Archive for April, 2013

Rangers Bring in Whale Reinforcements

April 29, 2013

With the NHL regular season now over, the Rangers have expanded their roster for the postseason, putting in a call for ten Whale mainstays to be playoff “black aces”, as the expression goes, for the big club.

Both Whale goaltenders, Cam Talbot and Jason Missiaen, two defensemen, Stu Bickel and Dylan McIlrath, and six forwards, Ryan Bourque, Micheal Haley, Brandon Mashinter, J.T. Miller, Brandon Segal and Christian Thomas, received summonses from the Rangers.

Cam Talbot and Kris Newbury

Cam Talbot and Kris Newbury

Those ten join Kris Newbury on the Ranger roster.  Newbury was recalled Thursday and played 8:59 in the Rangers’ regular-season finale, a 4-0 home win over New Jersey, Saturday.

Word out of New York is that Haley and Newbury will practice with the main Ranger group, while the rest of the callup guys will skate separately from the rest of the team, starting this afternoon at the Rangers’ MSG Training Center practice facility in Tarrytown, NY.  Ken Gernander and assistant coaches Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller will alternate running practices for the extra crew.

The Rangers, who grabbed the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket by winning eight out of their last ten games, will face the third-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round.  The Caps have the home-ice advantage, and Games One and Two are Thursday night and Saturday afternoon in D.C..

Newbury Gets the Call

April 26, 2013

Last night Kris Newbury became the first Whale player to be summoned by the Rangers since the end of Connecticut’s season.

Action Shot for Blog - 04-26-13Ryane Clowe got hurt in Thursday’s playoff-clinching, 4-3 Ranger overtime win at Carolina, and the Rangers were already short a forward, having to dress Matt Gilroy as a seventh defenseman last night with Arron Asham away from the team to be on hand for the birth of his new baby.

So Newbury goes up, after having led the Whale in points for a third straight season.  He is the second player in franchise history to top team scorers three consecutive years, duplicating Derek Armstrong’s feat doing so from 1998-99 through 2000-01.  Newbury’s point total of 62 this season was the second-highest of his pro career, surpassed only by the 64 he had for the Whale last year.

Sounds like Newbury will have a pretty good chance of getting into the lineup in Saturday afternoon’s regular-season finale for the Rangers, who host New Jersey on Saturday after pulling out two points in rousing fashion last night in Raleigh.

It was a real rollercoaster ride for the Blueshirts in the clincher, as New York blew a 2-0 second-period lead and committed a horrible defensive breakdown 49 seconds into the third period to allow the Hurricanes to take the lead, and then got a huge break to tie it back up with under three minutes left.

Carolina goaltender Dan Ellis actually kicked the puck into his own net on the tying score, after a power-play shot by Brad Richards went wide of the goal and richocheted off the end boards and back toward the front.

The Rangers then went on to win in overtime, with Captain Ryan Callahan beating Ellis with a shot, from almost the bottom of the left circle, to the far side.

As it turns out, the outcome would not have mattered anyway, as Winnipeg’s 4-2 home loss to Montreal would have put New York in the playoffs even if the Rangers hadn’t won.  Make no mistake about it, though, to go in the front door, so to speak, and not have to worry about what any other teams were doing, had the Rangers over the top with elation, as the photo of Callahan immediately after scoring the goal clearly illustrates.

Callahan said to the media after the game, “That’s one of the most exciting goals I’ve scored in my career,” and Henrik Lundqvist characterized the team’s feeling as, “Excitement, joy, relief. You’re proud. We’ve been working really hard to get in. It’s not easy to make the playoffs. Of course, your expectations are high. You see around the league. You have to work hard to get in. We should be proud of how we came together, especially the last three or four weeks.”

The Rangers still have plenty to play for Saturday, as they could finish as high as sixth or as low as eighth, but at least they can approach it without the sword of playing for their playoff lives dangling over their heads.

I would expect that a further group of Whale players will be tabbed to join Newbury on the Ranger roster as soon as the NHL regular season concludes.  Several guys have been continuing to practice on an informal basis hereabouts in anticipation of that.

Season Comes to a Disappointing End

April 22, 2013

Always sad to watch the ice melt at the XL Center, especially this early in the spring.

And geez, what can you say about an 0-5-1 streak to end the season?  Who saw that coming?

