(Due to having a crippling case of the flu, we were unable to watch yesterday’s game between the Connecticut Whale and the Adirondack Phantoms. However, our good friend Bruce Berlet was there and files this report)
By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – For the first six weeks of their 14th season, the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale managed to figure out every way imaginable to lose 10 one-goal games on the way to the franchise’s worst start in history.
But since a 1-9-2-1 swoon dropped the Wolf Pack/Whale into the Atlantic Division cellar, they have managed to find a multitude of ways to win in one of the best stretches in history that has moved them into the fourth and final playoff spot.
Talbot kept the Whale in the game the first 35 minutes and then Weise scored twice in 5:36 early in the third period in a 4-3 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms before 3,318 at the XL Center on Sunday.
The Whale (12-11-2-4) has won four in a row for the first time this season, are 6-0-0-1 since being rebranded from the Wolf Pack on Nov. 27, have an eight-game point streak (6-0-0-2) and are above .500 for the first time since they were 3-2-0-1 after a 5-1 loss to the Norfolk Admirals. That was the start of the horrific slide that has been transformed into the heartening run, making Sunday night’s team Christmas party that much more festive.
“Cam was very good all night,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said of his goalie who stopped 30 shots, including all 15 in the first period. “They came out from the get-go. On the first shift, they got pucks deep and wanted to finish hits. It took a long time to raise our level to their emotional level.”
The Whale twice rallied to tie in the second period on goals by Kolarik and Williams, then the Kolarik-Tessier-Weise line took over in the third.
“You don’t want to know the thinking behind that one,” Gernander said with a smile. “It’s not fit for print.”
It likely had something to do with center Tim Kennedy and left wing Evgeny Grachev struggling while playing with Weise. And Tessier, a healthy scratch for three of the previous six games, wasn’t getting much done with Kolarik and Williams.
“(Mats) Zuccarello, (Brodie) Dupont and (Kris) Newbury were rolling, but we didn’t have much jump from anybody else,” Weise said. “So we just shook the lines a little bit in the third, and me, Tess and Chad had pretty good chemistry and made some nice plays.”
Good and nice, indeed. The trio turned the game in the Whale’s favor, along with more shutdown defense and key saves by Talbot.
“I’m sure Dale feels like he’s a little behind the curve since he’s been on the sidelines for so much of the early part of the season,” Gernander said, referring to hand and finger injuries that have forced Weise to miss 18 of 29 games and limited his effectiveness in some games he has played. “He’s a guy we’re counting on. When we were having our rough patch at the start of the year and he was out, we were thinking here’s someone who can help us when we get him back. To get him going is pretty important. He’ll get it, and we’ll be that much better for it.”
Weise said the hand injury sustained in the season opener and the finger injury suffered six games into his return “has been awful.” Especially coming off a season in which he had career highs for goals (28), assists (22) and points (50) and was among the final cuts of the parent New York Rangers in October.
“It has been the worst start to a year that I’ve ever had,” said Weise, who has five goals and four assists despite the ailments. “I’d never been out a long time with injuries, and both times I came back, I didn’t feel comfortable. You’re so fired up coming into training camp and the beginning of the season, and I got called up in exhibition. When I was sent back down, I wanted to have a good start to the season and obviously breaking my hand the first game of the year doesn’t help.
“When I came back (Nov. 19) before I broke my finger (Nov. 28), it’s been real frustrating trying to find my game. Everyone is in midseason form right now, and I’m still trying to work the kinks out. I’m slowly getting it back. My conditioning felt better today. And I’m a third-year (pro), so I know that it takes. I’ll find my stride.”
As those words left Weise’s mouth, Zuccarello walked by, smiled and said, “If he that’s good when he’s not in shape, how good is he going to be when he is in shape?”
Weise also smiled and credited Talbot (4-2-0-0, 1.97 goals-average, .935 save percentage, two shutouts) with another solid effort.
“(The Phantoms) are an underrated team that does a real good job of closing off the wall on breakouts,” Weise said. “The fact their defensemen and third man jump, we don’t have a lot of options on the wall. When they hem us in the zone, you see why. We just had a hard time getting the puck out the first two periods, but Cam was awesome and just continues to get better with every game.
