Archive for April, 2012

Whale Pumped for Rangers

April 27, 2012

The excitement of the Rangers’ nail-biting, Game Seven triumph over Ottawa last night definitely filtered down to the Blueshirts’ AHL affiliate.

“We’re pulling for them all the way, and we were glad that they came out on top last night,” Whale head coach Ken Gernander said Friday of the Rangers.

“We’re all part of one big organization, from top to bottom.  And we’re thrilled with their success, they’ve been supportive of us all the way.  And I think it’s a great way to operate, where everybody’s on board and all part of a big picture.”

Meanwhile, Gernander and the Whale continued their quest to maintain their first-round edge.  Friday’s practice at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell consisted of an intrasquad scrimmage, after two days of conventional workouts

“It gets to be a long week,” said Gernander about the change of pace, “so we wanted to break it up a little bit and we wanted the guys to play some hockey, as opposed to just drills.”

As to how the team has handled the already-long layoff, Gernander said, “That will remain to be seen, and it’s a tough thing this time of year.  You’d like to at least have an opponent to focus your attention on, like you might know that it would be this team or that team, but we can’t even narrow it down any more than one of these five teams.  But the guys had two real strong work days prior to today and a decent scrimmage today, we’ll have a little bit of rest tomorrow and then three real good days to crank things up, with some travel for sure in there as well.”

Interestingly, the Rangers will face the exact opposite situation from the Whale, as the parent club will get only one day of rest after its seven-game meat grinder before starting the next round Saturday against Washington, which will have had two days off since finishing its own first-round seven-gamer.

“It’s all part of playoffs, that’s why our sport is so special,” Gernander said about the different challenges faced by the Rangers and Whale.  “You’ve got to be mentally, physically strong and able to grind it out, regardless of what the fates are.”

 

And…some interesting news from the Allentown (PA) Morning Call (via Tim McManus of the Glens Falls Post-Star).  An arena is under construction in Allentown to house the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, which currently plays in Glens Falls as the Adirondack Phantoms, but it sounds like the project, which is targeted to be finished in time for the team to move in for the 2013-14 AHL season, is all of a sudden facing some challenges.

 

 

Deeply-buried Stats

April 26, 2012

Some random stats from the Whale’s decisive Game Three victory over Bridgeport Sunday, as we get fully into time-killing mode before the start of the next round:

  • The Whale’s second-period total of 22 shots on goal tied a team playoff record for shots in a single period, set in the franchise’s first playoff game ever, April 17, 1998.  Remember that one?  It was the opener of a best-of-five series against the late, lamented Beast of New Haven, and the then Wolf Pack were being thoroughly outplayed and trailed, 3-0, going into the third period.  Then, the Pack exploded on the Beast in the third, scoring seven goals on their 22 shots on the way to a 7-4 win, the first in a three-game series sweep.
  • The 54 shots on goal Sunday represents the fifth-highest total in the team’s 124 all-time playoff games, in which the franchise is now exactly 62-62.
  • The overtime victory stopped a streak of five straight losses in playoff overtimes, since 3-2 home win over Portland in Game Two of the 2006 Atlantic Division Finals.

And, according to Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province (via Kukla’s Korner), former Whaler netminder Sean Burke is the new rising star among NHL goaltending mentors.  This is interesting, because I can’t think of another former goaltender of Burke’s experience (he played over 800 games in the NHL) who has gone on to become a highly-successful coach of the position.  It seems as though most of the famed goaltending gurus are more students of the craft, like the Rangers’ Benoit Allaire and his brother Francois.

Rangers in (Game) Seven(th) Heaven

April 24, 2012

Big effort last night by the parent Rangers, rebounding from giving up the game’s first goal and knocking off Ottawa, 3-2, on  the road to force a Game Seven in their first-round series.  The Blueshirts thus avoided, at least for now, making it two NHL conference top seeds to get bounced in the first round.

Derek Stepan had a goal and two assists, Brad Richards scored and had an assist, Chris Kreider scored the eventual game-winner for his first NHL point and Henrik Lundqvist had 25 saves, but the postgame consensus seemed to be that the real hero of the game was Brandon Prust.  With the Rangers down 1-0, Prust fought the Senators’ Chris Neil, who had knocked Brian Boyle to the sidelines in Game Five with a hit that the Rangers thought was suspendable.  Neil, a real tough customer, won the fight, but the Rangers would go on to get the next three goals.

