Archive for November, 2012

Whale Send Yogan, Wilson to Greenville

November 29, 2012

Hasn’t exactly been a normal year for roster movement, what with no callups to the locked-out NHL, but the Whale did have two transactions today, moving forwards Andrew Yogan and Jason Wilson to their Greenville affiliate in the ECHL.

Jason Wilson

Both guys have been hurt—Yogan had missed the last four games after getting dinged up November 16 against Portland and Wilson had yet to play this season, after undergoing offseason surgery.

The departure of Yogan, who had one goal in 11 games on the year, seems to indicate that Shayne Wiebe has grabbed hold of the 13th forward spot, at least for now.  Wiebe came up from Greenville when Yogan was hurt, and played one game before sitting out the last three.  He is the Whale’s only extra healthy body at this point, with Jyri Niemi still off the ice from the effects of the hit he took from Bridgeport’s Colin McDonald November 11.  Dylan McIlrath has started skating after practices but has yet to take part in a full practice.

A tough three-in-three this weekend…a trip to Providence on Friday and then a pair of first-place teams, Syracuse and Springfield, coming to the XL Center Saturday and Sunday.

You can watch a preview of the two home games here.

Whale Break Some Hexes

November 26, 2012

The Whale had won three in a row going into Sunday’s visit to Springfield, and the last time they carried a winning streak into a Sunday game against the Falcons, bringing a four-gamer into a contest at the XL Center November 4, they got routed, losing 10-2 for the most lopsided defeat in franchise history.

Happily for the Whale, it was a much different story this time, a fairly tightly-played game that Connecticut won 3-2, courtesy of a Ryan Bourque goal with only 15.6 seconds remaining in the third period.

That capped a sweep of a three-game weekend for the Whale, all against teams that had struggled against in recent meetings.

They had been 0-2 against Springfield, with a 2-0 road shutout to go along with that forgettable 10-2 collapse, 0-2 against Bridgeport, having blown two-goal leads in both of the previous two encounters, and 0-5-1-1 in the previous seven regular-season games against Norfolk, Saturday’s opponent.

The positive tone was set in Friday’s game down at Webster Bank Arena, which seemed to be following the same script as the first two Whale-Sound Tiger battles.  That is, the Whale jumped ahead early, grabbing a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Chris Kreider and Tommy Grant, and then watched Bridgeport take over the game.

It was 3-2 Sound Tigers by the 4:11 mark of the second period, and when Bridgeport built a 5-3 advantage with a pair of early third-period goals, the Whale seemed dead in the water.

A switch seemed to get flipped very shortly thereafter, though, and all of a sudden the Whale started controlling the game.

Matt Gilroy made it 5-4 at 8:33, just 57 seconds after Johan Sundstrom’s second goal of the third had put Bridgeport up by two, and then Chad Kolarik and Kreider scored less than two minutes apart starting at 13:30.

Gilroy tacked on a power-play goal with 2:06 left for a final margin of 7-5, marking the first time the Whale had scored as many as seven goals in game since a 7-2 win in Worcester March 6, 2011.

The Whale then led almost from start to finish in Saturday’s matchup with the defending Calder Cup-champion Admirals, who had hit a considerable skid since a pair of fairly dominating wins over the Whale the second weekend of the season down in Norfolk.

The line of Kris Newbury between Kolarik and Marek Hrivik did most of the damage in what would turn out to be a 5-2 Whale victory, their first at home over Norfolk since February of 2008 after going 0-5-0-1 in the Admirals’ previous six visits.

Kolarik, who had been scuffling a bit for much of the early season while trying to shake off the rust from his lost year last season, continued his quick resurgence with his first regular-season hat trick as a pro, and Hrivik, while he remained goalless for a 14th straight game, had assists on all three of Kolarik’s tallies.

Kolarik, while he can bring plenty of speed and finesse, is most dangerous to opponents when he is buzzing around the net, and I think if you strung together the distance the puck traveled for his four goals on the week, that length wouldn’t reach from the goal line to the hash marks.  They were all right-place-right-time plays, poke-ins and rebounds, the kind of “greasy” goals that so often make the difference in today’s game.  If Taylor Hall hadn’t had a nine-point explosion in three games for Oklahoma City, Kolarik probably would have been the AHL Player of the Week, and he has now jumped into second place, behind Newbury, in Whale team scoring.

