FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

After debuting their new blue road jerseys in the end of a four-game trip Friday night in Portland, Maine, the Connecticut Whale return to the XL Center Saturday at 7 p.m. to face the Providence Bruins in the start of a three-game homestand.

The game will include former Boston Bruins standouts Rick Middleton and Reggie Lemelin signing autographs in the atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then dropping the ceremonial first puck. Middleton, who played 12 seasons with the Bruins after two with the New York Rangers, and Lemelin also will play on the Bruins legends team that will face the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. before the Whale plays the P-Bruins at 7 p.m. The doubleheader is part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 11-23.

Other early commitments for the Bruins team (with more to come) are Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch of Cheshire and Brad Park, who both also played for the Rangers, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalatis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation) and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, who briefly was a member of the Whalers as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Early commitments for the Whalers team are Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne.

Celebrities scheduled to play with one of the teams include Michael Keaton, Alan Thicke and David E. Kelley, son of New England and Hartford Whalers coach and general manager Jack Kelley and the writer of the 1999 hit film “Mystery, Alaska,” which was produced by Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin and his wife, Karen. “Mystery, Alaska” cast members slated to appear are Michael Buie, Scott Richard Grimes, Jason Gray-Stanford, Kevin Durand, Fred J. Dukes and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonogh, Kevin Zegers and the Hanson brothers – Steve, Jeff and Dave – who played for the Minnesota Fighting Saints and were the comedic linchpins of the classic movie “Slap Shot.”

Tickets ($20 to $85) for the doubleheader can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366. They also can be purchased online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com.

There also will be “a town hall meeting” Saturday starting at 6 p.m. in the atrium during which fans are encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions to Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. The Whale has won the previous three meetings with the last-place Bruins (15-18-3-1), including 6-2 at the XL Center on Jan. 1. But the Bruins are 10-6-2-0 on the road.

Centers Jamie Arniel (14, 11), Zach Hamill (2, 21) and Joe Colborne (9, 11) lead a Bruins attack that has scored the third-fewest goals in the league (91) entering a game against the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday night. Right wing Jordan Caron, the Bruins’ first-round pick in 2009 who had three goals and four assists in 20 games with the NHL Bruins earlier this season, scored his first AHL goal on New Year’s Day. Left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, three assists and 72 penalty minutes, second on the team to enforcer Nathan McIver’s 111, in 35 games. Michael Hutchinson (7-7-0, 3.11, .898) is on recall to the NHL Bruins, so veteran Nolan Schaefer (6-11-1, 3.32, .894) is carrying the goaltending load.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (30-8-0-0) completes this week’s action with a Sunday visit at 3 p.m. in the first of two meetings. The high-powered Penguins, who have an 11-point lead over the Charlotte Checkers in the East Division, are led by center Dustin Jeffrey (15, 24), left wing Brett Sterling (12, 15), right wing Nick Johnson (13, 13), forward Eric Tangradi (16, 7), left wing Tim Wallace (11, 12) and center Joe Vitale (8, 14). Corey Potter, the third all-time leading scorer among defenseman in Wolf Pack history (21 goals, 81 assists in 246 games), leads Penguins blueliners in points with 17 assists in 35 games. Brad Thiessen (18-3-0, 1.97, .923, three shutouts) and John Curry (13-5-0, 2.35, .910, one shutout) have both excelled in goal.

It’s a Guida’s Family Value Day in which family value packages start as low as $48 and includes three tickets, three hot dogs or pizza slices, three sodas and a Whale souvenir. Guida’s Family Value packs are available at the XL Center box office or online at www.CtWhale.com. Fans are encouraged to bring their skates for a free postgame skate with some Whale players.

The three-game homestand concludes against another top team, the North Division-leading Hamilton Bulldogs (22-13-1-4) on Friday night at 7, when former Wolf Pack standouts and close friends Terry Virtue and Todd Hall of Hamden will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then drop the first puck. Virtue is an assistant coach with Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League, whose owners include Paul MacDermid. Hall is an assistant coach with the No. 1-ranked Hamden High hockey team, which won the state Division I title the last two years.

