Archive for March, 2013

Whale up to Sixth Place in Eastern Conference

March 25, 2013

The Whale’s two-out-of-three performance this past weekend has lifted them into the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, one point ahead of Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and only three points behind fifth-place Portland.

Of course, the Bears and Penguins still have a game-in-hand on the Whale, and the Pirates have two, and the Whale are still only five points out of ninth place.  Of the nine teams that are clustered from fifth through 13th, though, separated by a total margin of only ten points, only Norfolk, which is tied with Manchester for ninth at 67 points, has put together as good a record as the Whale has over the last ten games.  Both teams are 6-3-0-1 over that span.

The only game the Whale has lost in its last six was Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Adirondack, and that was one of those games that had you thinking that even if the Whale does manage to make the playoffs, it’s not going to give anybody any trouble.

Even though the Whale scored first in that one, the last-place Phantoms carried most of the play from quite early on in the game.  The Whale brought precious little physicality, seemed to handle the puck in the defensive zone as if it were about to explode, and didn’t get much traffic in front of Adirondack goaltender Cal Heeter, who hadn’t played in ten games and looked like he was fighting the puck on almost every shot.

A Whale penalty-killing unit that had gone 28 for 29 in the previous six games coughed up four goals in five times short, and saw the Phantoms’ line of Tye McGinn, Garrett Roe and Jason Akeson do pretty much whatever it wanted out there.

That was as bad a game as the Whale had played in some time, but there response to it the next day couldn’t have been much better.

Sunday’s opponent, the Binghamton Senators, have been one of the top teams in the conference all season, and came into the game winners of three straight and 8-2-0-1 in their previous 11.  The Senators had blanked the Whale the only previous time the two teams met, a 3-0 verdict March 8 in Binghamton, but Sunday they ran into an angry Whale group, which proceeded to take the play right to one of the best teams in the league, less than 24 hours after being cuffed around by one of the least successful.

One of the things that had Ken Gernander the most disgusted about Saturday’s game was the absence of finished checks by his team, and the club obviously took that message to heart.  At least two of the Whale goals Sunday were directly the result of strong physical play in the offensive zone, and two more came from creating plenty of havoc around the Senator net, another element that was conspicuously absent in Saturday’s game.

Andrew Yogan, after being named First Star of Sunday's win over Binghamton.

Andrew Yogan, after being named First Star of Sunday’s win over Binghamton.

And for the Rangers’ player-development staff, reading the stat sheet from the 6-1 Sunday win had to be like opening presents at Christmas, as the three stars were all rookie prospects.  Andrew Yogan had his first three-point game as a pro with two goals and an assist, Christian Thomas bagged a pair of goals to break out of an eight game pointless drought and Dylan McIlrath posted his first multiple-point game, chipping in two assists.

The five-goal win equaled the Whale’s most lopsided victory margin of the season, and was accomplished without leading scorer Kris Newbury, who was called up by the Rangers on Saturday morning.  The Whale now have at least a point in 15 of their last 20 games (12-5-1-2), and since the turn of the New Year, at which point they were tied for last place in the Eastern Conference, the club is now 19-9-3-3 in 34 games, a tidy .647 winning percentage.

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Missiaen Making his Presence Felt

March 18, 2013

Last season Cam Talbot heated up like a microwave down the stretch, and ended up taking solid hold of the Whale’s number-one goaltending spot by the time the playoffs rolled around.

And lately Jason Missiaen has been making a big bid to duplicate that this spring.

Jason Missiaen

Jason Missiaen

Missiaen is on a legit hot streak now, having stopped 56 out of 58 opposition shots in wins this weekend over Manchester and Springfield.  That gives him, and the team, three consecutive victories, in which only four of 97 shots have gotten by Missiaen, which works out to a 1.34 goals-against average and a 95.9% save percentage.

The three straight winning decisions represent an AHL best for Missiaen, who had started only one of the previous 13 games, and two of the previous 18, prior to getting the call to go in the last three.  And it’s not like these were three easy cakewalks for the team, either.

The Whale have been outshot by a combined margin of 97-67 during this three-game win streak, and that includes a 13-3 third-period deficit in that department Sunday against the Falcons, who were playing their fourth game of the week, while the Whale were only playing their second.  Connecticut trailed last Sunday’s game in Providence for much of it, and even the shutout over the Monarchs left the Whale coaching staff feeling that the team could have played a lot better.  Ah, the magic of good goaltending.

And interestingly, even before these last three gems, Missiaen had quietly been putting up some real good stats, albeit in a very limited role.  The 6-8 Ontarian is now 5-0-1 in his last six decisions, and since going 2-3-0 with a 4.94 goals-against average and an 85.0% save percentage in his first seven AHL appearances, Missiaen is 7-1-2 in his last 12 games-played, with a 2.16 GAA, a 93.5% save percentage and two shutouts.

