Archive for December, 2012

Hopefully Better Things in 2013

December 31, 2012

Those of us who bleed Whale blue and green will have to hope that 2013 will represent a fresh new start for the Whale club, after a loss in the last game of 2012 that epitomized the frustrations that have dogged the team this season.

The Whale were playing a first-place team on New Year’s Eve in Portland, and the Pirates came into the game winners of seven of their last eight and ten out of 13.  Yet, the Whale were clearly the better team for nearly two-thirds of the game.

Connecticut thoroughly outplayed the Pirates for most of the first two periods, being consistently first on the puck, winning battles and doing all of the little things right.  That translated to a 3-0 Whale lead, after Micheal Haley and Tommy Grant scored 58 seconds apart early in the second period.  The Whale were rolling their lines and dictating the play, keeping the Pirates on their heels, making it look like a statement win might be in the offing.Action Shot for Blog - 12-31-12

Then, suddenly and without warning, the wheels fell off.

As if a switch had been flipped, the Whale began running around in their own zone and letting their coverage break down, and two Pirate defensemen, Mathieu Brodeur and Chris Summers, found themselves open for fairly easy goals on consecutive shifts.  And neither of those guys is exactly Bobby Orr offensively either, as Brodeur’s goal was only his second of the year and Summers’ was his first.

The fire drill continued after Summers scored with 15.9 seconds left, and Chris Kreider was whistled for a high-sticking minor as time expired.  The Whale were able to get that killed off, but found themselves shorthanded again just after Kreider got out of the box, on a cross-checking call against Mike Vernace, and they would not escape again.  Evan Brophey won a draw from Kris Newbury, and Jordan Szwarz tipped in a Michael Stone shot from the blue line.

The Whale seemed to right the ship somewhat after that, but had lost their margin for error, and another major coverage blunder resulted in the game-winner at 12:04.  The Whale broke up a Portland rush but never quite got the puck out up the boards, and somehow managed completely to lose track of Ethan Werek, who, ironically, was a 2009 second-round New York Ranger pick whom the organization traded to Phoenix, in front of the net.  The Pirates worked the puck back down deep quickly, finding the unguarded Werek, and he had time to put a backhand shot past the catching glove of Cam Talbot.

Therein is a pretty good snapshot of the Whale’s season so far.  They play 45 or 50 perfectly good minutes, but then come a couple of blown coverages, a lost defensive-zone faceoff and another lost check, and next thing you know, the Whale are left a goal short.

The positive is that when the Whale take care of the little things and make their opponents do things the hard way, they are a pretty tough team to play against.  The consistency has to improve, though, for the disappointments of New Year’s Eve not to be repeated on the other side of the calendar change.

 

Win in Springfield a Tonic?

December 30, 2012

The Whale badly needed something to feel good about, and they got it Saturday night, in a 4-2 win at Springfield that snapped a season-high string of three straight regulation losses.

The Whale offense had really been scuffling, shut out in seven of its previous nine periods, and the Falcons had the second-best defensive record in the league coming into the game, and had blanked Connecticut in two of the previous four meetings.  The Whale had the touch going in Saturday’s game, though, and helped themselves by doing a good job of getting pucks at the net.  They outshot Springfield by a margin of 25-14 in the first two periods and 30-25 overall, and got going with a pair of special teams goals.

The Whale power play went into the game 0/18 in the previous three games and 3/43 in the previous 11, but was 100% for Saturday’s game, getting a goal from Chad Kolarik at 12:52 of the first on their only opportunity of the game.  Kolarik also had a shorthanded goal, which came off of a two-on-one with Kris Newbury and was the result of Newbury putting a hard, low shot off of Falcon goaltender Curtis McElhinney’s pads.  McElhinney couldn’t control the rebound and it went right to Kolarik, who didn’t miss on the finish.

Chad Kolarik

Chad Kolarik

The Falcons never really recovered from giving up those two first-period scores, and it’s interesting that Kolarik and Newbury were both attempting to work their way out of the doghouse, so to speak, after seeing their ice time cut significantly, in the case of Kolarik, and eliminated almost entirely in Newbury’s case, in the last two periods of Thursday’s 3-0 home loss to Bridgeport.

Both veterans had taken a couple of first-period penalties in that game that the coaches were not happy with, and Ken Gernander & Co. were willing to take the hit to the team offense for the sake of sending a message.  Saturday was a new day and a new chance, though, and Gernander has never been one to bury guys.  Newbury and Kolarik were back on a line together in Springfield and playing in all situations, and they definitely redeemed themselves, especially Kolarik, who now leads the team in goals with 12 and is only one point behind Newbury for the Whale points lead.

