Archive for February, 2012

Johnson Standing Tall

February 28, 2012

A lot of the time, good teams just need their goaltenders not to lose games for them, but successful teams do need their goalies to win one for them once in a while.  And Chad Johnson won one for the Whale Tuesday, proving that the 11:00 AM start time did not knock him off of his game at all.  Johnson stopped 33 out of the 34 shots he faced in regulation and overtime, and the one that got by him was a deflected dribbler that was just stuffed across the line, and only one of Worcester’s five shootout attempts got by him, in a 2-1 win that got the Whale back into a tie for first place in the Northeast Division with Bridgeport.

The Whale had only 23 shots in the game, and the Sharks had a wide territorial advantage, but Johnson was the difference, looking calm and

Chad Johnson

composed, and seeing the puck well, all day.  And it’s not like this is a new development.  Since the first of February, when the whole Whale team began to turn the corner collectively after a very frustrating January, Johnson has quietly been putting together what has amounted to the best run of his pro career.

Johnson is now 7-2-0 in the month of February, with a 1.49 goals-against average and a 95.2 save percentage, even better stats than he had in October, when he has named AHL Goaltender of the Month after going 3-0-2 with a 1.69 GAA and a 94.2% save percentage.  For the season, the third-year pro is up to 17-11-5, with a 2.32 GAA and a 92.2% save percentage.  Those numbers are good for ninth in the league in GAA and save percentage.   It’s no coincidence that the team is now 9-2-1 in January, as Johnson has given the Whale the type of number-one goaltending that covers up for a lot of sins.  Not that he has had to stand on his head every night, but he’s making all the saves he should make, plus a few he probably shouldn’t, and that’s worth its weight in gold.

One other notable number…Tuesday’s morning-game win was the Whale’s sixth straight at home, and upped their league-best home winning percentage to .731 (16-4-2-4).  After this weekend’s two road games, the Whale plays seven of the next eight, and 11 of the next 13, inside the friendly confines of the XL Center.  If they continue to play anywhere near as well at home as they have over the past two-and-a-half months (11-1-2-3 in the last 17 home tilts), they should be able to make a run at the top spot in the conference.

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Trade Affects Pirates, Possibly Falcons

February 23, 2012

The latest pre-deadline NHL trade that was made, a swap yesterday that sent Antoine Vermette to Phoenix from Columbus for, among other assets, goaltender Curtis McElhinney, affects the roster of the Whale’s next opponent, the Portland Pirates, and may have an impact on Saturday’s foe, the Springfield Falcons, as well.

McElhinney, alhtough he has been with the Pirates for only one of the three games the Whale has played against them, was on Portland’s roster at the time of the trade, and he and Justin Pogge have pretty much split the netminding duties for the Pirates all year, Pogge playing 28 games and McElhinney 25.  Barring another deal, looks like it’s Pogge’s show now, with Marc Cheverie as the backup.

Columbus is Springfield’s parent club, and there is no sign of McElhinney being assigned to the Falcons yet, but the Blue Jackets have both Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford, so there would not seem to be any room for McElhinney.  Sanford is just off Injured Reserve,

Manny Legace

having missed most of two weeks, so it could be that McElhinney is just an insurance policy.  Mark Dekanich has been hurt pretty much all year, Allen York and Paul Dainton are rookies, and Manny Legace is on an AHL contract with Springfield.

If McElhinney is assigned to the Falcons, one would assume that Dainton would go back to the ECHL, although he’s been pretty sharp for Springfield in the games he has played against the Whale.

From Deep in the Miscellaneous Stats File

February 21, 2012

Here’s a really meaningless number to start your holiday-shortened week…

The Whale were tied coming out of the first period in Sunday’s loss to Providence, and that’s usually a guaranteed win situation for them.  Even with that loss, they’ve dropped only four in regulation all year when tied coming out of the first (16-4-2-0 in 22 games).  They are a combined 10-13-3-5 when leading or trailing after one.

How’s that for a statistical oddity?

Nutmeg State Battle

February 19, 2012

Bridgeport missed the playoffs last year and the Whale were out the year before, and before that the Whale and Sound Tigers were in different divisions for six seasons, so it’s been a while since the Connecticut rivalry had much effect on a playoff race.

This year, though, it’s looking for all the world like it might be a battle between the two Nutmeg State teams for the top spot in the Northeast Division.  That’s a key goal too, because as it stands right now, when you fall out of first place in the division, you plummet right from one of the guaranteed top three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference to a clutch of teams battling for their playoff lives around the 6-8 spots.

