FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

CROMWELL, CTJeremy Williams’ first All-Star appearance this week provided several memorable moments, not the least of which was playing center for an extended period for the first since learning to skate on the rink on his family farm in Glenova, Saskatchewan, pop. 600.

“It was kind of odd,” said Williams, the Connecticut Whale right wing who played between Kyle Palmieri of the Syracuse Crunch and Eric Tangradi of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. “We were joking around before the game that we were a dump-and-chase kind of energy line, which was fun. In our defensive zone, we had good stick work and eventually became the first line and got to start the second period.

“But I think they got mistaken with me playing center because sometimes when (Kris Newbury) and I play, I play low. But we had so many right wingers we had to move somebody, but that was OK. It was a good experience, especially having it be an honor because there are so many guys on the Whale who could have gone. It’s something that you want to share with your teammates.”

Williams shared All-Star Classic weekend with his fiancée and her parents, who drove to Hershey, Pa., from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Williams promptly won a trophy in the accuracy shooting contest when he was the only competitor to hit all four targets in the corners of the net within eight shots.

“I was surprised because 4-for-8 usually wouldn’t win an accuracy shooting,” Williams said. “When I finished, I said, ‘No way I’m winning,’ but I guess the targets were smaller. They certainly got smaller every time you missed one, but it was nice to win.”

In a post-victory, on-ice television interview, Williams mentioned Newbury, a teammate now for a seventh consecutive season. Williams joked Newbury, a good passer who was reassigned to the Whale on Thursday from the parent New York Rangers, would take credit for all of Williams’ goals. Williams leads the Whale in goals (22) and points (40), though Newbury was the team’s leading scorer (35 points) when he was first called up by the Rangers.

“I gave him more of a compliment than I should have,” Williams said with a smile. “It was between a compliment and a jab, but (Newbury) thought it was a funny. He sent me a message that said, ‘Thanks for pumping my tires on TV.’ ”

Williams said the skills competition was an especially good experience because the glass was down between the blue lines, allowing fans easy access to the players.

“It was really good for the fans who were hanging over (the boards) so you could sign autographs,” he said. “And obviously Hershey has a great fan base, and it was packed every night. Obviously the Hershey players got more cheers, but they were welcoming all the other players, aside from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players. They got some boos, but it was all in fun.”

Former Whale wing Alexandre Giroux of the Oklahoma City Barons (Western Conference) and Bridgeport Sound Tigers defenseman Mark Wotton (Eastern Conference) were captains and among the “outsiders” to receive especially loud receptions after playing several seasons with the Bears.

Williams also won’t ever forget Western Conference forward Linus Klasen’s highlight reel moment in the breakaway relay as the Milwaukee Admirals’ top scorer (20 goals, 19 assists) skated left inside the blue line, completed a 360-degree spin with the puck and beat Manchester Monarchs goalie Martin Jones between the legs.

“I saw it made the Top 10 somewhere, but I’m not sure if it was on ESPN, too,” Williams said.

In the All-Star Game the next night, Williams demonstrated his accuracy again, firing a close-in shot just under the crossbar to help the Eastern Conference rally for an 11-10 victory, only the third time in history that both teams reached double digits in goals. He also had the primary assist on the first of two goals by the Penguins’ Robert Bortuzzo.

“We had a little incentive to win the game and got a little prize,” said Williams, who wouldn’t divulge his “bonus” believed to be $500. “The losers got nothing, went away empty handed.”

Williams and the rest of the Whaler players resumed practice Thursday at Champions Skating Center after a players-only optional skate Wednesday at Trinity College in Hartford. Coach Ken Gernander said he hadn’t left his team with any special message after Derek Whitmore’s power-play goal with 7.5 seconds left gave the Portland Pirates a 3-2 victory Saturday night, the Whale’s third consecutive loss on a four-game homestand that ends Friday night at the XL Center against the Sound Tigers.

How about any message heading into the final 31 games of the regular season?

“No, we were just getting ready for tomorrow’s game,” Gernander said. “We wanted to get them out there sweating, getting pucks moving, get everything back in order. It wasn’t a maintenance day as much as it was getting them as close to game-ready as we could.”

After being down as many 10 players because of injuries and recalls, the Whale are now missing only forward Mats Zuccarello and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, who are with the Rangers, and injured goalie Cameron Talbot (high ankle sprain), center Todd White (concussion) and wing Chris McKelvie (foot surgery), who was hurt while on recall from Greenville of the ECHL.