Brandon Prust vs. Chris Neil (courtesy of Getty Images and newyorkrangers.com)

“It doesn’t really matter what anyone did for us offensively. Prusty, what he’s done all year and what he’s done again tonight, it’s unbelievable,” Richards said to the media after the game. “We didn’t want to let him down. I don’t want to say that’s why we won, but we love that guy and he’s done it game in and game out all year. It was awesome to see.”

Trailing 3-1 late in the third, Ottawa got a breath of life when Jason Spezza scored a goal that was, to say the least, controversial.  Neil was in the crease when the puck went in, and replays seemed to indicate that not only did Neil interfere with Lundvist, he also kicked the puck in.  Goaltender interference is not reviewable, however, and whatever video evidence there was, or wasn’t, of the kick was deemed inconclusive.  Luckily for all concerned (outside of Ottawa, that is), the Rangers were able to survive the final 39 seconds, and the controversy did not impact the final result.

Game Seven is now set for Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, and boy, that should be a dandy.

 

Tippett’s Coyotes Oust Quenneville’s Blackhawks

The other NHL game last night saw one former Hartford Whaler, Dave Tippett, knock out another, Joel Quenneville, as Tippett’s Phoenix Coyotes posted a 4-0 win in Chicago against the Quenneville-coached Blackhawks, for a 4-2 win in that Western Conference Quarterfinal series.

It’s only been a quarter-century since the last playoff series win for the Coyotes organization, since the then-Winnipeg Jets beat Calgary in six games in the 1987 Smythe Division Semifinals.

“It’s great to get a monkey off our back,” Tippett said to the media postgame. “To listen  to (Coyotes captain) Shane Doan after the game talk about how much this meant to him to push this  thing along, you just recognize all the work that not just players but  organizational people put in to try to make this thing get done there, and it’s  very gratifying.”

The Coyotes and goaltender Mike Smith pretty much threw a defensive blanket over the ‘Hawks.  Offensive kingpins Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane led Chicago in scoring, but had only four points apiece, and Patrick Sharp was held to only one goal in the series.  The Blackhawks outshot Phoenix 28-8 through the first two periods last night but trailed 1-0, and then gave up three in the third, including a pair in a span of 1:52 late in the period.

“You look at all the other series and it’s kind of comparable,” Quenneville told the media of his best players’ offensive challenges. “The scoring is low, and they (the Coyotes) check well. We open it up there and you saw what they can do. And I think that’s our theme, that we had to play an ugly game and take advantage of our opportunities and we didn’t do a good job of that.”

 

And finally, Cam Talbot’s fine play for the Whale as of late has not escaped the notice of his hometown newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator.

So this is what it Feels Like to Win a Playoff Series…

April 23, 2012

The last time it happened was Game Seven, Atlantic Division Semifinals vs. Manchester, April 29, 2006.  Alex Giroux scored the third-period game-winner and had an assist, Chris Holt stopped 26 out of 27 shots, and Martin Sonnenberg (remember him?) was First Star with a goal and an assist, as the Wolf Pack downed the Monarchs, 2-1, to win what was a wild series.

That was the last playoff series win for the franchise, and it had been five straight postseason disappointments since, before last night’s thrilling 4-3 overtime win over Bridgeport that completed the Whale’s snuffing out of the regular-season division-champion Sound Tigers in three straight games.

Don’t know what the Vegas odds would have been for a Whale sweep going in, but I’d have to think they would have been rather long.

You have to be both good and lucky to win in postseason, and the Whale succeeded on both counts.  They made it awfully hard for Bridgeport to get quality scoring chances, holding the Sound Tigers to only the three goals they got in last night’s Game Three.  Those goals were all of the “greasy”, scrambly variety, rebounds and jam plays that Bridgeport had to work extremely hard to cash in on.  The Sound Tigers had a lot of shots on goal, 83 total in the first two games and 47 in last night’s overtime contest, but I would venture to say that the scoring chances were relatively even.

On the lucky side, raise your hand if you saw Marek Hrivik making a big impact for the Whale in a playoff series when he joined the club on an ATO.  Hrivik had his second straight two-goal game last night and is tied for the league lead in postseason goals.  And Ryan Bourque, with two

Marek Hrivik

goals in the three games against Bridgeport, has already struck for a third of his regular-season goal output.  Consider, too, that the Whale swept the division champions with a total of one point (a Jonathan Audy-Marchessault goal in Game Two) from their top two regular-season scorers, Audy-Marchessault and Kris Newbury.

