After their team surrendered a four-goal lead Tuesday night, Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander and his assistants figured a 9 a.m. practice Wednesday, only eight hours after the team arrived home from New Hampshire, might not be “very fruitful” before the Christmas break.
So after being told by the New York Rangers that they didn’t need any players for a game Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Gernander decided to cancel the Whale’s scheduled workout and let the players get an early start to their holiday activities and any leftover shopping.
But wing Mats Zuccarello had his extra free time cut short Wednesday afternoon when he was called up by the Rangers after wing Marian Gaborik aggravated a groin injury and wasn’t able to practice. Zuccarello, who sat out a 5-4 shootout loss to the Manchester Monarchs Tuesday night because of a one-game AHL suspension, will make his NHL debut Thursday night at Madison Square Garden against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound Zuccarello, second on the Whale in goals (13) and third in points (24) despite missing his first AHL game Tuesday night, has been hot of late, registering a point in five of his last six games with four goals and four assists as he has begun to adjust to the more physical play and smaller rinks in North America.
“I haven’t yet formulated my plan (on Zuccarello),” a smiling Rangers coach John Tortorella told reporters after practice, which Zuccarello couldn’t make. “I obviously want to get him in some offensive situations, but I’m just not sure how. All of this has come about just before practice, so I’m going to try to figure out some lines and where to put him in the game. As the game goes on, we’ll see how it all works out.”
Zuccarello’s presence Tuesday night might have enabled the Whale to head off on a four-day Christmas break with two points and more holiday cheer. But Gernander took a pragmatic stance when asked if a 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlantic Division-leading Monarchs after leading 4-0 before the game reached its halfway point felt worse than a 5-0 thumping at Syracuse on Sunday.
“This game we got a point while being a bit shorthanded against a team that’s first in our division,” Gernander said, alluding to being without Zuccarello, forward Kelsey Tessier (flu) and dressing Lee Baldwin as a seventh defenseman after he was a healthy scratch for 11 games since Nov. 21. “We got some breaks and attacked a little more than we did toward the end. And we didn’t do a great job managing our game (at the end), but Manchester is a good team.
“It was fortuitous that we got out to a 4-0 lead. We were playing well, then there were some points in the game where we could have managed our game a little better, but you expect Manchester to counter and to be good.”
The Whale got a break on their first goal during a power play when a dump-in by Wade Redden deflected off a stick to Dale Weise, who skated in and snapped a shot past Jeff Zatkoff’s glove into the top corner at 3:24 for his seventh goal and third in his last four games, not including his NHL debut with the Rangers on Saturday. Weise took Zuccarello’s on right wing with Kris Newbury and Brodie Dupont.
“Weisie made a good play, but when you playing well, you get some breaks and make your own breaks,” Gernander said.
Only 24 seconds later, Chad Kolarik scored his 12th goal, eighth in 17 games with the Whale since being acquired for former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Nov. 11, as he fought his way to the rebound of Ryan McDonagh’s point shot and sent it high into the net.
After Cameron Talbot stopped several good Monarchs chances, Devin DiDiomete had an excellent forechecking shift with linemates Ryan Garlock and Evgeny Grachev and was rewarded with his third goal at 15:43 when he jammed a second rebound into the post.
Zatkoff was replaced after the first period after allowing three goals on nine shots, but the Whale made it 4-0 at 8:50 of the second on their first shot of the period as Jeremy Williams one-timed a pass from Newbury past Martin Jones. Tomas Kundratek had made a good pinch down the right-wing boards to start the play and pick up his second assist of the game, his first multiple-point game as a pro.
But the Whale lost all of their lead in only 12:04, starting with two goals in 1:43 by Oscar Moller, reassigned to the Monarchs by the parent Los Angeles Kings on Monday. First, Moller took a pass from standout defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov and fired a shot past Talbot (28 saves), whose four-game winning streak ended. Then Moller took a pass from Corey Elkins and put a shot over a fallen Talbot with 4:50 left in the second period.
The Whale had been 8-0-0-1 when leading after two periods, but that point streak ended as Thomas Hickey scored off a scramble at 4:32 at the third before the Monarchs tied it only 49 seconds later on a rebound goal by captain Andre-Marc Cliché, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2006 who was traded to the Kings with Jason Ward and Jan Marek for Sean Avery and John Seymour on Feb. 5, 2007.
Moller capped the stirring night for himself and the Monarchs when he ended the shootout with his fourth-round conversion, giving Manchester its fourth consecutive victory to tie the previous high this season from Nov. 14-20 and Nov. 24-28. Elkins and Justin Azevedo previously scored for the Monarchs, while Williams was the only Whale player to beat Jones, who stopped 12 of 13 shots through overtime and three of four in the shootout to improve to 10-2-0 with a 1.58 goal-against average and .950 save percentage and one shutout. He has allowed two goals or fewer in 12 of his 14 starts and only one in each of his last three games while stopping 77 of 80 shots as the Whale fell to 2-5 in shootouts.
