As the Hartford Wolf Pack they struggled to find a way to win even six of their first 22 games and were last in the Atlantic Division. As the Connecticut Whale they’ve won 12 of their first 16 and moved into second place.
How did they manage to do that?
“Maybe the day we changed the name,” Evgeny Grachev said after the second year Russian forward played his best game as a pro in the Whale’s 6-2 shellacking of the visiting Providence Bruins. “We won a few games and you get used to it. You have a different mindset. You get out there and know you’re going to win, so you do your best. We have a great group of guys here who I think can go all the way. We have experienced defensemen and experienced forwards, a lot of guys with NHL experience and two great goaltenders, so I don’t think we should be surprising (anyone) that we’ve been hot. I think we have a good team.”
“They’re playing well right now. It seems like we’ve got quite a bit of depth, which is always a bonus, probably in all positions” Head Coach Ken Gernander said. “We have seven ‘D’ here and Lee Baldwin who was just reassigned, who could be an American League defenseman given the opportunity. The two goalies are playing well and we have several forwards now that can play power play, penalty kill; we’ve got some toughness. It’s a lot of elements right now and everyone’s playing pretty well.”
The game’s third star, agitator Devin DiDiomete feels the team is playing a total team game. “We’re playing an awesome game right now, and everyone is doing what they have to do to be successful. The scorers are scoring, the guys that set up the scorers are setting up the scorers, the fighters are fighting, our checkers are finishing checks and our defensive players are playing good defensive hockey. We’re playing a great team game, and our record in our last 15 games shows that. We’re one of the hottest teams, if not the hottest team, in the league.”
The difference maker in Saturday’s win was certainly the enigmatic First Star Grachev, who’s three point effort (1g, 2a) was his first as a professional.
“That was one of his better games,” Gernander said. “He was rewarded for it. We gotta hope he keeps trending in that direction and that becomes the standard now.”
The Khabarovsk, Russia native has struggled to find any sort of consistency in his game. It has taken a series of conversations with Gernander and his coaching staff to get the 6-foot-4, 222-pounder to get more involved in the physical aspect of the game.
“We’re always trying to advocate guys finishing checks. I mean it’s not (just) to physically intimidate,” Gernander said. “A lot of times it’s a strategic play to separate the puck carrier from the puck and also to maintain defensive position on him. That’s something we encourage all the time.
“I’m not asking people to be rock ’em, sock ’em, through the glass all the time, but everybody on our team has to finish hits. I don’t care who they are. Like I said, it’s a strategic play, not just for physical intimidation. And more guys than not, it actually enhances their play. You talk to some of our guys, when they are finishing hits and stuff, they’re a lot more physically emotionally engaged it helps to enhance their game.”
Grachev came to Hartford with a great deal of hype and fanfare after being the last cut by the NY Rangers out of training camp last season and being one of the last cuts this year, but his game is just not there yet.
“There was a tough stretch when I wasn’t scoring for a while,” the soon to be 21 year-old said understating the situation considerably. Grachev had just one goal in the last 38 games of last season and just one goal and two assists in the first 23 of this season, including a scoreless six-game call-up to the Rangers from October 28 – November 7th.
“It was very frustrating,” Grachev said. “But then I scored a few goals that helped me to get out of the dump.”
On his exit interview when he was sent back to Hartford, the message from Rangers coach John Tortorella was the same that Grachev had heard from the coaches here in Hartford. “(Tortorella) told me to keep working and to keep working on puck protection and stuff and be physical again.”
But the time in New York did teach the forward, who’s played all three positions up front this season, a valuable lesson. “(Being with the Rangers) gave me another understanding how badly I want to play up there and maybe made me work harder to get myself there.”
That message may finally have sunken in.
Including Saturday’s first star performance, Grachev has potted four goals and helped out on three others in his last 17 games. Certainly a dramatic improvement.
One thing that may be helping Grachev considerably was Gernander’s adding him on the penalty killing unit.
“I’ve been getting more ice time playing PK, and that helped me stay in the game more,” said Grachev, whose fifth goal of the season was his first game-winner. “Before when we got penalties, you have to sit for awhile, it kind of takes you out of the game, but now I feel like I’m staying in the game more, once I get going I’m staying on the ice and it has helped me a lot. I feel more comfortable the more I play the more ice time I have.”
Connecticut came out of the locker room ready to roll right from the outset and let it be known they weren’t going to be pushed around in their own building that was stocked with 5,416 screaming fans.
Just 2:59 into the contest, DiDiomete and Antoine Roussel got into a bit of the rough stuff in a scrum behind the Whale net and were both sent off to cool down in the penalty box.
16 seconds into the 4-on-4, Brodie Dupont took a pass from Kris Newbury along the right wing boards and worked a give-and-go to perfection. Dupont got around right wing Jordan Caron and fired a missile from the right circle over the blocker of starting netminder Matt Dalton (33 saves, 0-2-0) for his fifth of the season.