Hrivik, meanwhile, finally got his name in the goal column Sunday, putting a first-period rebound into the top shelf for a no-doubt-about-it lamplighter.  Hrivik had five in nine games in the pressure cooker of the playoffs last year, so there was little doubt that he would find the net eventually, and he was definitely getting his share of chances, but it still had to be a relief for the Slovakian youngster to finally have one under “G” to go with his nine “A”’s, a total which is second only on the team to Newbury’s 11.

And then there is Bourque, who has been spending most of his time on the fourth line lately, but who now has a personal pro-best four-game point-scoring streak, after preceding his late game-winner with an assist Sunday.  Bourque is up to four goals and eight points in 13 games on the year, after topping out at six goals and 14 points as a rookie, and looks a world more sure of himself.  He has always been a buzzsaw on the ice in terms of effort, but now looks to be confident of making difference in the offensive end, which rarely seemed to be the case last year.

Bourque’s goal on Sunday was a perfect example of that, a real goal-scorer’s play.  He carried the puck into the zone on left wing, and had Kelsey Tessier headed to the net up the middle, but instead of passing, which I think Falcon goaltender Paul Dainton was expecting him to do, Bourque moved all the way down below the faceoff dot before suddenly wristing the puck at the net.  The perfectly-placed shot found a space between Dainton’s blocking glove and his body, something that just doesn’t happen if the shooter is not confident that something good will occur if he gets the puck on net.

That sort of offensive moxie is contagious, and seemed to be lifting the whole team during the successful three-in-three.  It will get another good test this weekend, with a road game in Providence followed by home battles against Syracuse and the Falcons again.  Don’t forget, the Crunch, because of an affiliation switch, basically consists of last year’s Calder Cup-winning Norfolk roster.  And Norfolk’s play-by-play man, Pete Michaud, told me on Saturday that he thinks that this year’s Crunch might be even better than last season’s Admirals.  That’s certainly saying something, so fasten your seat belts for that one.

Come Get a Glimpse of what Hockey East will be Like

November 21, 2012

You can see a vivid on-ice representation of UConn’s march toward Hockey East membership this Saturday, as the Men’s Hockey Huskies skate against Air Force prior to the Whale’s get-together with the defending Calder Cup-champion Norfolk Admirals.

It will be two years before the Men’s Huskies officially join Hockey East, but it’s never too early to start getting excited about a big move like this, and it will be cool to get a taste of what the college hockey atmosphere will be like inside the XL Center, with the band and cheerleaders, etc. being added to the natural excitement of the game itself.

Even though Saturday’s game will not be a Hockey East contest, if you haven’t seen a lot of college hockey, it will be a good indication of how high the level of play is in Division I, and I think you will be presently surprised by how fast and entertaining the play is.  And Hockey East will be an even higher level.

Hockey East has always been a good league, but it has really risen to preeminence recently in the college hockey world, producing four of the last five men’s national champions.  One look at the Whale roster will give you a good idea of the caliber of players currently coming out of Hockey East, with Boston College product Chris Kreider, a 2009 Rangers first-rounder, skating the wing and Matt Gilroy, who won a national title at B.U. before going straight to the NHL, patrolling the blue line.  Also, in the current NCAA Men’s Hockey rankings, two of the top three teams, #1 B.C. and #3 University of New Hampshire, are Hockey East squads, and B.U. checks in at #10.

Hockey East will be a huge step up for UConn, but the Huskies have picked up their record the past two years, and have won two of their last three games this season coming into this weekend, including a road win over a Hockey East foe, Merrimack.  And they will get a good test Saturday at the XL Center (and Friday night in Storrs) from the Falcons, who are 2-1-1 in Atlantic Hockey play and whose junior goaltender, Jason Torf, has the third-best goals-against average (2.36) and fourth-best save percentage (92.2) among Atlantic Hockey backstops.

UConn’s top threat is senior forward Sean Ambrosie, who had three goals and two assists for five points in the first eight games, and fellow senior Garrett Bartus has played every minute in the Husky net, compiling a 2.73 GAA and a 91.8% save percentage.

