Archive for May, 2012

Rangers Channeling 2000 Whale?

May 17, 2012

The Rangers’ 3-2 loss at home last night in Game Two of their Eastern Conference Final series against New Jersey continued an interesting parallel between their playoff season this year and the Wolf Pack’s 2000 postseason run.

The Blueshirts have now won the opener of all three of their series’, only to go on to drop the second game, all home matches.  The Wolf Pack, if you remember, did the same thing throughout the 2000 AHL playoffs, winning Game One of every series before falling in Game Two, several times in relative stinkers.

As frustrating as the several failures to grab 2-0 series leads must be, the Rangers have to hope the similarity to the 200o Wolf Pack continues, as that club overcame its Game Two woes to march all the way to the Calder Cup.

Ranger coach John Totorella told the New York media Thursday, “You have to have short-term memory when it comes to playoff time. It’s a different animal,” and I think that was definitely a key for the Pack in 2000.  They never dwelt very long on anything negative, and didn’t let their Game Two foibles ever get them doubting themselves.

One big positive for the Rangers is that they now get two days off before Game Three, which isn’t until 1:00 on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark.  Tortorella was emphatic in stating that the back-to-back seven-game series’ leading into this one would not make the Rangers a tired crew, but I sure thought they looked like one for much of Game Two, and the Devils even looked to me like the more energetic team for a lot of Game One, which the Rangers ended up winning, 3-0.

50 Straight for Lundqvist

Wednesday was the 50th consecutive playoff start for Henrik Lundqvist.  So, who do you think was the last Ranger goaltender other than Lundqvist to start a postseason game?  Well, it was current omnipresent commentator Kevin Weekes (pictured at right), who got the call in Game Two of a four-game sweep of the Blueshirts by, ironically, the Devils April 29, 2006 at Continental Airlines Arena.  Weekes allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 4-1 loss in that game, after Lundqvist had been touched up for six on 30 shots in a 6-1 defeat in the opener.

“Tank” Moves on

Sadly, we have to say “do svidaniya” to two-year Whale mainstay Pavel Valentenko, who reportedly is returning to his homeland of Russia to skate for Avangard Omsk of the KHL.

Not only did Valentenko play real well for the Whale, tying for the team lead in plus/minus both of the last two seasons, but he also was a great guy to be around, as consistently pleasant and friendly as anyone you could ever hope to meet.  With the shot, solid physique and good attitude that Valentenko has, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see him make his way to the NHL at some point in the future, but for now, you can certainly understand why he and his wife would make the move back to the motherland, what with just having welcomed a new baby into the world during this season.

And looks as though Steve Moses, who showed fairly well for the Whale on an Amateur Tryout agreement out of UNH, has signed in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki.

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Surfing

May 16, 2012

Funny how the Rangers, who for a long time were criticized for always going after stars, glitz and glitter, are now being portrayed as a boring, defensive outfit that seeks to suck the life out of the game.

And if there’s a better sportswriter out there than Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Farber, I have yet to find him or her.  Happily for us hockey people, Farber’s specialty is ice and pucks, and he has a great piece on Ranger coach John Tortorella on SI.com.  Also, check out this story on nhl.com by Dave Lozo on Artem Anisimov.  It includes some interesting references to his Wolf Pack days.

Curious quote, too, from Chris Kreider regarding his Hockey East days in Boston.  Andrew Gross of the Bergen Record wrote in his “Ranger Rants” blog, “I asked him (Kreider) whether he was recognized much in Boston and he joked not at all. Most people there, he said, know Boston University has a hockey team but Boston College flies under the radar for the most part.”

Maybe Kreider was being facetious, but considering that B.C. has won two of the last three NCAA hockey titles, and three of the last five, I find that somewhat hard to believe.

Breaking up is Hard to Do

May 15, 2012

Yesterday was the Whale’s “breakup day”, during which lockers are cleaned out, bags are packed for the summer and all of the players have exit meetings with the coaching staff, discussing their contributions during the season and goals for the future.

In a lot of ways, it’s kind of a melancholy day, as the fact that the long season is really now definitely over hits home hard. Even as an outsider, someone in my position spends so much time around these guys, almost seven days a week during the season, it’s kind of a bummer when you realize that’s over at least for several months, and in several cases, you may never cross paths with them again. You feel for some of the guys, too, whose prospects are somewhat uncertain. Maybe they are at the end of their contract and they didn’t have the year they wanted to have, or they really like playing for the Whale and have probably reached the end of the road with the organization. It’s a tough business sometimes.