“We have a No. 1 goaltender and a No. 1A goaltender, and we haven’t had that in the three years that I’ve been here,” Weise said, not putting a label on Talbot or Chad Johnson. “Both guys are going, and it’s nice that you can throw any guy in there. Every guy is comfortable with the guy in the net, and that’s a big thing that people overlook. If you’ve got a guy back there that you feel comfortable with, you might take a couple more chances.
“We should have had guys on a couple of their goals, but Cam gave us a chance to win, and our offense stepped up in the third. It was a good win for us.”
Meanwhile, the Phantoms (4-22-2-0) own the AHL’s worst record and have lost 11 of 12, including a franchise-record 10-game losing streak (0-9-1-0). They’re 2-12-1-0 under former Wolf Pack coach John Paddock, who replaced fired Greg Gilbert on an interim basis when the Phantoms were 2-10-1-0.
“It was more of the same for us,” Paddock said. “We either don’t score goals or don’t make saves. Three goals are pretty good for us, but I counted three bad goals against. We out-chanced them but didn’t finish enough, and Talbot definitely won the goaltending battle. And I think our (tired) legs caught up to us a little with three games in three days. I think that was a little bit of a factor in the third period because we didn’t create as much momentum.”
But the Phantoms created plenty early, and the Whale was fortunate that Talbot was on top of his game in the first period as they were outhustled, outplayed and often had difficulty clearing the zone while being outshot 15-9, including 7-0 in the opening 5:15.
Talbot was especially sharp on Ben Holmstrom’s backhander at 4:39 and Eric Wellwood’s deflection at 4:57, and then he made a diving glove save on Luke Pither at 7:26 while the teams were skating four aside.
The Whale finally showed some semblance of life late in the period, with Nic Riopel (23 saves) making a good right pad stop on Dupont’s 25-foot shot from the slot with 7:38 left and Zuccarello’s 25-footer from the slot off a Newbury setup with 28 seconds to go.
Not much changed at the start of the second period as the Phantoms continued to outskate the Whale, with Talbot having to stand strong to stop Zac Rinaldo’s goalmouth deflection of Brendan Connelly’s pass off a 2-on-1 at 3:25 with defenseman Pavel Valentenko caught up ice.
The Phantoms’ pressure led to a 5-on-3 power play for 61 seconds, and they cashed in for a 1-0 lead when Holmstrom’s pass from the lower left circle to the right circle found Danny Syvret, who beat Talbot high to the glove side at 6:14.
After former Wolf Pack captain Greg Moore (no goals, seven assists and minus-19 in 28 games) was stopped on a partial breakaway, the Whale showed some life and tied it on a nice three-day play. Newbury got the puck to Zuccarello for a pass to Kolarik, who backed into the slot and fired a 30-foot shot that beat Riopel high to the glove side at 9:14.
But the Phantoms weren’t deterred and regained the lead when Holmstrom outworked Grachev behind the Whale net and passed to the left point to Marc-Andre Bourdon, whose screen shot gave him his first goal of the season at 12:39.
The Whale then got their first power play and capitalized, as Williams executed a give-and-go with Zuccarello and fired a shot under the crossbar with 4:54 left in the period for his team-leading 15th goal.
The Phantoms nearly regained the lead again off the ensuing faceoff, but Pither hit the crossbar. Talbot then got a piece of Mike Testwuide’s backhander in front with 42 seconds left during the Phantoms’ fifth power play.
With the Kolarik-Tessier-Weise line formed for the third period, the Whale took the lead for good when Kolarik passed into the slot to Weise, who maneuvered around Phantoms defenseman Dan Jancevski, patiently waited and fired a wrist shot that again beat Riopel high to the glove side at 2:48.
“It was a great play by Chad down low to outwork the two guys, and then I just kind of got into the soft area,” Weise said. “Contrary to yesterday’s chances (in a 5-1 victory over Manchester), I usually don’t miss those too often, and I went right where I wanted to go. We kind of know (Riopel) likes to cover the bottom of the net, and we want to get the puck up top.”
