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Sunday, January 18, 2009

IceHogs: their year to shine

To all appearances, Don Granato played Jeff Hamilton for at least three solid minutes at the tail end of the Saturday night win over the Quad City Flames. It begs the question why? What appears to have happened was that Hamilton, entering the bottom of the frame with two goals, was just a goal shy of a hat trick. And, Granato saw an opportunity for Hamilton as the man advantage moved more and more to the Wolves due to penalties. Granted a goal by any of the Wolves in the final minute and the overtime, would have been a win. But it appears as though Granato allowed his interest in Hamilton scoring a hat trick to prevail over his interest in winning a game.

This is a big difference from previous years under John Anderson. Anderson almost seemed to remove players who had two goals from play, preventing them from trying to score a hat trick. It was maddening. There were lots of games last year and the previous year when I really wanted him to stick with a player and let them have an opportunity to get a hat trick.

He wouldn't do it. He was focused on winning the game.

Now we have a new sheriff in town. Sure, I've been watching for the past five months. I've seen the lines change and been wondering when the team would jell with a respectable power play or a decent penalty kill. But until the slump that started around the holidays, the team was in the thick of the run. Even with the slump, the team is just five points from second place. A good run and the team becomes competitive for a playoff spot.

But, it's a fragile thing. I know a hat trick win would push the team. I know that Brian Sipotz, scoring his ninth professional goal and second goal of the season could be turned into the player he was last year. Yet, I want to be sure the team has the two points in the bag. Like Anderson, I would have played for the two points, not the hat trick.

As we move into the halfway point of the regular season, it wouldn't surprise me to see this team fail to make the playoffs this season. The best of last year have either been absorbed by the Atlanta Thrashers or have moved on to other clubs. Of all the players on the ice, the only obvious choice to move into the National Hockey League is Ondrej Pavelec. And Pavelec is injured. Brett Krahn could perhaps stage a move too, but he isn't the property of the Wolves or the Thrashers. If he did make a move, he'd be back with his parent club.

The team on the ice is respectable, don't take it that I don't like them. Steve Martins and Colin Stuart in particular are clearly playing with a lot of heart. Both are AAAA players. And, Stuart might still find a place in the NHL.

Over the years as a Wolves fan, I've felt that the aim of the team and of the management was to win Calder Cups, to hang Championship Banners and to wear Championship rings. The recent history of the American Hockey League is that the winner of the Calder often suffers a poor following year.

I'd like another Calder victory for the Wolves. But this year, I'd be happy if the team made it to the second round of the playoffs. The spirit is there, but the skill is a bit short. For evidence, take a look at the power play and the penalty kill.

Over in Rockford, I'm watching a team that would have won the Calder last year except for one obstacle, the Wolves. The IceHogs, rebuilt by Chicago Blackhawks prospects and with a superior pair in the pipes, could go all the way. Last night they lost Jack Skille, who apparently suffered a concussion from a hit.

It's a serious blow. Skille is very close to making it to the NHL. Skille, Corey Crawford, Antti Niemi, Pascal Pelletier, Evan Brophey, Jimmy Sharrow, Petri Kontiola and Mike Radja may all wear Indian heads. Compare those seven names to the single name I've put forward for the Wolves: Pavelec. This looks like the Hogs year to shine.

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