Six weeks was a long time for Pat Cannone to sit and watch the Chicago Wolves play games without him. A broken right hand suffered in a Jan. 21 game at Utica kept Cannone on the periphery as the Wolves continued their turnaround season that now has them sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference.
"It was really hard," Cannone said of being sidelined. "Whenever you’re not out there able to help the team, it’s tough. But I just tried to do my best in the gym when I was back just to make sure I was ready to go."
After getting his legs under him in his return March 5 at Grand Rapids, Cannone exploded in his second game back, scoring his first professional hat trick in a 7-2 victory at the Abbotsford Heat. The next day he added an assist as the Wolves completed a four-game season sweep of the Heat. He completed the weekend with a plus-6 rating.
"I definitely didn’t expect it," Cannone said of his hat trick. "I just wanted to go out and play a really good game. I had two quick ones at the end, which was kinda nice. But I just wanted basically to keep my game simple, play a good game, and I was just fortunate enough to get a couple good bounces."
Cannone's return solidifies the Wolves up the middle. Coach John Anderson said it allows him to return Nathan Longpre to left wing on a line centered by Christian Hanson.
"It helps us tremendously," Anderson said. "We had Longpre playing center. He’s good, but if we can get Hanson at center and push Longpre off to the left side, I think we’re stronger down low in our zone. It makes us stronger through the middle.
SHOWDOWN WITH STARS
The Wolves (35-18-4-2) complete a brutal stretch of games with a weekend series against the Texas Stars at Allstate Arena, which begins at 7 p.m. today, followed by a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee. That makes seven games out of nine the Wolves face a team ahead of them in the standings.
So far, Chicago has gone 4-1 with that four-game sweep of the Heat, and a 3-2 loss at Grand Rapids. The Wolves are 0-2 vs. the Stars, who lead the West Division and two points behind the Griffins for first in the conference with one game in hand. Texas beat the Wolves, 4-1, in their first meeting, Oct. 5 in Cedar Park, Texas, the Wolves' second game of the season.
Their last meeting was Dec. 13, also in Texas. The Stars won that 2-1 despite a strong effort from the Wolves.
"We threw our 'A' game at them, and they handled us with no problems," Anderson said. "So that does concern me."
Of course, much has changed with the Wolves in the three months since that last meeting. At the time they were struggling to find chemistry and hovered around the .500 mark. But since then they are 23-7-4-0 and appear to be a serious contender for the Calder Cup championship.
"We feel good as a team," defenseman Brent Regner said. "We’re really moving forward, really coming together as a team, and these are good challenges. We love it. We get really pumped up for it.
"With a month left, you've gotta be in playoff mode right now," Regner added. "Two points could be the difference between you having home ice or not. You want to get on a roll before the playoffs and hit the playoffs running. I feel like we’re doing that and we just gotta keep getting better."
CROWDED BLUE LINE
The addition of veteran Joe Corvo, a native of Oak Park, brought the Wolves defense corps to 10 last weekend. The subsequent trade of Cade Fairchild by the St. Louis Blues to the Phoenix Coyotes still leaves the Wolves needing to scratch three healthy defensemen each night.
Anderson said the extra bodies could prove vital to any hopes of an extended postseason run. He used the series at Abbotsford as an example.
"We lost three D, so we played all 10 defensemen in two games," he said. "(Director of Hockey Operations) Gene Ubriaco has this old saying, 'You can have enough players, but you can never have enough defensemen.' If you want to win a championship, you need to have good players. And we’re pretty fortunate here with that."
Corvo joined the Wolves on loan from the Ottawa Senators, marking the second time in 10 years Corvo will complete a season in a Wolves jersey. His first go-around came in the 2004-05 season during an NHL lockout, and helped the Wolves reach the Calder Cup final against Philadelphia.
Corvo rejoined the team in Abbotsford, but then flew to Ottawa to pack up and drive his wife, Angela, and their two sons to Chicago. Thursday was his first practice with the team, but it obviously wasn't completely new for him.
"It is familiar, it being that it’s in my hometown and I know most of the staff. Other than that it’s a lot different now because I’m a lot older than I was when I played here last time, and I’m more of a role model or an elder or whatever," Corvo said with a chuckle.
Anderson said none of the three defenseman hurt in Abbotsford suffered serious injuries and all are expected to be available this weekend.
He also said Sergey Andronov will be available. Andronov has only played one game since Jan. 26 when he suffered an upper-body injury. He returned to action Feb. 5 in Iowa, but re-aggravated the injury and hasn't been back to the lineup.
That leaves left wing Derek Nesbitt as the lone Chicago player out with an extended injury. Nesbitt suffered a lower-body injury in the first period of his home debut Feb. 15, just a week after coming over from the San Antonio Rampage.
Nesbitt skated Thursday morning, but only did shooting drills and wore the red "no contact" jersey. Anderson said Nesbitt remains out a minimum of 10 more days.
DULUTH CONNECTIONS DWINDLING
The Blues' trade of defenseman Cade Fairchild leaves the Wolves with only one player, Evan Oberg, having a connection to Duluth, Minn.
Why is that important? It really isn't, but because I share Duluth as a hometown with Fairchild, I enjoyed pointing that out whenever I could (regular readers of this blog probably noticed that). In care you're curious, other famous Duluthians include Bob Dylan, CBS Sports announcer Verne Lundquist and the bluegrass band, Trampled By Turtles.
In honor of Fairchild and our hometown, I'm posting a video by Trampled By Turtles for their song, "Duluth," the title-track from their 2008 album. "Duluth" captures the loneliness and beauty of winter in northern Minnesota. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Incidentally, Oberg spent two seasons playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs from 2007-09.
Don't forget to check my out on Twitter (@platour68) for in-game coverage tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Also, the Wolves have created a separate Twitter account for in-game updates as well. You can find that here.
Also, if you're planning to watch tonight's game on U-Too, the game will be shown on a tape-delay basis due to the station's coverage of the IHSA boys basketball state tournament. The Wolves game will be shown beginning at 10 p.m.