Repoli flicked out his right pad to deny Newbury with 9:32 left, but Weise scored the winner as he took a pass from Kolarik, tricky-dribbled in front and banked a backhander off the skate of Phantoms defenseman Eric Gustafsson and between Repoli’s legs with 8:24 to go.
“It was another good rush by me, Chad and Tess and a nice drop pass by Chad,” Weise said. “I was trying to go back toward Chad because I saw him wheeling, but I caught a bounce off the D-man’s skate and it went in. It’s just the way it goes. I missed a couple (Saturday). It was just one of those nights where things don’t go your way, but a couple of times you get bounces like that.”
Kind of like the difference between the first six weeks and the last three weeks for the Whale. Not to mention the return of Weise, Kennedy and Devin DiDiomete from injuries, adding forwards Kolarik and Oren Eizenman and defenseman Stu Bickel, who has helped the Whale’s five rookie defensemen mature.
“You have to work for your chances in this league,” Weise said. “You can’t just sit back and say we’ll get our chances, we’ll get our chances. You get your chances by working hard and shooting pucks and doing the simple things, as cliché as that sounds. That’s the way you score in this league: put pucks to the net and things will happen.”
The Phantoms got to 4-3 when Pither converted Denis Hamel’s rebound with 6:54 left, but Talbot saved the win with a diving stop on Holmstrom’s rebound bid with 1:01 to go after the Phantoms had pulled Riopel for a sixth attacker.
Dupont had a bid for a clinching, empty-net goal blocked by Syvret with 22 seconds left. That prevented the fans from getting a free taco from Moe’s Southwest Grill because the Whale scored at least five goals for the second consecutive night, but it didn’t detract from making the team Christmas party later that night that much more enjoyable and festive.
“At the start of the season we had a couple of young defensemen just coming into the league and a couple of guys who haven’t played together,” Weise said. “Obviously the beginning of the year is tough for any team. You have to find some chemistry, and I don’t think we had a lot of lines that were buzzing.
“I think we’re finally starting to find some depth and some chemistry with some guys, and things are starting to click. We’ve got a real good team with great offense and some young defensemen who are just starting to find their stride. Right around the 30-game mark is when you finally start to feel comfortable, and I think guys are really starting to settle in nice on the backend. We lost a couple in a row, but we were losing those one-goal games. We finally found a way to win those. Tonight wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t our best effort, but at the end of the day, it’s two points and the streak keeps rolling. We’ll take it. We’re a team that’s going to have to win games like that. Just hanging around and grease it out in the third period. I think we’re OK with playing those games.”
LEIGHTON BACK WITH FLYERS
The Phantoms haven’t won consecutive games in 49 starts since March 13-14. They nearly ended the streak Saturday night, but the Portland Pirates scored twice in the third period for a 2-1 victory. Michael Leighton, who led the Flyers into the Stanley Cup finals in June after Brian Boucher was injured, stopped 28 of 30 shots in his fourth and final rehab start before rejoining the Flyers after the game. The Phantoms nearly tied it after pulling Leighton for a sixth attacker, but Luke Pither, who scored the Adirondack goal, hit the post with five seconds left.
“The first couple of games I played we were just average,” Leighton told The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y. “We definitely stepped it up defensively. We’re playing better in our zone. … Listening to the guys in here we know we can play with any team.”
Leighton was 1-3-0-0 with the Phantoms, his first action after back surgery in October. He finished with a 2.78 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. He was initially scheduled to play only last weekend, but the Flyers received a two-game extension on his conditioning stint.
“I felt better each game, and I think that was the reasoning for playing the other two games,” Leighton said. “We played well defensively the last two games, and it’s helped me out. I just felt more calm and comfortable.”
Pirates coach and former Hartford Whalers captain Kevin Dineen improved to 2-0 against the Phantoms at the Glen Falls Civic Center. Dineen has a residence in that area, as does his father, Bill, a former Whalers and Adirondack Red Wings coach.
“I love coming back here. It never gets old,” Dineen said. “As much as it can be in the hockey world, the Lake George area is home to me.”
TWO RANGERS PROSPECTS AMONG TEAM USA POSSIBILITIES
Rangers prospects Chris Kreider and Ryan Bourque are among 29 players named to USA Hockey’s preliminary roster for the 2011 World Junior Champions in Buffalo on Dec. 26-Feb. 5, when the American will defend their title.