UConn forward Sean Ambrosie

If you’re looking to get a head start on following Hockey East, it looks like, even with losing Kreider and second-leading goal-scorer Barry Almeida, who was just sent to the ECHL by Springfield, off of last year’s NCAA title team, the B.C. Eagles are the powerhouse again.  UNH is a bit of a surprise, after a rare losing season last year and the departure of leading scorer Steve Moses, who joined the Whale after the end of the Wildcats’ campaign. Goaltending, though, clearly has been a key, with Casey DeSmith, only a sophomore, sporting the second-best goals-against average (1.19) and save percentage (96.1) in the entire nation.  B.C.’s Johnny Gaudreau, a 5-7, 150-pound sophomore dynamo, leads the league in goals with seven, and is tied for tops in points (14) with Merrimack’s Mike Collins, an undrafted Junior whom UConn held off the scoresheet, and limited to one shot on goal, in their win over the Warriors.

 

 

Playing it Close to the Vest

November 19, 2012

For a while, the Whale were having a tough time keeping the puck out of their own net, and their power play was going great guns at the other end.

The two games this past weekend, though, the team had a tough time scoring, and the PP went 0/9 in the game they lost, but the defensive record was much better.

The Whale still gave up their share of chances, but Cam Talbot continued to contribute real solid play in goal.  And, after dropping a frustrating one to old teammate Chad Johnson and the Portland Pirates at home Friday, Connecticut rode some Bay State karma to a satisfying two points Saturday in Worcester.

It was starting to look like Shark backstop Alex Stalock was going to duplicate Johnson’s flummoxing of the Whale, which saw the former Whale mainstay come within 36 seconds of hanging a zero on his old team.  Connecticut was playing well on Saturday but just couldn’t get that final push “over the cliff”, so to speak, when a scoring chance presented itself.

The worm turned early in the third period, however, when the Sharks took a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty.

It took the Whale all of four seconds to convert, with Kyle Jean winning the draw back to Matt Gilroy on the blueline, Gilroy drilling just the kind of shot you want on the man-advantage—quick, low and too hard to control—and Chris Kreider lifting in the rebound at 1:40.

Ryan Bourque

The Whale then got a big break 1:17 later, and it would be Kreider’s fellow Boxford, MA native Ryan Bourque who took advantage.

Kelsey Tessier had the puck knocked away along the boards in the Worcester zone, but when the Sharks’ Travis Oleksuk dropped it behind the net to defenseman Taylor Doherty, the puck got away from him.  Right there to pounce on it was Bourque, who had the presence of mind to pirouette quickly before stepping out from below the goal line, and Stalock was left looking the wrong way while Bourque slipped the puck inside the goalpost.

Nice goal to get from your fourth line, which also included Shayne Wiebe, who met the team in Worcester to sign his PTO after being summoned from Greenville.  The Whale needed his services after losing Andrew Yogan to injury in Friday’s game.

Also a good win to get with your leading scorer in injury drydock.  Kris Newbury missed both of the weekend’s games with what he told me is a relatively minor injury, and that forced the Whale to move first Yogan, and then J.T. Miller, to center to fill the void.

It was also the Whale’s second win in two Saturdays at the DCU Center in Worcester, where the Whale had handed the Sharks a 6-2 defeat the Saturday before.  In a scheduling quirk, those are the Whale’s only two visits to Worcester all season, and they might want to petition the AHL to play there a few more times.  With the two wins this year, the Whale franchise is now 17-6-0-2 against the Sharks in 25 all-time trips to the DCU Center.  Amazing.

Saturday was also the first time this season that the Whale won in a game they trailed after two periods, and, perhaps most importantly, it was a positive lead-in to Sunday’s Bowl-a-Thon for Special Olympics Connecticut at AMF Silver Lanes in East Hartford.  That staple of Whale community relations was a big success again this year, raising over $10,000 for SOCT.

Whale Diversifying the Offense

November 13, 2012

It was the first three-in-three of the year for the Whale this past weekend, and it would be hard to say they were firing on all cylinders, as they only won one of the three.They could have easily had two out of three, though, and posted their most decisive victory margin of the year Saturday, in a 6-2 win at Worcester.

Kris Newbury had a goal and two assists in that game and continues to pace the team in points, and his 14 points are three more than the next highest Whale scorer, Kyle Jean.  The Whale have started to balance the attack more, though, in the last few games, with several different players starting to assert themselves offensively.

Christian Thomas, for example, a 50-goal-scorer in the Ontario Hockey League two years ago and a second-round Ranger pick in 2010, had his first two-goal game in the pro ranks Saturday, and after managing just one goal in the season’s first five games, has three goals and three assists for six points in the last six.

Thomas has been installed at the point on the Whale’s first power-play unit, a position of extreme responsibility for a rookie, and has fit in nicely there.  Both of his goals Saturday came on the power play, and the potency of his shot, as well as his willingness to pull the trigger, seem to have given the man-advantage unit a jolt of energy.