Actually, the ice is still in for now, as the players who will be joining the parent New York Rangers from the Whale will skate at the XL Center for a couple of days, until the big club gets back from Florida, but metaphorically speaking, it has melted away.

That’s a pretty accurate image for the Whale’s season, too, as what was shaping up as a strong finish to the regular year took a sudden U-turn, with the club unable, in six tries, to get the one win that would have earned it a playoff berth.

What happened, you ask?  Well, that’s a good question.  I can’t really point to one element that caused the bottom to fall out.

Action from the Whale's season-ending 5-1 loss in Portland Saturday (courtesy of the Portland Pirates).

Action from the Whale’s season-ending 5-1 loss in Portland Saturday (courtesy of the Portland Pirates).

Lack of timely scoring was certainly an issue, as all but the last of the six losses were by one goal, with one including an empty-netter.  Individually, some important players hit slumps at the very end, as leading goal-scorer Brandon Segal was held without a tally in the last six games, after putting together the second-longest goal-scoring streak in team history, a six-gamer, Christian Thomas had one goal in the last nine games and J.T. Miller was held without a goal in the five games he played after coming back from New York.

It’s hard to fault any of those guys’ efforts, though, I don’t think the dearth of goal-scoring was due to an absence of “want-to”.

One collective number that stands out is the shots-against.  That was a bit of a bugaboo all year, as the Whale ranked 27th out of the 30 AHL teams in shots given up per game, at 32.5, but the trouble got even more pronounced at the very end.  They only gave up 22 in the crushing, last-second, 4-3 loss in Springfield last Sunday, but other than that, the opposing shot totals in the last two weekends of the season were 45, 36, 35 and 39, for an average of 38.8 per game.  That’s way too many.

It’s easy to point the finger at the goaltenders for not making all the saves the team needed, but that’s too much rubber to be facing on a nightly basis, and you can extrapolate it out, too, to much too much time to be spending in your own zone.  And to be fair, if you look back over the last 44 games of the campaign, the time during which the Whale went from a near cellar-dweller to a playoff contender, Jason Missiaen had a save percentage of 92.7 and Cam Talbot’s was 92.2.  Those are two real good numbers, and the team wouldn’t have even been sniffing the postseason if they hadn’t been as strong.

When you talk about shots against and too much time in the defensive zone, it’s not unreasonable to look at the loss of Blake Parlett as having turned out to be a big blow.

I have to admit, I liked Parlett’s game, for the most part, this year and thought he had come a long way as a player, but I didn’t think that taking him out of the Whale mix was going to hurt the team nearly as much as it seemed to.

Sometimes, particularly with defensemen, you have no idea how important a guy really is, and how many key minutes he takes care of, until you don’t have him anymore, and the Whale’s record since the April 3 Ranger/Columbus trade is a good illustration of that.

Connecticut actually won the first two games without Parlett, but were outshot (there it is again) 64-36 in the process, before the season-ending losing skein began with a 1-0 loss to Providence in the home finale two Sundays ago.

No reasonable hockey observer could argue against the trade the Rangers made to move Marian Gaborik, and New York’s record since the deal, 7-2-2, clearly confirms that it was a smart move.  I would have thought, too, that the Whale had enough collective depth to weather the loss of Parlett, especially with Stu Bickel coming down from the Rangers, but that seems not to have been the case.

Now the Whale focus turns to a hoped-for Ranger postseason run, and it should come clear in the next day or two who from the Whale roster will be headed to Gotham to augment the big club’s group.

Whale Still with Reasonable Shot at Postseason

April 20, 2013

The Whale continue to fail to make things easy on themselves, but, crazy as it sounds after an 0-4-1-0 swoon, they are still hardly out of the playoff picture.

Manchester and Hershey both won last night, but Norfolk lost, taking a 6-1 pasting at the hands of the Crunch in Syracuse, which, combined with the Whale’s 3-2 defeat at Albany, created a four-team logjam at 79 points.