On the other hand, though, you’re happy for the cadre of guys who are getting a chance to move up and join the Rangers for the rest of their playoff run. By and large they are young guys, who seem still to have great careers ahead of them, did really well in the AHL and now are going to get a taste of a Stanley Cup run. The “taxi squad” of callups will be kept separate from the full-time Rangers, I understand, so it’s not like they are going to be popping into the locker room between periods to rub shoulders, but still, the big club looks like it has a legitimate shot to go all the way, and even taking that in from arm’s length has got to be a big rush, especially for guys who haven’t spent a lot of time yet around the NHL atmosphere.

Had good chats with Marek Hrivik, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Cam Talbot and Casey Wellman, which I’ll write up within the next week or so, and what fun it was to see guys like Hrivik, who came out of nowhere, and J.T. Miller and Christian Thomas, who are big parts of the future plans of the franchise, come in and get chances to play regular shifts and really show the skills that made them great players at the Junior level.

Ken Gernander spoke to that when he met with the media after the exit meetings, saying of the young players like Hrivik, Miller, et. al., “I thought it was great that they were leading the way. Somebody’s going to have to step up in the course of a playoff, and it was some of the younger guys that stepped up, and I think that’s great. Even Cam Talbot, that’s his first AHL playoff experience and he stepped up.

“It’s a little bit different in the NHL in that regard. Generally in the NHL it’s your marquee players, that have been through it before and have done it before, that step up, and then you always have a dark horse, unsung hero that comes out of nowhere. But I think the career span in the AHL is such that it’s got to be someone young that is going to step up and make a difference.”

Ken Gernander

Gernander chatted for about ten minutes, and touched on the up-and-down nature of the 2011-12 campaign.  After saying, “This year had its challenges, and the month of January was the longest year I’ve ever had,” the Whale bench boss stated that, “I thought it was really special the way the guys pulled together at the end of the year. Whatever challenges or adversity we seemed to face during the season, they always rebounded well, and I think it gives you a pretty good feeling, just the way they responded or rebounded, came together at the end of the year.”

Indeed, I’d have to say that it was a pretty positive finish to the year.  To sweep the division champs and then come within a bounce of the puck in overtime of taking the best team in the league to Game Seven, that’s a pretty good ending statement, considering that the season as a whole certainly wasn’t a cakewalk by any means.

As for the Rangers, their playoff march continued with a Conference Finals-opening, 3-0 win at home over New Jersey Monday, the third playoff shutout for the Blueshirts and Henrik Lundqvist and the second suffered  by the Devils in the postseason.

Although the Rangers had an 18-17 shots advantage through the first two periods, the Devils seemed to dictate most of the play, and have the better of the chances, before New York outscored the visitors 3-0 in a third period in which they had a 10-4 edge in shots.  I thought the most interesting quote coming out of the game was from Lundqvist, about how he relishes the chance to pick his team up when it might not be playing its best.

“As a goalie you always have to step up when the team needs you,” he said to the media after the game, “not when you feel good and you have your moments. A lot of times it’s when the team’s struggling you have to step up. And it’s fun, too, to be there and try to make the difference sometimes when the team is going through a tough stretch.  And then they’ll bail me out when I’m struggling with it. But the game reminded me a little bit about Game 7 (against Washington). We played a really strong first, in the second period they take over a lot and made it really tough for us to get pucks out. But in the third we played really strong and confident. I just think it means a lot to the whole group that we can go out in a game like this and just raise it a level in the third period. It’s really big for us.”

That sense of wanting to be at his best when his team is at its most vulnerable, and considering that burden to be “fun”, really shines through, I find, in Lundqvist’s play, and that is a big part of what makes him the top goaltender in hockey.

 

Do the Whale Switch Goalies?

May 10, 2012

So if you’re Ken Gernander and you need to win one game to save your season, do switch up your goaltender and hope it puts a charge into the team?

Gernander’s counterpart, Norfolk Admirals head man Jon Cooper, pulled a surprise switch for Game Five in Bridgeport and came out smelling like a rose, with Jaroslav Janus pitching a shutout after watching Dustin Tokarski see all the action in the first four games of the series.

The play of Cam Talbot has certainly been a huge part of the Whale’s playoff success this spring, but Tokarski had been pretty darned good for

Cam Talbot

the Admirals as well.  And the puck didn’t seem to be cooperating with Talbot Wednesday night, especially on Norfolk’s second goal, on which Scott Jackson’s shot hit a sliding Talbot and went out into the slot, and the third, which saw an Ondrej Palat try hit Talbot and go in.

