FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

Bruce HeadshotBy Bruce Berlet

Few sporting entities ebb and flow together more than a hockey goaltender and his or her team.

Chad Johnson has discovered that more than ever this season, which seems almost divided between when the local AHL team was the Hartford Wolf Pack and it became the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27.Johnson started the season 2-1-0-1, then lost a career-worst seven consecutive games (0-6-1-0) as the Wolf Pack were on a 1-8-1-0 slide that dropped them into the Atlantic Division basement.

Then Johnson had an eight-game point streak (6-0-0-2) in a 7-1-0-2 Whale run, capped by his first shutout of the season, a 22-save effort in a 4-0 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Sunday.

So why the radical swings? How about a near miss here, a bad bounce there? A soft goal here, a one-goal loss there. A shot off a post that goes in, a shot off the crossbar that bounces out. A deflection that finds the corner of the net, a deflection that hits the goalie in the chest.

“Your stats are really based on your team’s statistics and performance,” Johnson said. “And the way you play affects your team’s statistics and performance. It all goes hand-in-hand. If you’re a good goalie on a really good team or defensive team, you’re going to have unbelievable stats. If you’re a really good goalie on a team that’s kind of struggling, then there’s going to be a balance. But if you’re a bad goalie on a bad team, then it’s just a tough situation.”

Case in point: Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. He is arguably the best goalie in history with three Stanley Cups but is now on a New Jersey Devils team with the worst record in the NHL (9-24-2).

“It’s not that (Brodeur) is a bad goalie, but the team really does have a big impact on a goalie’s stats,” Johnson said. “What’s why when I do well, I don’t look at it as me, me, me because it’s really not. It has a lot to do with your team aspects, which is why when you look at stats sometimes it’s not a good indicator. A goalie’s stats can be so skewed from the way he’s playing. Most of the time, the guys that should be in the top 10 are in there, but there are always three or four who are there because their team is defensive or how effective they’ve been. That’s why when I look at other teams and other leagues I’ve played in like in college, I always make sure I look up how the team is doing. It’s the name of the game these days.”

Johnson said he took time to reflect on the first 34 games during a four-day Christmas break, and, like the Wolf Pack/Whale, he saw something good, something bad, something in between.

“Couple inches here or there, and things can be completely different,” Johnson said. “Now I feel it’s kind of going my way, and Sunday was one of the first games all year where I was felt dialed in for the full 60 minutes. The guys did a good job, too. There were a lot of wide shots that I could see cleanly, while early in the year, maybe there was traffic in front and deflections that were going in a lot on me.

“The last game was kind of what you dream of as a goalie, to be able to see the puck and have the guys there if there’s a rebound. And guys were back-checking, too, so it was just nice to get back to where you want to be after you’ve come so close (to a shutout) four or five times. But to me, it’s not about getting shutouts it’s about getting the win. Obviously it’s important to give your team a chance to win.”

Neither Johnson nor the Wolf Pack were doing much winning early as they were at an all-time low 4-10-2-2 after a 4-3 loss at Manchester on Nov. 17. That included six one-goal losses and four more via overtime or a shootout. But since then, they have been 11-2-0-3 with five one-goal wins and are 9-1-0-2 as the Whale.

“The line between winning and losing is a pretty fine line, so as a team, if you give up that freebie, it’s often the difference,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “But it might not be the goaltender. It might be a defensive play or a turnover by a forward, but that one play might be the difference. And the same thing can happen offensively. Missing the net on a great scoring chance can be the difference between a win or going into overtime or a shootout. And sometimes you make a great shot and hit the post. The key is to kind of stay the course when it’s going bad, fight like crazy to make up that difference, and when things are going well to not get so full of yourself that you start taking shortcuts.

“I don’t think (Johnson) was pleased with his start personally, and it was a tough stretch for the team as well. If he had been playing his best hockey and been ineffective then you might be concerned. But he didn’t play his best hockey at the start, and now he’s getting a little closer to where he needs to be, and I think he can continue to raise the bar.”

Johnson has said several times that the team has finally found an identity, and during his four days of reflection, he realized he had improved his approach to games. Some of that realization came from Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, who likes to hold video sessions with Johnson and Cameron Talbot.

“Bennie has always told me – and I’ve always felt the same way – that I’ve always been really good technically,” Johnson said. “It was just more my approach, and he said just to worry about making the next save, don’t worry high or wide or about position. Just kind of find ways to stop pucks and get in the right mindset, and that meant breaking down my preparation. You just have to re-evaluate your game and really tighten things up about the way you approach the game, the way you’re feeling in the game, what you’re going to do and having that confidence that I can be a good goalie at this level.”