“Toward the end we didn’t quite attack or pressure as much, and they’re a good offensive club that’s going to pressure and counter,” Gernander said. “But give credit where credit is due. Jones is a good goalie who played well when he got in there. We had some chances, but he closed the door when he came in.
“They’re a good team, and Moller is a good player so you have to manage your game a little better. We were a little reluctant to put pucks into safer areas. If you have to drive down the wall and take a hit to get it deep, then so be it. When you’re on the road playing a tough opponent and throw everything at them, you have to maintain that but sometimes it gets hard when you have a 4-0 lead so they play a little passive or sit back a bit. That was kind of the scenario.”
Despite the disappointing finish, the Whale (14-12-2-5) has a standings point in 11 of their last 12 games (8-1-0-3) to move within one point of third-place Worcester (15-10-2-4) and two of second-place Portland (17-10-2-1), which has three games in hand. But the Whale is only two points ahead of Bridgeport (15-13-1-2), which hosts the Whale Sunday at 3 p.m. The Sound Tigers are 5-1-0-1 in its last seven games, and this is the start of the second half of the 10-game GEICO Connecticut Cup series that the Whale leads with a 3-1-0-1 record, including 1-1-0-1 in Bridgeport.
Rhett Rakhashani is the Sound Tigers’ leading scorer with team highs in goals (10) and assists (19), followed by Josh Bailey (6, 11) and David Ulstrom (6, 11). Robin Figren (9, 5) is tied for fourth with Michael Haley (7, 7), who scored the Sound Tigers’ first goal of the season less than three minutes into their opener with Worcester on Oct. 9, then went 26 games without scoring to getting six goals in the last four games, including three winners and his first three power-play goals in the AHL. From Dec. 12 to 19, he had as many goals as he had in any of his three previous AHL seasons, matching the six he had for the Sound Tigers in 65 games last season.
The Whale returns to the XL Center next Wednesday night at 7 when they host Portland, coached by former Hartford Whalers captain Kevin Dineen. Former Wolf Pack assistant coach Nick Fotiu, one of the biggest fan favorites in the history of the Rangers and New England and Hartford Whalers, will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. The first 3,000 fans will receive a poster commemorating the 1986-87 Adam Division champion Hartford Whalers, who were led by Dineen, Hall of Famer Ron Francis, John Anderson, Ray Ferraro, Dave Tippett, Paul Lawless, Dean Evason, Dave Babych, Joel Quenneville, Ulf Samuelsson, Dana Murzyn, Sylvain Cote and Mike Liut.
OTHER WHALE PLAYERS COULD JOIN AILING RANGERS
Zuccarello might not be the only Whale player headed for Broadway in the near future.
The Rangers have been hit with a lot more injuries this season, with Gaborik joining wings Derek Boogaard and former Wolf Pack All-Star Ryan Callahan and forward Vinny Prospal, who hasn’t played after offseason knee surgery. Captain/center and Trumbull native Chris Drury missed all but 9:11 of the first 32 games because of a twice-broken left index finger before returning three games ago. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto has the flu and will be replaced by Matt Gilroy on Thursday night.
Gaborik, who didn’t practice Wednesday, missed 12 games because of a separated left shoulder sustained in the Rangers’ home opener Oct. 15, the same game in which Drury was re-injured. The shoulder and groin injuries have helped to slow Gaborik, who had a team-high 42 goals last season but has only nine in 22 games this year. While being moved around on different lines, Gaborik has scored in only five games and has one goal in the last eight games.
“Of course it’s my responsibility to play better no matter who I’m with,” Gaborik told longtime Rangers beat writer Larry Brooks of the New York Post on Monday. “Torts (Rangers coach John Tortorella) has talked to me about that, but I know that for myself. It’s obvious.”
After practice Wednesday, Tortorella said he hadn’t decided where to play the 23-year-old Zuccarello, though the easiest move would be to have him take Gaborik’s latest spot alongside former Wolf Pack wing Brandon Dubinsky and rookie center Derek Stepan. That would be an offensive slot for the creative “Norwegian Hobbit,” who was the leading scorer (23 goals and 41 assists in 55 games) and MVP of the Swedish Elite League last season with Modo. The Oslo native also represented Norway in the Winter Olympics in February in Vancouver, finishing third on the team in scoring with one goal and two assists in four games. He signed with the Rangers as a free agent on May 26.
