Archive for October, 2013

First Wins for Stajcer (AHL), Talbot (NHL)

October 28, 2013

With Henrik Lundqvist having returned to the Ranger net for tonight’s home opener, after missing two games due to injury, the swirl that has engulfed the organization’s goaltending situation the last week or so will hopefully calm down.

All things considered, it could have been a whole lot worse for both the Rangers and the Wolf Pack, as Cam Talbot gave the Rangers two real good efforts in the last two games, allowing only four goals on 61 shots and nailing down his first career NHL win Saturday in Detroit, with 32 saves in the Rangers’ dramatic, 3-2 overtime win over the Red Wings.

Cam Talbot makes a save against the Detroit Red Wings in his first NHL win October 26 (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Cam Talbot makes a save against the Detroit Red Wings in his first NHL win October 26 (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At the AHL level, Scott Stajcer came out of the shadows to play four darned good periods for the Wolf Pack, and he won for the first time in five American League appearances Saturday night at Hershey, stopping 20 shots in the Pack’s 4-3 victory, which broke Hartford’s first losing streak of the season.

Talbot, with his two good outings, has clearly made a strong bid to salt away the backup goaltending job in Gotham that became vacant when Martin Biron was waived and assigned to the Wolf Pack, and later decided to retire.  Ranger coach Alain Vigneault stopped short of handing his number-two role to Talbot, but was suitably impressed, telling the media after Saturday’s game, “Without a doubt, he’s played extremely well in both games.  He’s done what a goaltender is supposed to do, give you a chance to win. When we had a breakdown you need a save and he made some saves tonight.”

Stajcer, for his part, had not even dressed for a game before suiting up for Friday’s trip to Albany, and ultimately being called upon to play the third period, after the Devils scored four goals on Jeff Malcolm in the first 40 minutes.  Stajcer had been rehabbing from off-season surgery, and it seemed as though he hadn’t even been practicing fully for very long, but he looked very comfortable when he came off the bench on Friday.  The second-year pro stopped

Scott Stajcer, in his first career AHL win October 26 in Hershey (JustSports Photography)

Scott Stajcer, in his first career AHL win October 26 in Hershey (JustSports Photography)

all six shots he faced that night, including the second penalty-shot chance of the game for Albany’s Harri Pesonen, giving the Wolf Pack a chance to get back into a game they trailed 4-1 after two.  The comeback fell just short, with the Devils prevailing by a score of 4-3, but Stajcer showed enough to earn the starting nod Saturday in Chocolatetown, and he did not disappoint.

With Lundqvist ready to get back into action, Jason Missiaen was shuttled back to the Wolf Pack, and several interesting questions loom for both the Pack and Rangers in the coming days.  I wonder, for example, how soon it will be before Talbot gets another chance for a Ranger start.  The parent club plays four games in six nights this week…will they want to get Lundqvist a little more rest than usual, to guard against his re-aggravating the ailment that sidelined him?  If not, will they flip-flop Talbot back-and-forth between New York and Hartford, so that he could stay sharp by playing some AHL games?  And will the Rangers be actively shopping for another experienced netminder as an insurance policy?

Here with the Wolf Pack, it would seem that Stajcer has earned the chance to keep the net for at least one more start, but on the other hand, Missiaen is clearly thought of as the number-three man in the organization right now, so will the need to keep him game-ready override the relatively hot hand that Stajcer currently possesses?  Further, does Malcolm go back to Greenville to play in the ECHL, or is it Stajcer, still relatively fresh off his return to injury, who needs to be guaranteed of playing more?

Interesting stuff…glad I don’t have to decide.

Goalie Callups, Reinforcements on D

October 24, 2013

An injury to All-World goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in New York has scrambled up the organization’s netminding situation, and left the Wolf Pack without either of their top two ‘tenders on the roster.

Cam Talbot was already up with New York, and is slated to start the Rangers’ game tonight in Philadelphia for his first NHL appearance, and Jason Missiaen got the call last night, after the Wolf Pack’s 4-2 home loss to Portland, to dress as the big club’s backup.