Johnson acknowledged that he had kind of got away from what he should be focusing on, that he was too technical worrying about where he was instead of just concerning himself with how he felt and going out and letting his abilities take care of how he do in the game.

“Early on, I was just trying to think too much about the way I played,” Johnson said. “There were games here and there where I felt really well and played really well, but we were still losing 2-1 or 3-2, and those goals that you let in hurt.

“But now I’ve been playing well and we’re winning, so for the most part, an occasional bad goal isn’t magnified and hurt as much. I haven’t let in a bad goal the last five games, and now we’re scoring four a game. Now the key is to keep my game at that level and build off the last game.”

The Whale (15-12-2-5) returns to the XL Center on Wednesday night at 7 when they host the Portland Pirates (18-10-2-1), coached by former Hartford Whalers captain Kevin Dineen and defenseman Eric Weinrich. The teams have a rematch Friday night at the Cumberland County Coliseum in Portland, Maine, where the Pirates are 0-2-1-1 in their last four home games after starting 9-0-1-0.

“Portland is one of the best teams in the league, so it’ll be a good test to see where we’re at,” Johnson said. “We definitely have to tighten up.”

On Sunday, the Whale rebounded from a tough 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs after surrendering a 4-0 lead by beating the Sound Tigers 4-0 as Johnson made the 22 saves, Chad Kolarik scored two goals and Brodie Dupont had a goal and an assist.

“We were pretty sound defensively, when we had power-play opportunities the guys made really nice passes and were really clicking and (Johnson) was solid in net,” Gernander said. “There were a lot of good things.”

The Whale, which was 3-for-6 on the power play and 4-for-4 killing penalties, is on an 11-3-0-4 run that has vaulted them from the division cellar into third place, two points behind the Pirates who got three power-play goals in a 4-3 victory over Providence Tuesday night and has three games in hand. The Whale are 6-0-0-2 in their last eight games against division foes and have a standings point in 12 of their last 13 games (9-1-0-3) entering their first of eight meetings with the Pirates.

Center Kris Newbury has points in 10 of the last 11 games (three goals, 17 assists) to take the team scoring lead (4, 29) and move to fourth in the AHL. Right wing Jeremy Williams had his league-leading 18th goal Sunday and is second on the Whale in scoring (18, 10). Kolarik has 26 points, including 10 goals and six assists in 18 games since being acquired for former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Nov. 8. Wing Mats Zuccarello is fourth in the balanced Whale attack with 13 goals and 12 assists but is on his second recall to the Rangers and not likely to return soon, if ever, after two strong games in a 4-3 shootout loss to Tampa Bay and a 7-2 rout of the New York Islanders in which he got his first NHL point, an assist on rookie center Derek Stepan’s goal.

Zuccarello’s spot in the Whale lineup could be taken by veteran center Jason Williams, who signed a professional tryout contract Monday and practiced with the Whale for the first time Tuesday after spending the last five seasons in the NHL. The 30-year-old Williams has 91 goals and 129 assists in 420 NHL games, mostly with the Detroit Red Wings, who signed him as a free agent on Sept. 18, 2000. He also has 70 goals and 94 assists in 173 AHL games with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and Grand Rapids Griffins.

The Whale also might get center Todd White, who was placed on waivers for the fourth time this season by the Rangers on Tuesday. If White and his $2.5 million salary aren’t claimed by noon Wednesday, he could join the Whale or remain with the Rangers because forwards Vinny Prospal (knee) and Derek Boogaard (concussion) aren’t ready to return. If the Rangers send down White and then try to bring him back, he could be claimed for half the waiver price.

Rookie defenseman Pavel Valentenko leads the Whale in plus-minus (plus-12), and Jeremy Williams and Kolarik are each plus-7 with the team. After the indifferent start, Johnson has improved to 10-11-3 with a 2.46 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and one shutout, while Talbot is 5-2-2, 2.41, .918 with two shutouts.

Former AHL All-Star right wing Mark Mancari has been the Pirates’ major threat with 13 goals and 18 assists in 28 games. Center Luke Adam (12, 10) is on recall to the parent Buffalo Sabres, leaving centers Matt Ellis (6, 16) and Paul Byron (10, 11) as the other top offensive players, while NHL veteran Mark Parrish (5, 10) has offered plenty of experience. Swede Jhonas Enroth (9-8-0-1, 2.91, .909) and David Leggio (9-3-0, 2.98, .908) have done most of the goaltending.