Boogaard, the Rangers’ enforcer, has been shut down after experiencing headaches since he sustained a concussion in a fight with the Ottawa Senators’ Matt Carkner in a 5-3 victory Dec. 9. He also sustained a strained right shoulder and has missed five games and won’t play Thursday.
“It’s compounded a little bit, with new problems with headaches while working out,” Tortorella said. “You have to be concerned about a (concussion), obviously that’s a problem.”
Concussions are tricky, and the Rangers organization always follows strict protocol for treatment and recovery, so it’s doubtful they will risk much and possibly make it worse for someone who is known for his physical play. The shutdown of Boogaard, who will see a neurologist, means veteran Todd White will dress more or a Whale player such as Weise or Kris Newbury could be called up. Weise fared well in his first 6:34 in the NHL on Saturday in the Rangers’ second 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers this season. Weise had one shot, a goal waved off and beat up Daniel Carcillo in the third period. Weise or Newbury would be a good third- or fourth-line guy, especially against tougher teams like the Flyers, but Weise also has some scoring ability, as shown by his two close calls Saturday.
Prospal, believed a month away from joining the lineup, participated in his full practice Wednesday. Weise got to make his NHL debut after Callahan, a Rangers alternate captain, was sidelined 6-to-8 weeks with a broken left hand sustained when he blocked a shot in a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 15.
“All we can do is go play,” Tortorella said. “We’ve had injuries all year and have just been going about our business, and that’s what we’ll do tomorrow. We’ve a chance to look at an offensive player who’s playing pretty well with the Connecticut Whale, and he’ll get his opportunity.
“We have to get back to our game, and again, no matter who’s in the lineup, we need to make sure we’re consistent and play the right way and the way we’ve tried to play all year.”
The Rangers have wanted Zuccarello to remain with the Whale until he was ready to join the Rangers for good, so it’s not known if this is just to fill in for Gaborik or stay for good. After Thursday, the Rangers are off until Monday night at 7, when they host the New York Islanders.
Without Callahan until February, the Rangers certainly could use some offensive spark at right wing, though Zuccarello has played both wings. If Zuccarello duplicates his recent play, it would be difficult for the Rangers to send him back. That might cause other tough decisions, but that will depend on Zuccarello or any more injuries. With Zuccarello’s call-up, Callahan officially went on injured reserve.
FORMER MIDDLETOWN BUSINESSMAN TAKES OVER FALCONS
Former Connecticut businessman Charlie Pompea has taken over as majority owner of the Springfield Falcons, with former New England Whalers goalie Bruce Landon remaining team president and general manager.
Pompea, 61, is a former member of the board of governors at the University of New Haven who spent time watching the New Haven Blades. He is the retired owner of Primary Steel, a company based in Middletown with branches nationwide.
Pompea, who lives in Jupiter, Fla., bought the team for an undisclosed amount and formed Falcons Hockey Entertainment LLC, which replaces Springfield Pro Hockey LLC.
“When people see that I live in Florida, I suppose they’ll think I want to move the team, but I have no intention of doing that,” Pompea told the Springfield Union-News. “I don’t want to disrupt hockey in Springfield. Rather, Bruce and I want to build on it.”
The franchise received another double dose of stability when Landon announced he has extended his NHL working agreement with the Columbus Blue Jackets and his lease with the MassMutual Center through next season.
So instead of 2010-11 being a possible lame-duck season with a future sale and move, the Falcons will remain an AHL member thanks to Pompea and the never-say-die Landon, who has been involved with Springfield hockey since 1970 and helped keep it afloat financially since he started the Falcons in 1994.
“Another great save by Bruce Landon,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said, referring to Landon’s background as a goalie for the AHL’s Springfield Kings and Indians and WHA’s New England Whalers in the 1970s.
Landon thanked the previous investors in the franchise for never-ending support, especially through hard economic times and the team missing the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons. Recently, Landon worried the team might have to be sold to outsiders who would relocate it.
“I had 28 different groups that expressed sincere interest, some of them many times, in buying the franchise and moving it,” Landon said. “Believe it or not, I even had an offer from a Russian group. The clock was ticking.”
Fortunately for Landon, Pompea said he understands how important it is to keep the team in Springfield. The city has had pro hockey since 1926 and an AHL franchise since 1936, with a few interruptions.
“I am very honored to join the very long tradition of professional hockey in Springfield,” Pompea, who could not attend the announcement, said in a prepared statement. “Our intention is to keep hockey in Springfield and provide a consistency of an NHL affiliation. We also want to provide our fans with aggressive, entertaining and winning hockey. … We want to thank the business community and fans for their support and patience as we look forward to their continued loyalty. What we need now is to put more fans in the seats and have them be that extra player that will help us bring the Calder Cup back where it belongs.”