If the postseason pattern, as established so far, holds, though, Talbot is due to come out with a big effort in the do-or-die Game Six Friday.  Also, it would be a tough situation to throw Chad Johnson into, as he now has not played a game in almost a month, since the Whale’s 5-4 shootout loss to Manchester April 13th in their last home game of the season.

Chad Johnson

So I would think no, the Whale won’t change, and Talbot will get a chance to see if he can help the team pull up its bootstraps and win back-to-back games on the road to pull off the big upset.  Admittedly, however, I didn’t see the Janus for Tokarski change coming at all, so you never know.

Rare Home Shutout-against

The blanking by Janus was only the fifth against the Whale/Wolf Pack in the franchise’s 129 all-time playoff games, and only the second all-time in 71 home postseason contests.  The only other opposing goaltender ever to put up a zero in a Whale/Wolf Pack home game was the Manchester Monarchs’ Barry Brust, who made 39 saves April 18, 2006, to outduel Al Montoya in a 1-0 Monarch win in both teams’ playoff opener.  That remains the only opposition shutout ever in an AHL playoff game at the XL Center.

That was a wild series too, especially goaltending-wise.  After standing on his head in Game One, Brust was on the bench by the end of the series, replaced by Adam Hauser, Montoya got hurt in a crazy Game Five in Hartford, won 8-6 by Manchester, and Chris Holt left my side in the broadcast booth and won Games Six and Seven, after Rob Gherson gave up seven in relief of Montoya in Game Five.

A casualty of the Game Five zero was the six-game point-scoring streak of Marek Hrivik (5-3-8), and Norfolk has now won 17 of its last 18 road games.

Looking ahead to Game Six, the franchise is 12-12 all-time in its playoff history when facing elimination.  Norfolk, meanwhile, is trying for its first-ever playoff triumph in a best-of-seven series.

Some Random Historical Notes

May 4, 2012

With some time to kill here in warm, sunny Norfolk, took a look at some historical playoff data:

This is only the second time in franchise history that the team has won back-to-back playoff games in overtime.  The only other instance of that was in the 2004 postseason, when the Wolf Pack won Game Three of the Atlantic Division Finals 4-3 in Worcester, then finished off a sweep of the old IceCats in Game Four in the longest game in franchise history, a triple-overtime marathon in Hartford.  That game was won at 7:49 of the third OT on a goal by, yes indeed, Ken Gernander.

Speaking of the Whale’s current head coach, and former long-time captain, he was also involved in the only two playoff goals in franchise annals that came faster than the two the Whale scored in 12 seconds in the first period of Wednesday’s Game One in Norfolk.  Gernander and Derek Armstrong connected 11 seconds apart in Game One of the 1999 Eastern Conference Semifinals at Providence.  The Whale would eventually lose that game 5-4 in double overtime, one of four narrow defeats in a frustrating four-game sweep at the hands of Terry Virtue and the eventual Calder Cup-champion Bruins.

Andreas Thuresson’s overtime goal at 2:53 of Wednesday’s extra session was the second-fastest playoff OT winner in team history, surpassed only by Jozef Balej’s tally only 12 seconds into the OT of that 2004 Game Three victory at Worcester.

Staying with the overtime theme, if the Whale were to go beyond regulation tonight, that would match the franchise record for most consecutive trips to overtime, three, in a single postseason.  The only other time that happened was in 2002, when the Wolf Pack knocked Manchester from the playoffs in a 3-2, double-overtime triumph in a winner-take-all Game Five in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, then lost Game One of the next series to Hamilton in OT before tying that matchup with another double-overtime thriller in Game Two.  Don’t know if you remember,

“Sudden-death Willie”, in his current role as a Syracuse Crunch assistant coach (Dennis Nett/The Post-Standard)

but both of those multiple-OT game-winners were scored by defenseman Marty Wilford, who was on loan to the Wolf Pack from the Nashville Predators at that point and began to be known as “Sudden-death Willie” in some circles.

In terms of streaks, the Whale’s current run of four straight playoff wins is the longest since the 2004 Wolf Pack won eight straight between a 3-1 home loss to Portland in their first playoff game of that year and a road loss by the same score to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals.  Also, this is the first time the team has won as many as four straight to start the postseason since the first edition of the Wolf Pack, E.J. McGuire’s 1998 group, won its first five.

