Some travel hiccups for the Whale Monday, with the team’s originally scheduled flight out of St. John’s getting cancelled, but other than that an almost totally positive weekend sojourn to Newfoundland.
The Whale scored 4-1 and 7-3 victories over the IceCaps, whom they had never beaten before these two games, improving their record above .500 for the first time since December 1. Also, by increasing their season point total to 50, they elevated into a tie with Worcester for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Ken Gernander & Co. came up with a good line combination in slating Kelsey Tessier, who had been playing a lot of right wing in the previous couple of weeks, at center between Micheal Haley and Christian Thomas. Haley is the giant of that line, at 5-10 and 204 pounds, but the vertically-challenged trio was dogged on the forecheck throughout the weekend and accounted for five of the 11 goals the Whale scored in the two games.
Tessier got the trip off to a good start with his third goal in four games a little over five minutes into Saturday’s game, and Thomas had his first three-point game as a pro in that one, with a goal and two assists.
Haley, meanwhile, chipped in a goal and an assist Saturday and then scored the first two goals of Sunday’s game, both on rebounds and both within the first 4:03. The hardscrabble winger now has points in five of his last six games, with four goals and three assists for seven points over that span.
Even more than the stats, the way the line scored its goals was impressive, especially considering its lack of size. Thomas, all 5-9, 170 pounds of him, was not only flying up and down the ice throughout the two games, but was conspicuous in his physical play, winning a number of puck battles with players significantly bigger than he is, a description that matches most of the other players on the ice.
Tessier and Haley did a fine job, too, of finding open space in the slot in the offensive zone, as none of the goals the line scored, save for Thomas’ empty-netter from just inside the blue line in Saturday’s game, were from further than about 15 feet out.
Defenseman Mike Vernace also came up with some key production, scoring a power-play goal in the first period Saturday and chipping in a pair of opening-period assists Sunday, as the Whale jumped out to an early 4-0 lead. Vernace was in the doghouse not long ago, to the point where he was a healthy scratch in four games in a span of eight, but lately has been an point machine.
The veteran D-man had all of one goal in his first 36 games of the season, but his tally Saturday was his fourth in a span of six games, and he now has at least a point in seven of his last eight, totaling four goals and six assists for ten points. That has him up to 5-17-22 in 43 GP on the year, just one point behind Logan Pyett for the team points leadership among blueliners.
The Whale haven’t had too many easy wins on the year—in fact, going into the weekend, they had enjoyed only two victories all season that were by more than a three-goal margin. They did themselves a favor by jumping out quickly in both games in St. John’s, and the outcomes never seemed seriously in doubt, but not to be overlooked is the goaltending of Cam Talbot.
Talbot was named the First Star of Saturday’s game, in which the Whale were outshot 38-20, but I didn’t think the shots disparity was really indicative of how the game went. Thirty-seven saves is 37 saves, though, and an argument could be made that the Connecticut ‘keeper actually did even better work in Sunday’s game, albeit working with a bigger lead. After the Whale got up 4-0 Sunday, play got a little ragged at times, and Talbot was forced to come up with some flurries of fending off second and third-chance opportunities. He did that successfully, eliciting some public commentary from IceCap head coach Keith McCambridge comparing his netminders’ work unfavorably to that of Talbot.
Some different offensive sources got into the act in the Whale’s seven-goal Sunday outburst as well, with Andrew Yogan striking for his first multiple-point game of the year with a goal and an assist, Kyle Jean contributing a goal and a helper and Jyri Niemi with his first-ever AHL multi-point game, also bagging a goal and an assist.
The Whale needed good mileage out of their ECHL additions, with Marek Hrivik and Ryan Bourque still hurt, Benn Ferriero not able to make the trip and J.T. Miller showing no signs of returning from the NHL any time soon, and they got it. In addition to Niemi’s contributions from the backline, Andrew Carroll got his first Whale point with a second-period assist Sunday and Mike Pelech acquitted himself well throughout the weekend, centering the fourth line.
It will have been a long day of travel for the Whale by the time Monday is over, but the crew can hardly complain, having missed all of the snow, and digging out, that their home state went through over the weekend. Sounds like Tuesday will be a day off from practice, and no action until Friday, when the Whale starts a rare three-game home weekend with a battle against Atlantic Division-leading Portland. The two games in St. John’s were the only road games in a stretch of 12, and the Whale now need to get the home-ice play squared away, having gone their last three home outings without a W.