Jason Missiaen

Jason Missiaen

That leaves the Wolf Pack with Jeff Malcolm and Scott Stajcer on their roster for goalies, and Stajcer has yet to dress for a game this year, as he rehabs from off-season surgery.  He has been getting close to ready, though, and the Pack hadn’t made any moves to bring in another backstop as of early afternoon, and that leads me to believe that Stajcer will be ready to back up, at least, if neither Talbot nor Missiaen is back from the NHL in time to play Friday night in Albany.

The Pack did add two bodies to their defense today, though, recalling Brendon Nash, who had just been reassigned Monday, from Greenville of the ECHL and signing Sam Klassen to a PTO.  No official word out of the coach’s office on what necessitated these moves, but clearly at least one blueliner got banged up in Wednesday’s defeat, which was the Wolf Pack’s first in regulation in seven games on the year.

It was a testament to the Wolf Pack’s defensive depth that Nash, who came to the organization with a solid AHL resume over his first three pro years, could only get into one of Hartford’s first six games before heading to the ECHL for the first time in his career, and that Klassen could not make the club in training camp, after being a top-pair defenseman for much of last season with the Whale.  The 2012-13 campaign was Klassen’s first full year in the AHL and he dressed for 75 of Connecticut’s 76 games and logged major minutes, going +7, which was third-best among Whale D-men.

After being cut from Wolf Pack camp, Klassen headed to Greenville to start his fourth pro campaign, and he was +1 through the Road Warriors’ first two games.

It’s sounding like Lundqvist’s injury issue is not overly serious, but it was enough of a problem that he did not practice at all for three days, and then skated separately from the team after this morning’s game-day skate.  His quotes to the media today indicated that it was a nagging problem that he wanted to get past before it had a chance to worsen.

“I got injured early on, so it’s been around, it’s been there, and it’s been something I have had to look after almost every day,” Lundqvist told the Ranger press corps. “That’s why I thought this week was a good time to kind of get rid of it. You always want to feel as close to 100 percent as possible, so that’s why I have taken these couple of days.”

After tonight’s game in Philly, the Blueshirts head to Detroit, where they will finish their season-opening stretch of nine straight road games with a battle against the Red Wings Saturday.  I would be surprised if the parent club does not bring both Talbot and Missiaen with it to Motown as insurance, even if there is a chance that Lundqvist might be able to go in that game.

Talbot, who is 4-0-1 in five appearances with the Wolf Pack, with a 2.49 GAA and 92.4% save percentage, gets his first crack at an NHL assignment tonight, a little over three years after being signed as a virtual unknown out of the University of Alabama-Huntsville.  Ranger coach Alain Vigneault said yesterday about Talbot getting the call for tonight, “I’m confident he’s going to play well.  By playing well, I’m hoping our players are going to rally round this young man, his first opportunity to play an NHL game. It’s a moment he’ll remember the rest of his life. Hopefully, there will be many good ones after.”

Transaction Wire Burning

October 21, 2013

The Wolf Pack remain unbeaten in regulation in six games, and the Rangers are struggling at 2-5-0 through their first seven outings, so it’s no surprise that the winds of change have started to overhaul the Pack’s roster.

What a difference a week makes, as two weeks ago there wasn’t a single move to report for the span of a full week, and now in the time between last Monday and today there have been no fewer than 18 separate transactions.  Wow.

It pretty much all began with the change in direction in the backup goaltending role that saw Martin Biron waived, and then assigned to the Wolf Pack on Tuesday.  Then Ryan Callahan broke a thumb in Wednesday’s Ranger win in Washington, and things began really to heat up yesterday, after the big club lost 4-0 at New Jersey on Saturday.

Martin Biron (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Martin Biron (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Biron officially announced his retirement Sunday after five days of limbo, ending speculation about whether he would elect to continue playing with the Pack or call it a career, and the Rangers also made the decision to recall both Chris Kreider and Brandon Mashinter, while returning Darroll Powe to Hartford.  The Wolf Pack, in turn, now suddenly somewhat short of forwards, recalled Andrew Rowe from Greenville and had Michael St. Croix reassigned to them by the Rangers from Greenville, while loaning blueliner Brendon Nash to the Road Warriors.