Newbury, the Whale’s second-leading scorer (five goals, 31 assists) despite missing six games while in New York, was reassigned to Connecticut Thursday as Vinny Prospal made his season debut against the New Jersey Devils. After missing the Rangers’ first 51 games following knee surgeries in the off-season and October, Prospal chipped in a goal as the Rangers lost 3-2 at MSG. Newbury had one assist in eight games with the Rangers and helped on face-offs and killing penalties. Wing Ruslan Fedotenko, already out with a shoulder injury, underwent an appendectomy Wednesday morning and will miss another 3-to-4 weeks instead of returning in two. Center Erik Christensen is due back next week, so Rangers captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury might be scratched. It’s hard to believe for someone earning $7.05 million, but Tortorella didn’t want to discuss the subject until it becomes a possibility. The Rangers could sustain even more injuries considering anything seems possible this season.

The Whale (22-20-2-5) concludes a four-game homestand against another struggling team, the Sound Tigers (19-23-3-3). The last-second loss to the Pirates was the Whale’s third in a row overall and fourth straight and sixth in seven starts at home after eight consecutive wins at the XL Center. It dropped the Whale into fourth place in the Atlantic Division, one point behind Worcester, which beat Providence 3-2, and they are only three points ahead of the Providence Bruins, who have two games in hand.

The Whale is 11-12-2-1 at home and 11-8-0-4 on the road but 4-1-0-1 in the GEICO Connecticut Cup against the Sound Tigers, capped by Chad Johnson’s 22-save shutout in a 4-0 victory at Bridgeport on Dec. 26. Behind Williams and Newbury in scoring are wing Chad Kolarik (17, 16) and center Tim Kennedy (9, 24).

The Sound Tigers arrive at the XL Center on a four-game losing streak that ended the worst calendar month in franchise history (1-9-2-1) and dropped them into the division cellar. Like the Whale, the Sound Tigers have had to battle through countless call-ups, including on Monday, when goalie Kevin Poulin and defensemen Ty Wishart and former Wolf Pack Dylan Reese were recalled by the parent New York Islanders. Poulin was the No. 3 star on Tuesday night after making 25 saves in a 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers as Kyle Okposo scored his first two goals in six games since returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him until mid-January and former Wolf Pack wing P.A. Parenteau had one goal and one assist.

Poulin and Reese returned to the Islanders after spending two games with the Sound Tigers during the NHL All-Star break. Reese had a goal in a 3-2 loss at Worcester last Friday, when Poulin made 45 saves. The Sound Tigers’ leading scorer is right wing Rhett Rakhshani, who has three of his 10 goals and two of his 24 assists against the Whale, is tied for first in rookie scoring and had a goal and three assists in the All-Star Game. Center Rob Hisey (7, 18) is second in scoring, and center David Ulstrom (6, 17) tied for third with Wishart (4, 19). Left wing Michael Haley (12, 10) leads the team in goals. Rookie Mikko Koskinen (5-14-0, 3.67 goals-against average, .882 save percentage) has played the most games in goal for the Sound Tigers.

After the Sound Tigers game, the Whale will play a home-and-home set with Portland, Saturday at 7 p.m. in Maine and at 3 p.m. at the XL Center on Super Bowl Sunday. They have split their first four games, with both Whale wins coming on overtime goals on Dec. 29 and 31 by Kennedy, a member of the AHL all-rookie team in 2008 while with the Pirates. The Pirates (29-14-4-1) have won five of six games to move within a point of Atlantic Division-leading Manchester.

The Pirates evened the season series with the Whale on Whitmore’s late goal, his third of the season against the Whale. David Leggio had 36 saves for his fourth consecutive victory and has allowed only two goals in two wins against the Whale. Wing Mark Mancari leads the league in goals (27) and is third in points (53). The Pirates have the AHL’s second-best home record (17-3-3-1, .792 percent). Marc-Andre Gragnani is tied for third in points among defensemen with 32 (eight goals, 24 goals) and has eight points in his last four games (one goal, seven assists). There will be 2,000 Whale headbands handed out at Sunday’s game sponsored by XFINITY of Comcast.

GOALIE FIGHT GETS ATTENTION OF WHALE PLAYERS

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Brent Johnson’s one-punch knockdown of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro with 16 seconds left in a 3-0 victory Wednesday night was topic of discussion in the Whale locker room Thursday.

