FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

Bruce HeadshotBy Bruce Berlet

CROMWELL – Winning has a way of curing a lot of ills, as the Connecticut Whale has discovered the past three weeks.

After a 1-9-2-1 slide led to the worst start in the franchise’s 14-year history (4-10-2-2), the Whale is on a 6-1-0-2 run that has enabled them to escape the Atlantic Division cellar and make life easier for coach Ken Gernander. Winning three one-goal games instead of losing 10 in the early going also helps the psyche. Even the skating sprints at the end of practice don’t seem so bad these days.

“Guys obviously have a little better feeling about themselves as opposed to when things weren’t going our way, but we’re by no means at the finish line,” Gernander said.

Why the turnaround?

“We’re pretty young on defense, so it’s just getting games and getting experience,” said defenseman Jared Nightingale, a fourth-year pro. “I’m a believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we’ve learned from those early struggles. You want to win every game, which isn’t reality, but those one-goal losses builds character, and I think our team has the right mindset.

“We’re a battling team, and I don’t think other teams want to play us because we’ve been through a little more adversity. It’s making us a much tighter and strong group, but it doesn’t stop there. We’ve got lots more ahead of us.”

Rookies Ryan McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko have made marked progress while helped along by Nightingale and veterans Wade Redden and Stu Bickel, one of several strong additions during the resurgence. Rookie Jyri Niemi has been serviceable when not a healthy scratch. The trade of the disgruntled Nigel Williams for Bickel on Nov. 23 has turned out to have more than what might have been it’s intended goal of simply addition by subtraction.

The Whale also has shown an even stronger team unity the past few games, as players such as Nightingale, Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal have come to the defense of teammates. That was especially evident late in the second period of a 4-3 victory over the Worcester Sharks on Sunday when the aforementioned trio took on several Sharks after Brodie Dupont was slammed head-first to the ice without his helmet by Andrew Desjardins. Nightingale, DiDiomete and Soryal received game misconducts, and Dupont couldn’t continue. Coach Ken Gernander considered sending a game tape to the AHL office because of Desjardins’ unsportsmanlike maneuver but decided against it.

“All the guys care for each other, and I’m proud to play with them,” said wing Mats Zuccarello, who has picked up his pace while getting four goals and six assists in the last nine games. “I think all the guys were tired (late Sunday), but they really stood up for everyone. I think Nightingale, Soryal and DiDiomete did a helluva job sticking up for their teammates, and we really appreciate that. We’re happy to have those guys on the team. They’re important players.”

Nightingale said it’s not just him, DiDiomete and Soryal.

“We all know we have each other’s back,” said Nightingale, whose 92 penalty minutes are second on the team to DiDiomete’s 111. “We play Worcester another (five) times and Providence another six times, so teams are going to know that we’re going to scratch and claw no matter what the score is.”

Gernander said the acquisitions of Bickel, right wing Chad Kolarik for captain/left wing Dane Byers and center Oren Eizenman for future considerations has strengthened the roster. Plus, Kennedy is back from a groin injury, Dupont returned from a skate lacerating his leg, and most of the young players have showed steady improvement.

“A lot of things go on in the course of a season,” Gernander said. “The young defensemen are advancing and improving, and that’s good. And the personnel changes in the bottom end of our forward rotation have helped.”

Team chemistry has benefitted from players standing up for each other.

“That’s always nice to see,” Gernander said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a case where that has been lacking. I think maybe just circumstances the last two games have made it a little bit more apparent.”

WEISE SET TO RETURN, DUPONT PROBABLE, REDDEN QUESTIONABLE

Whale right wing Dale Weise is ready to return to the lineup Saturday night against the visiting Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs after missing three games with a finger injury sustained in a 3-0 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms on Nov. 28.