Got all that?

Biron’s exit means that, at least for now, Cam Talbot will act as understudy to Henrik Lundqvist and Jason Missiaen and Jeff Malcolm will be the Wolf Pack’s tandem.  Nice for Malcolm, the ex-Yale Eli, to get a chance to log some solid AHL time so close to where he had his great college championship triumph last year, and Missiaen gets the opportunity, like Talbot did last season, to show whether he can be a legit number-one man at this level.

Kreider, according to media reports, jumped right on to the Rangers’ top line, alongside Brad Richards and Derek Stepan, in practice this morning.  Ranger head coach Alain Vigneault said of Kreider, “Even though his training camp might have been more on the average side, that’s behind us. He went to Hartford and he worked really well, real hard and he played some good minutes for them and hopefully he can come in and do the same thing for us. Most of training camp he had Richards and (Rick) Nash. His training camp was more on the average side, but I think his time in Hartford, he looked real sharp, hopefully he’ll be able to do that.”

Brandon Mashinter

Brandon Mashinter

Mashinter, in my view, was very deserving of a chance, having been very effective for the Pack as a second-line winger, with five assists and a +3 in six games.  Swapping him for Powe, though, puts the Wolf Pack on the wrong side of the AHL’s veteran restriction.  Of the six players who have played more than 260 NHL, AHL or European Elite League games that AHL teams are allowed to dress, at least one must be between 260 and 320 games-played, a “young veteran” of sorts.  Mashinter was the only one of the Wolf Pack’s vets who fell into that category–Powe, Micheal Haley, Danny Syvret, Arron Asham and Brodie Dupont are all over the 320-game mark.  That means that, if nothing more changes roster-wise, the Pack will have to sit one of the vets.  Dupont may be the guy who ends up the odd man out, through no fault of his own, as he is on a tryout, the only one of the veterans who does not have a contract.

That situation, plus a nagging injury to Michael Kantor, prompted the call for St. Croix and Rowe, who were both off to good starts with Greenville.  Rowe, a fourth-year pro, and the rookie St. Croix were tied for the Road Warrior team points lead, with four apiece in two games, and Rowe got all four of his with a hat trick and an assist in Greenville’s season opener, a 5-3 win at Gwinnett on Friday.  Brendon Nash, meanwhile, had only been able to get into one game in the Wolf Pack’s first six, due to the Pack’s excellent defensive depth.

Six games, six one-goal decisions for the Wolf Pack, and happily, all but one of them have gone the right way.

Hard to believe for a 5-0-0-1 team , but the Pack have trailed at least once in every one of their games, and before Saturday’s 3-2 win over Portland in Lewiston, had been tied or behind going into the third period of every game.

Not something you can keep up for 76 games, but so far the Pack have done an amazing job of weathering adversity during games, and of saving their best work for the most important parts of games.

I truly thought the jig was up on the club Friday night, when they allowed a Manchester team that is also off to an excellent start to carry a 3-1 lead into the latter stages of the second period.  It definitely looked as though the Wolf Pack had gone to the well of falling behind once too often.

The game turned on a dime, though, with two Wolf Pack goals in a span of 24 seconds fairly late in the second, a four-on-four tally by Marek Hrivik and a shorthander, the Pack’s first of the year, by the captain Johnson.  Talbot then came up with some great work, including a stop of Linden Vey, the Monarchs’ leading scorer last year, on a penalty shot with 24 seconds left in overtime.  That was the first penalty shot Talbot had faced in his pro career and the first ever against the Wolf Pack in overtime.  Talbot then went 4/5 in the shootout, which, combined with goals by Hrivik and Mashinter, was good enough to get the Pack two points.

Cam Talbot

Cam Talbot

Talbot had 30 saves in regulation and OT in that game, and then was even busier Saturday night in Lewiston, facing 41 Pirate tries.  Again, closely following the script, the Wolf Pack fell behind 1-0 and 2-1, but second-period goals by Haley and Danny Kristo wiped out the deficit and made it a perfect weekend for Ken Gernander’s bunch.