Both teams have had their lulls and spurts this year, but both have been hot lately, especially the Sound Tigers.  It was looking like another long year for the Islander farmhands, after last season’s edition finished second-to-last in the league and 17 points out of a playoff spot.  They won only two games out of 14 from November 26 to New Year’s Eve and were five games below .500 at the turn of the year, 12-17-3-1, and were in last place in the conference with 28 points.  All Brent Thompson’s club did after that was rip off an eight-game winning streak, and get at least a point in 12 straight (11-0-0-1) and 16 of their next 17 (15-1-0-1), to put themselves in the forefront of the playoff picture.

The Whale had a tough January while the Sound Tigers were surging, but at least Connecticut got points in five of the 11 January games they didn’t win, keeping their heads above water before they went on a run starting with the first of February.  Sunday’s 4-3 loss in Providence finally put a regulation L next to the Whale’s name in February, but before that they had been 7-0-1 in the month, to jump back ahead of Bridgeport and into the division lead.  The Sound Tigers won, though, while the Whale lost Sunday, beating Hershey 2-1 in a shootout, so Bridgeport is only three points behind, with three games in hand.

I have to admit, I still can’t figure out how the Sound Tigers are doing it, although their second-half success was portended by their play all year against the Whale in the GEICO Connecticut Cup series.  Bridgeport has won five of the seven games played between the two teams, and only one of those came during their hot streak.

The Sound Tigers have gotten excellent goaltending against the Whale, who can reasonably count Bridgeport ‘keeper Kevin Poulin as one of their real nemeses these days, but they are still missing the likes of Tim Wallace, Aaron Ness and Dylan Reese, all on recall the Islanders, and Ty Wishart was also called up this week, as was Poulin.  Calvin de Haan, a fine young prospect on the blueline, has been hurt as well.  The Sound Tigers keep grinding out the wins, however, getting excellent mileage out of previously unknown names like Scott Howes, Kael Mouillierat and Blair Riley, and great performances out of a pair of rookies who lead their team in points.  Casey Cizikas has 44 points in 50 games and is a +25, tied for third-best in the league, and defenseman Matt Donovan has six goals and 30 points on the season.

It cannot now be said, if it ever could, that Bridgeport is on a fluke spurt—they’re for real.

The Whale, for their part, have gotten a great boost from the addition of Casey Wellman, who is giving the team a very strong 1-2 punch at center with Kris Newbury.  Wellman was held off the scoresheet Sunday, but before that had three goals and seven points in his first

Andre Deveaux

seven games in a Whale uniform, and has shown NHL-caliber wheels and a real good effort level.  Wojtek Wolski’s dynamic puck skills are gone back to the NHL, but his departure allowed Ken Gernander & Co. to move Andre Deveaux back on to the top line with

Newbury and Mats Zuccarello, and Deveaux responded with a pair of two-goal games over the weekend.

The Whale won two of those three games, to serve notice that their February success was not totally due to the presence of Wolski and Jeff Woywitka, and Bridgeport has a busy schedule coming up in which they will make up those games in hand.  There are still three dates left on the GEICO Connecticut Cup schedule, all in March and two at the XL Center, where the Whale are 14-4-2-4 on the year and 9-1-2-3 in their last 15.

So it should be a lot of fun for Connecticut hockey fans down the stretch, as a playoff chase heats up the already intense rivalry between the Whale and their unfriendly neighbors from Fairfield County.

Upon Further Review…

February 15, 2012

Interesting ending to Sunday’s game in Bridgeport.

As the Sound Tigers celebrated David Ullstrom’s overtime game-winning goal, an announcement came over that, “the play is under review”.

I had never heard that at an AHL game, and did not know that there was any sort of a provision for video replay anywhere in the AHL.

Well, turns out I hadn’t slipped into the twilight zone.  The AHL is testing a video review system at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, with the technology being supplied by the league’s video web-streaming partner, Neulion.

The great Jason Chaimovitch, AHL VP of Communications, was nice enough to run down the particulars for me, after I pleaded ingnorance of the whole deal.

The gist of it is that the referee has the sole discretion on when to use the system to review a disputed goal.  The system resides in the timekeeper’s area between the penalty boxes, and the referee will conduct the review and render the final decision.  There is no replay official or any outside source that is consulted.

I guess the reason for Sunday’s review was to ensure that the puck had actually gone into the net and not off the crossbar, although from my vantage point it appeared clearly to be a goal.  And it took the system a while to get working, which resulted in a somewhat lengthy delay, but that’s all part of the testing process.

It will be interested to see what happens with the review concept if it is judged to be a success in Bridgeport.  It would seem to be fairly easy to implement a replay-review protocol in some of the newer, bigger arenas in the league, but it could be a challenge in some of the smaller, less state-of-the-art venues.