Virtue will be making a pit stop on his way from his home in Tara, Ont., to Worcester, Mass., where he’ll be one of the first six inductees into the Worcester Hockey Hall of Fame next Saturday night at the DCU Center in Worcester. It’s “Salute to the IceCats Night,” the former name of the Worcester Sharks, and Virtue will be inducted with former Whalers wing Scott Young, Kelly O’Leary, Eddie Bates, Larz Anderson and Marvin Degon Sr., father of former Wolf Pack defenseman Martin Degon.

The Bulldogs’ top two scorers, center David Desharnais (10, 35) and former New Canaan High School and Taft School-Watertown star wing Max Pacioretty (17, 15), are on recall to the Montreal Canadiens. The remaining top offensive threats are right wings Aaron Palushaj (5, 17) and J.T. Wyman (10, 9) and defenseman Brendon Nash (2, 17). Center Ryan Russell, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005, has five goals and six assists in 39 games. Veteran Curtis Sanford (13-7-1) is fifth in the league in GAA (1.82) and save percentage (.936).

It’s a special Family Value Night at which New Britain Rock Cats mascot Rocky will be on hand with Whale mascots Pucky and Sonar. There will be a giveaway, a table setup and autograph session, and the New Britain High School marching band will perform the national anthem and during the first intermission. Tickets in the lower level are $16 and include a soda and pizza slice or hot dog. Visit www.ctwhale.com.

WHALE TIP-A-PLAYER DINNER ON JAN. 23

The Whale’s eighth Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is Jan. 23 at the XL Center from 4-7 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children, and proceeds benefit Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. For more information, contact Lori Lenihart at 860-728-3366. … Howard Baldwin Jr. has a new Twitter account accessible to Whale fans at howardbaldwinjr. … Former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux has been named winner of December’s reGen™ Muscle Recovery Beverage/AHL Performance of the Month award for recording his 600th career AHL point in Oklahoma City’s win over the San Antonio Rampagne. In the Barons’ Dec. 18 game, Giroux earned a second-period assist to become the 44th player in AHL history to reach 600 career points. The Quebec City native and two-time Calder Cup champion has 327 goals and 291 assists for 618 points in 677 regular-season AHL games over 10 seasons. Giroux, 29, won the AHL’s goal-scoring title and the Calder Cup each of the past two seasons with Hershey, including a career-best 103-point effort (50-53-103) for the Bears in 2009-10. Named to a fourth All-Star Game appearance on Tuesday, Giroux leads all active players with his 327 career goals. Giroux, who will captain the Western Conference All-Stars in Hershey on Jan. 30-31, ranks sixth on the AHL’s all-time postseason scoring list with 100 points (50-50-100) in 112 career Calder Cup playoff games.

HELMER SETS RECORD; SOMMER REACHES MILESTONE

Oklahoma City’s Bryan Helmer had two goals and an assist to become the AHL’s all-time leading defenseman scorer as the Barons rolled to a 7-2 road victory over Peoria on Thursday night. Helmer, who has two goals and five assists in only four games since joining the Barons on Jan. 7, increased his career totals to 122 goals and 398 assists for 520 points in 986 regular-season AHL games during an 18-year career. Helmer broke the record of 519 points set nearly four years by John Slaney. Helmer was already the AHL’s all-time leader among defensemen in assists and games played (986), and he has appeared in more Calder Cup games (138) than any player at any position. The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is a three-time Calder Cup champion, winning with Albany in 1995 and captaining Hershey to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Giroux had two goals and two assists on Thursday. … Worcester coach Roy Sommer coached his 1,000th regular-season AHL game Friday night when the Sharks visited the Springfield Falcons. Sommer, who has spent his entire 13-year career coaching the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliates in Kentucky (1998-2001), Cleveland (2001-06) and Worcester (2006-present ), became just the fourth coach to reach that milestone, joining AHL Hall of Famers Frank Mathers (1,256), Fred “Bun” Cook (1,171) and John Paddock (1,107), who led the Wolf Pack to their only Calder Cup title in 2000. … Chris McKelvie and Brandon Wong, who started the season with the Whale, each had a goal as the Greenville Road Warriors ended a three-game losing streak with a 4-1 ECHL victory over the Florida Everblades on Thursday night. Wong, a standout at Quinnipiac University the last four seasons, scored his ninth goal to extend his point streak to four games and help the Road Warriors improve to the league’s second-best record at 24-10-2.

