Still, every hockey player loves to score goals, and after a 2013-14 season that saw him light the lamp six times in 62 AHL games, tied for second-most among Wolf Pack defensemen, McIlrath could not buy a goal for much of this year’s first half. The first 32 games of his season, in fact, went without McIlrath getting off of the zero in the goal column.
That changed in a significant way this past Friday night, though, as McIlrath broke his drought with a flourish, scoring his first career pro overtime goal to give the Wolf Pack a 3-2 win over the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Syracuse Crunch. Then, as if to prove that huge tally was no fluke, McIlrath connected again the very next night in Springfield, helping the Pack to a 4-3 victory, also in overtime, over the Northeast Division-leading Falcons.
McIlrath had hardly been sitting around fretting about his dearth of goals, but he admits that banging the puck into the back of the Syracuse net in overtime sent him to a certain level of euphoria, even though it appeared that a Marek Hrivik try seconds before had actually found its way over the goal line.
“It felt really good,” McIlrath said of the OT winner. “I think it (the puck) might have squeaked in before, but I was definitely making sure it was getting to the back of the net. I usually don’t celebrate that hard, but it was a long time coming and it felt good.
“It’s funny, I started gripping the stick a little tight. I don’t usually think about that (not scoring goals), but when it’s that big of a drought, I really wanted to get one, and then came that big OT one and then another big goal in Springfield. It feels nice.”
The goal against Syracuse came as a result of McIlrath’s moving down deep in the offensive zone, crashing right down the middle and pouncing on a loose puck, after Syracuse goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gloved Hrivik’s bid right out into the slot.
“I’m not one for jumping in like that usually,” McIlrath said with a chuckle. “I saw the green light, saw a lane right down the middle, so I thought I’d take it.”
That play is typical of what McIlrath sees as the key to the Wolf Pack’s overtime success. The victory over the Crunch was Hartford’s sixth extra-time triumph of the season, and McIlrath points to a “go for broke” mentality as having been the most contributing factor.
“Honestly, I think it’s just taking some chances,” he said. “In those types of situations, it’s just kind of run-and-gun, so you’re going to have to take advantage of the time in-zone (in the offensive zone) and just hope you don’t get caught coming back. We’ve got some skilled players that have stepped up for us in those situations.”
McIlrath’s goal the next night was less dramatic, but still important, coming past the halfway point of the second period in a game in which the Wolf Pack had been blanked up to that point by Springfield goaltender Oscar Dansk. This one was off of a rush, as McIlrath took a back-diagonal pass from Ryan Haggerty and found Dansk’s five-hole, threading the puck through some net-front traffic on the way.
There is no real art, according to McIlrath, to getting the puck past sticks and bodies in that situation. The most important thing is to get it towards the net, and try to set your teammates up to help.
“You’ve just got to get it through, if you can find a way,” he said. “I think that’s a good team goal. We got a good net-front drive, a good post-up by Haggs (Haggerty), so if I just hit the net good things will happen, usually, when the goalie’s screened.”