Of course, the biggest ace in the hole was the play of Cam Talbot, who was less than 16 seconds short of a seventh straight shutout period when Justin DiBenedetto finally scored the Sound Tigers’ first goal of the series Sunday.  Talbot ended up with three goals-against in Game Three, but to my reckoning it might have been his best of the three games.  The Sound Tigers played a gritty and determined game, and forced Talbot to make more saves on point-blank opportunities than he had to in his two shutouts, including a beauty with the left skate on shorthanded breakaway by Casey Cizikas with five minutes left in the second.

It’s only fair to admit, too, that the Whale got a break on the penalty that led to the overtime series-winner by Casey Wellman.  Not that you could argue the call–it was an automatic, as Tony Romano slashed Wade Redden’s stick and it broke, but what a time for that to happen if you’re Bridgeport.  And they were five seconds from killing it off when Wellman scored, but this one just seemed meant to be for the Whale.

It was the tenth playoff OT goal in franchise history, and the fourth series-winner.  I’m sure every Whale/Wolf Pack fan who is old enough remembers the first one, Terry Virtue’s Game-Seven roof-raiser against Providence in the 2000 Conference Finals, and the others were both multiple-overtime situations.   There was Marty Wilford’s second-overtime strike against Manchester in a deciding Game Five of the 2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and current head coach Ken Gernander knocked the Worcester IceCats out of the 2004 Atlantic Division Finals by ending the longest game in franchise history at 7:49 of the third overtime, completing a four-game Wolf Pack sweep.

So now, the Whale watch and wait, resting some bumps and bruises and hoping for their potential opponents to have to slog through long, competitive, tiring series’.  Much is unclear at this point, but here are the possibilities for the next opponent:

  • If the both of the top seeds, Norfolk and St. John’s, win their series’ (over Manchester and Syracuse, respectively), then the Whale will play Norfolk in the second round.
  • If one of the top seeds wins and the other loses, then the Whale play the winner of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-Hershey series.  That has been dominated by the Penguins thus far, by a combined scoring margin of 10-3, but if Hershey can manage to win Game Three at home Wednesday and Boston beats Washington in their Game Seven that night, the Bears could get Braden Holtby, Keith Aucoin and Dmitry Orlov back from the Capitals.
  • If both Norfolk and St. John’s lose, then the Whale play Syracuse.

Either way, none of those other Eastern Conference series’ resume until Wednesday, and both Norfolk/Manchester and St. John’s/Syracuse are tied at a game apiece, so it’s going to be a spell before things become more clear.

p.s., another interesting note from that last series-winning Wolf Pack game in 2006…the Pack’s top defensive pairing in that series was…#48 Dan Girardi and #6 Marc Staal.

 

Talbot with Another Big “First”

April 20, 2012

Cam Talbot + first pro starts = good stuff.

Talbot was huge for the Whale in last night’s playoff opener in Bridgeport, blanking the Sound Tigers 3-0 in his first professional playoff start.  That harkens back to the second-year pro’s first-ever pro start, in which he also put up a zero.  That was a 3-0 win in Providence October 17, 2010, in which Talbot made 41 saves, becoming the first goaltender in franchise history to record a shutout in his first start as a professional.

The 42 stops Talbot made in Game One were the most ever by a Whale/Wolf Pack goalie in a postseason shutout, eclipsing the 40 that J.F. Labbe made in Game Five of the Calder Cup Finals against Rochester June 2, 2000.

Although Ken Gernander and his cohorts now might want to use some psychological trickery to convince Talbot that every game is his debut, the University of Alabama Huntsville product’s recent performance indicates that the playoff opener was no fluke.  Over his last six appearances of the regular year, Talbot allowed only six goals on 164 shots in 359 minutes of play and had two shutouts.  Taking into account last night’s effort, he now has a 0.86 goals-against average and a 97.1% save percentage, along with three shutouts, in his last seven outings.

For the view on Game One from the other side, Mike Fornabaio’s game story in the Connecticut Postis here and his blog entry about the game can be found here.

Will Streaking Continue?

April 18, 2012

The soon-to-get-underway Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Whale and their Fairfield County adversaries, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the first-ever postseason meeting between the two franchises, is a battle of two teams that have been decidedly streaky since the beginning of 2012.

And the Whale will have to hope that form holds, as the Sound Tigers enter the postseason seemingly due for a down streak, while the Whale finished the regular season on a down curve.