Defenseman Wade Redden missed a second day of practice while having a doctor assess the groin injury he sustained in a 3-1 victory over the Providence Bruins on Friday night. He’s day-to-day. Dupont is skating with the team and should get clearance to practice full throttle Wednesday. … Saturday night at the XL Center is “Military Appreciation Night” and will feature the team’s annual “Teddy Bear Toss.” Fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped soft toys to the game and attach their names and phone numbers to them, and when the Whale scores its first goal, heave them on the ice for holiday donation to local underprivileged kids. The fan whose toy comes closest to center ice will win four VIP tickets to the Whale’s outdoor game against the Providence Bruins at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. The first 1,000 fans will receive a free poster of Zuccarello. Former Whalers defenseman Chris Kotsopoulos, the analyst for Quinnipiac University men’s hockey games, will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m.

The Monarchs (16-9-1-1) have lost two of their last three games after winning four in a row and eight of nine. They have won the first three meetings with the Whale, 3-2 and 4-3 in New Hampshire on Nov. 5 and 17 and 4-1 at the XL Center on Nov. 3.

Center Andrei Loktionov leads the Monarchs in points (20), assists (16) and plus-minus (plus-11) despite playing in only 17 of 27 games because he was with the parent Los Angeles Kings for part of the season. Former Yale forward David Meckler is tops in goals (nine), and left wing Bud Holloway is second in scoring (six goals, 12 assists) and on a six-game point streak (two goals, four assists) dating to Nov. 26. Center and captain Marc-Andre Cliché, the New York Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005, had two goals and two assists in a 7-2 victory over the Springfield Falcons last Saturday and has five goals and six assists in 19 games after missing the first eight games after offseason knee surgery. The four points were one shy of the team record of center Jared Aulin, who had five assists against the Saint John Flames on Dec. 21, 2002.

Jeff Zatkoff (9-8-1, 2.99 goals-against average, .898 save percentage in 18 games) had had more time in goal, but rookie Martin Jones has better numbers (6-1-0, 1.52, .947). His 1.52 GAA is first in the league and among rookies, and his .947 save percentage is second in both categories.

WORTHY CAUSES

The holiday season always emphasizes that it’s better to give than receive.

Two of the biggest givers are the Whale and Hockey Ministries International.

Whaler players have been making more community appearances than ever this year, much like the Hartford Whalers did during their time in the NHL from 1979 to 1997.

The entire Whale team made its annual holiday visit to dozens of youngsters at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford on Tuesday night. The interaction between the players and children recovering from cancer and their families is always priceless.

“It puts things into prospective,” said Nightingale, who has been doing a lot of community visits with DiDiomete and Soryal. “Life is fatigue, and to see the kids is amazing. We get more out of it than they do because it makes you thankful. You hope and pray that everybody can get healthy, but it’s great to get involved in the community.

“A lot of credit goes to Juan (Nunez, community relations manager for Whalers Sports & Entertainment) and Howard Baldwin (chairman and CEO of WS&E). One of their biggest missions was to get us more involved in the community, and it’s a total team effort. We used to do two or three things a year. Now we do two or three a week, and giving back is good.”

Hockey Ministries International has helped the Hartford-area community and provided a Chapel program to the local AHL team since the Wolf Pack (now Whale) replaced the Whalers in 1997. One of its better stories involves Jose, who seemed destined to failure when he attended a Christian Youth Hockey Camp in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, at age 10. Until then, his time was spent on the streets of Hartford, a product of the society that killed his father in a gang confrontation while Jose, then 4, watched. Jose didn’t trust people and, until that week at camp, never knew the God that loved him. He opened his heart to Jesus and began an adventure of learning to follow him.

This is the type of life-changing experience that people can be part of by supporting Hockey Ministries International, a Christian organization that used the unique hook of hockey to reach players of all ages, as well as their families, coaches, trainers and fans with the Gospel. And at Christian Youth Hockey Camps, there are Chapel programs at all levels, from the NHL to high school and other various outreaches.

“This program has yielded much fruit, and we have expanded to provide the same program in 29 of the 30 AHL teams,” AHL Chapel coordinator Rick Mitera of New Britain said.

Nightingale is one of 10 Whale players who usually attend Chapel sessions with Mitera after practice.

“It places things into reality as far as what’s important, at least to me in the way I was raised,” said Nightingale, who grew up in a religious family in Cheboygan, Mich., and also attended Chapel sessions while playing with Charlotte in the ECHL. “It’s important to have balance in your life. Pro hockey isn’t an easy season, and I’m not saying that because I’m complaining. But I think you can get caught up in not having balance in your life, and that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve gotten from (the Chapel sessions).