Kreider, who helped Boston College win the NCAA title in April, and Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, will join the team on Thursday in Troy, N.Y., and take part in three pre-tournament games, starting Sunday against RPI on the Engineers’ home ice. The Americans then will play Dec. 21 in Rochester, N.Y., against the Czech Republic junior team and conclude pre-tournament play against Norway on Dec. 23 in Jamestown, N.Y.
The exhibition games will help determine the final roster. Four of the 17 forwards named to the preliminary roster will have to cut, and the final roster is expected to be announced Dec. 22.
Kreider, a center and first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, has five goals and six assists in 16 games with the Eagles this season. Last year, as an 18-year-old, he led Team USA and ranked third overall with six goals in the World Juniors. He went on to win the Hockey East and NCAA titles, becoming the first player to win a World Junior, conference championship and national championship in the same year. Boston College won the NCAA title with a 5-0 victory over Wisconsin, which included Rangers center Derek Stepan and Whale defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Bourque, a left wing and third-round pick in 2009, has 17 goals and 19 assists in 25 games for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He is well on his way to bettering last season’s numbers of 19 goals and 43 points in 44 games. At last year’s World Juniors, he played a key defensive and penalty-killing role while getting three assists in seven games. Bourque also represented the Rangers at the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament in early September. Kreider was ineligible under NCAA rules.
Kreider and Bourque were childhood friends, playing youth hockey together in their hometown of Boxford, Mass. They played on the gold medal-winning USA team last year with Stepan.
Other Rangers prospects on preliminary rosters are forwards Jesper Fasth (Sweden) and Roman Horak (Czech Republic), who played in last year’s tournament. Fasth, a sixth-round pick in June, has four goals and five assists in 25 games with Jonkoping HV-17 in the Swedish Elite League. Horak, a fifth-round pick in 2009, has 15 goals and 19 assists in 27 games for the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League.
LEMIEUX TO PLAY ONE MORE TIME
There should be plenty of emotion at the alumni game prior to the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991-92 and is now principal owner of the team, will return to the ice to play in an alumni game against the Washington Capitals alumni on New Year’s Eve day. It will be the first time Lemieux plays in an organized game since he announced his final retirement as a player in 2006 and comes a day before the Penguins and Capitals meet in the 2011 NHL Winter Classic.
“We all grew up playing on outdoor rinks, so we’re really looking forward to having this chance to skate on the Winter Classic rink at Heinz Field,” Lemieux said in a statement. “There is so much history between the Penguins and Capitals, and it will be good to get together and see friends on both benches.”
The chance to play with Lemieux is already bringing out the stars. Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier and former Whalers players Ron Francis and Paul Coffey and recently retired Bill Guerin have already signed on to play for the Penguins. The Capitals’ team is led by Peter Bondra and will include former Whalers defenseman Alan Hangsleben. Full rosters will be announced soon.
Tickets, priced at $25, will allow spectators to watch the alumni game at 9:30 a.m. and the Penguins’ practice at 11:30 a.m. Washington’s 2 p.m. practice will be closed to the public. Seating capacity for these events will be 10,000. Tickets will go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.
Lemieux, Francis and Trottier were part of the Penguins’ back-to-back championships in 1991-92, while Coffey was with the team for the first title before being traded to the Detroit Red Wings in 1992. Lemieux is the principal owner of the Penguins, while Francis is an associate head coach and director of player personnel for the Carolina Hurricanes, the former Hartford Whalers.
The alumni game and NHL team practices will be the first official events on the Winter Classic rink at Heinz Field. The Winter Classic will be played on the same rink Jan. 1 at 1 p.m.
* Veteran defenseman Matt Walker is also on conditioning stint and played in his third game with the Phantoms. Besides Leighton, the Phantoms scratched Johan Backlund, Andrew Rowe, Stefan Legein, J.P. Testwuide, Logan Stephenson and Jonathon Kalinski. The Whale scratched center Ryan Garlock and and defensemen Jared Nightingale and Lee Baldwin. Garlock was replaced by Tessier.
