FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale enjoyed a rare day off Monday from the most hectic segment of their schedule after two workmanlike bounce-back wins following a horrid showing in Toronto on Wednesday.

But most players might have been a bit on edge while sharing time with love ones on Valentine’s Day. The NHL trading deadline was only two weeks away (Feb. 28), and while the Whale were parlaying solid defensive work and goaltending from Dov Grumet-Morris with an effective power play into a 4-1 victory over Providence on Sunday, New York Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather was telling the New York Post’s Larry Brooks that he felt the organization had stockpiled enough assets to make a deal if needed.

“The last few weeks have made it a little more difficult to evaluate because first we had all those injuries and now with the guys coming back and we’ve lost our rhythm,” Sather told Brooks after the Rangers rallied to end a season-high, six-game losing streak (0-5-1) with a 5-3 victory over the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin-less Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I think we have enough depth in the organization where if a move would make sense we would probably do that now. But I’m not going to give up a valuable piece. I don’t think that makes any sense.”

The Rangers, who have had as many as eight Whale players on recall due to injuries in New York, are more than a few pieces away from winning a Stanley Cup, unless Henrik Lundqvist regains his world-class stature and stands on his head in goal for two months. Their No. 1 need is a power-play quarterback since there is no chance they will bring back veteran Wade Redden and his $6.5 million salary. But it’s obvious that Whale graduates such as Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and most recently Michael Del Zotto just aren’t getting the job done to the satisfaction of coach John Tortorella. So the Florida Panthers’ Bryan McCabe, returning from a broken jaw and Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tomas Kaberle will be investigated, along with a front-line center to try to help revive Marian Gaborik.

But Sather isn’t interested in parting with top draft picks or young front-liners such as Whale grads Staal, Girardi, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, and that’s a good sign after years of ill-advised deals and free-agent signings. Sather has had his eye on center Brad Richards for months, and the Dallas Stars standout becomes a free agent this summer.

Brooks also mentioned the New Jersey Devils’ Jason Arnott. Peter Forsberg, another name that was bandied about, is no longer even a remote possibility as the Swede ended his latest comeback try with the Colorado Avalanche and announced his retirement on Monday. If Sather doesn’t offer a draft pick, players such as young Whale forwards Tim Kennedy, Dale Weise and Evgeny Grachev or defensemen Tomas Kundratek or Pavel Valentenko might be on someone’s radar.

We’ll all know more in the next two weeks. Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

LEMIEUX RIGHT ON WITH ‘SIDESHOW’ COMMENT

Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux was right on when he said the shenanigans that went on in a 9-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday was a travesty and disgrace to the game.

The Islanders wanted to exact several ounces of revenge for Penguins goalie Brent Johnson’s perfectly thrown left hook that fractured the face of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro with 16 seconds left in a 3-0 Penguins victory a week earlier.

But the Islanders, led by former Wolf Pack wing Trevor Gillies, turned the game into the latest edition of “Slap Shot.” Gillies took a 30-foot run at Eric Tangradi, throwing an elbow at his head and connecting while slamming the Penguins wing into the glass. Tangradi momentarily remained on his skates and then went down in a hump for several minutes. Compounding Gillies’ assault was he stood in the runway and taunted Tangradi as he tried to regain his wits and his skates. Sitting out nine games and losing more than $24,000 in salary seemed kind.

Gillies’ out-of-control behavior occurred after Matt Martin mugged Max Talbot from behind with the Islanders ahead 6-0. It was eerily familiar to Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore during the 2004 season. Martin’s actions weren’t close to what Bertuzzi did, as Moore had to be helped off on a stretcher and has never returned. But that doesn’t excuse what Martin did and how he went about it.