RANGERS PROVE COACH WRONG; WOLSKI INSTANT FAV @ MSG

Much like wing Mats Zuccarello did when he first arrived from the Whale, wing Wojtek Wolski has become an instant folk hero at Madison Square Garden.

Playing in his second game since being acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes for defenseman Michal Rozsival on Monday, Wolski scored a power-play goal off Marian Gaborik’s rebound to back the 31-save performance of All-Star Henrik Lundqvist as the Rangers ended the Vancouver Canucks’ 17-game point streak with a 1-0 victory Thursday night in a playoff atmosphere at MSG.

So much for coach John Tortorealla’s pregame assertion to the media and his team that the Rangers were “gonna need some goals” because there was “no way” they Rangers could beat the Canucks 1-0.

“I was hoping they’d tie it up there at the end just so we could win it in overtime and I wouldn’t have to hear from you guys,” Tortorella joked with the media after the game. “No, I was happy to eat those words, I’ll tell you.”

Yes, Lundqvist would have nothing of that sentiment, joking or not, as the Rangers notched their first 1-0 win since Nov. 9, 2009.

“It’s pretty funny (Tortorella) said that before the game,” said Lundqvist, who had 11 saves in the third period as the Canucks, especially countrymen Henrik and Daniel Sedin, pressed the attack but held on to tie the Bruins’ Tim Thomas for most shutouts this season. “But I didn’t expect a 1-0 game against the team either. That’s a really great team, a great skating team. Our guys worked so hard, we shut down their top line, we just did a really good job playing our game. It’s a great win for us.”

Wolski nearly scored several times in a 2-1 loss to Montreal Canadiens in his Rangers debut Tuesday night, but he converted at 7:18 of the second period against Cory Schneider 48 hours later and Lundqvist did the rest in recording his sixth shutout of the season and 30th of his career before a raucous MSG crowd. The Rangers won fourth in five starts and improved to 9-3-2 in their last 14 games after handing the Canucks their first loss in regulation since a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 5, a stretch in which they were 14-0-3.

“It was an incredible night,” Wolski told reporters. “The team played awesome, and I got my first goal and it was amazing to get a shutout. It was just so exciting. The fans were really into it, and our team was really into it. I’m just excited to get the win.”

The five-man unit of former Wolf Pack defensemen Dan Girardi and All-Star Marc Staal and the line of Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust were effective in shutting down the Canucks’ No. 1 line lead by the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, both of whom were named to All-Stars.

The defensive work was most notable late in the first period when the Rangers stopped the NHL’s top power play for 47 seconds on a 5-on-3 with Staal and captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury in the penalty box thanks to Lundqvist, Boyle, Girardi and former Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky.

“That was a huge momentum swing right there for us,” Girardi said. “They’ve got a really good power play, and to shut them down on the 5-on-3 was a big spot for us in the game.”

Tortorella lauded the work of rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh, playing his fourth games since being called up from the Whale and whose development helped enable the Rangers to trade the veteran Rozsival to get the 24-year-old Wolski.

“I watched (McDonagh) very closely as far as his mindset,” Tortorella said, “and he played very well as far as his arrogance standing up and playing with the right kind of strut.”

Enforcer Derek Boogaard might not return to the Rangers’ lineup this season because of a concussion sustained in a fight with Ottawa’s Matt Carkner on Dec. 9. “We’re trying to stimulate him, trying to get him moving around,” Tortorella said. “But he still doesn’t feel well. … We’ll see what happens. But he’s not close.”

That leaves an opening for a potential Whale player to get a call-up, but Wolski’s arrival has kept center Kris Newbury out of the lineup for two games since he was summoned for the first time on Monday. He might be back with the Whale before Saturday night, when the Rangers visit the Canadiens, or Sunday night, when more thunderous roars are expected as the Blueshirts host the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia Flyers.

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