In addition to that, Thomas several times in recent games has shown off a level of skating speed that is eye-opening.  You had to think that to get into the second round at 5-9 and 170 pounds, he had to be able to get around the rink pretty well, but I don’t remember seeing him really kick it into gear until the last couple of weeks.  There have been a couple of times recently, though, that he has been in races for the puck in which he has been able to fly full out, and when he does that, he generates a definite “wow” factor.

After Thomas chalked up a pair Saturday, Micheal Haley Sunday celebrated his return to his old barn in Bridgeport by netting his first two scores in a Whale uniform.

While it took Haley, whose 15 goals were fourth on the Sound Tiger club last year, 12 games to find the net this season, you could definitely see that big day for him coming. He has been, in my estimation, the Whale’s most consistent forward as of late, playing almost exclusively center, which I’m not sure he considers to be his natural position (he has been listed as a left-winger for most of his AHL career), and had

Micheal Haley

contributed three assists in the five games leading up to his two-goal outing Sunday, after being held scoreless in his first six Whale games.

Haley is playing just like he played against the Whale for Bridgeport, that is, going to the net hard, shooting the puck, getting in opponents’ faces and generating energy, which are exactly the attributes that motivated the Rangers to go out and sign him away from the Islanders this summer.

Haley’s two goals Sunday were both set up by excellent feeds from Marek Hrivik, last spring’s playoff diamond in the rough, who has yet to string together a consistent threatening stretch this year to match the promise he showed after joining the Whale out of the Quebec Junior League at the end of March.  He has shown flashes, though, especially threading the needle with passes, and Sunday he and Haley looked like they had been playing together their whole careers.

And let’s not forget Tommy Grant, who is tied for the team lead in goals with five, despite steadily occupying what amounts to a fourth-line spot most of the time.  Interesting stat on Grant…he has scored his five goals on only 16 shots, for a shooting percentage of 31.3 that is fifth-best in the AHL.  I think all of his tallies have been on plays almost identical to that on which he scored Saturday…stick down, drive the middle, one-time in a pass.  Not a bad signature in today’s game, or any era, for that matter.  The second-year pro had no points and one healthy scratch in the first four games of the season, and since then, his line is five goals and an assist for six points in eight games.

I’m guessing the next guy to break out and make a statement is Chris Kreider.  The speedy ex-B.C. Eagle had two assists in the Worcester game and has a respectable total of seven points in 11 games, but I don’t think has dominated like many thought he would at the AHL level.  I think there will be an “ah ha” moment for Kreider at some point soon, though, where a confidence switch will get flipped and he will start to feed on the fear he sees in backpedaling defensemen’s eyes when he turns on the jets and gets set to take the puck wide.  I remember Barry Melrose saying to me way back when that the only thing that he was ever intimidated by in the game of hockey was speed, and if there is one guy on the Whale roster who could really intimidate the rest of the league with his wheels, for sure it’s Kreider.

So, with different weapons clicking at different times, the Whale has been basically a .500 team through the first five weeks.  I think it’s safe to assume that they will hit a stretch when they all get firing at the same time, and that will be when the Whale legitimately serve notice on whether they will have a say in how the standings look by the end of things.

Thoughts from North of the (Mass.) Border

November 8, 2012

A couple of interesting quotes from the Springfield side of Sunday’s 10-2 throttling of the Whale at the XL Center…

Jon Audy-Marchessault, the former Whale who had a goal and an assist and was +4 Sunday, said to Nate Owen of the Springfield Republican about coming back into his old building, “You’ve got to be ready for any game.  For sure, it was special to come back to the XL Center for the first time, but we face them 12 times a year, so I’ve got to get used to that.”

Jon Audy-Marchessault, sporting his new Springfield colors, doesn’t want to get too overly excited about playing his old team.

The Whale had better hope he gets used to it.  Audy-Marchessault seemed especially charged up to go against Connecticut, and he played as well as any game he played last year.  His line, with Ryan Johansen at center and Tomas Kubalik on the other wing, thoroughly dominated most of their shifts, and Audy-Marchessault looked every bit like he had something to prove, even though it wasn’t like the Whale/Rangers cut him loose or anything like that.  If he is that excited every time he plays the Whale, it’s going to be a long season series.