It led to 346 penalty minutes, 20 misconduct penalties, 15 fighting majors and 10 ejections. One can only wonder what might have transpired if Penguins’ cheap-shot artist Matt Cooke wasn’t serving a four-game suspension. Cooke may have ended the career of former Wolf Pack standout and current Bruins center Marc Savard with a blindsided hit to the head last year that left Savard with a concussion and post-concussion symptoms. Somehow, Cooke wasn’t suspended, though the NHL did institute a rule that says such offenses now result in suspensions. A lot of good that did for Savard, who is home recovering from another high hit and trying to figure his future in the wake of Cooke’s original assault.

Cooke’s cheap-shot artistry likely has led to retaliatory hits on Crosby, who missed the All-Star Game and could be out for the season. Still, what Gillies and Martin pulled Saturday night rightfully had Lemieux up in arms. Solid checks in hockey are a must part of hockey, but hits to the head have no place in the game.

“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be,” Lemieux said in a statement. “But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.”

The NHL suspended Gillies for nine games and Mark for four and fined the Islanders $100,000, saying the team “must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players.”

Gillies could have been suspended for the remainder of the season for such pre-mediated behavior that wouldn’t have been tolerated even in “Slap Shot.” Its little wonder that Lemieux said the discipline wasn’t enough.

“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed,” said Lemieux, who bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999 and ended his playing career with the team during the 2005-06 season. “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.”

Forward/enforcer Eric Godard was the only member of the Penguins to be punished, receiving an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight between Johnson and the Islanders’ Michael Haley, called up earlier in the day from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

You can be sure the teams’ final meeting April 8 on Long Island will be closely monitored to assure that more embarrassment to the game doesn’t occur.

GOALIE OUT OF THE BULLPEN

With goalie Chad Johnson out with the flu, the Whale was in emergency mode for a backup to Dov Grumet-Morris in Hamilton after a 9-2 drubbing in Toronto.

Fortunately, Brett Leggat, the brother of All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams’ fiancée, was available, so he was signed to a one-day Amateur Try-Out contract and opened and closed the bench door as the Whale won 3-2 on Devin DiDiomete’s goal with 1:13 left. The 30-year old Leggat has played the last two seasons with the Branford Blast in the Ontario Hockey Association Senior League.

Leggat’s 15 minutes of fame ended when the Whale took off for a practice in suburban Syracuse, N.Y., on the way home for a pit-stop before traveling to Providence for a game Sunday. By then, they had re-signed Pier-Olivier Pelletier to a second professional tryout agreement to back up fellow PTO’er Grumet-Morris who was signed while Johnson was still healthy and Cam Talbot needed to miss his 11th straight game with a high ankle sprain sustained in a 6-3 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 16.

Pelletier played 54 minutes in his AHL debut with the Whale, a 7-3 loss to Hamilton on Jan. 21, when he stopped 18 of 22 shots, including a penalty shot. He had been 6-10-4 with a 3.41 goals-against average and .692 save percentage in 22 games with the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League.

Grumet-Morris’ 21 saves and second-period, power-play goals by Brodie Dupont, Kris Newbury and Williams led the Whale (26-22-2-5) to a 4-1 victory over the Bruins in a preview of the Whale Bowl portion of the historic 12-day “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” between the two teams Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The Hartford Whalers legends will face the Boston Bruins legends in the opener of Whale Bowl at 4 p.m. Army plays American International College in the day’s first game at 1 p.m.

WHALE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN ON FRIDAY NIGHT

After four days off, the Connecticut Whale will make a second trip to Glen Falls, N.Y., and try to complete a four-game sweep of the Adirondack Phantoms on Friday night before a bus ride home for the Whale Bowl against the Bruins on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the second outdoor game in AHL history. The Whale will have their one outdoor practice at The Rent on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

The Phantoms (17-30-3-3) have lost 3-0, 4-3 and 6-4 to the Whale but have improved dramatically since a horrific 4-26-1-1 start before their first back-to-back wins Dec. 17-18. They’re led by All-Star defenseman Erik Gustafsson (five goals, 27 assists), veteran left wing Denis Hamel (team-leading 17 goals, 14 assists), defenseman Danny Syvret (6, 17), left wing Michael Ryan (15, 6) and right wing Ben Holmstrom (8, 13). Much of the Phantoms’ improvement can be traced to the arrival of goalie Michael Leighton (4-6-1-1, 2.37 goals-against average, .918 save percentage), who led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks in June but was back in the minors after he cleared waivers on Jan. 3 as the parent club went with Brian Boucher. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks didn’t re-sign goalie Antti Niemi because of salary-cap problems. Niemi signed with the San Jose Sharks.

