For some of the building blocks in that future foundation, Wednesday night found them both in having big nights in places they didn’t expect to be when the season began.
20-year old Michael Del Zotto started the season expecting to elevate his game to the next level in New York as part of the foundation of the Rangers blueline corps after having had a monster rookie season. Unfortunately that elevator headed south as the dreaded “Sophomore Slump” hit Del Zotto hard and resulted in his being assigned to the Connecticut AHL Monday afternoon.
Tim Kennedy was signed as a free agent by the Rangers after the 24-year old was bought out of his contract by the Buffalo Sabres after playing a full season for his hometown team where he scored ten goals and added sixteen assists in 78 games.
Mats Zuccarello, 23, was also signed as a free agent after playing two years with Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik of the Swedish Elitserien. Last season Zuccarello’s 23 goals and 41 assists in 55 games earned him the Guldhjälmen, which in English means “The Golden Helmet,” which is awarded annually to the league’s MVP, as decided by a vote of its players.
Wednesday night 2,428 at the DCU Center saw Del Zotto play in his first AHL game and get the primary assist on Kennedy’s game winner as the Connecticut Whale won 2-0 win over the Worcester Sharks.
Meanwhile as the Whale were packing up the bus and preparing for a five-hour trip to Norfolk for a pair of weekend matches with the Admirals, Zuccarello, who started the season with the Whale learning to play the North American game, was at MSG scoring his first NHL goal, the game winner in the Ranger’s 2-1 overtime thriller over the Carolina Hurricanes.
In Worcester, it was a grinder’s special with neither team finding much room or able to get into any kind of rhythm through the first two periods. But that all changed over the final 5:38 of the third period when the Whale struck twice.
Nick Petrecki went to the penalty box for flipping the puck into the stands and earning a two-minute stay in the penalty box for Delay of Game giving the Whale their 5th power play of the game at 12:49.
After a shot on goal was handled by Chad Johnson (27 saves, 13-12-3), the Whale goaltender fed Brodie Dupont with an outlet pass. Dupont rushed the puck up ice and into the offensive zone and put a cross ice pass to Del Zotto.
“(Dupont) made an unbelievable pass on his backhand, and once it came to me I knew everyone was pressuring outside,” Del Zotto told the media afterwards. “I took a look out of the corner of my eye first thing and saw (Kennedy) going to the net. We both kind of locked eyes, and he knew what was going on, but it all started with a great play by Dupont posting up (inside the blueline), drawing everyone and throwing the cross-ice pass. It was a great play overall.”
Kennedy, who the Rangers see as a building block for their future, shared how he saw the play. “When Brodie stopped up, I kept going down the wall and (Del Zotto) saw me coming across, and we saw each other,” he said. “I called for the puck, and he put it right on my tape. The puck kind of got tipped (by a Sharks defenseman), but it still a great pass by him and it was an open-net goal. That goal was pretty easy
Gernander’s years of experience taught him how to spot when a goal is coming and felt this one happening. “You could see Kennedy going to the net, and that’s generally the case when you see a play developing,” said. “He’s looking to you to get it to you, and you’re looking for him to put his stick on the ice. It’s not surprising that they made eye contact.”
Evgeny Grachev, another one of the Rangers future building blocks who was one of the last cuts by the Rangers in both last and this season’s training camp, had another solid performance. It’s amazing what being put on the PK unit by Gernander six games ago has done for the young Russian’s game.
Jyri Niemi went off on a Cross Checking just 1:40 after Kennedy’s goal.
James Marcou lost the puck to Kennedy as they entered the Whale zone. Kennedy then quickly advanced the puck up to Grachev, who took the puck and using his 6’4”, 222pound frame carried the puck up ice reminiscent of the way Jaromir Jagr used to. He could not be shaken from the puck despite every attempt by Matt Irwin to slow the Khabarovsk, Russia native down.
Irwin was hanging all over Grachev and he signaled for a penalty.
“I saw one guy (Justin Braun) trying to hold the blueline and the second (Irwin) going for me,” Grachev spoke of with reporters after the game. “So I just protected the puck, and he (Stalock) probably thought I was going to go high, so I decided to try to smash it in low and it went in. I was lucky.”
Del Zotto summed up his first game saying, “Things are a little different here with a different style, so in the beginning I just wanted to keep myself in it, not get too aggressive and start going crazy,” he said. “But once I got in it a little bit I felt a lot better. We have a great group of guys, and my partner Stu and I hit it off right away. We had a lot of talk out there and just took it from there.
“The power play had a lot of chances, especially the first one. Then we got one at the end, and it ended up being the game-winner, so that’s all we wanted and all that matters. No matter how you do it as long as you get the job done. They did a good job pressuring most of the night, but we took what they gave us and got the win.”
In New York Zuccarello received high marks from Tortorella on his first NHL performance.
“You know what I liked, and I like looking at these things on tape, it wasn’t an individual celebration,” Tortorella told the NY press. “(Zuccarello) got excited (when he scored the game-winner) but then looked right to the bench. He’s a likeable kid. I don’t know where it all settles here as we get through, but good for him. It must be exciting for him.
Tortorella went on to add, “You hope he scores another one. He’s a confident kid. He understands. He asks the right questions. He minds his own business and goes about it, and is learning to be a pro in North America. I don’t think he lacks confidence. Creative people, they need that. But he should feel good about it. It’s obviously a huge two points for us, and it’s a big goal by him.”