It seems as though every time the Wolf Pack have really needed a goal in the first six games, they’ve gotten one, starting with the season opener, the only game thus far they haven’t won, when they pulled out a standings point by tying the score with 0.4 seconds on the clock.  It will be interesting to see now if that trend can continue this week, with the roster having undergone so much turnover.

Asham Arrives, Rangers get Shutout Win

October 17, 2013

Arron Asham had his first practice with the Wolf Pack today…still no word on whether Martin Biron will join the Pack or elect to retire.

Asham and Biron were both assigned to Hartford by the parent New York Rangers Tuesday, after clearing NHL waivers.

The 35-year-old Asham brings 15 seasons, and nearly 800 NHL games, of experience, to the Wolf Pack locker room.  His last AHL stint was in 2001-02, when he played 24 games with the old Quebec Citadelles before graduating to the Canadiens and never looking back.  HIs premier calling card has always been toughness, but Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander is expecting Asham to be a big help to the Pack in multiple facets of the game.

Arron Asham (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Arron Asham
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“Everybody knows that he adds an element of toughness to our team,” Gernander said of Asham, “but aside from that, he’s got a lot of NHL experience, I think he’s a very capable player five-on-five.  He’s not someone that that’s (physical play) his only impact on the game.  So I think he should fit nicely into our lineup.  You would expect, given all his experience, that he should be a good mentor and example to a lot of these guys as well.”

One challenge that Asham’s arrival presents to the Wolf Pack is that it puts the team over the limit of six “veteran” players that can dress for a game.  In addition to Asham, Darroll Powe, Micheal Haley, Brandon Mashinter, Danny Syvret, Aaron Johnson and Brodie Dupont are all over the 260-games-played threshold that puts a player into veteran status.  So, as it stands right now, one of those guys is going to have to sit out each game.  And if it’s Dupont, who is still on a tryout agreement, who is the odd man out, that leaves the Pack somewhat short at center.  Dupont has been playing in the middle, and the Pack also lost J.T. Miller this week, when he and Cam Talbot were called up to New York on Tuesday.

Asham has played some center in his career, but from the looks of things in practice this morning, they are going to use him on the wing.  Judging from how they had it set up today, Marek Hrivik is the most likely candidate to move to center to fill the void.

The Rangers, meanwhile, got back on the winning track last night, defeating the Washington Capitals in D.C., 2-0.

It’s almost absurd to talk about huge wins this early in the year, but boy, was it ever big for the Blueshirts to get the kind of goaltending and defensive performances they did in that game.

New York had been touched up for 20 goals in its previous three games, and all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist had allowed 16 goals on 141 shots in five appearances, a save percentage of under 89.  Ugly, scary stats, but everything seemed right with the Rangers’ world in the game against Washington.  It looked like old times defensively, with players blocking shots all over the place, and Lundqvist appeared to be seeing the shots perfectly.

“I thought our guys competed real hard, which is the key to any game, and we did a lot of right things with the puck,” Ranger head coach Alain Vigneault told the media after the game.  “And when we didn’t have the puck, we did a lot of the right things. So we’ll take our first win in Eastern time, and go from there.”

The Rangers now are off until Saturday, when they play the seventh of nine straight road games to open the season, and this one, geographically, is almost like a home game, traveling to Newark to take on the Devils.

Cardiac Pack?

October 13, 2013

Got a great tweet Saturday night from a fan whose handle is “Mark G”, after the Wolf Pack had completed a sweep of their home-and-home set with the Adirondack Phantoms, asking, “Too soon to call them the Cardiac Pack?”

Well, invoking mid-’70’s memories of Brian Sipe, I’m personally declaring it’s not too soon.

I mean, think about the fact that all of the Pack’s games so far have been one-goal games, two of the four have gone to shootouts and the Wolf Pack have trailed in all four, scoring inside the final five minutes of the third period in three of the four.

