Uneventful Weekend

Not much going on in the first weekend of the new year, just the settlement of the NHL lockout, a World Junior gold medal for the USA and five out of six points for the Whale, with both of the wins by shutout.  Ho hum.

Closest to home, the turn of the year is one of those signposts in the season that you think about for a few minutes, but obviously doesn’t really have any significance relating to how a team plays on the ice.  On the other hand, when you get past January 1 you see the halfway point of the season and the all-star break bearing down on you pretty quickly, and I imagine teams that have struggled, as the Whale certainly have for much of this campaign, at least subconsciously think of the new year as an opportunity for a fresh start.

The Whale certainly played like that was their mindset this weekend, and it translated into two shutout wins and an overtime loss in three games, after the Whale had not previously held an opponent off the scoreboard all year.

Don’t want to go overboard here…it’s not like the Whale dominated the games—they were outshot by nearly a 2-1 margin, 35-18, Sunday against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and allowed 36 shots in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Glens Falls—but, whereas we have seen so many times this year the Whale find a way to make just enough mistakes to lose, this weekend they had the look of a team that was confident that they were going to find a way to win.

Of course, getting excellent goaltending makes you a threat no matter what else is going on, and the Whale’s netminding was unassailable in the first three games of 2013.  Cam Talbot stretched his streak of consecutive starts to 14, just four shy of J.F. Labbe’s 1998-99 franchise regular-season record, with a 25-save whitewash of the Phantoms on Friday and 34 more stops Saturday, before Jason Missiaen came through with easily his best AHL performance so far on Sunday.

The Whale were helped that day by the first reverberation of the end of the lockout, as the Penguins sat out two of their top forwards, leading scorer Beau Bennett and big winger Eric Tangradi, and Robert Bortuzzo, reportedly their most consistent defenseman, but Connecticut was short too, as banged-up forwards Marek Hrivik and Chris Kreider both had to be scratched after the warmup, leaving the Whale one skater short of the normal roster limit of 18.

Missiaen had not been in a game since returning to the Whale December 23 from a week with Greenville, and his last AHL appearance was 33 minutes of mop-up duty in relief of Talbot December 8 in Manchester, that gruesome 9-2 loss to the Monarchs.  The 6-8 AHL rookie was anything but rusty Sunday, though, and he frustrated a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club that still iced a pretty dangerous lineup, even without the players that were scratched in anticipation of heading to training camp with the parent Pittsburgh club.  Trevor Smith had 26 goals for the Calder Cup-champion Norfolk Admirals last season, Warren Peters is a former 20-goal guy in the AHL, and defensemen Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and Dylan Reese all are known as guys who will regularly chip in at the offensive end.

Jason Missiaen

Jason Missiaen

Missiaen was unyielding, however, and a Whale club that has been the most generous in the league in goals-against for most of the season all of a sudden has been unblemished defensively in 12 periods out of the last 16 (not counting Saturday’s OT), and has risen to 25th in the league in goals-against per game, at 3.11.

With Missiaen holding the fort in the twine, all the offense Sunday was provided by Kyle Jean, who took advantage of the extra ice time necessitated by the shortage of forwards to step up for his first two-goal game as a pro.  After an eye-opening start, Jean had experienced some rough sledding, managing only one goal and five assists in 27 games after producing 4-5-9 in his first seven pro outings, but he was dynamic on Sunday, powering home a pinpoint shot through a Micheal Haley screen on a first-period power play and hooking the puck deftly out of a net-front tangle and slipping it into the cage just short of the midway point of the second frame.

It was a well-timed reemergence by Jean, as J.T. Miller figures to be back in a Whale jersey for this weekend’s trip to Hershey, if he doesn’t go straight to the Rangers for the run-up to the start of the truncated NHL season.  With Miller having excelled in the middle after having been moved from left-wing at the end of November, a resurgent Jean would give the Whale some real oomph at the center position, although all personnel bets are sort of off at this point, until it becomes clear what the Rangers are going to do when they start camp (seems really weird to be talking about something like that at this time of year, doesn’t it?).

Still can’t say enough about the effort by Miller and his USA teammates over in Ufa, Russia, rising up from the brink of a round-robin ouster to roll through two medal-round games and eventually outlast a solid and fast Sweden team in the gold medal match.  They battled through some growing pains and hit a great stride just at the right time, and were clearly the best team in the tournament by the end of it.

It’s already been a great development year for Miller, what with being able to play in the AHL as a 19-year-old, consistently elevating his play throughout the first half of the Whale season and now being one of the biggest contributors to a great international success for USA Hockey.  Can’t wait to see where he takes it from here, as he returns from the World Juniors to the pro ranks.

And what a relief that the NHL CBA mess finally got settled, short of a second lost season in nine years.  Still waiting on details to emerge on when exactly camps will start, how many games the season will be, what they will do about the trade deadline, etc., but just the fact that there will indeed be NHL hockey this year after all definitely lifts a pall of gloom from the entire sport.

Now the interesting question from a local perspective will be what effect the start of the NHL season will have on an AHL campaign that is already almost half complete.  Some of the AHL clubs that have been powerhouses so far, like Oklahoma City, figure to get pretty thoroughly cleaned out, but it is less clear how much teams that haven’t been loaded up with erstwhile NHLers will be impacted.  As I wrote earlier in this piece, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s playing roster was clearly affected Sunday by the impending needs of the parent club, and word is coming from around the league of other teams shutting down key players who are heading shortly to NHL camps.  Have not heard anything about who from the Whale might be going to camp with the Rangers, but Larry Brooks of the New York Post is reporting that the parent club will summon Hrivik, Kreider, Haley and Matt Gilroy.  Also have not seen any mention of what will happen with Wade Redden.  With talk of amnesty buyouts, wouldn’t be surprised to see him be subject to one of those, but it sounds like that is not going to be allowed to happen with anyone until the end of the season.

Interesting times, and it’s going to make for a crazy next month or so, that’s for sure.

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