Zuccarello took it all in stride and described the goal with his usual dry humor that he demonstrated so often in Hartford.
“Dubi picked the puck up behind the net there and I knew I was going to get a chance out of it because he’s so good at it. Both of their D-men were in front of the net and didn’t (go) to me, so I just tried to shoot it top corner.
“What can you say. It’s nothing other than unbelievable. A great feeling. So I can be happy tonight and be proud of that, but tomorrow it’s practice and focus on next game. There’s a lot of games here so you can’t be flying on a wave now.”
That goal likely marked the end of any AHL games from “The Norwegian Hobbit.” Whale GM, Jim Schoenfeld likes to use the term “He’s graduated.”
Tortorella has also been VERY impressed with the job that Ken Gernander and his staff are doing in Hartford.“All our young kids are maturing. I think when you bring up a young kid like Zuccarello and players of that who’ve come up here, I think the American League coaches have done a pretty good job in their conditioning first of all; I think they’re in really good shape and it’s been as seamless as it could be as far as call-ups coming in here. That American League job is an important job when you’re trying to develop a group and go with your youth and I think they’ve done a terrific job…”
* Just as an oddity, but really has no relevance; last season the Charlotte Checkers were stocked with a lot of CT Whale players as they were the ECHL affiliate of the then Wolf Pack. This season the Whale are 19-13-2-5 in 39 games and have 45 points. The Checkers are now an AHL team and have a 20-12-1-4 record in 37 games for 45 points. Again, means nothing, but just kind of interesting.
* Chad Kolarik is making the trip with the team to Worcester and to Norfolk, Wade Redden is not. Expect Del Zotto to play Redden’s minutes.
* Dec.11th Matt Gilroy played in his first game and had an assist for the then Hartford Wolf Pack after being reassigned by the NY Rangers. Gilroy went on to get four assists in five games. Interestingly, in his first game with the Connecticut Whale, Michael Del Zotto also got his an assist in his first game as well.
* The NY beat reporters are saying that Michael Rozsival has apparently suffered a ribcage injury in the Rangers 2-1 OT win at MSG Wednesday night. If Rozsival is unable to go, and it appears like that will be the case, there is a good chance that Ryan McDonagh will now get his first NHL action over the weekend when the Rangers play in Dallas and St. Louis.
* Apparently Dale Weise is not quite out of John Tortorella’s doghouse just yet. The Winnipeg, Manitoba native skated on just 4 shifts in the OT win against Carolina for a total of TOI of just 3:09. Against Florida he skated just 6 shifts for 4:04. In Tampa, he took the bad penalty and skated 12 shifts for 6:49 and in Philly in his first game he skated on 11 shifts for 6:43. If Tortorella is not going to play him, the question is, why is he still there?
* Best line of the night is Zuccarello answering questions about his height and he deposited this gem to the hockey public. “I’ve been like this for 23 years so I got a long time to practice being small. I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how it is to be big, so I have to use being small to my advantage.”
Dupont – Newbury – Tessier
Grachev – Kennedy – Jeremy Williams
Eizenman – White – Jason Williams
Soryal – Garlock – DiDiomete
Valentenko – Kundratek
Niemi – Nightingale
Del Zotto – Bickel
(Assistant Captains Bold and Italicized)
Wade Redden – Lower Body, Day-to-Day
Chad Kolarik – Undisclosed Injury, Day-to-Day
1. CT – C. Johnson
2. CT – T. Kennedy
3. WOR – A. Stalock
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Mark Lemelin (84)
Ghislain Hebert (49)
Todd Whittemore (70)
Brian MacDonald (72)
The Whale hit the road for a five hour ride to Norfolk for two games on Friday and Saturday. Friday’s start time is 7:30 and Saturday is 7:15. Then it’s back to Connecticut and the team is off until the following Friday when they travel to Portland for a return meeting with the Pirates. Bob Crawford and the pregame hit the air at a half an hour before the puck drops.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.
For Ticket information for all home games, call (860) 548-2000.
Connecticut Whale 2 at Worcester Sharks 0 – Status: Final
Wednesday, January 5, 2011 – DCU Center
Connecticut 0 0 2 – 2
Worcester 0 0 0 – 0
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Soryal Ct (fighting), 3:25; Lizon Wor (fighting), 3:25; Lawrence Wor (hooking), 19:55.
2nd Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Petrecki Wor (hooking), 14:15; Dupont Ct (holding), 14:38; Lawrence Wor (boarding), 19:39.
3rd Period-1, Connecticut, Kennedy 8 (Del Zotto, Dupont), 14:22 (PP). 2, Connecticut, Grachev 6 (Kennedy), 17:13 (SH). Penalties-Schaus Wor (delay of game), 1:34; Kennedy Ct (hooking), 4:15; Petrecki Wor (delay of game), 12:49; Niemi Ct (cross-checking), 16:02.
Shots on Goal-Connecticut 9-8-4-21. Worcester 9-8-10-27.
Power Play Opportunities-Connecticut 1 / 5; Worcester 0 / 3.
Goalies-Connecticut, Johnson 12-12-3 (27 shots-27 saves). Worcester, Stalock 15-13-2 (21 shots-19 saves).
Referees-Mark Lemelin (84), Ghislain Hebert (49).
Linesmen-Todd Whittemore (70), Brian MacDonald (72).