Only two of the four teams at 79 can get in, and the Whale are at a disadvantage in that they have only tonight’s game in Portland left, whereas the other three teams all have two games.  Plus, Manchester and Hershey play each other tomorrow, so one of those two teams is guaranteed to have 81 points.  If the Whale win tonight and don’t need a shootout to do it, they would have 81 points and 34 non-shootout wins, which would guarantee them the tiebreaker over Hershey (they already have the tiebreaker on Norfolk, which cannot catch the Whale in non-shootout wins) and would give them the tiebreaker on Manchester if the Monarchs lose both of their games.  Of course it’s all academic if two of the other three end up with more points than Connecticut, but the Whale could conceivably lose tonight and still get in.  If Norfolk and Hershey lose both of their games in regulation, Manchester would take seventh and, with the Whale, Admirals and Bears all still tied at 79 points, the Whale would take the eighth spot by virtue of having the most non-shootout wins of the three tied teams.

Action from the Whale's 3-2 loss Friday at Albany (courtesy of Albany Devils)

Action from the Whale’s 3-2 loss Friday at Albany (courtesy of Albany Devils)

That’s a lot of ifs, but one sure thing is that the Whale need to show more urgency than they did in last night’s loss in Albany, or even if they do find their way into the postseason, it will be a short stay.  The Whale were outshot 35-23 in the game, including 13-6 in the decisive third period, by an Albany team that is out of playoff contention, and even though Connecticut led twice in the game, both times they allowed the Devils to come back and tie the game shortly after the Whale had gone ahead.  The margin between success and failure is thin this time of year, and all five losses in this drought have been one-goal games (plus one empty-net goal), so it’s not like the Whale have been mailing it in and getting blown out, but the extra effort that led them to wins in eight of their previous ten needs to come back to the forefront in a big hurry.  Otherwise it is going to be a long offseason of pondering what might have been.

Whale Gear up for Last Two of Regular Year

April 19, 2013

The Whale start the last weekend of the regular season tonight in Albany, needing to win and get a little bit of help as well.

Connecticut needs only one point, either way, to ensure that Bridgeport can’t catch them, but even if the Sound Tigers are eliminated, the Whale are still part of a four-team group basically fighting for two spots.  They have a “magic number” of five points that they need to grab a spot ahead of Manchester and Hershey.  So if the Whale beat the Devils tonight and both the Bears (at Adirondack) and Monarchs (at Binghamton) lose in regulation, then the number is down to one point.  And the Phantoms owe the Whale a favor, right, after beating Connecticut four times in six meetings this year, and Binghamton is 24-8-1-3 at home on the year.

On the other hand, if the Whale should happen to lose in regulation and both Hershey and Manchester win without needing a shootout, then all of a sudden the Whale would find themselves in ninth place, out of a playoff spot, with only one game remaining.  Not a nice prospect to contemplate.

Stu Bickel

Stu Bickel

Stu Bickel was back in practice with the Whale yesterday and today, after sitting out Sunday’s loss in Springfield with an injury, so there is a good chance he’ll be back in the lineup in Albany.  The Whale will be without Chris Kreider, thought, after he replaced the injured Brian Boyle in the Ranger lineup in last night’s 6-1 Ranger triumph over Florida at Madison Square Garden, registering one shot in just over seven minutes of ice time.

With ECHL affiliate Greenville’s season over, and the NCAA and many Major Junior teams’ years done, the Whale, who have rarely scratched more than one or two players for any game this year, all of a sudden have a roster teeming with bodies.

Four players came in Wednesday from Greenville, which fell to Reading in five games in the first round of the ECHL playoffs.  Scott Stajcer gives the Whale some extra depth in net, Jason Wilson provides some added grit up front, and AHL-contracted players Jordie Johnston, who had 22 goals in 56 games for the Road Warriors as a rookie this year, and Danny Hobbs, a seventh-round pick by the Rangers in 2007, also are now in the Whale fold.

In addition to those guys, a pair of players from the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, for whom Jeff Beukeboom was an assistant coach last season, have come in on Amateur Tryout agreements.  Forward Michael Kantor has also earned an NHL contract from the Rangers, and defenseman Charlie Dodero was the top offensive blueliner on the Wolves’ club this year, with seven goals and 27 points in 67 games.  Beukeboom had good things to say about both players as they joined the Whale, identifying Kantor as a guy who particularly stood out as a blood-and-guts, character player.

