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Sunday, November 11, 2007

1,000 miles to hockey; Wolves take 3 more games

I’ve had to cancel the first leg of my trip, from Chicago to Moline, IL as the traffic on the expressways leaving the city are too much to make the 7 PM game time. So, let’s set it up as a Wolves victory, 2-1 over the Quad City Flames, the second win by the Wolves over the Flames this season.

In addition to that news is the addition to the team of Brent Sterling. Sterling was sent down from Atlanta apparently due to a lack of production. Rookie of the year while playing with the Wolves in the 2007 season, and American Hockey League scoring champion, the key question is whether he will produce back on the Wolves or merely mess up the lines. This first night, in Moline, Sterling is credited with a single shot on goal and no points or assists.

Windsor, Ontario, November 8, 300 miles from Chicago--- The St. Michael’s Major’s set up a wall in the Windsor Arena as Anthony Grieco, 18, stopped forty shots on goal in a 3-2 overtime win against the home team Windsor Spitfires here.

The Spitfires offensive play was frustrated by an inability to penetrate Grieco, who played for the University of North Dakota last year, but did not receive ice time there. This year, he is putting up a 93.6 percent save percentage.

Syracuse, New York, November 9, 800 miles from Chicago--- I noticed, as I entered the rink in Windsor the number of banners hanging from the ceiling. It is a sign of the quality of the team if it has a lot of banners. The Spitfires had three. Syracuse, as established and well known a hockey team as any in the American league, has just two. And neither is for the Calder Cup.

A banner hangs in the rafters for a 1954 NBA championship.

The crowd is smaller than I expect and not nearly as knowledgeable about hockey as I’d hoped. Several college-aged kids drop down in seats next to me, beer spilling on the floor, and attempt to taunt the Wolves.

The building was described on-line at Wolfkeeper as a bandbox, and the Onondaga County War Memorial does not disappoint there. Somewhat larger than the auditoriums I see at the Chicago Public Schools, I think that it might comfortably fit inside the footprint of the auditorium at Lane Tech High School.

But, within 7:50 of the first period, former Wolves captain Derek Mackenzie has scored a goal, a second goal has been potted and the Wolves are trying to kill their third 5:3 power play, led by Sterling. I’m thinking of whether Sterling will force me to lead with a piece on how former NHL players return to the AHL with a chip on the shoulder.

Behind 2-0, Fred Brathwaite, who has had to deflect too many rebounds in the first eight minutes, and has had to let two in—the scorers never seem to be able to count all the shots on goal correctly—begins to stand firm and with him, the Wolves too.

As the Wolves begin to turn the tide on the Crunch, scoring a goal first through the efforts of Andre Deveaux. Jaimie Koharski demonstrates to the crowd how wrong a referee can be. Brathwaite gets into a battle in front of the net and ends up on his belly, with the puck slipping out and out of his grasp. But Koharski can’t see it because Koharski is on the other side of Brathwaite. And, Koharski doesn’t skate up to take a closer look, whistling the play stopped.

Watching this, as the crowd explodes into “ref you suck,” you have to pause and wonder what would have happened to this game if the Crunch had been able to take another goal in the first period? The puck was just sitting there, steaming. All it needed for the fireworks was a Crunch player who wanted to be a hero.

By the end of the first frame, the Wolves have recovered the two goals and tied the game. The scoring is over for the Crunch as the scoring machine that consists of the various Wolves lines begins to bear on the hapless Crunch goalie, Adam Monro. The singing, the dancing and the spilling beer are all pointless now. The Crunch seemed doomed to fail tonight as Sterling redeems himself with two goals, making up for the two 5:3 situations he helped create. And Alexandre Giroux puts two in also. In fact, it is obvious as the game wears on that Giroux and perhaps Sterling too, is trying desperately to score a hat-trick tonight. And it is with frustration that they see the final penalty of the game against the Wolves by Scott Lehman prematurely ending their efforts.

The final is a 5-2 Wolves victory, with Lindsey Cramer of the Syracuse Post Standard saying the next morning, “Chicago is a deep, fierce, offensive team, a pseudo-NHL team in Wolves clothing. Chicago was cool even in the face of its early hole, pressuring the Crunch into defensive mistakes and make its comeback more a matter of time than talent.”

Hamilton, ON, November 10, 1,000 miles from Chicago— The Copps Coliseum has been the home to some great moments in Brathwaite’s career, a Memorial Cup win in juniors and last year’s 1-0 shutout of the Bulldogs during the Calder Cup semi-finals come immediately to mind.

Brathwaite seems home in the older building, drawing strength from it and a crowd that is appreciative of hockey and his place in its history. In the wings, stands a young goalie, just 24 years old, Gherson looks like he would be more at home playing for the Windsor Spitfires than the Wolves or the Atlanta Thrashers.

Brathwaite is in net again tonight, the second of three games in a row for the Wolves on the road trip. Along with the Toronto Marlies, the Wolves remain undefeated in regulation play in the AHL.

The Bulldogs owned the Wolves throughout last season, earning a point in every matchup with the Chicago team in the regular season and allowing them only one victory in the semi-final.

But, the Bulldogs aren’t the same team now that won the Calder Cup in June. And the Wolves jump to a 2-0 lead in the first frame of the period as Sterling potts his third and fourth goal of the season, which for him is just three AHL games.

The Bulldogs reply with three goals, bringing the Niagara Peninsula team ahead 3-2 at the end of two frames, including a very physical goal that starts as a wrap-around against Brathwaite that is hammered in by Janni Lahti.

The Wolves reply in the third frame with their second and third lines each adding a goal and then holding on as the Bulldogs attempt to bring the game into extra time for the win.

The smog fills the hollows and gathers around the lamp posts as we head back to the border. We do not return to Hamilton again in the regular season. The fans express their frustration at losing. Losing a game against the Wolves. Losing a franchise despite the deposit of an extraordinary number of season tickets for the Predators.

We express our hope to return here again in May. And, the answer to our questions about Sterling seem satisfied. He is here to play.

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