“Nice left, eh!” backup goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier said with a smile.

Yes, one left is all it took for the 6-foot-3, 196-pound Johnson to deck the 6-1, 200-pound DiPietro, who precipitated the fracas when he roamed out of his net (a common occurrence) raising a high stick and nudging Penguins’ agitator Matt Cooke as he skated near the crease. After DiPietro and Cooke went to the ice, Cooke was accosted by two Islanders, setting off a fight that eventually included the goalies. Fortunately for DiPietro, Johnson didn’t let go the right hand he had cocked as DiPietro lay on his back on the ice. Both were ejected, and All-Star Marc-Andre Fleury came in to finish off the shutout.

The fight was the lead item on NHL.com for much of Thursday, along with some classic fights involving goalies that often became the main event. The all-time classic was on Nov. 11, 2006, between the Bruins’ Byron Defoe and Washington Capitals’ Olaf Kolzig after Dafoe was the best man in Kolzig’s wedding earlier in the month. Despite the scrap, Kolzig returned the honor years later. Kolzig was the honorary captain for the Eastern Conference in this season’s AHL All-Star Game.

(Editor’s note: Howlings thinks the best all-time goalie fight is this one…)

The DiPietro-Johnson fight elicited memories of five years ago for Pelletier when he fought Ilya Ejov of the St. John’s (Newfoundland) Fog Devils while playing with Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“It was on YouTube, but for some reason it’s not there anymore,” Pelletier said. “It was at the end of the game, and they were an expansion team that built a really, really tough team. We were winning 8-2, and they had a power play but the coach sent out all his tough guys. We were shorthanded, so I grabbed a player, and (Ejov) smashed his stick and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’

“The (home) crowd was going crazy, so we just squared off. I was actually going to beat him because as we were going toward each other I had loosened my arm under my jersey so I had a free right hand. I was firing, and then the ref came in. When I was in juniors, I always had (a playful) scrap at the end of practice, so this was kind of fun.”

Chad Johnson said he saw Brent Johnson’s (no relation) quick KO but has never gotten in a fight. The closest he came was in juniors and at the end of the second period of the Whale’s 7-1 rout of the Sound Tigers on Nov. 7 when Nathan Lawson motioned toward Johnson as if he wanted to go.

“Obviously goalies don’t fight very often, so it’s a unique situation that’s pretty exciting for the fans,” The Whale’s Johnson said. “You could see DiPietro kind of bump the guy (Cooke), and then skate towards the pile in corner. Then Brent Johnson, being the ole wily veteran that he is, took it into his own hands and went down there and chased him.

“Obviously DiPietro got caught a little off-guard, and Brent has long arms and definitely caught him on the jaw. When a guy goes down, it’s a dangerous situation. You could kind of see Johnson let up.”

HOWE, PROPP AND HANGSLEBEN VISITING

Former Hartford Whalers and 1986 NHL All-Stars Mark Howe and Brian Propp and ex-Whaler Alan Hangsleben will be at the XL Center on Friday night, when 3,000 fans will receive “Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl” pucks. The trio will hold a private, “meet and greet” reception with Whale season ticket holders and invited “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” ticket purchasers before the game (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and then drop the ceremonial first puck. Hangsleben also will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium during the second intermission with selected Whale players.

Friday is the 25th anniversary of the 1986 NHL All-Star Game at the Hartford Civic Center. Howe and Propp were with the Philadelphia Flyers and played on the Wales Conference team that beat the Campbell Conference 4-3 in overtime. Propp, who finished his 15-year NHL career with the Whalers, scored the first Wales goal. It was one of four All-Star appearances for Howe, the son of hockey legend Gordie Howe who was at the XL Center last Friday night scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, a job he has held since retiring from the NHL and Red Wings in 1995.

Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m., the Grand Rink at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods will host a skate with Hangsleben and former Whalers Doug Roberts and Garry Swain, former Bruins Bob Miller and Tom Songin and Whale mascot Pucky. Fees are $10 for adults with a $5 skate rental, and $6 for children with a $2 skate rental. Hot beverages and photo opportunities are included, as well as the chance to win tickets to the “Whale Bowl.”

RENTSCHLER SNOW REMOVAL STARTS FRIDAY

The massive undertaking of removing snow from the seating areas at Rentschler Field in East Hartford in advance of the Feb. 11-23 Hockey Fest begins Friday. Volunteers from non-profit groups “Teen Challenge Connecticut,” “Teen Challenge Albany (N.Y.)” and “Teen Challenge New York” have been organized to do the snow removal as a fund-raiser for their organizations and will receive a fee for doing it.

