 goals in 76 games. Those 85 points were the second-most ever by a Pack player who had garnered all of his points in a season with the Wolf Pack, and were good for third overall in the league. Locke was named a Second-Team AHL All-Star in recognition of those efforts
As a team, though, the Wolf Pack’s season was derailed by a run of recalls and injuries that led to a 3-12-4-1 drought from late January through mid-March. The club recovered from that skid to win five of its last six games and eight of its last 11, most of that time missing Parenteau and veteran defenseman Anders Eriksson to recall, but it was not to be enough. The Pack finished over .500 for the 13th straight season, at 36-33-6-5 for 83 points, but fell three points short of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
That 2009-10 season also turned out to be the end of the first era of the Wolf Pack name. The club was re-christened the Connecticut Whale in November of 2010, after its business operations were taken over by Whalers Sports & Entertainment, a group led by Howard Baldwin, the man responsible for first bringing pro hockey to Hartford with the World Hockey Association’s Whalers in the early 1970s.
The team actually started 2010-11 still under the Wolf Pack banner, before a re-branding ceremony on November 27 in front of a crowd of 13,089, the second-largest XL Center gathering in team history. The newly-named Whale won that game, 3-2 in a shootout, over Bridgeport, starting a 12-1-0-2 run that put Connecticut into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Another highlight of that 2010-11 campaign was the “Whale Bowl”, the second outdoor game in the history of the AHL, played between the Whale and the arch-rival Providence Bruins February 19 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT, the home of UConn Husky football. That event, the highlight of a two-week outdoor hockey festival at Rentschler, was attended by a crowd of 21,673, at that time the largest single-game AHL attendance ever.
Buoyed by the goaltending of Dov Grumet-Morris, who started 17 of the last 27 games after spending much of the first two-thirds of the season in the ECHL, the Whale grabbed third place in the Atlantic Division with a record of 40-32-2-6 for 88 points. Once again, however, the first round of the playoffs proved too high a hurdle to leap, as division-champion Portland got by the Whale in six games.
That opening-round drought was finally snapped, after four straight first-round ousters, in the Whale’s 15th season of play, and first full season under the Whale name, 2011-12. A balanced Whale team finished second only to Bridgeport in the new Northeast Division, trailing their in-state rivals by five points, and the AHL’s switch to a conference-based playoff format pitted the sixth-seeded Whale against the third-seed Sound Tigers in a best-of-five first round series.
It was the first-ever postseason meeting between the two Nutmeg State teams, and the Whale would ruin the fine season enjoyed by the Sound Tigers and rookie head coach Brent Thompson, a former Wolf Pack defenseman, by throwing a thick blanket over the Bridgeport attack and pulling an upset.
Not that the Sound Tigers didn’t have enough opportunities—they averaged 43 shots per game in the three-game series—but they struggled mightily to solve Whale netminder Cam Talbot. Talbot, who had been the backup to Chad Johnson for most of the year, took hold of the number-one job late in the regular season and carried strong momentum over into the playoffs. He totally frustrated the Sound Tigers in the first two games of the series, becoming the first goaltender in franchise history to post a shutout in his first career pro playoff start (a 42-save performance in Game One) and also the first to ring up back-to-back postseason shutouts after stopping another 41 in Game Two, leading the Whale to a pair of 3-0 road wins. The Whale would never trail in the series, as they completed the sweep with a 4-3 overtime win at home in Game Three, giving the club its first playoff series win since 2006.
Connecticut was not able to pull a second straight upset in the next round, as the Norfolk Admirals, a regular-season juggernaut that put together a league-record 28-game winning streak on the way to a regular-season title, knocked off the Whale in a six-game series. That was the toughest test the Admirals underwent in what would turn out to be a championship run, though, as the two teams split the first two games and the deciding Game Six in Norfolk went to overtime. The Calder Cup-winning Admirals didn’t lose more than one game in any of their other series’, and swept the last two rounds after getting by the Whale.
Talbot remained strong in the second round, finishing the Whale’s postseason run with a stellar 93.9% save percentage and a 2.10 goals-against average. Another big surprise was the play of Marek Hrivik, who was a virtual unknown when he joined the Whale March 31 from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Hrivik led Connecticut in postseason goals with five and tied for the team lead in points with nine.
The end of the 2011-12 season marked the close of the Whalers Sports & Entertainment era, but AEG Management CT, which had handled the team’s business operations from 2007 until the arrival of WSE in 2010, once again assumed the business stewardship in July of 2012. That brought the management of the team and the XL Center back under the same umbrella, with the Rangers continuing to run the hockey operation, as they had throughout the history of the franchise.
The Whale’s 2012-13 season, its last of three under the Whale name before the change back to the Wolf Pack identity, was marked by a slow start, an excellent middle and a disappointing end.