Also, Falcon head coach Brad Larsen, who has Springfield off to a great start in his first stint as a head man, sounded like he would have enjoyed a 3-2 game a lot more than the 10-2 verdict.  Of blowout wins, Larsen said to Owen, “They’re not fun to play.  Even when you’ve got the lead, you’re just trying to get out without any injuries.”

I never thought about it before, but those games probably aren’t great even for the winning coach.  Especially in a situation like Sunday, when it’s the first game between two teams that are going to play 12 times during the year, as a coach you’re probably concerned about it not looking like you’re running up the score, while having still to take care of your big offensive guys who need to get their points.  Still better than being on the losing end, but not a walk in the park either.

 

Lundqvist Idling

Was amazed to read today in Larry Brooks’ article in the New York Post that Henrik Lundqvist has been prevented from playing for his old club in Sweden, Vastra Frolunda, by a regulation that prohibits Swedish Elite League teams from entering into agreements with locked-out NHL players that include escape clauses.

While I understand that the SEL doesn’t want its teams to be way stations for NHL guys to wait out the lockout, man, that’s really sticking to your guns, when you won’t let a guy the caliber of Lundqvist into your league.  That’s getting pretty close to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Lundqvist told Brooks, “The longer I have to wait, obviously the more I want to join my brother [Joel] on Frolunda, but right now I’m sitting tight.  I really hope we can find a solution with the NHL now. I’m so disappointed it has gone this far.”

Brooks also reported on Twitter today that Carl Hagelin suffered a shoulder injury playing in Sweden and has returned to the U.S. to get treatment.  Hagelin was skating in the Swedish Allsvenskan, a lower level than the SEL, which is why he was able to play and Lundqvist was not.

Falcons Have a Fun Night at XL Center

November 5, 2012

Going into Sunday, the Springfield Falcons, over the 15 years they have been visiting the XL Center, had defeated the Whale in regulation a grand total of 16 times in 77 trips.

So it’s a bit of an understatement to say that the big house in downtown Hartford has not treated the guys from up I-91 real well.

You’d never know it if you had only seen Sunday’s game, though, as the Falcons just about couldn’t do anything wrong, right from the first drop of the puck, in what would end as the first game in franchise history in which the Whale have given up as many as 10 goals.

It was kind of a funny game, in that there were significant stretches of play in which the Whale had the Falcons hemmed in their own end, in contrast to some other blowout losses the Whale has sustained over the years, in which I can remember them being dominated from start to finish.  Aside from the two goals they did score, however, which came 4:53 apart, one late in the second period and one early on in the third, the Whale were not able to translate any of their good offensive-zone pressure into goals.  The Falcons, on the other hand, scored more often than not when they got set up in the Whale zone, or when they got speed generated through the neutral zone.

The Whale were riding a four-game winning streak coming into Sunday’s 10-2 blowout, but, as BlueshirtsUnited.com’s Jim Cerny, who saw Friday’s shootout win in Albany, pointed out today, you could see the seeds of Sunday’s disaster being sown in that game.  I would say it even goes back to the previous game, last Saturday’s 6-3 win over Providence, as the Whale were outshot 40-23 in that one, and, were it not for a combination of good fortune and active goaltending, could have ended up with a much different result.

I don’t think anybody saw 10-2 coming, but the Whale had definitely been giving up way too many offensive chances and spending much too much time in their own zone.

Make no mistake about it, Springfield has a real good team, especially with veteran Curtis McElhinney giving them the kind of goaltending he has so far (just 13 goals-against in eight games).  And it didn’t hurt the Falcons to have two ex-Whale guys, Jon Audy-Marchessault and Tim Erixon, who were clearly very motivated to come in and do well against their old team.  You add Audy-Marchessault to what parent club Columbus already had in the pipeline, like Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Tomas Kubalik, and that’s a heck of a group of young guns up front.  The blueline, too, is so brimming with prospects that gritty veteran Greg Amadio can’t even get in the lineup.  The rest of the division is going to have to hope that the NHL gets going soon and that a good number of these young legs shuffle off to Columbus.  The Whale have to play these guys another 11 times, for crying out loud.

For the Whale, I imagine it’s back to the drawing board this week, and that might be a good thing.  Cam Talbot’s return seemed to energize the group during that winning streak, but clearly his fine play was covering up some significant issues, and Sunday certainly exposed those in no uncertain terms.  I’m sure there will be lots of X’s and O’s work during practice this week and, since General Manager Jim Schoenfeld witnessed the eight-goal defeat Sunday, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if there were a roster move or two as well.