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team that will play the Whalers legends. Other Bruins commitments are Enfield native Craig Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 seasons in Beantown and two with the Rangers, Reggie Lemelin, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalatis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation) and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, who was a member of the Whalers for a few moments as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Derek Sanderson will coach the Bruins team.

Commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, John McKenzie, whose No. 19 is retired in the XL Center rafters, Blaine Stoughton, Pat Verbeek, John Anderson, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Fred O’Donnell, Terry Yake, Scott Daniels and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne. Emile “The Cat” Francis, a coach and general manager with the Rangers and Whalers, will be back behind the bench again, and Norm Barnes and former captain Russ Anderson will be assistant coaches.

Celebrities scheduled to play with one of the legends 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 and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonough, Kevin Zegers, Bobby Farrelly, David Henrie 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.

The official charity of the Hockey Fest is “Sam’s Race for a Place,” a fund-raising effort spearheaded by West Hartford resident Samantha Udolf that benefits the Ronald McDonald House. Since Udolf, a successful competitive skier, founded Sam’s Race for a Place in June of 2008, it has generated donations of more than $43,500.

The Ronald McDonald House is a non-profit charity operating since 1991 that helps hundreds of families and children enjoy the comforts of home while they await treatment at area medical facilities. Udolf became familiar with Ronald McDonald House and its good works while volunteering there, and she conceived Sam’s Race for a Place after learning it is independently-funded and depends on grass-roots campaigns for nearly all of its support.

For more information about Sam’s Race for a Place, visit www.samsraceforaplace.com. Donations also can be made through that web address.

Besides the games, the Hockey Fest will include “Whale Town” featuring exhibitors, games and the Whalers Mobile Hall of Fame.

FOUR RECEIVE WEEKLY, MONTHLY AHL HONORS

Milwaukee Admirals center Blake Geoffrion was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week after getting three goals and three assists in two wins for the West Division leaders. He had his biggest night as a pro last Friday night with two goals and three assists in an 8-1 victory over Peoria.

Geoffrion, who turned 23 on Thursday, is in his rookie season after four years at the University of Wisconsin, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player in the nation as a senior in 2009-10. That’s also when he and Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh led the Badgers to the NCAA title game, which they lost 5-0 to Boston College and Rangers top prospect Chris Kreider. Geoffrion, who has eight goals and 17 assists in his first 35 pro games, is the grandson of former AHL coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Geoffrion and the son of former AHL forward Dan Geoffrion.

The Whale did not have a player nominated for player of the week.

… Mancari, Oklahoma City’s Teemu Hartiakinen and Lake Erie’s John Grahame were named Reebok/AHL player, rookie and goaltender of the month for January.

In 15 games, Mancari had 13 goals, eight assists and was plus-10. He was held scoreless in the first and last games of the month but had a 13-game scoring streak in between, tying the longest run in the league this season. He had three consecutive three-point games Jan. 21-23 and became the first AHL player in nearly two years to notch back-to-back hat tricks on Jan. 22-23 against Providence and Worcester.

The Whale nominee for Player of the Month was Grachev, who had nine goals and three assists in 11 games, including his first hat trick as a pro Jan. 22 against Springfield. Other nominees included former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke (Binghamton) and left wing Nigel Dawes (Chicago) and Sound Tigers left wing Justin DiBenedetto.

Hartikainen had four goals and 10 assists and was plus-8 in 15 games after starting the month with 18 points and being minus-9 in 35 games. The Whale didn’t have a nominee, but other nominees included Ullstrom and Syracuse Crunch center Nick Bonino, a native of Unionville who attended Farmington High and Avon Old Farms.

Grahame, a 14-year veteran, was 10-3-0 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and one shutout in 13 games as the Monsters climbed from seventh place to third in the North Division. He was the first goalie since John Curry in March, 2008 to win 10 games in a month, starting with a 30-save shutout of division-leading Hamilton on New Year’s Day. Winner of the Calder Cup with Providence in 1999 and the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2003, Grahame has appeared in 203 AHL games and 196 NHL games.

Other nominees included Talbot, who was 3-1-0-0 before being injured Jan. 16, and the Sound Tigers’ Joel Martin.

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