Offensive Depth from Grant, Tanski

February 8, 2012

The Whale outscored its opposition by a combined margin of 7-2 in the last two games, beating two pretty skilled teams in Hershey and Syracuse.

And while the Whale are probably as skilled right now as they have been in a couple of months, with Wojtek Wolski down from the Rangers and Casey Wellman on board, much of the big offense in the last couple of wins has come from two guys who skate most of the time on the fourth line.

First, in the Whale’s 4-1 win in Hershey on Saturday night, it was Tommy Grant scoring a pair of goals, for his first multiple-goal game at the pro level.

Grant is a guy who has flashed a real hard, accurate shot at times this year, and both of his goals against the Bears were legitimate snipes.

On the first, Grant broke down the wing, went wide on veteran defenseman Sean Collins and snapped a hard forehand past the catching glove of Sabourin.  Then, in a third period in which the Whale were outshot by a margin of 13-4, Grant got loose at the top of the circles

Scott Tanski (left) and Tommy Grant celebrate Tanski's goal Tuesday with Jeff Woywitka

and jumped on the puck after Kelsey Tessier won a draw, and beat Sabourin again with a quick release.

Grant was helped on that second goal by a screen set by linemate Scott Tanski, who assisted on Grant’s first goal.  It was then Tanski’s turn to play finisher on Tuesday night, as he scored a big third-period goal to give the Whale some breathing room in a tight 3-1 win over the Crunch.

Tanski had picked up some extra ice time earlier in the period, after fellow right-winger Andre Deveaux was assessed a fighting major at the end of the second frame as a result of a scrap with Mark Fraser, and Tanski was in a good rhythm when he battled his way to the front of the net and deflected a Jeff Woywitka point shot.  Syracuse goaltender Jeff Deslauriers fought that off but was unable to control the rebound, and Tanski stayed at the front and was able to put the loose biscuit home.

Tanski, who was the Whale’s biggest surprise as a major offensive force in the preseason, was strictly a grinder through his first 33 regular-season games, with only one goal and one assist, but has been making much more of an impact lately.  With his goal and an assist over the last two outings, the rookie out of the Ontario Hockey League now has four goals and an assist in the last eight contests.

No doubt the likes of Grant and Tanski have benefitted from opposing teams having to devote more energy to checking a top six that, thanks to the addition of Wolski and Wellman, now features Deveaux, Wellman and All-Star Jonathan Audy-Marchessault as second-liners.  Nonetheless, the Whale’s third and fourth-line guys, with players like Tessier and Jordan Owens notable as well, deserve major credit for forcing the coaching staff to play them more, and making the kind of simple plays that make all the difference in these mid-winter “dog days” of the season.

W, W, W, dot, Well, that’s Better

February 5, 2012

Holy additional W’s…

Wojtek Wolski, Jeff WoyWitka, Casey Wellman…and two wins, after the Whale went 0 for January.

Who knows how long Wolski and Woywitka will be with the Whale.  They’re only on two-week conditioning stints for right now.  But Wellman was acquired in a trade, and after the Whale had taken a number of roster hits over the past few months that aren’t likely to be reversed (see: Hagelin, Carl, Mitchell, John, Bickel, Stu, etc.), that transaction was a net gain for the Connecticut club.  It cost the Rangers Erik Christensen, but the chances of him returning to the Whale were slim, and he wasn’t a big part of the Ranger rotation either, having been a healthy scratch for the last 13 games he was on the big club’s roster.

As far as Wellman goes, he’s a guy that I don’t know much about, but he had spent quite a bit of quality time in the NHL this year, playing 14 games with the Wild, and was a point-per-game guy in the AHL with Houston, with 14 goals and 26 points in 26 games.  He also helped the Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals last year, where they ultimately fell in six games to the Binghamton Senators.

Casey Wellman with Houston

It’s interesting that the Wild would trade him, after they had to offer him some pretty good money to outbid the other teams interested when the undrafted Wellman left U. Mass.-Amherst after two good years.  You look at the Wild’s current roster situation though, and you can see how they would think Christensen could be a pretty good fit as a third-line center.  And according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, it was mostly a case of the Wild feeling that they had other prospects coming along the pipeline that were a little bit more excited about than they still were about Wellman.  Maybe a real good break for the Whale and the Rangers.

Either way, so far, so good for Wellman with the Whale, as he skated tonight in Hershey on a line with Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Andre Deveaux, and that line scored a key second-period goal on a great three-way passing play.  Baseball fans will be interested to know that Wellman’s dad is former major league infielder Brad Wellman, and I’m eager to talk to Casey about how a kid who was born in California while his dad was playing major league ball ends up becoming a hockey player.