Whale at .700 Since January 1st

OK, don’t look now, but the Whale are one of the hottest teams in the AHL.

Since the first of the year, the local AHL entry has played .700 hockey, going 12-4-2-2 in 20 games.  That has raised them from a tie for last in the Eastern Conference, and four games below .500, to sixth among Eastern Conference teams, and a season-high four games above the even mark (25-21-4-2, 56 points).  That’s after a sweep of this past weekend’s three home games gave the Whale a season-best five-game winning streak and at least a point in six straight (5-0-0-1).

The organization has had a pretty good record over the years of doing this, starting to play its best hockey when the games are most important, and also of getting great mileage out of its hardest-working players, which has been a hallmark of this recent run.

Kris Newbury has been a constant all year, and is up to a tie for seventh in the league in points (17-27-44 in 50 games), but Brandon Segal has been monstrous during the Whale’s streak, Brandon Mashinter has been a terrific acquisition, Christian Thomas seems to have turned a big corner, and defensemen Mike Vernace and Blake Parlett have supported the attack at levels beyond anything that could have been expected.

Segal had a seven-game point-scoring streak, which tied a Whale season best, snapped in the Whale’s 4-1 win over Portland Friday, but rebounded with three huge plays in the weekend’s other two games.

Brandon Segal

Brandon Segal

Saturday night’s tussle with Norfolk was a give-no-quarter border war, and regulation time was devoid of scoring finish except for a 3:03 stretch late in the first period, in which both teams scored.  The extra standings point available in the overtime was huge for the Whale, as Hershey lost their game that night, affording the Whale an opportunity to jump past the Bears in the conference standings with two points.

It was Segal who would nail that down for the team, scoring in a rare three-on-three situation in the extra session when he got two tries at his own rebound, after being set up by a combination of Sean Collins and Logan Pyett.

Then on Sunday, it was looking like the Whale, despite playing a creditably hard game, were going to lose a close one to the Manchester Monarchs, who entered the game five points behind the Whale in the conference playoff race.  On back-to-back sequences late in the third period, though, Segal set up Steve Eminger and Mashinter for goals only 16 seconds apart, and the Whale pulled out the regulation win.

The winner was a great finish by Mashinter, who received his second Ranger summons Monday afternoon, and he has been nearly a point-a-game player (5-6-11, including two game-winners, in 14 games) with the Whale, after struggling to only two goals and five points in 30 games with Worcester before being traded.

Thomas had two more howitzer-type goals in the three games, and added a Brad Smyth-like second goal in Friday’s game, throwing the puck out of the corner off the back of the goaltender’s skates and in.  Perhaps even more importantly, he continued to fly around the rink like a man possessed, backing defensemen off and hitting holes all over the place.  This, clearly, is what Ranger scouts saw out of Thomas in the Ontario League, leading the parent club to spend a second-round pick on the 5-9, 170-pounder.  His speed continues to mesh well with the grit of Micheal Haley, as each seems to be rubbing off on the other.

The one downer of the weekend is that Vernace was lost to an injury in the third period of Sunday’s game, and the way he has been playing, that would leave a big void if he is out for any length of time.  In fact, since the turn of the year, Vernace is not only second only to Newbury in points on the Whale (Newbury has 17, Vernace 16), but is fifth in the league in plus/minus, with a team-leading +11.  Not bad for a guy who was struggling to stay out of the press box back around Christmas time.

Parlett and Sam Klassen have firmly established themselves as the Whale’s top pairing, after being hard-pressed to crack the top six last season.

Parlett has nine points in the last 11 games and 23 points on the year, and seems to have boosted his offense by picking up his physical play.  Not that he was ever a shrinking violet, but he looks like he has focused on initiating more hitting and taking the play to the opposition, and that has led to being more active all over the ice.  He’s starting to remind me a lot of Terry Virtue, ol’ number 3 in a Wolf Pack jersey and a two-time Calder Cup champ.

Three home games in three days is a lot of hockey for the home fans to take in, but the fan base of Metro Hartford really responded this weekend.  A good Friday-night house of 4,441 was followed up by an excellent crowd of 5,825, the fifth-largest of the year, on Saturday, and Sunday’s attendance of 5,143 was the biggest I remember for a Sunday in quite a while.

The Whale are playing exciting, winning hockey right now, and the fans deserve credit for taking notice.

In addition to Mashinter’s callup, the official announcement came today of Cam Talbot’s contract extension.  Capgeek.com has it as a two-year deal that becomes a one-way in the second year.  Nice pat on the back for a guy who has become one of the more reliable backstops in the AHL this year and, like the rest of the team, has really heated up lately.  He is 4-0-1 in his last five decisions, with a 1.39 goals-against average and a 95.1% save percentage in those five games.

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