Bridgeport closed out the regular year winning nine of their last 11 games, after an 0-5-0-3 drought from March 9 through March 23.  That slide followed Bridgeport’s world-beating 20-2-0-2 tear that began with the turn of the New Year, prior to which Brent Thompson’s club was 12-17-3-1 and had dropped nine out of ten.  The Whale were almost mirror images of their Nutmeg State rivals, hitting the skids in January (right when the Sound Tigers got hot), to the tune of an 0-6-3-2 drought, scorching through a 7-0-1 run in their next eight and going 14-5-1 in their next 20, and then winning just three of their last 12 of the regular season (3-5-2-2).

On the lineup side, the Whale were suffering two big voids down the stretch, with Brendan Bell and Andre Deveaux missing the last three games,

Brendan Bell

and three major holes in the last game of the season, with Wade Redden also sitting out.  Sounds like all three of those guys are possible for the start of the series, which, if it comes to pass, would certainly be a big lift.

Bridgeport was missing Trevor Frischmon, a key two-way centerman, for the last four games of the regular year, and Jon Landry, one of their workhorses on defense, for the last three.  Mike Fornabaio, the fine hockey writer who covers the Sound Tigers for the Connecticut Post, reports that both players practiced Tuesday.  Casey Cizikas, the fine rookie who finished second on the Bridgeport club in points despite being up with the Islanders for most of the last month-and-a-half of the season, got back into action in the Sound Tigers’ last game after sitting out the first two games following his reassignment to Bridgeport.  In addition to missing Frischmon, the Sound Tigers have also been without Jeremy Colliton, another strong all-around pivot, since early March.

One big advantage the Sound Tigers have over the Whale is that the Islanders’ season is done, and the Rangers are still very much alive, leaving open the possibility that the Whale could lose players to recall.  Carl Hagelin will have one game left on his suspension after tonight, and the big club still has John Scott on the roster as an extra forward after Chris Kreider took Hagelin’s spot, but if they get a forward or two banged up, the Whale’s phones could be ringing.  At least the Rangers seem pretty well set on defense, with Jeff Woywitka in reserve and Steve Eminger reportedly close to coming back from his ankle injury.

Also, if the regular-season pattern continues, we may be treated to some extra hockey in this series.  Six of the ten regular-season get-togethers, including three of the five in Bridgeport, went to overtime.

There will be Postseason Hockey in Hartford again

April 8, 2012

It’s officially 14 playoff appearances in 15 seasons for the Whale, after Sunday’s 1-0 win at Hershey, combined with Adirondack’s loss at home to Rochester, ensured the Whale a ticket to the postseason.  The victory also improved the Whale’s chances of catching Bridgeport for first place in the Northeast Division, as the Sound Tigers were idle after a 4-2 home loss to Providence on Saturday night that snapped a seven-game winning streak.

It’s now a three-point spread between the Whale and Bridgeport, 87 points to 84, and the Sound Tigers have a pretty tough last three games, with a visit to Providence on Friday and a home and home with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Saturday and Sunday.  The Whale have no cakewalk either, though, with a road game Wednesday in Portland, which is tied with Manchester for the last playoff slot in the conference, the home finale against Manchester on Friday and a journey to red-hot Syracuse on Saturday night.  The Whale could still catch Hershey for fifth in the conference too, as four points now separate those two teams.  Hershey finishes with three-in-three on the road, at Portland on Friday, at Manchester Saturday and at Portland Sunday.

 

It was a gutty effort by the Whale on Sunday, a carefully played game that saw both teams stay very stingy with the scoring chances.

Cam Talbot

One of those little things in hockey that looms so large, a faceoff win, led to the only goal of the game, with Kelsey Tessier beating former Wolf Pack Andrew Carroll on a draw, Casey Wellman and Jon Audy-Marchessault working the puck back to Pavel Valentenko at the point, and “Tank” pounding it past the stick side of Dany Sabourin.  Other than that, Sabourin and the Whale’s Cam Talbot were impenetrable, and Talbot rang up the fourth shutout, just two off the league lead, out of his 14 wins on the season.