While Missiaen has been turning his season around, Chris Kreider seems to have found his scoring touch, and that’s a very welcome development for the Ranger organization.

Chris Kreider Scores Against Manchester

Chris Kreider Scores Against Manchester

When Kreider came back down to the Whale from the Rangers February 28, I know the plan was to play him in all situations, to challenge him with all kinds of responsibility and look for him to round out his game, and that seems to be exactly what has happened.  Kreider has six goals and an assist in eight games since his return and has excelled on special teams.  Three of those six goals have been power-play tallies, and another was Kreider’s first career shorthanded goal as a pro.  Kreider and his recent linemates, fellow Boston College product Benn Ferriero and team points leader Kris Newbury, had one bad defensive game, the 4-3 loss at Adirondack when they were on the ice for all four goals-against, but other than that no problems in the defensive zone, which had been an area of concern for Kreider in his previous stays in the AHL.

Word out of New York is that the Rangers, held to a total of only three goals in three consecutive losses, will be reuniting Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik on a line for their home game tonight against Carolina, in an attempt to goose the offense.  If that is not successful in illuminating some red bulbs for the parent club, I certainly would not be surprised to see the Rangers put in a call for Kreider, to see if he could carry his recent Whale roll into the NHL.

Of the six goals the Whale scored over the weekend, three came at five-on-five, and two of those were generated by the fourth line of Kyle Jean centering Andrew Carroll and Ryan Bourque.

The line of Andrew Carroll (foreground), Kyle Jean and Ryan Bourque celebrate Carroll's first goal with the Whale.

The line of Andrew Carroll (foreground), Kyle Jean and Ryan Bourque celebrate Carroll’s first goal with the Whale.

Bourque had been out of the lineup for over seven weeks, and nineteen games, before finally returning from injury Saturday, and he was really flying around.  He scored one goal in Sunday’s game and could have had another, foiled by Springfield goaltender Curtis McElhinney on a second-period breakaway.  Jean looked to be energized by his linemates’ spirited play and set up Carroll for his first Whale goal Saturday, staying with the play nicely after having a breakaway chance of his own foiled by Monarch backstop Martin Jones.  As for Carroll, he also assisted on Bourque’s goal Sunday, giving Carroll points in back-to-back games for the first time in his AHL career.

 

 

Haley Moves up the Depth Chart

March 13, 2013

Micheal Haley played 14 shifts, in the Rangers’ 3-1 loss at Buffalo Tuesday night, almost double his previous high since being called up from the Whale last Monday.  Haley’s ice time totaled 10:06, and he even got out there for the tail end of a power play in the third period.

Micheal Haley (newyorkrangers.com)

Micheal Haley (newyorkrangers.com)

It sounds like that promotion was motivated largely by Ranger coach John Tortorella’s irritation with his top-line players, as Haley was inserted into Marian Gaborik’s spot on a line with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan, but still, good for Haley, who has seemingly been a nice fit for the Rangers as a spot-shifting banger and crasher.

Haley was realistic about the situation after the game, telling the media, “Obviously when you get some ice, you want to make the best of it, but I don’t think that I’m gonna be a first-line player in the NHL, ya know?  I’m going to do – whatever opportunities are given, whatever is asked of me – I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”

It’s now been five games with the Rangers for Haley, whose two-year deal with the Blueshirts becomes a one-way next season.  Word is that Arron Asham is making progress in returning from his back injury, and you might figure that the Rangers wouldn’t need both him and Haley around, but even with Asham they would have only 13 healthy forwards.  So it wouldn’t be a total stunner if they decided to hang on to Haley, even just to have some extra grit available against some of the more physical teams they face.

Big Sunday Bounce-back for Whale

March 11, 2013

It was a grind for the Whale this past week, but they finished it in strong fashion, with a 4-2, come-from-behind victory Sunday in Providence over the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins.

That was arguably the Whale’s toughest matchup of the week too, the Bruins having gone 9-1-0-2 in their previous 12 games and 15-2-0-2 in their previous 19, and having just gotten Chris Bourque back from Boston for the first time since the start of the NHL season.  Good goaltending is a great equalizer, though, and Jason Missiaen was terrific in Sunday’s game, in only his second start in 14 games.

Jason Missiaen

Jason Missiaen

The Bruins had won five straight and nine out of ten at home and dominated much of the first two periods, especially the second.  The Whale were outshot 15-5 in the second frame and gave up one, but Missiaen did an outstanding job of preventing the Bruins from padding the margin.