Former Wolf Pack assistant coach Nick Fotiu, one of the biggest fan favorites in the history of the Rangers as well as both the New England and Hartford Whalers, will share tales and sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. on Student Night, Wednesday the 29th. You can buy a $12 ticket in the upper level and get one free with a valid college or high school ID. 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. … The Whale moved the starting time of Saturday’s game against the Providence Bruins 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 kicks off at 8:30. … 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 Monday at the Fan Center behind Section 101 in the XL Center, by calling 860-728-3366 or visiting www.ctwhale.com.

HAMILTON’S DESHARNAIS IS AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Hamilton Bulldogs center David Desharnais was named Reebox/AHL Player of the Week after getting two goals and three assists in two victories to take over the AHL scoring lead with 10 goals and a league-leading 31 assists in 33 games.

In a 5-0 victory at Houston, Desharnais assisted on two goals in the first period and then became the first AHL player since 2008-09 to score two shorthanded goals in the same game, tying an AHL career high with four points. On Sunday, Desharnais had an assist in a 4-3 shootout loss in Toronto as the Bulldogs ended a five-game road trip with a 3-1-0-1 record.

Desharnais, 24, is leading the AHL in scoring after finishing in a tie for fourth last season when he had 78 points in 60 games. He signed as a free agent with Montreal on Nov. 5, 2008, and made his NHL debut with the Canadiens last season, getting one assist in six games.

The Whale nominated Johnson, and other nominees included former Wolf Pack forward Patrick Rissmiller (Lake Erie). … Former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke had three assists in Binghamton’s 7-1 victory over Adirondack on Sunday, tying Newbury for second in the league in assists and moving to second in scoring with 40 points. … South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore scored twice in Houston’s 4-3 shootout victory over Texas on Sunday. … Former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes had a goal, an assist and a game-high six shots as the Chicago Wolves scored the final six goals in a 6-3 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Monday night. … Peoria’s 13-game point streak (11-0-2-0) ended last Wednesday in a 6-3 loss to Toronto, marking the Rivermen’s first regulation defeat since a 3-1 loss to San Antonio on Nov. 17… Former Whale forwards Brandon Wong and Chris McKelvie scored as the Greenville Road Warriors routed the South Carolina Stingrays 5-1 on Monday night before 5,159, the largest crowd of their inaugural season. Chris Chappell, who was in Whale training camp, had two goals, and Dov Grumet-Morris made 28 saves for a league-leading 13th win. The Road Warriors, who are affiliated with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, have the ECHL’s best record (21-6-2).

COYOTES’ LABARBERA, KINGS’ QUICK RECORD SHUTOUTS

Former Wolf Pack goalie Jason LaBarbera and Hamden native and former Avon Old Farms standout Jonathan Quick recorded shutouts on Sunday and Monday night, setting up a possible showdown Wednesday night in Phoenix, Ariz.

LaBarbera made 29 saves, including a penalty shot, in a 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars. LaBarbera, voted the top goalie in the Wolf Pack’s 13-plus years by the fans and the team’s all-time wins leader, got his fifth career shutout, with his biggest test coming on Loui Eriksson’s penalty shot at 6:48 of the second period after the Stars’ forward was interfered with on a breakaway by Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski, playing in his 1,000th NHL game.

“It was probably the big play of the game,” LaBarbera told reporters after the game. “First, you try to think what their move is as he’s coming down the ice. When he came down to the top of the circle, I realized he was going to low-blocker, and I was able to stop it.”

LaBarbera was making a fifth consecutive start in place of Coyotes’ No. 1 goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (lower-body injury). LaBarbera, now 4-5-1 with 3.17 GAA and .931 save percentage, got all the support he needed when Kyle Turris converted Sean Doan’s rebound 3:58 after LaBarbera stopped Eriksson’s penalty shot.

LaBarbera had allowed 15 goals in the previous four games but was unbeatable Sunday.

“That 10-day (four-game) stretch was tough,” LaBarbera said. “Hopefully we can take this game and go from there. (Bryzgalov) is the No. 1 guy. I do my best to fill the role when I can. I’ll be back to my normal job. I felt pretty good about the way I’ve gone.”

LaBarbera was scheduled to be in his “normal job” as backup Tuesday night, when Bryzgalov was to return against the Anaheim Ducks.