The Pack could easily be 0-4 right now, and it’s awfully early to start making pronouncements about great character and things like that, but for a group whose triggermen are so new to North American pro hockey, Ken Gernander‘s club has showed remarkable moxie in its first two weekends of action.

It was rookie defenseman Tommy Hughes stepping to the forefront in Saturday’s 3-2 win at the Glens Falls Civic Center, with an assist from classy veteran Brodie Dupont, after Danny Kristo and J.T. Miller had come up big Friday night at home against the Phantoms.

Hughes, an undrafted free agent out of the Ontario Hockey League who had all of three goals and 32 points in 169 career OHL games with his hometown London Knights, scored his first pro goal only 1:12 into the second period Saturday.  That recovered some key momentum for the Wolf Pack, after the Phantoms had countered an early Miller goal with a pair of their own, including one by Ben Holmstrom with only 53 seconds remaining in the first frame.

Danny Kristo

Danny Kristo

That second-period goal by Hughes was the result of his simply throwing the puck at the net from the point, and he got a break when Adirondack goaltender Cal Heeter seemed to be fooled and allowed the puck to go through his five-hole.  And Hughes made a similar good, simple play on the winning goal, which came with only 2:07 left in the third period and the Pack seemingly headed for a third overtime in four games.  The 21-year-old blueliner stopped an Adirondack pass along the boards and whipped the puck quickly towards the net, and Dupont, who has been a real nice fit so far as a fourth-line forward who can play center or wing, deflected it underneath Heeter.

That was after the Wolf Pack seemed to be battling uphill for most of the game on Friday, only to come back twice fairly late in the game, once from 3-1 down and then again after the Phantoms had taken a 4-3 lead.  Miller scored on a deflection early in the third period to tie it at three, and then Kristo ripped home the Pack’s second power-play goal of the game with 4:36 left to force overtime.  Both of those young guns then scored in the shootout, and Cam Talbot, who had come out on the short end of a shootout in the Pack’s season opener against Norfolk, stopped four straight Phantom shooters after allowing a goal on Adirondack’s first attempt.

The Wolf Pack’s three most experienced veteran D-men, captain Aaron Johnson, Danny Syvret and Stu Bickel, have been building the team a nice foundation, which allows for a confidence-building comfort zone, but the organization has got to be stoked about the fact that the young guys that were going to have to carry a lot of the offensive load for this Wolf Pack club have been coming up clutch in big spots.  The 23-year-old Kristo is tied for the AHL rookie points lead, with 2-3-5, and is 2/2 in shootout attempts, and Miller, who just turned 20 in March, has goals in all three games he has played since returning from the Rangers.  Only Toronto’s T.J. Brennan, who has exploded for seven goals in the Marlies’ first three games, has more AHL goals than Miller’s four.

And don’t discount big-save goaltending, either, as a major factor in the Wolf Pack’s 3-0-0-1 start.  I don’t think either Talbot or Jason Missiaen has been overly happy with some of the goals that have gone in during the first four games, but they both have saved their best work for the late-game crunch time, and have both stood tall in situations that were key to the Wolf Pack staying within striking distance when they were behind.

Looks Like no Ranger Callup for Thursday

October 10, 2013

After how things went for the parent Rangers in their 9-2 loss Tuesday in San Jose, and in view of the fact that Rick Nash got hurt and missed the last two periods of that game, I thought for sure the Wolf Pack would lose a forward before New York’s next action, which is tonight at Anaheim.

As of this morning’s Wolf Pack skate, though, the roster was unchanged, indicating that either Nash was not dinged up as badly as was feared–and he did miss time with a concussion last season–or that the Rangers are comfortable with putting Jesper Fast, a healthy scratch the last two games after making his NHL debut in the parent team’s season opener last Thursday in Phoenix, back in the lineup in Nash’s place.

