Breaking up is Hard to Do

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.

 

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