Logan Pyett also scored Saturday, and he is another guy who had tasted some disappointment recently, sitting out the previous two games as a healthy scratch while the Whale gave Steven Delisle a look and Dylan McIlrath finally made his way back from his knee injury.  Pyett not only got what turned out to be the game-winner against the Falcons, he also was +3 in the game, to move into a tie with Sam Klassen for the team plus/minus lead at +3 for the year.

On the Whale’s fourth goal, to continue the theme, Tommy Grant made the play to find Christian Thomas for basically a tap-in, and Grant is another player whose ice time has waxed and waned over the course of the season, and has often found himself in strictly a fourth-line role.

So is this a harbinger of more offensive balance for the Whale and of a host of players pressuring for more ice time?  A trend like that would certainly go a long way towards reversing the recent mode that saw the club struggle to three wins in 13 games prior to the victory in Springfield.

Better D, Fewer Goals

December 17, 2012

For much of the early season, the Whale had few problems generating offense, but were challenged at keeping the puck out of their own net.

The last couple of weeks, though, the defensive play has improved quite a bit, with the 9-2 loss in Manchester a couple of Saturdays ago being an ugly exception, but now the offense seems to have largely gone cold.

Action Shot for Blog - 12-17-12Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Portland Pirates was the second 1-0 home defeat in seven days for the Whale, who were also blanked by that same score by the Albany Devils the previous Sunday at the XL Center.  Even in the game they won this week, a 2-1 triumph over Worcester Wednesday, the Whale were held off the scoreboard until the third period, and had been scoreless for nearly six full periods before finally putting one into the net on the Sharks.

The Whale have now been shut out three times in a span of seven games, all three at home, and have been held to two goals twice more in those games.

On the other side of the puck, the Whale are still last in the AHL in goals-against per game at 3.38, but that figure has been coming down consistently as of late.  It’s hard to feel good about a pair of 1-0 losses, but if you keep giving up only a goal per game you’re going to win quite a few, and since that 9-2 meltdown, the Whale have allowed only one in three out of four games.

Unfortunately for the Whale, one of the guys who has been able to get some production accomplished recently, J.T. Miller (3-3-6 in his last six games) will be away from the team for the next couple of weeks, as he travels to Russia for the World Junior Championship.  Miller had been playing center and logging a lot of ice time, and it will be interesting to see what the Whale do to fill the void.  Tommy Grant had been a healthy scratch the last three games, and one would assume he would go back in the lineup to replace Miller, but Grant is a winger.  I’m guessing Micheal Haley will be moved back to the middle, maybe into the spot where Kris Newbury had been centering Shayne Wiebe and Christian Thomas.  Newbury then might go back between Marek Hrivik and Chad Kolarik, with Grant playing where Haley was, on the left side with Kelsey Tessier and Ryan Bourque.

The last two games before the Christmas holiday are against a pair of Atlantic Division teams, at Manchester on Friday and home to Providence on Saturday.  Hopefully for them, the Whale can get some revenge on the Monarchs for that seven-goal blowout, and maybe that might start them on a different path than has been the pattern the last two weeks, in which the club has won only two of nine games (2-6-1-0).

 

A couple of Whale reading bits that are well worth checking out if you are interested…Mark Malinowski did a “favorite things biofile” with Ryan Bourque for thehockeynews.com, and Miller was profiled by John Tranchina for USAHockey.com.  Also, it was announced today that the NHL Network will broadcast all of Miller and Team USA’s World Junior action live.

Harpooning the Sharks

December 13, 2012

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Worcester Sharks are a good team.  After an 0-4-0-1 start, they have battled their way to the top of the Atlantic Division, and that’s a pretty tough neighborhood.  Nobody has to tell the Whale how dangerous the Manchester Monarchs are, Portland and St. John’s have both beaten Connecticut in their only meetings, and the Whale have been outshot significantly in both games of a split with Providence.

For whatever reason, though, the Sharks can’t seem to beat the Whale.

All three times the teams have played, Worcester has come into the games having won at least two in a row, and all three times the Whale have knocked the Sharks off.  The last two times, the Sharks have even carried 1-0 leads into the third period, and in both of those games, including last night’s at the XL Center, Connecticut has scored a pair of early third-period goals to win 2-1.

After that 0-4-0-1 slate in their first four games, Roy Sommer’s Worcester club is 11-5-1-1 in 18 games, and three of those regulation losses have been to the Whale.

