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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wolves drop 3. Time to panic

When is it time to panic? The momentum of the season shifted this weekend from the Chicago Wolves to the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights with the Knights walking out of the Allstate Arena with two regulations wins against the Wolves and now are just three points back with three games in hand.

When is it time to panic? The Wolves didn’t look like the same team that has torn through the American Hockey League throughout most of the first part of the season. Let’s describe this as the second slump of the year. At three games it isn’t something that is as extensive as the slump that started in December, marked by the injury of Boris Valabik and the call-ups of Darren Haydar and Derek MacKenzie to the Atlanta Thrashers.

But it is a slump. And, like the previous slump, the warning signs were in Gwinnett and Atlanta Georgia. The Thrashers, who are still expected to enter their first post season in franchise history, are 2-6-2 in their last ten. Tampa Bay has roared into first place and the Carolina Hurricanes are right behind the Thrashers.

In Gwinnett, the Gladiators had stood atop their ECHL division for much of the season. Anchored by a strong scoring trio and a hot power play, they looked set to repeat their quest for the Kelly Cup. Admittedly, several of the best blue liners have been up and down to Chicago in the last weeks, including Jonathan Awe and Brian Lee. Also, center Brad Schell has been seeing time in Chicago. The Gladiators, who have a duel relationship, have also shipped Scott Mifsud to the Worcester Sharks.

Together Schell, Mifsud and the rookie Colton Fretter have dominated the top of the ECHL scorers stats this season at number one, two and eight, currently. The power play is still tops in the ECHL at a scorching 25.6 percent.

The Wolves slump started Friday night in San Antonio. Facing the San Antonio Rampage, a team like the Wolves expected a win. They were surprised when the Rampage took them 4-2. The Wolves put 30 shots on Rampage goalie David LeNeveu for only two goals. Fred Brathwaite, who has looked sharp throughout the last month, seemed to collapse under the weight of just 18 San Antonio shots on goal in the first two period, giving up four goals.

Someplace during the month long road trip called the Livestock Show, San Antonio found heart and discovered hockey. They are currently 5-5 in the last ten games and have moved out of the basement of the Western Division for the first time in years, pulling ahead of the Houston Aeros.

Blizzard conditions, a divisional rival and 14,113 in attendance. Saturday was a good night for the Wolves to shake off the Friday night Texas loss. Omaha, however, had different ideas. This was a classic contest, a showdown before the big showdown of the post-season. And Omaha, which was bested by the Wolves 4-1 so far this season, wanted to show the Wolves they could beat them in the Western Division playoffs.

The scoreboard said the Wolves had only five shots on goal in the first frame of Saturday’s game. I counted shots that, for example MacKenzie made in a short handed effort, that were never counted by the goal judge. Nevertheless, Curtis McElhinney made an outstanding effort for the Knights, stopping all the 29 shots on goal for a shut-out. Michael Garnett, on the other end of the ice, also had one of his best nights in goal of the season, but allowed a goal in, enough for the Knights to win.

Move forward to Sunday afternoon, another wet snowy day in Rosemont. The series this weekend was hard fought, and in the first seconds of play the gloves drop between Nathan Oystrick and Knight Brett Palin. But the Knights had none of the Wolves intimidation. Brandon Prust and Carsen Germyn both connected on Brathwaite, Germyn’s goal coming with just 12 seconds remaining in the period.

Jared Ross replied for Chicago in the second frame, but then Dustin Boyd uncorked the first of two goals of the night to win the contest. A final goal by Darren Haydar, late in the third frame seemed an empty threat as many in the crowd left.

So, when is it time to panic? This would seem to be as good a time as any. The Wolves need to end the slump with the next game, against a likely post-season opponent, the Hamilton Bulldogs. They enter March with a series of must win games against divisional opponents and conference opponents they will meet again in post-season.

They must win. Getting into the playoffs during a slump invites an early end to their season.

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