Dalton made a great save later in the period on Dupont in front, who this time got open off an impressive Chad Kolarik pass to set him up for the shot at 14:08.
But exactly two minutes later the Whale would strike again.
Stu Bickel, playing in his second straight after sitting five of the previous six games, made a terrific play on the left point to keep the puck in the zone. That was followed by an even more impressive play by DiDiomete who popped the puck free and into the crease past two defenders and over to Tim Kennedy who snapped it over the blocker for the goal.
Kennedy now has a three game goal scoring, & five game points streak (3g, 3a).
Todd White made a great pass to spring Oren Eizenman, who’s played every other game over the past eight, for a shot from the left circle just 42 seconds later, but the center, playing left wing had his shot clang hard off the iron for what would have been a three goal Whale lead.
The rebound of Eizenman’s shot was brought up ice by the Bruins and after a scrum along the right wing half-boards in the Whale zone, defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk slid the puck to Lane MacDermid who fired a shot from the right point that found it’s way through traffic and past Cam Talbot (24 saves, 6-2-2) at 17:19.
Just four seconds after the ensuing face-off MacDermid foolishly took a cross-checking call that put the Bruins, who entered the game 26th in the AHL on the PK, down a player and the Whale made them pay.
With just 1:14 left in the first frame the Whale rebuilt their two-goal lead with what would be Grachev’s first game-winner of the season. Great work by Kolarik behind the net allowed the Whale to maintain possession when he retrieved the puck and found Wade Redden. The veteran defenseman put the puck on net and the rebound found Grachev, who’d established room in front of Dalton and put the puck right on his stick and the Russian fired it into the back of the cage.
One very noticeable difference in the way the Whale have been playing is that when they smell blood, they can be relentless.
At 3:24 of the second frame, Justin Soryal, who again had a very strong game, crashed the net and drew a hooking call on Bodnarchuk sending the Whale back on the PP for the third time.
41 seconds later, the puck was in the net for a fourth time.
Redden fired a shot that hit Kirk MacDonald and the puck was loose in the slot. Grachev quickly advanced it over to Jeremy Williams. The league’s leading goal scorer then uncorked a laser of a shot that went right past Dalton for his 19th of the season.
Redden tweaked his side after the goal and went to the locker room and didn’t return. He appears to be doubtful for Sunday’s afternoon tilt with Manchester.
The Whale outshot the visitors 14-5 in the second frame and never looked back.
To their credit, the P-Bruins did not quit and fought to get back in the game but were just met by superior forces on the opposing side.
But Talbot, who has posted three of his six wins against the Bruins this season while posting an impressive 1.00 GAA and a staggering .968% (92-95) once again rose to the occasion.
Early in the third both Joe Colborne and Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman had chances from dead red only to skate away in frustration after being denied by the Caledonia, Ontario native.
Talbot was asked after the game if he owns the P-Bruins. “I don’t think I just own Providence, I think we all kind of own Providence,” He said. “Every game, we’ve jumped out to a pretty good lead, and it’s a lot easier for a goalie to be little more relaxed when you’ve got guys putting the puck in the net early for you. And it’s a lot easier when you’ve got (defensemen) Pavel Valentento, Jared Nightingale and Ryan McDonagh going down blocking shots. I think they might have stopped more shots than I did. I think (Valentenko) blocked 10 in the third period, and they cleared away some bad rebounds that I left. It was a great team effort by everyone.”
Gernander certainly agreed on the play of his defensemen. “The defense was very good transitioning the puck,” He said. “We didn’t spend a lot of time in our end. It was just defenseman-to-defenseman or a quick-up (pass), and the less time you spend in your end the better.”
So with the fans chanting for a fifth goal to get a free Taco, the Whale did not disappoint.
After a crunching hit by Soryal and then an equally hard hit behind the net by DiDiomete to separate Ryan Donald from the puck, and fortunately for the Bruin defenseman not his head, the puck went off the Whale right winger and found Ryan Garlock. The Whale fourth line center saw Soryal all alone off the right side and fed him the puck. Soryal hit the puck as hard as he hits opponents with his fists and slammed it into the back of the net. Soryal now has point sin two of his last three games (1g, 1a). It was 5-1.
Kolarik was stopped on a breakaway by Dalton at 9:12 and then Grachev was denied his second of the game 34 seconds later. Two strong saves by the Bruins netminder.
Kolarik got called for a roughing call at 13:27 and was none-too-happy about it as he skated to the box.
Jordan Caron earned his first of the season when he had three solid scoring chances on the power play and finally got one past Talbot after avoiding Nightingale and shooting over the fallen Whale netminder at 14:22.
After being sprung from solitary though, Kolarik ran his mouth a bit too much with the referee and was sent right back into the box for Unsportsmanlike conduct.
When Kolarik was released from the sin bin, the puck found him and he had a breakaway. It was obvious that Kolarik was skating with a lot of emotion as he rushed up the ice and and his shot was snuffed out by a well positioned Dalton.
