HARTFORD, CT – The Worcester Sharks had vowed to make life more miserable for Wolf Pack goalie Matt Zaba after his shutout in his AHL playoff debut Thursday night.
The Sharks exercised their game plan from the outset Saturday night, charging the Wolf Pack net as Zaba dodged and ducked and teammates came to his rescue.
The Wolf Pack retaliated in the best way possible, scoring three times on eight shots in the opening 12:01, then survived a three-goal Worcester second period to win 5-3 as Mike Ouellette and Mark Bell scored in the third for a 2-0 lead in the Atlantic Division semifinals.
Zaba had another stellar game, stopping 44 shots before 2,703 at the XL Center, making him 82-for-85 in his first two AHL playoff starts. He was especially sharp in the first two periods, when the Wolf Pack were outshot 41-13, and while helping kill 12 of 13 Sharks power plays.
Ouellette got the winner 2:23 into the third when he took a pass from Dane Byers and fired a backhander that went through the legs of Thomas Greiss.
“It was a no-look shot,” Ouellette said with a smile. “Byers has been out for a while (the last 71 games of the regular season), but his hockey sense hasn’t tapered off in any way, and he’s one of the easiest guys I’ve ever had to play with.
“I had my back to the net and he just put the puck on my stick, I spun and put it on net. I didn’t even look. It just found a way in. It was a chippy game, and it’s going to be a long, chippy series. I think they were getting desperate and searching for any way to get us off our game, and it worked (in the second period). But then we refocused and found our bearings. Thankfully Zaba is a rock back there, and we’ve been leaning on him for a long time. He’s the best player on the team right now.”
The Wolf Pack won the first two games for the first time in seven series since they swept the Worcester IceCats in the 2004 Atlantic Division semifinals. But they realized they had to improve if they are to make it three in a row in Game 3, which is at 6:35 p.m. Monday at the DCU Center in Worcester.
“We got the lead and then did some things that aren’t scripted, ad-libbing a bit,” Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander said. “That puts more pressure on guys taking penalties and more pressure on your goaltender. But you have to realize you have to play puck possession and get it deep in their defensive zone, which is something we didn’t do a very good job of recognizing.
“Why would you start to run-and-gun and get more high risk and detract from what had got you the lead? We overburdened some guys with the amount of penalty killing they had to do.”
The Wolf Pack got plenty of help early, as Artem Anisimov scored on a wraparound at 3:40 after stealing the puck from Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren. Then during a 4-on-4, Jordan Owens made a spinning move out of the right corner and took a shot that Sharks defenseman Jason Demers deflected past Thomas Greiss at 7:08.
Demers was victimized again at 12:01, as Bobby Sanguinetti took a drop pass from Greg Moore and fired a shot from the top of the left circle that ricocheted off the Sharks defenseman and past Greiss, who shook his head in disbelief.
The Wolf Pack had a 3-0 lead but wouldn’t get another shot in the period, while Zaba was stopping all 22 that he faced as referee Francois St. Laurent’s whistle caused the teams to play 5-on-5 for only 4:22 and only 1:09 after the Sharks’ Ryan Vesce got the game’s first penalty.
The only downer for the Wolf Pack in the first period was losing Corey Potter, their defenseman of the year, who was given a 5-minute major and game misconduct for slashing Dan DaSilva, who had just run over Zaba.
“I didn’t think (Potter’s) penalty was necessarily deserved because I thought there was too much contact on our goalie early on,” Gernander said. “Potter’s intention was just to get between our goalie and their player. Losing him was tough, but the rest of the defense stepped up and we got the win.”
The Sharks continued their shot barrage early in the second period and finally broke through when Brendan Buckley’s knuckling shot from the right point took a crazy bounce past Zaba at 9:51.
Just 1:29 later, the Sharks got to 3-2 as Andrew Desjardins took a pass from Frazer McLaren and banked in a shot off Zaba from behind the goal line.
And the Sharks got even at 14:57 on another fluke goal as Riley Armstrong’s shot from the right point was stopped by Zaba, bounded in the air and went in off Wolf Pack defenseman Brian Fahey.
But Ouellette got the tie-breaker early in the third and then the teams jousted for whatever ice they could get before Bell scored shorthanded into an empty net with 4.6 seconds left.
“We got the start we wanted, but we had a rough second period with a lot of penalties, so it was a great lesson learned,” Owens said. “We have to protect a three-goal lead. It’s playoff hockey, and we can’t let them back in the game. We have to stick to the game plan and finish them off.”
Worcester 0 3 0 — 3
Hartford 3 0 2 — 5
1st Period-1, Hartford, Anisimov 2 3:40 (pp). 2, Hartford, Owens 1 7:08. 3, Hartford, Sanguinetti 1 (Moore), 12:01. Penalties-Vesce Wor (interference), 3:13; McLaren Wor (misconduct – unsportsmanlike conduct), 3:40; Armstrong Wor (boarding), 5:18; Fahey Hfd (interference), 6:31; Sauer Hfd (holding the stick), 7:52; Armstrong Wor (slashing, roughing), 9:27; Potter Hfd (roughing), 9:27; Sanguinetti Hfd (tripping), 9:52; Rissmiller Hfd (hooking), 12:46; DaSilva Wor (roughing), 14:54; Potter Hfd (major – slashing, game misconduct – slashing), 14:54; Couture Wor (major – charging the goaltender), 15:58; Fahey Hfd (tripping), 19:06.
2nd Period-4, Worcester, Buckley 1 9:51. 5, Worcester, Desjardins 1 (McLaren), 10:20. 6, Worcester, Armstrong 1 14:40 (pp). Penalties-Crowder Hfd (hooking), 3:14; Vesce Wor (high-sticking), 3:51; DiDiomete Hfd (delay of game), 11:59; Nightingale Hfd (hooking), 13:37; served by Byers Hfd (bench minor – too many men), 15:42; Moore Wor (roughing), 19:31; DiDiomete Hfd (roughing), 19:31.
3rd Period-7, Hartford, Ouellette 1 (Byers, Owens), 2:23. 8, Hartford, Bell 1 (Sanguinetti), 19:55 (sh en). Penalties-Desjardins Wor (hooking), 3:29; served by Armstrong Wor (delay of game), 7:09; Bell Hfd (hooking), 11:04; Dupont Hfd (hooking), 14:52; Ouellette Hfd (slashing), 19:30.
Shots on Goal-Worcester 22-19-6-47. Hartford 8-5-6-19.
Power-play opportunities-Worcester 1 of 13; Hartford 1 of 7.
Goalies-Worcester, Greiss 0-2-0 (18 shots-14 saves). Hartford, Zaba 2-0-0 (47 shots-44 saves).
Referees-Francois St. Laurent (38).
Linesmen-Rich Patry (52), Luke Galvin (2).