Strange.

And it’s not like it’s only been this year.  Over the Sharks’ seven-year history, the Whale’s record against Worcester is 33-13-1-2 in 49 games, nearly a .700 points percentage.  The rivalry has been even more lopsided in Worcester, where the Whale are 17-6-0-2 all-time against the Sharks, an incredible .720 points percentage.  The Sharks certainly haven’t been a doormat over that time either—they’ve been a playoff team in three of their six seasons—and under Sommer they have never been an easy team to play against.  San Jose doesn’t stack Worcester with a ton of expensive high-end skill players, but the AHL Sharks always play an in-your-face kind of puck pressure game and perennially seem to be one of the more physical teams that the Whale play.Action Shot for Blog - 12-13-12

So there’s no easy explanation for it, but the Whale will certainly take it.  The one negative is that the season series with the Sharks has only been four games the last couple of years, and there is only one left this season.

 

After Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Albany Sunday, which came on the heels of that 9-2 pasting by the Monarchs in Manchester on Saturday, Ken Gernander significantly shuffled his lines for last night’s game.

The biggest change was moving Kris Newbury all the way down from the first line to the fourth line, and Tommy Grant, whose seven goals were tied with Newbury for second-most on the team, was a healthy scratch.

Newbury had hit a dry spell, pointless in four straight games and without a goal in seven, and to his credit, he played well last night with Christian Thomas and Shayne Wiebe, who took Grant’s spot after sitting out the previous nine contests.  That threesome seemed to earn more ice time than a fourth line would normally get, and generated some quality chances.

Still, the Whale were without a goal for nearly six complete periods after being shut out by Harri Sateri and the Sharks in the first 40 minutes last night, before a new line of J.T. Miller centering Marek Hrivik and Chad Kolarik clicked twice in a span of less than five minutes in the third.

Miller had the primary assist on a Kolarik power-play goal before scoring the game-winner, and the rookie and former Ranger first-round pick now has three goals and two assists for five points in the last four games, after putting up only eight points in his first 20 games.  The turnaround corresponds pretty closely with Miller being moved from wing to center, and comes just as the 19-year-old is about to head off to join Team USA for the World Junior Championship in Russia.  That’s going to involve a long, tiring trip, but the World Junior is such an intense, exciting deal that I wouldn’t be surprised if the experience speeds Miller’s development even more, especially if the USA does well.  Let’s cross fingers…

Sunday no Fun Day for Whale

December 10, 2012

A Sunday hockey game is great for families looking to finish the weekend with some exciting action and still get home for dinner.  If present trends continue, though, the Whale might refuse ever to play another Sunday home game.

They have played three Sundays on home ice this year and have lost all three, by a combined margin of 16-2.  That’s not going to have you pining for the next time you get to spend Sunday in your own barn.  After this past Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the suddenly hot Albany Devils, the Whale are 1-5-0-0 on Sundays, as compared to 9-6-2-0 the rest of the week.

At least the most recent Sunday game could have gone either way.  Not so the first two home losses, both to Springfield, which were by one-sided margins of 10-2 and 5-0.

After Saturday night’s nightmare of a 9-2 loss in Manchester, in which things went to heck almost right from the start, the Whale were really Action Shot for Blog - 12-10-12good in the first period against Albany, and could have been up a couple of goals at least if they had found some better finishing touch.  The Devils thoroughly dictated play in the second but could only get one goal out of it, and it was mostly Whale again in the third, but Albany netminder Keith Kinkaid would never crack.

So it was either defense or offense missing in the two games over the weekend, and boy, did the defensive play ever take a holiday in Saturday’s game, against a Manchester team that was averaging only 2.59 goals per-game, 23rd in the league, and had won only five of 16 games after a 5-1-0 start.  Neither Cam Talbot nor Jason Missiaen had a glorious evening in goal, but they could hardly take all the blame, as they were both left naked numerous times.

At least the Whale managed to keep the Monarchs to single digits, in contrast to that early-November Sunday game against the Falcons in which they surrendered a franchise-record 10 goals-against.

Losing margins that large have been rare in Whale history, and two in the first 22 games of this year constitutes a rash.  Digging into the archives, I found that the Whale hadn’t lost a game by as many as seven goals since February of 2011, and since the 2000-01 season only once have they had more than one loss by seven goals or more in a single season, and that was in 2009-10, their one non-playoff year.  The franchise has never had three defeats by margins of seven or more in one campaign.