Gotta think it’s doubtful that any of the new arrivals will make it into the lineup tonight or in tomorrow night’s regular-season finale in Portland, with a postseason berth hanging in the balance, but the extra manpower certainly gives the coaching staff some different options, should the drive for a playoff spot prove successful.

Frustrating Weekend for Whale

April 15, 2013

All is not lost, but boy, this last weekend sure could have gone a lot better for the Whale.

The team is still tied for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, so if the season ended today they would be in, but the 0-2-1 weekend has cost the Whale control of their own playoff destiny.

The Whale are tied with Norfolk at 79 points, and are two ahead of Manchester and Hershey, both of which have 77.  The tough thing for the Whale is, all of those teams have a game in hand on Connecticut.  So, even if the Whale win both of their last two games in regulation, they would finish behind both Norfolk and Manchester if those teams also win out in regulation.

That’s a lot of ifs, of course, and both the Admirals and Monarchs finish with tough games.  Norfolk plays in Syracuse on Friday and finishes at league-leading Providence Sunday, and Manchester has road games at Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey.

If the Whale end up on the outside looking in, they will have plenty to look back on and regret from this weekend.

They were outshot 45-20 Friday at Manchester, a team they had beaten four straight times, wasting a fine goaltending performance by Cam Talbot, and did precious little in the physical department to even begin to make life tough on the Monarchs.  In Saturday’s game at Adirondack the Whale took four minor penalties in the third period and then, after surviving all of that, committed a complete defensive breakdown on the overtime game-winner, allowing Whale-killer Jason Akeson to walk unmolested up the slot before he blew a slapshot past Talbot.

The most bitter pill to swallow was the ending of Sunday’s game in Springfield, in which it looked like, at worst, the Whale were at least going to get a point for getting the game to overtime.  They got hemmed in their own zone in the last minute of regulation, though, and after failing a couple of times to get the puck out, saw 19-year-old Boone Jenner, in only his second game since coming out of the OHL, find a loose puck in the goalmouth and whack it in for the winner with only 28.8 seconds left.  Yikes.

Stu Bickel

Stu Bickel

The ironic thing is, the Whale seemed to have as strong a roster coming into the weekend as they have had all year, with J.T. Miller back down from the Rangers, Marek Hrivik back from injury and Stu Bickel playing regularly, although he was a late injury scratch for Sunday’s game.  Hopefully it’s just a matter of reestablishing chemistry and the team will start hitting on all cylinders, but unfortunately the Whale have left themselves almost no breathing room.

Miller Back with Whale

April 9, 2013

It was a pretty good run for J.T. Miller up with the Rangers, especially at the start, but now the recently-turned-20-years-old rookie is back with the Whale, reassigned today to the AHL.

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Miller, who made a big splash with two goals in his second career NHL game, a 4-1 Ranger win February 7 over the Islanders, had fallen out of the Ranger forward rotation, scratched for the last three games after missing one game due to a wrist injury, and playing only 7:08 in his last appearance, a 4-2 home win over Winnipeg last Monday.  Before that, though, he had clearly made a good impression, regularly registering between 13 and 15 minutes of ice and, for the most part, staying off of the minus side of the ledger.

Miller has been away from the Whale for more than two months, after notching eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 37 AHL games.  His return will force the Whale coaching staff into a tough choice as far as whom to take out of the lineup up front.  When Jesper Fast was assigned, Kyle Jean sat out, after having played in each of the Whale’s first 68 games, and either he or someone else who has been a mainstay is going to have to come out in order for Miller to get in.

The move leaves the Rangers, conversely, without any extra forwards, so the Whale coaches will have to stay close to the phone.

Playoff Picture Still Fuzzy

April 8, 2013

The Whale have helped their playoff chances greatly by winning eight of their last 11 games, and continue to hold down the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, but still are a ways away from being able to breathe easily.

At 78 points, the Whale have put seven points of distance between themselves and the three teams, Manchester, Bridgeport and Albany, that are tied for the tenth spot at 71, but the defending-champion Norfolk Admirals continue to lurk dangerously in ninth, only three points behind the Whale.Action Shot for Blog - 04-08-13 - Norfolk

Despite missing two of their top five scorers, Peter Holland and Kyle Palmieri, the Admirals have won six of their last eight games, and swept a pair from Binghamton, a 40-win team, this past weekend at home.  That’s it for Norfolk on home ice, though, as their last six games of the season are all on the road, where the Admirals are 13-17-1-1 on the year.

