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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wolves win, .1 second left, 3-2 over Bulldogs

Time expired as a puck slipped past Hamilton Bulldogs goalie Yann Danis, putting the Chicago Wolves ahead 3-2 in a contest at the Allstate Arena Wednesday. The power play goal, off the stick of Darren Haydar, marked the Wolves’ 45th win of the season, putting them in first place in the American Hockey League.

The fourth game in the current win streak, the Wolves have won 16 points in their last ten contests, which is the best current record in the Western Conference. Ondrej Pavelec goes from strength to strength. His last regulation loss was February 1 against the Milwaukee Admirals, 5-4. Pavelec who took a shot to the mask, blocked another shot with an unusual jump, and nabbed a third shot while airborne Wednesday, has shown a masterful streak and new confidence in the past month. His puck handling is in the zone.

At his back is Boris Valabik. Valabik single-handedly ate a large part of a power play against the Wolves by freezing the puck against the boards behind the opposing net for upwards of 20 seconds in a recent contest against the Iowa Stars. Two, then three opposition players ganged up on the tall 6’7” Slovakian. But Valabik was able to hold the puck against their efforts. He is having the best month since November, with +4 and a goal.

His fight with Greg Stewart, Wednesday, arranged during the intermission as Stewart and Valabik skated to their bench, showed that although he is physical, he is not a player who will depend only on his physical menace. Don’t get me wrong. Valabik held his own against Stewart. But Stewart, who is smaller and lighter than Valabik, was able to get under the big mans arms and within reach very fast. It made for a great fight. Valabik eventually was able to get a handle on Stewart, but ended up beneath him at the end.

The Wolves, with 17 games remaining in the season, need to come out strong. They need to scare every other team off the ice when the season ends in a month. And, the teams they will face in the playoffs are eager to knock them from their perch atop the standings now. Every remaining game in the Western Conference seems to hold importance to at least one team. Hamilton, for example, is in fourth place of the North Division. With an eight-point lead against the Grand Rapids Griffins and 15 games to go, that would seem to be relatively safe.

However a West Division team can take the last playoff spot provided it has more points than the fourth place North Division team at the end of the season. So, Hamilton is actually in a run against the fifth place West Division team, currently the Houston Aeros. The Aeros have 73 points and four games in hand over the Bulldogs. So, the Aeros are in a comfortable lead over the Bulldogs and may even take the fourth or third place West Division spot by the end of the season.

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