 

Norfolk, whose incredible win streak has now reached 25 games, has clinched first place overall, and St. John’s has locked up the Atlantic Division title, but Bridgeport could still catch the IceCaps for second in the conference.  Syracuse needs four more points either way to clinch a spot but still could finish ahead of the Whale.  Manchester and Portland are tied for the eighth-and-final playoff spot at 77 points, but the Monarchs still have four games left to the Pirates’ three, so that gives Manchester a big edge, and also a chance to get past the Whale, if the Monarchs reach their max of 85 points.  Adirondack could still get 82 points, so they are still alive for a spot, as is Providence, which could still get 81.  Springfield is at 74 points with only two games to play, so they are hanging by a thread, and Worcester, at 70 with four games left, still has a mathematical chance.  Only Albany and Binghamton are out of the race.

Things are still amazingly unsettled in the Western Conference, with only divisional champs Oklahoma City (West) and Toronto (North), as well as Abbotsford, having clinched berths.  Hamilton and last-place Texas have been eliminated, but everyone else still has a shot.

The Midwest Division title is still undetermined, with Chicago leading Milwaukee by four points but the Admirals, Peoria and Charlotte still having a shot at it.  The Wolves still have a magic number of four points to punch their ticket, and then four teams, Milwaukee, Houston, Peoria and Lake Erie are all tied at 82 points apiece, and San Antonio and Rochester both have 81.  Charlotte can still get 87 points, so they are very much alive.  The most Rockford can get is 82, so they are teetering on the brink of elimination, as is Grand Rapids, which has 75 points with four to play.

Looks like a great last week of action, and scoreboard watching, all around.

Bevy of Rookie Talent

April 4, 2012

The AHL just announced this year’s All-Rookie Team.

There were no Whale players on it, and if this had been a normal year, and not one blessed with a terrific rookie crop, the Whale might have had two of the five slots.

Both Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who, as an unheralded AHL contract signee out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has been

Jon Audy-Marchessault

battling for the Whale scoring lead all season and who currently ranks third among League first-year pros in points (60), and Tim Erixon, who is the leading scorer among team defensemen with 33 points, despite having played in only 46 of the Whale’s 70 games, would have had a good shot at All-Rookie honors most years.

This year, however, the rookie class was just too good, and there really can’t be much argument about the choices of Norfolk’s Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson, and Gustav Nyquist of Grand Rapids. at forward, Bridgeport’s Matt Donovan and Cade Fairchild of Peoria on defense and Eddie Pasquale of St. John’s as the goaltender.  Erixon has more points than Fairchild in fewer games, but Fairchild’s +28 is second-best overall in the league and leads all defensemen.  Audy-Marchessault has two more points than Nyquist, but has played 14 more games.

Regardless of whether or not they got any hardware, though, Audy-Marchessault and Erixon have to be generating a lot of glee in the organization with the seasons they have put together.  Any time you can have two such young guys (both are just past their 21st birthdays) do so well in as good a league as the AHL, especially an undrafted diamond-in-the-rough like Audy-Marchessault, it’s a pretty good year player-development-wise.

OT Heartbreak

April 2, 2012

The Whale have had pretty good luck in shootouts as of late, but overtime has been a different story.

Twice in the last two Sundays, the Whale have seen an opponent score a game-winning goal with less than three seconds remaining in the extra session.

Yesterday against Providence it was Carter Camper victimizing the Whale with 2.1 seconds left, after Bridgeport’s Matt Donovan scored with exactly two seconds on the clock to beat the Whale last Sunday in Bridgeport.

Prior to these two games, only three other times in franchise history had the club lost as late as the 4:58 mark of OT.

Don’t know if it was a matter of the team having a letdown with the games seemingly headed to shootouts.  Donovan’s goal was on a power play, so it’s hard to say the Whale could have let down on that one, but on Camper’s goal, the four guys out on the ice for the Whale did seem to give the Bruins a little bit too much room.  It was a fairly innocent-looking shot, a long heave from the right point by defenseman Kevan Miller, that led to the winning play, and nothing seemed seriously amiss until the rebound got away from Cam Talbot and out into the slot.  Once that happened, though, it was curtains.

You can’t assume that the Whale would have won those games in shootouts, so you really can’t consider those lost points, but you certainly hope that the team, having been so close to possible victory in those games, doesn’t end up looking back at them as ones that, if they had won them, would have either put them into the playoffs or gotten them home ice in the first round.

As it is, the Whale’s “magic number” for clinching a playoff berth is down to six, with six games still to play, so it’s not like failing to win those two OT games has put them on the brink of elimination or anything.  Any combination of six points won by the Whale or lost by Portland nails down a spot for the Whale, and the Pirates are headed up to Newfoundland this week for a pair of games against the first-place St. John’s IceCaps this Tuesday and Wednesday.