Quick continued to lead the Los Angeles Kings’ turnaround Monday night, making 24 saves in a 4-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks, his second shutout in three starts, fourth of the season and 12th of his career as he improved to 18-7-1 with a 1.86 GAA, second in the NHL, and a .932 save percentage, third best. The Kings scored all their goals in the third period as they won for the fifth time in six starts to improve to 9-2-1 in December after going 1-7-0 in November. Much of that can be traced to Quick, who is 7-2-1 with a 1.91 GAA this month and is 4-0 in shootouts and has a league-leading 1.52 GAA at home among goalies with at least four starts.

“You can’t really say enough about the way the team played,” Quick told reporters after the Kings ended the Sharks’ four-game winning streak a day after routing Anaheim, 4-1. “San Jose is one of the top teams in the league and we really brought our ‘A’ game. We played well, and we didn’t give them much defensively and we scored some big goals.”

The Kings’ other key during their resurgence has been Anze Kopitar, whose three assists Monday on Marco Sturm’s first goal with Los Angeles since being acquired from the Boston Bruins and two goals by captain Dustin Brown gave the center 16 points in the last 11 games.

With Bryzgalov just back from injury, LaBarbera could be in net for the Coyotes against Quick on Wednesday night, making for an interesting “local” matchup for Hartford-area hockey fans.

GOOD, BAD SENTIMENTS AT YALE

The Yale men’s hockey program is earning nationwide notice for more than just being ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time.

Coach Keith Allain will coach the 2011 U.S. National Junior team and be assisted by Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, former NHL standout defenseman Phil Housley, the boys coach at Stillwater (Minn.) high school, and Joe Exter, USA Hockey’s national goaltending coach. And Tim Taylor, the former longtime Yale coach and former U.S. Olympic coach, is serving his second consecutive year as Team USA’s director of player personnel.

While that’s good news around the New Haven institution, there’s also sad news out of Yale. After the results of a recent biopsy indicated her cancer has returned, Yale women’s hockey player Mandi Schwartz has begun more chemotherapy in an effort to get back into remission.

Schwartz has started treatment under the supervision of doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash. She is scheduled to return home this week to continue the treatment at the Allan Blair Cancer Centre in Pasqua Hospital in Regina, Sastkatchewan.

It has been more than two years since Schwartz, a center on the women’s hockey team, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia while in the first semester of her junior year. She and her family have been living in Seattle, about 1,000 miles from their home in Wilcox, Sastkatchewan, for five months while she had treatments at the Hutchinson Center. The latest biopsy results came less than three months after Schwartz received a stem cell transplant designed to give her the new blood and immune system she needs to survive.

The birth of Schwartz’s new immune system after the transplant, known as “engraftment,” was confirmed in mid-October, and she was in remission. The results of the recent biopsy indicate she has fallen into her third relapse this year. This after she recently overcame graft-versus-hope disease, a potentially fatal in condition in which the transplanted cells attack the recipient’s body.

The latest biopsy was performed Dec. 13, and the results were a serious setback for Mandi and her family.

“The results caught us off guard because we had hoped to be done with this part of the battle,” said Carol Schwartz, Mandi’s mother. “Mandi remains committed to fighting this disease, and we’re going to continue doing everything in our power to help her. We are so grateful for all the support we have received throughout this ordeal. We know how many families have been affected by cancer, and we know that the efforts to raise awareness of this cause that have been made on Mandi’s behalf are making a difference for her and so many other patients in need. This gives us strength to go on.”

Mandi and her family continue to encourage all adults to sign up as bone marrow donors and for expectant mothers to sign up as umbilical cord blood donors. Yale has held two bone marrow donor testing drives in Mandi’s honor in the last two years, and the drives have identified at least four genetic matches for patients in need, including Lexy Adams of Lancaster, Pa., a sophomore on the Yale field hockey team.

The Yale team and Mandi’s teammates and the Quinnipiac University have helped raise funds for various cancer causes. In this holiday season, everyone who can possibly help should help. Remember, giving is always better than receiving, especially at this time of year. Hopefully it helps Mandi to reverse the recent downward trend quickly and enjoy a full, productive life.

CONDOLENCES TO TURGEONS

Condolences to retired NHL standout Pierre Turgeon and his family after his 18-year-old daughter Elizabeth was killed in an auto accident in New Mexico on Thursday. Elizabeth’s friend, Brittany Kraemer, was severely injured in the accident involving their pick-up truck and a semi-trailer and is in critical condition. Turgeon, the younger brother of former Hartford Whalers left wing and No. 1 pick Sylvain Turgeon, coached Elizabeth on the Colorado Selects as she made the 2008 U.S. under-18 team. Funeral services will be Friday in Englewood, Colorado.

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