It’s funny, too, how one embarrassing blowout can be such a punch in the gut that it is all you remember from a week that featured two pretty good defensive and goaltending efforts.  Talbot was excellent in Sunday’s game, good bounce-back by him, very narrowly outdueled by Kinkaid, and Wednesday’s 4-2 win over Bridgeport featured the Whale’s lowest shots-against total of the season, 19, including only four in the third period.

So, the 10-2 and 9-2 losses aside, this is not just a bad defensive team.  When all bringing their best game, they are capable of very solid two-way play.  The challenge seems to be just avoiding the ruts of letting one avoidable goal-against turn into three or four.

Regardless of any negatives that came out of the weekend’s two losses, there were nothing but positives Monday, at the kickoff of the Whale’s

Christian Thomas, Dylan McIlrath and friends in "Cigna Hockey in the Streets" action.

Christian Thomas, Dylan McIlrath and friends in “Cigna Hockey in the Streets” action.

Cigna “Hockey in the Streets” program.  Coaches Ken Gernander and Jeff Beukeboom, along with Dylan McIlrath and Christian Thomas, joined Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc, AEG Management CT senior vice-president and GM Chuck Steedman and a host of other dignitaries at the Wilson-Gray YMCA and Family Center on Albany Ave. in Hartford, with Thomas and McIlrath hitting the floor for a spirited game of ball hockey with an enthusiastic group of neighborhood youngsters.

There’s nothing better than watching a group of young kids having fun playing a fun game, and these boys and girls, many of whom have never held a hockey stick before, and whose backgrounds are such that they have had minimal opportunity to be exposed to the game, had an absolute riot chasing the ball around.  McIlrath and Thomas, pretty much big kids themselves, got right into it and were terrific ambassadors.  That, in a nutshell, is the positive side of pro athletics, and making a great impact like that makes the difference between wins and losses seem more than a little trivial by comparison.

A Turnaround the Wrong Way

December 3, 2012

After a perfect three-in-three weekend the week before, the Whale put up an 0 for 3 this past weekend.

They did get one point, in Saturday’s overtime loss to Syracuse, and they led that game 3-0, and had 1-0 and 2-1 leads in Friday’s 4-2 defeat in Providence, but finished the trio of games with a 5-0 thud of a loss to Springfield.

That makes two home losses to the Falcons by a combined margin of 15-2, as this year’s Springfield crew laughs in the face of the eternal difficulties that their forbears have always faced at the XL Center.

Sunday was a much more competitive game, which admittedly is not saying much, than the 10-2 drubbing the Falcons laid on the Whale in their first trip to Hartford.  Connecticut outshot Springfield 34-28, including a combined 24-14 in the first and third periods, and the Whale Blog Photo 12-03-12certainly had their share of good chances against Falcon goalie Curtis McElhinney.  McElhinney was very sharp, though, and the Whale managed to find a couple of posts and crossbars as well.

Springfield just seems to be coming into the Whale’s den with a ton of confidence, which is a 180-degree turn from how things used to be.  Might have something to do with the presence of the two ex-Whale, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Tim Erixon, and them coming in fired up to play well in their old barn and send a message to their old organization.  Whatever it is, 15-2 is a pretty good statement in two games.

The one that really hurt was Saturday, when the Whale had the Crunch, mostly made up of the roster that won the Calder Cup in Norfolk last year, on the ropes, only to “take their foot off the snake”, as the late, great E.J. McGuire, the Wolf Pack’s first coach, used to put it, and see the snake rise up quickly and bite them.

The Falcons are a real quick team, but the Crunch might be even quicker, and the Whale hurt itself with a couple of costly turnovers in the third period, allowing Syracuse to make the best use of that speed going in transition.  Richard Panik did the most damage, scoring twice, after ending the Whale’s season last year with an overtime breakaway goal in the decisive Game Six of Connecticut’s series with Norfolk.  After the Crunch tied it at three, overtime was all Syracuse, with Mark Barberio, the AHL’s Defenseman of the Year last year, who only had three minor penalties on his stat sheet prior to that, scoring the winner late in the extra session, after the Crunch again took the puck away in the neutral zone.

I’m sure that the Whale looked at this current stretch of their schedule, in which they are playing seven out of eight games at home, as a chance to go on a good run.  The first two games of it have now been losses, however, so you can bet that there is a sense of urgency inside the Whale locker room to turn the momentum back around.  And, as the difference between last weekend and this weekend showed, that can happen quickly in the AHL, for good or ill.