Five seconds later a very scary moment as Juraj Simek’s stick rode up on Dupont along the right wing half-boards and hit the Whale forward in the eye.
“I think he went to lift my stick and missed,” Dupont said after the game. Dupont needed three stitches to close a cut that stretched from midway across his right eyelid and down through the crease of his eye socket. “It hit (next to) my eye pretty hard, so it was pretty scary.”
The Whale will take a wait-and-see on Dupont for Sunday’s game. Given how it looked after the game, it’s highly unlikely he’ll play.
Simek was assessed a double minor for bloodying Dupont and the Whale made the Bruins pay for it just eight seconds later as White redirected a Williams shot in from past the glove of Dalton for his second goal and third point (2g, 1a) in the two games since being reassigned to Connecticut after clearing waivers earlier in the week.
“The better the team plays, the better individuals look,” A very pleased Gernander said summing up his team’s effort. “I thought it was a pretty complete game, and consequently some individuals looked really good and seemed to stand out. But I thought it was a pretty strong game by everybody.”
Bruce Berlet once again crafts a masterpiece at CTWhale.com. The Providence Journal apparently couldn’t be bothered to send someone to cover a team that’s their next door neighbor, instead the closest to getting a real report from their locker room comes at their own website.
SOUNDS OF THE GAME:
* Gerry “The Hockey Encyclopedia” Cantelon shared this bit of hockey irony. RC Ingolstadt of the German Elite League has signed Bryce Lampman, a former Wolf Pack defenseman. Lampman, who was with the Houston Aeros replaced another former Wolf Pack defenseman, Marvin Degon, who had his contract bought out.
Dupont – Newbury – Tessier
Kolarik – Kennedy – Grachev
Eizenman – White – Jeremy Williams
Soryal – Garlock – DiDiomete
Redden – Nightingale
Valentenko – Kundratek
McDonagh – Bickel
(Assistant Captains Bold and Italicized)
Jyri Niemi – Healthy Scratch
Jason Williams – Healthy Scratch
1. CT – E. Grachev
2. CT – W. Redden
3. CT – D. DiDiomete
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Ian Croft (87)
Jean Hebert (43)
Luke Galvin (2)
Paul Simeon (66)
The Whale will be visited by the first place Manchester Monarchs Sunday afternoon. These two teams have developed a pretty healthy dislike for one another and it should make for a pretty spirited game. The Whale are 1-3-0-1. All three of those losses came as the Wolf Pack. Bob Crawford and the pregame hit the air at 2:30pm for the 3:00 puck drop.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.
For Ticket information call (860) 548-2000.
Providence Bruins 2 at Connecticut Whale 6 – Status: Final
Saturday, January 1, 2011 – XL Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Providence 1 0 1 – 2
Connecticut 3 1 2 – 6
1st Period-1, Connecticut, Dupont 5 (Newbury), 3:15. 2, Connecticut, Kennedy 7 (DiDiomete, Bickel), 16:08. 3, Providence, MacDermid 2 (Bodnarchuk), 17:19. 4, Connecticut, Grachev 5 (Redden, Kolarik), 18:46 (PP). Penalties-Roussel Pro (roughing), 2:59; DiDiomete Ct (roughing), 2:59; Bickel Ct (slashing), 5:44; Soryal Ct (roughing), 11:38; LaVallee-Smotherman Pro (hooking), 13:17; MacDermid Pro (cross-checking), 17:23.
2nd Period-5, Connecticut, Williams 19 (Grachev, Redden), 4:05 (PP). Penalties-Bodnarchuk Pro (hooking), 3:24; Simek Pro (slashing), 7:14; Kennedy Ct (roughing), 7:14; Sauve Pro (tripping), 8:45; Bickel Ct (interference), 12:26.
3rd Period-6, Connecticut, Soryal 3 (Garlock, DiDiomete), 6:15. 7, Providence, Caron 1 (Hamill, Penner), 14:22 (PP). 8, Connecticut, White 2 (Williams, Grachev), 16:48 (PP). Penalties-Kennedy Ct (high-sticking), 0:53; Penner Pro (hooking), 2:46; Hamill Pro (cross-checking), 7:47; Bickel Ct (cross-checking), 7:47; Kolarik Ct (roughing), 13:27; Kolarik Ct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 14:22; Simek Pro (double minor – high-sticking), 16:40; DiDiomete Ct (delay of game), 19:15.
Shots on Goal-Providence 9-5-12-26. Connecticut 10-14-15-39.
Power Play Opportunities-Providence 1 / 7; Connecticut 3 / 7.
Goalies-Providence, Dalton 0-2-0 (39 shots-33 saves). Connecticut, Talbot 6-2-2 (26 shots-24 saves).
Referees-Ian Croft (87), Jean Hebert (43).
Linesmen-Luke Galvin (2), Paul Simeon (66).
(Photo courtesy CTWhale.com)