* The Whale has a rematch with the Phantoms at the Glens Falls Civic Center on Wednesday night at 7. They return to the XL Center to face the Worcester Sharks on Saturday night at 7 and then head to Syracuse for a game Sunday at 3 p.m.
* Fans can give the gift of Whale hockey during the holiday season. The Whale Hockey Pack of six dark green undated flex tickets and one Heritage Connecticut Whale hat is $122, a savings of $38. Six yellow undated flex tickets and one hat are $74, a savings of $14. Holiday packages are available through Jan. 3 at the Fan Center behind Section 101 in the XL Center or by calling 860-728-3366 or visiting www.ctwhaleshop.com.
* The Whale has moved the starting time of their Jan. 1 game against Providence from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. so it doesn’t conflict with the University of Connecticut football team playing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, which starts at 8:30.
* Former Wolf Pack and Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin might be headed back to New York. After two consecutive healthy scratches, Tyutin, traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets three seasons ago for the departed Nik Zherdev, returned to the Blue Jackets’ lineup for a 3-1 victory over the Rangers on Saturday night. The Rangers reportedly are interested in re-acquiring Tyutin, a left-hand shot who plays the right side with one more year on his contract at $2,843,750.
* Scott Burnside of ESPN.com wrote a terrific story on former Wolf Pack center Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins about his travails with concussions and the depression that they can cause. Savard recently returned from a blindsided, cheap-shot elbow from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke, who somehow got off without a suspension in one of the worst decisions in NHL history. League general managers tried to rectify the injustice by making Cooke’s hit illegal and suspension-worthy starting this season. Give the story a read when you get a chance.
Grachev – Kennedy – Weise
Dupont – Newbury – Zuccarello
Kolarik – Tessier – Williams
Soryal – Eizenman – DiDiomete
McDonagh – Bickel
Valentenko – Kundratek
Redden – Niemi
(Assistant Captains Bold and Italicized)
Jared Nightingale – Healthy Scratch
Ryan Garlock – Healthy Scratch
Lee Baldwin – Healthy Scratch
1. CT – D. Weise
2. CT – C. Kolarik
3. CT – K. Newbury
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Chris Cozzan (18)
Brent Colby (7)
Derek Wahl (46)
The Whale will load up the bus on Wednesday and head to Adirondack for the back end of the home-home with the Phantoms. Bob Crawford and the pregame go on the air at 6:30pm.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.
For Ticket information call (860) 548-2000.
Adirondack Phantoms 3 at Connecticut Whale 4 – Status: Final
Sunday, December 12, 2010 – XL Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Adirondack 0 2 1 – 3
Connecticut 0 2 2 – 4
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Newbury Ct (tripping), 0:49; Kolarik Ct (interference), 5:44; Hamel Adk (hooking), 5:46; Clackson Adk (fighting), 8:25; Soryal Ct (fighting), 8:25.
2nd Period-1, Adirondack, Syvret 4 (Holmstrom, Gustafsson), 6:14 (PP). 2, Connecticut, Kolarik 10 (Zuccarello), 9:14. 3, Adirondack, Bourdon 1 (Holmstrom, Bordson), 12:39. 4, Connecticut, Williams 15 (Zuccarello, Newbury), 15:06 (PP). Penalties-Bickel Ct (holding), 4:48; Dupont Ct (slashing), 5:48; Marshall Adk (interference), 14:13; Marshall Adk (roughing), 16:50; Rinaldo Adk (roughing), 16:50; Bickel Ct (roughing, roughing), 16:50; Valentenko Ct (hooking), 17:52.
3rd Period-5, Connecticut, Weise 4 (Kolarik, Tessier), 2:48. 6, Connecticut, Weise 5 (Kolarik, Tessier), 11:36. 7, Adirondack, Pither 5 (Hamel, Walker), 13:06. Penalties-No Penalties
Shots on Goal-Adirondack 15-10-8-33. Connecticut 9-9-9-27.
Power Play Opportunities-Adirondack 1 / 5; Connecticut 1 / 2.
Goalies-Adirondack, Riopel 0-5-0 (27 shots-23 saves). Connecticut, Talbot 4-2-1 (33 shots-30 saves).
Referees-Chris Cozzan (18).
Linesmen-Brent Colby (7), Derek Wahl (46).