It was an unusual season, with the NHL lockout pushing the start of the NHL season all the way back to mid-January, and the Whale had a difficult time finding its stride early on. Goaltender Cam Talbot, who had emerged as an ace late in the 2011-12 season and in the playoffs, suffered an off-season injury and sat out the first four games, and Connecticut’s roster did not feature as many players who probably would have been in the NHL were it not for the labor dispute as did those of many other AHL teams.
Unheralded rookie Kyle Jean got off to a strong start, scoring a penalty shot goal in the season opener and notching at least a point in each of the first seven games, but much of the rest of the Whale offense took some time to come around. That, and the absence of Talbot, contributed to the club not getting a win until the fifth game of the season. After that, Ken Gernander’s club reeled off a run of nine wins in 13 games, with Talbot starting 11 of those contests.
Following Thanksgiving weekend, the Whale hit a bit of a skid again, and the month of December was not kind. The team was 4-9-1-0 in 14 December games and was outscored 46-29, and at the turn of the New Year the Whale languished in last place in the Eastern Conference.
A switch seemed to go off with the arrival of 2013, though, and the Whale would go on to be one of the stronger clubs in the league for a period of nearly four months. The end of the lockout certainly seemed to contribute to that, as much of the AHL lost significant top-end talent to their respective NHL affiliates, and two trades made by the parent New York Rangers also appeared to change the dynamic of the Whale team.
First, big, bruising winger Brandon Mashinter was acquired from the San Jose Sharks for Tommy Grant on January 16, and then just over a week later, forward Chad Kolarik, who had been dueling with Kris Newbury for the Whale scoring lead, was moved to Pittsburgh in exchange for fellow veteran forward Benn Ferriero. Although the loss of Kolarik’s offense was significant, the two deals clearly sparked the team, as the Whale finished January with a 7-3-1-1 record in 12 games, and then went 5-1-1-1 in its first eight games in February.
The Whale’s experienced players keyed the surge, with Newbury and Brandon Segal providing consistent offense, and defensemen Mike Vernace, Blake Parlett and Logan Pyett all taking care of both ends of the ice strongly. After a five-game winning streak from February 9-17, the Whale had climbed to 25-21-4-2 for 56 points and into sixth place in the conference.
After a 2-4-1-1 slump, the Whale were given a boost by rookie netminder Jason Missiaen, the tallest goaltender in North American hockey at 6-8, who took the reins from Talbot for a stretch and reeled off four straight wins from March 10-22. That was part of a stretch of eight wins in ten games through April 6. The Whale won in Bridgeport that night of April 6, 3-2, and seemed well-positioned to make the playoffs, at 35-27-5-3 for 78 points and in seventh place in the conference.
Little did they know that would be their last win of the season.
The Whale had six more games left on their schedule after that victory over the Sound Tigers, and as it would turn out, would have had only to win one of them to clinch a postseason berth. Sadly for the team, though, that one win eluded the group, as it finished 0-5-1-0 in the last six, ending up two points behind Hershey for the conference’s last playoff spot. What made that all the more heartbreaking was the fact that all but the last of those losses were by one goal (or one goal with an empty-netter), and the Whale had the lead at least once in four of the last five.
So the coaching staff and players were left to ponder what might have been, as the team endured only the second missed playoffs in the 16-year history of the franchise. On the positive side, the club finished above .500 (35-32-6-3, 79 points) for a 15th time in 16 seasons, and the Whale’s record of 22-10-3-3 (a .658 winning percentage) from January 4 through April 6 was the third-best mark in the league over that span.
Individually, Newbury led the team in point-scoring for a third straight season, amassing 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists) to crack the top ten in the AHL. Segal topped the club in goals with 24, including a six-game goal-scoring streak in late March and early April that was the second-longest in team history. Talbot, meanwhile, was one of the biggest workhorses in the league, winning 25 games and playing the third-most minutes of any goaltender in the AHL, and third-most in franchise history, with 3,105. Amongst the young prospects, Christian Thomas improved dramatically as the year progressed, tying for seventh among AHL rookies in goals with 19, and former New York Ranger first-round draft picks Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Dylan McIlrath all played regular roles for the Whale and gained valuable experience, with Kreider and Miller seeing significant NHL time with the Rangers as well.
More transition would come the franchise’s way shortly after the end of the 2012-13 campaign as well. After one season of the team’s being back under the management of AEG, Global Spectrum would take over control of the XL Center, and along with it the business operation of the hockey club. In conjunction with that, MSG and Global Spectrum revived the Wolf Pack identity, changing the team nickname back to the Wolf Pack label that had defined it for the first 13 years of its existence in Hartford.