AHL president David Andrews and the mayor then put things in the best possible perspective.
“Congratulations to Bruce,” Andrews said. “People have no idea how difficult it is to complete a deal like this.”
“This is quite a Christmas gift for the city of Springfield,” Sarno said. “And it happened because of Bruce Landon’s passion for hockey. He knows how the sport is woven into the fabric of Springfield.”
Then, turning to Landon, he said, “You never gave up.”
Yes, Landon has never given up, and he deserves all the credit in the world for keeping the AHL alive in Springfield.
FORMER WOLF PACK WING REACHES 600 POINTS
Former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux of the Oklahoma City Barons added another impressive milestone to an accomplished AHL career when he became the 44th player in history to join the 600-point club on Saturday night.
Giroux attained the milestone with a second-period assist in the Barons’ 4-2 loss to the visiting San Antonio Rampage. The Quebec City native has 318 goals and 282 assists in 667 regular-season games with Grand Rapids, Binghamton, Hartford, Chicago, Hershey and Oklahoma City. His 600th point came one day shy of the first anniversary of his 500th point, which was recorded on Dec. 19, 2009.
Giroux, 29, won the AHL’s goal-scoring title and the Calder Cup each of the past two seasons with Hershey, combining for 110 regular-season goals and 200 points in that span, including a career-best 103-point effort (50-53-103) in 2009-10. A three-time AHL All-Star and the league’s MVP in 2008-09, Giroux has topped the 30-goal plateau in each of the last six seasons and ranks sixth on the AHL’s all-time postseason scoring list with 100 points (50-50-100) in 112 Calder Cup playoff games.
Giroux will make his fourth AHL All-Star Classic appearance Jan. 30-31 in Hershey, where he will serve as captain of the Western Conference All-Stars.
Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wings Ryan Hollweg and Petr Prucha scored for the West Division-leading Rampage, who improved to 3-0 at the Cox Convention Center. It was Prucha’s sixth goal in 10 games with the Rampage after being sent down by the parent Phoenix Coyotes to try to revive his game. Brett MacLean had two assists for the Rampage to become the franchise’s all-time scoring leader with 134 points. Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerald McDonald, scored for the Barons. … Syracuse Crunch goalie Jean-Philippe Levasseur was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week for stopping 96 of 100 shots in three appearance and going 2-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against and .960 save percentage. He started the week on the bench but came in to stop 22 of 25 shots on Friday night in Binghamton. He then had stopped 74 of 75 shots in wins over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (3-1) and the Whale (5-0). A 23-year-old native of Victoriaville, Quebec, Levasseur improved to 5-6-2 with a 2.81 GAA and .918 save percentage with two shutouts in 17 games. The Whale nominated center Kris Newbury, who had two goals and two assists in three games. Other nominees included Haley (Sound Tigers), Jones (Monarchs) and former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes (Chicago Wolves). … The first 15-game night in AHL history last Friday produced its share of excitement, including Denis Hamel scoring his 299th and 300th in Adirondack’s 3-1 victory over Hershey and the Whale’s Chad Kolarik scoring with 29.5 seconds left in overtime to beat the Worcester, 3-2. Hamel became the fourth of the 19 players in AHL history with 300 career goals to have spent part of his career in Glens Falls, joining former Whalers center Glenn Merkosky and AHL Hall of Famers Jody Gage and Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. There were 85 goals scored by 75 players, with Manchester’s Bud Holloway getting the only hat trick, his first as a pro, in the Monarchs’ 4-3 victory over Portland. There five shutouts, including the first for Robin Lehner (Binghamton), Jacob Markstrom (Rochester Americans) and Jeremy Smith (Milwaukee Admirals). Goalies stopped 802 of 884 shots, and the 30 teams were 27-for-137 on the power play (19.7 percent) and scored four shorthanded goals. There will be three more 15-game days, the next being Jan. 8. … The Toronto Marlies scored three goals in the final 11:47 to break a tie and beat Peoria 6-3, ending the Rivermen’s 13-game point streak (11-0-2-0) that began No. 19 and moved them within two points of West Division-leading San Antonio. What made the streak that much more impressive was six Rivermen had been recalled by the parent St. Louis Blues in the last month – former Wolf Pack and Rangers center Dave Scatchard, Ian Cole, Chris Potter, Adam Cracknell, Stefan Della Rovere and Nikita Nikitin. Cole, Della Rovere and Nikitin have returned to the Rivermen; Odd Stats of the Year: The league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are 0-2-0-0 against the Norfolk Admirals, 0-3-0-0 against the Norfolk Admirals and 23-2-0-0 against the rest of the AHL. Binghamton’s penalty kill is No. 1 on the road (91.2 percent) but 29th at home (74.0).