The Whale lead Norfolk in non-shootout wins, which is the first tiebreaker, 33-28, so the Admirals are just about going to have to win out to catch Connecticut in that column.  Both teams ended up with five points in the four-game season series between the two clubs, so the next tiebreaker would be goal differential.  The Whale are fairly well-positioned there too, as they currently stand dead even in goals-for/goals-against while the Admirals are -10.

Hershey is tied with Norfolk in points, but holds down the eighth-and-final playoff spot by virtue of having one more non-shootout win than do the Admirals.  The Whale’s tiebreaker is less advantageous against the Bears, should it go beyond ROW (regulation and overtime wins), as that season series also ended up five points apiece but Hershey is currently +6 in goal differential.

The three teams at 71 points all have six games left to play, so they can all get 83 points, meaning that the Whale has a “magic number” of six points either way to ensure that they cannot be caught by the Monarchs, Sound Tigers or Devils.  Albany can only get to 32 ROW, so the Whale have the tiebreaker there, and they have already ensured themselves of winning the season series with Manchester.  The Whale-Sound Tiger season series was another flat-footed tie, but Bridgeport is -19 in goal differential.

Further down, the skidding Worcester Sharks (67 points) and the St. John’s IceCaps (64 points) still have a mathematical chance to catch the Whale, but Connecticut has a magic number of only one point to assure themselves of finishing ahead of the IceCaps and three points to ensure that they cannot be surpassed by the Sharks.

Brandon Segal

Brandon Segal

Brandon Segal was shut out along with the rest of his teammates by Niklas Svedberg and the P-Bruins Sunday, but that was not before the veteran winger scored in six straight games.  That streak was not only the longest by a Whale player this year, but also the longest goal streak by a Whale/Wolf Pack player since back in November and December of 2006.  That’s when Ryan Callahan ripped off an eight-game goal-scoring run, which is the longest in franchise history.

Segal is up to 24 goals on the year, which is six more than the next-highest total on the Whale club (Kris Newbury and Christian Thomas both have 18) and only two shy of the career-high 26 that Segal had with Norfolk in 2008-09.

That 1-0 loss to Providence was the Whale’s last home game of the regular season, with five still to play, so like Norfolk, the Whale will be road warriors for the rest of the campaign.  This is an extreme scheduling oddity, as franchise has only ever played even as many as two consecutive road games to end a season once before, and that was in the Wolf Pack’s very first season of play, back in 1997-98.

Regardless of what happens in this season-ending road stretch, the Whale deserve much credit for making the most of their home-ice advantage in the second half.  They were miserable at home for most of the first half, just 5-10-1-0 in their first 16, but since the First of the Year, all they’ve done is get at least a point in 18 of their last 22 at the XL Center, going 15-4-1-2 in front of the home folks.  No matter how you slice it, that is one impressive run.

Newbury is Back

April 1, 2013

Kris Newbury was gone from the Whale for a little over a week, and he fared pretty well with the Rangers.

Action Shot for Blog - 04-01-13

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Whale’s leading scorer averaged about eight minutes of ice time in the four games he played while on recall, including a high of 8:55 in his first game, the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout loss at home to Washington last Sunday, in which Newbury had an assist.  He was either a plus or even in all four of the games and was not on the ice for any goals-against.  Newbury also maintained his place in the lineup Saturday in Montreal in the first game Mats Zuccarello played, as Darroll Powe sat out as a healthy scratch.

The Rangers did not do well as a team in those games, though, winning only one of the four, and Newbury was returned to the Whale on Saturday.

Connecticut played four games without its top point-producer and managed two wins, but the Whale power play clearly missed Newbury.  He’s the guy who possesses the puck the most on the PP, and distributes from the half-wall, and without him the man-advantage unit went 1/16 and really struggled in Saturday’s 2-1 loss in Springfield, which I thought looked like a winnable game.

So Newbury is back, and it sure looks like Marek Hrivik is getting close to playing, as he went full out in all of last week’s practices.  Putting both of those guys back in the lineup would necessitate a difficult choice in deciding whom to take out, but being able to plug Hrivik back in just as the games are the most critical (similar to when he first joined the team last season), you would think would be a big shot in the arm.