Jesper Fast

Jesper Fast

On the surface this is a good thing for the Pack, who seemed to have some pretty good chemistry on their forward lines during the first two games of their season this past weekend, but it also presents a telling challenge as well.  Those watching the Wolf Pack closely will get a good read on the focus of guys like Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Danny Kristo this weekend, as it’s only natural, especially for young players, when the big club suffers a bad loss and there is an injury, to wonder if the phone is going to ring with a summons to the NHL.  All three of those forwards made significant impacts for the Pack in the first two games, and would certainly have received consideration for a callup if one was decided upon.  They’ll get  a good chance this weekend to prove that their are totally zoned in on achieving 100% consistency, wherever they might be playing, and on avoiding any possible distractions.

Of course, after finishing their four-game West Coast swing tonight, the parents are right back in action Saturday in St. Louis.  So if they happen to run into any additional injuries, or if they don’t play a ton better than they did Tuesday night, then the Wolf Pack could certainly lose someone before they resume play tomorrow night at home against Adirondack.

And…they’re off!

October 7, 2013

The long regular-season journey is now officially underway…two down, 74 more to go.

The team grabbed three out of a possible four points in the home games Saturday and Sunday, and, ironically, fared better in the game in which I would argue they played less well.

The Wolf Pack dictated much, if not most, of the play in Saturday’s opener against Norfolk, outshooting the Admirals 37-28, but ended up losing 3-2 in a shootout.  In Sunday’s game against Albany, the Pack gave up a goal 51 seconds in, another with 63 seconds left in the first and another 2:31 into the second, and were outshot 26-22, but ended up pulling out a 4-3 victory.  Go figure.Action Shot for Blog - 10-07-13

One thing seems for sure…this is going to be an entertaining team to watch.  They might not necessarily play the kind of buttoned-down hockey away from the puck that the coaches would want to see, but it sure looks like the group will give other teams some significant problems on a consistent basis.

Chris Kreider was flying in both games and had one goal, but probably could have had three or four.  J.T. Miller came down Saturday morning, after playing nearly 12 minutes for the Rangers in their opener Thursday in Phoenix, and responded exactly the right way, turning in a First-Star performance Sunday with two goals and an assist.  Danny Kristo, who has a World Junior gold medal and a WCHA goal-scoring title to his credit, was around the puck all weekend and had a goal and two assists.

Another good sign was that Aaron Johnson and Darroll Powe, two of the NHL-seasoned veterans who found themselves on the losing end of the numbers game in New York, seemed to take a positive approach to the leadership role that the Wolf Pack are going to need them to fill.  Both have letters on their jerseys, with Johnson taking the mantle as the seventh captain in franchise history and Powe wearing one of the assistants’ “A”‘s.

Interestingly, the selection of Johnson to wear the “C” prior to the season opener marks the first time the franchise has started a season with a new captain since Ken Gernander retired after the 2004-05 campaign.  The next five captains after Gernander, Craig Weller, Andrew Hutchinson, Greg Moore, Dane Byers and Wade Redden, all were named well into the seasons in which they took over.

Johnson did a nice job on a pairing with Dylan McIlrath, including the setup of McIlrath’s first goal in 49 pro games, which was the third-period winner in Sunday’s game.  Powe, meanwhile, scored a huge goal Saturday, poking the puck underneath Norfolk goaltender Frederik Andersen with 0.4 seconds left in regulation to earn the Wolf Pack a standings point.  Kudos to referee Geno Binda in that situation…Binda originally signaled no-goal, but went to the wall to exhaust every option for checking whether he was right or not.  Eventually, after consulting the in-house replay system and conferring with linesman Luke Galvin, Binda reversed himself and awarded the goal to the Pack.  Easy to say when it goes your team’s way, but that’s the way the system is supposed to work.

And if you’re thinking about lineups and depth, consider this.  Veteran defenseman Brendon Nash, an AHL regular throughout his first two pro years, one of which was on a Hamilton team that went to Game Seven of the Conference Finals in 2011, was a healthy scratch in both of the Wolf Pack’s first two games.  Also, Brodie Dupont was the lineup casualty when Miller was inserted into Sunday’s lineup, after Dupont was, I thought, one of the Wolf Pack’s more effective players in the opener.  It’s very early, but I think it’s clear that Gernander & Co. have a lot of different weapons and options at their disposal.