“I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways. Just the way I was raised, I know it’s important and that you’re never going to lose your faith.”

To make a donation, send a check or money order to: Hockey Ministries International, Northeast Division, 201 Skyview Drive, Cromwell, Ct. 06416. For more information on HMI, visit www.hockeyminstriesnortheast.org or contact Mitera at 860-817-6440 or rmitera@hockeyministries.org. … The Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ annual holiday toy drive runs through Dec. 19. The Sound Tigers will work with the Bridgeport Fire Department to gather toys and teddy bears to be distributed to local children and families. Fans are encouraged to donate during games Saturday night, Wednesday night and Dec. 17-19. Fans can also donate throughout the week by bringing toys to the Sound Tigers front office at the Arena at Harbor Yard. The toys and teddy bears will be distributed by Sound Tigers players and front office staff members. Before the Sound Tigers game against Worcester on Dec. 18, the Bridgeport Fire Department will play a charity hockey game against the Worcester Fire Department to assist families of Bridgeport firefighter Michel Baik and Lt. Steven Velasquez, who were killed in the line of duty on July 24 in Bridgeport.

FORMER WHALE RISMILLER NAMED AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Former Whale forward Patrick Rissmiller was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week after getting four goals and two assists in two games for the Lake Erie Monsters.

Playing in only his seventh game in a Lake Erie uniform on Dec. 3, Rissmiller set a franchise record with four goals and tied a team record with five points in a 6-3 victory over the Chicago Wolves, the team with which he began the season but couldn’t play much because of an excess of veteran players. Rissmiller, who played in Cleveland for the Barons from 2002-06, has five goals and five assists in eight games since being assigned to Lake Erie by the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 20. Overall, he has six goals and five assists in 14 games this season and 104 goals and 189 assists in 431 AHL career games. He also has 18 goals and 27 assists in 182 NHL games with the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers. A native of Belmont, Mass., he played in the AHL All-Star Classic in 2006 and 2010.

ALL-STAR VOTING CONTINUES

On-line fan voting for the AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., is running through midnight Jan. 9 at theahl.com and facebook.com/theahl.

Players receiving the most votes by position will earn berths in the starting lineups of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference All-Star teams. A committee of AHL coaches will select the remaining All-Stars, and all 30 clubs must be represented.

By completing the official ballot, fans will be entered to win a grand prize of a team-signed All-Star jersey. Ten more winners will each receive an official All-Star Classic T-shirt.

Tickets for the AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony and post skills party during the All-Star Classic go on sale Saturday after the Hershey Bears’ home game against Binghamton.

The induction and awards ceremony will take place at the Hershey Theater on Jan. 31 at 11 a.m. when the Hall of Fame Class of 2011 – the late Maurice Podoloff, who grew up in New Haven and graduated from Yale, Mitch Lamoureux, Harry Pidhirny and Larry Wilson – will be enshrined. AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau, former coach of the Bears and now coach of the Washington Capitals, will be the keynote speaker, and AHL graduate and 2008 Foster Hewitt Award winner Mike Emrick will be master of ceremonies.

The post-skills party will be at the Hershey Lodge on Jan. 30 from 6 to 10 p.m. It will feature a tailgate theme while watching the NHL All-Star Game with a buffet-style menu of food and drinks.

Ticket packages for the two events are $75 and can be purchased after the Bears’ game Saturday at the Giant Center box office or by calling 717-534-3911. Availability is limited, and there is a six-ticket limit per person.

Also, an exclusive All-Star Classic VIP package for $199 includes Club Section tickets, parking vouchers for the skills competition and All-Star Game, a meal voucher for the All-Star Game, tickets for the post-skills party and Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony and a gift bag. There are only 50 packages available, and they also go on sale after Saturday night’s game. Tickets for the skills competition Jan. 30 at 3 p.m. and the All-Star Game on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. are nearly sold out. Contact the Giant Center box office for information.

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