And on the other side, not that it means a whole heck of a lot, but since their insane 29-game winning streak that ended with a Game-Two loss to Manchester, the Admirals are only 2-2 in their last four outings.  Hardly qualifies as a slump, but this crew hasn’t faced much in the way of adversity all year.  That’s to their credit, as their great play and consistency has prevented them from having any real downs.  Still, it will be interesting to see how they respond tonight.

 

Vernace’s Take on his Old Team

May 2, 2012

The member of the organization perhaps most qualified to analyze the Norfolk Admirals is Whale defenseman Mike Vernace.  He played 22 games with Norfolk at the start of this year, before being traded to Florida December 2, and last season was with the Admirals all year, save for the 10 games he played with parent-club Tampa Bay.

When queried today about whether he sees a weakness in the regular-season champion Admirals, Vernace responded, “They’re pretty deep at every position.  They won 29 straight games, there’s not really much you can take from that.  But one thing we can take is that they can lose,  they lost

Mike Vernace (Chris Rutsch)

one game to Manchester (in the first round).  And we’ve got to build on small things and stay upbeat and play hard for a full 60 minutes, or even beyond, if it takes that.”

“A lot of hard work,” was Vernace’s simple answer to what it is going to take to get by Norfolk.  “We’ve got to continue what we did in the first round, play hard, limit chances defensively, and obviously we want to get as many shots as we can.  That’s always the goal for any team, I’m sure that’s their game plan.

“Put pucks on net, go to the net hard, that’s a pretty standard game plan, a lot of the things we did well in the first round.  If we can keep that up for the second round, I think that bodes well for us.”

Meanwhile, for some interesting reading from the other side, here’s a good article by Jim Hodges of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot on AHL Rookie of the Year, MVP and leading goal-scorer Cory Conacher.

 

Additional Whale vs. Admirals Matchup Tidbits

May 1, 2012

One further quote from my conversation today with Norfolk head coach Jon Cooper, dealing with his two goaltenders, Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus: “Janie (Janus) did an outstanding job for us (in the first round against Manchester), and then Tik (Tokarski) comes in and shuts

Dustin Tokarski (Mitra Images)

the door in Games Three and Four.  We have a pretty good luxury here, going with two guys, as Connecticut has.  It’ll be a different look for us, I don’t know who for sure is starting, but I’m sure (Cam) Talbot’s probably going to get a little bit of a run.  And we saw limited action against him this year, so it will be a little different look for us, but again, you need to have goaltenders that are going to stop the puck for you, or you’re not going to go very far in the playoffs.”

Janus was 1-1 in the first two games of the Manchester series, with six goals-against on 58 shots, which is a 3.08 goals-against average and an 89.7% save percentage.  Tokarski then came on and won the last two games, allowing five goals on 52 shots, a 2.25 GAA and a 90.4% save rate.  During the regular season, Tokarski (2.23) and Janus (2.36) both had lower averages than Johnson (2.49) or Talbot (2.61), but all four had very similar save percentages: Tokarski 91.3, Janus 91.4, Talbot 91.3 and Johnson 91.9.

The power play was a huge factor for Norfolk during the regular year, as the Admirals’ 21.7% success rate trailed only Hershey’s 25.5 among AHL teams, but they were only 82.3% on the penalty kill, well below the Whale’s 84.3, which was fifth-best in the league.  In the first round of the postseason, however, the Admirals were only 4/24 on the power play (16.7%), but

Jaroslav Janus (perserch.com)

killed 24 out of 25 shorthanded situations.  According to the old saw that, “your best penalty-killer is your goaltender”, perhaps that indicates that, like the Whale’s Talbot, Tokarski and Janus are taking their game to a new level in the playoffs.

Some other notes:

  • Key veteran additions to the Admiral lineup since the last time they and the Whale met include big (6-6, 217) defenseman Keith Aulie, a trade-deadline acquisition by Tampa Bay from Toronto, and Brandon Segal, a well-traveled forward, and Calder Cup champion in 2004 with Milwaukee, who came over  from Chicago at the deadline.
  • Admirals defenseman Mark Barberio, the Eddie Shore Award-winner, and leading AHL scorer and top plus/minus player among defensemen in the regular season, had one goal in the first three games against Manchester, and was -5 in the Admirals’ 5-2 loss in Game Two.  In the clinching Game Four though, he had a goal and an assist on the overtime game-winner.
  • In addition to scoring the series-winning overtime goal, Alex Killorn had five assists in the last three games, after being shut out in the opener.
  • Among those who did not get in the lineup for the Admirals in the first round are tough guy Eric Neilson, Jonathon Kalinski and Alex Hutchings.