Andrew Yogan scored a huge goal on a wraparound only 32 seconds after Providence had re-taken the lead on an early third-period power-play score, and the Whale were able to ride that momentum through the rest of the third.  Nick Palmieri scored what turned out to be the winner on a deflection less than three minutes after Yogan’s goal, and after Michael Hutchinson stopped Kris Newbury on a penalty shot at 11:10, Brandon Mashinter sealed the deal with an empty-net goal.

The win was a huge psychological boost for the Whale, not only because it came at the expense of a powerful team that was red-hot, but also because of what happened to the Whale in Saturday’s game at Adirondack.

That one was a huge punch in the gut, with the Whale seemingly in full control in the third period, only to see the Phantoms explode for three goals in a span of 3:04 late in the third, on the way to a 4-3 stunner of a win.

The bus was as quiet as I’ve heard it in a long time on the drive back to Hartford from Glens Falls, and the team seemed to be questioning itself in a very real way.  The defensive pairing of Sam Klassen and Blake Parlett, which had been together much of the year and had evolved into the Whale’s top shutdown pair, was -3 in the game, and Kris Newbury’s line with Chris Kreider and Benn Ferriero was on the ice for all four goals-against.

The coaching staff decided that it was time for some changes going into Sunday, and all three defensive pairs, and three of the four forward lines, were changed up for the game in Providence.  A new pairing of Parlett and Mike Vernace was a combined +5, Klassen had an assist and was +1 playing with Logan Pyett, and the statutory all right-handed pair (four of the Whale’s six regular D-men are right-hand shots, so two of the righties always have to play together) was Dylan McIlrath and Sean Collins.

The one line that stayed together was Yogan centering Mashinter and Brandon Segal, which is kind of the polar opposite of the line that was crackling so well a couple of weeks ago.  That was a fireplug size trio of Kelsey Tessier between Micheal Haley and Christian Thomas, and by comparison, the Yogan (6-3, 203), Mashinter (6-4, 230), Segal (6-2, 209) group is a fleet of aircraft carriers.

Andrew Yogan

Andrew Yogan

That Yogan line had played well in the Adirondack game, and the threesome had two points apiece Sunday, including Yogan’s nice individual effort on the 2-2 goal in the third.  Yogan has some nice hands and wheels for a kid his size, and has shown flashes of some dominant offensive skill in the cups of coffee he has had with the Whale at the end of his last two Junior seasons, but didn’t seem to have much confidence going for much of this year.  The Florida native has really started to turn it on in the last couple of weeks, though, with five points in the last six games, and seems to like playing center better than the wing.  If he can continue to excel there, that will give the Whale a real nice mix down the middle, with two tall, long-reach guys in Yogan and Kyle Jean, and a pair of hard-battling bulldog types in Newbury and Tessier.

Three-Quarters of the Way Home

March 4, 2013

Believe it or not, Tuesday’s home game against Portland starts the last quarter of the Whale’s 76-game regular season, and they are coming off of a third quarter that saw them change their status from pretenders to contenders in the Eastern Conference.

The Whale were 16-18-3-1 at the halfway point of the year, and were three games below the .500 mark, 7-10-1-1, in the second quarter.  Over the next 19 games, though, the club went 11-5-2-1 and had matched its high-water mark of four games above .500 (27-23-5-2) going into Tuesday’s game.

No room to relax, however, as the Whale’s recent run of 7-2-1-1 in its last 11 games and 10-3-2-1 in its last 16 has only lifted Ken Gernander’s boys as high as the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, right on the playoff bubble.  Not much help on the scoreboard this past week, either, with Hershey sweeping three games over the weekend, Albany getting five out of a possible six points and Manchester sweeping a pair of contests up in St. John’s.

The Whale certainly took care of its business in the two games this past weekend against Bridgeport, even though they did cough up a two-goal lead in Sunday’s road game with a tentative third period, allowing the Sound Tigers to wring a point out of that game.  The five-goal first period against Rick DiPietro Friday set the tone, and the Whale’s finishing touch was as good as it has been all year.Action Shot for Blog - 03-04-13

At the other end of the ice, Cam Talbot was Second Star in both games, and that’s a pretty good indication that the Whale gave up more scoring chances than is ideal, and they were outshot in both games, 38-30 on Friday and 33-27 on Sunday.  I’m sure that will be a topic of conversation as the Whale prepare for the Pirates, who will be smarting from a 7-1 smoking they absorbed Sunday at the hands of the red-hot Providence Bruins, whom the Whale will visit this Sunday.

The Rangers have to be ecstatic about the strides that Christian Thomas has made, and he had two goals and an assist in his return to the AHL Friday, before making a fine, hustling defensive play that turned the puck over and started the winning rush in Sunday’s overtime.  And reports of Chris Kreider’s two goals in two games, both from right around the front of the net, also no doubt elicited a fist pump or two in the Ranger hockey offices.