The Whale is 4-2-0-0 against the Bruins (23-27-3-1), who have lost six in a row to fall into sixth place in the Atlantic Division, six points ahead of last place Bridgeport. But they have been bolstered by the return of forwards Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron from the parent Boston Bruins. The P-Bruins’ leading scorers are All-Star center Jamie Arniel (15 goals, 17 assists), Hamill (3, 25), center Joe Colborne (12, 14), right wing Kirk MacDonald (11, 15) and center Maxime Sauve (13, 6), who had two goals in each of the Bruins’ two wins over the Whale. Rugged left wing Lane McDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul McDermid, has four goals, seven assists and 117 penalty minutes. Matt Dalton (7-8-0, 2.92 goals-against average, .904 save percentage, two shutouts) has beaten the Whale twice. Veteran Nolan Schaefer is 9-15-1, 3.14, .897 with no shutouts.

The Whale is at Portland on Monday at 1 p.m. and then will play their first two games in Charlotte, N.C., against the Checkers, their former ECHL affiliate, on Feb. 24 and 26. They finally return to the XL Center on March 2 to face Springfield. Their ensuing home game is March 11 against Hershey, ending a brutal stretch of 10 road games in 12.

The Pirates (32-15-4-1) have won four in a row, including 3-2 at the XL Center on Feb. 6 that enabled them to tie the season series at 3 in the teams’ fifth one-goal game. The Pirates are led by right wing Mark Mancari, who leads the AHL in goals (29) and is third in points (55). He’s followed by defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani (9, 27), left wings Colin Stuart (10, 22) and Derek Whitmore (20, 11) and center Matt Ellis (9, 21). Center Paul Byron (14, 17) is on recall to the parent Buffalo Sabres. David Leggio (14-4-0, 2.64 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) has been a nemesis against the Whale, including his only shutout, 3-0 on Jan. 14. Jhonas Enroth is 18-14-1, 2.83, .910, no shutouts.

The Checkers (30-18-2-4), the new AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, are on a five-game points streak (4-0-1-0) to move into third place in the East Division. Their leading scorer, All-Star right wing Jerome Samson (26, 28), is on recall to the Hurricanes. The top remaining scorers are left wings Jacob Micflikier (21, 22), Oskar Osala (13, 28) and Chris Terry (20, 20) and center Zach Boychuk (15, 25), who was reassigned to the Checkers on Sunday. The Checkers have gone all season with only two goalies, Mike Murphy (15-9-2, 2.95, .907, no shutouts) and Justin Pogge (15-11-2, 3.04, .908, no shutouts).

WHALE BOWL TO BREAK AHL ATTENDANCE RECORD

More than 22,500 tickets have been sold for Whale Bowl, the highlight of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” at Rentschler Field, assuring the Whale will break the AHL attendance record. A record 21,508 watched the host Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators 2-1 at the New York State Fairgrounds on Feb. 20, 2010.

“It’s a great tribute to the people of the state of Connecticut, but we have to get 38,000 because we want to sell the place out,” said Howard Baldwin Jr., president and COO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which runs the Whale’s business operations and is handling the 12-day event. “Everyone else, the NHL, college and AHL, has sold out, and if Connecticut wants to be back on the (hockey) map again, which I know it does, everybody needs to come out and celebrate this.”

Before Whale Bowl is played, “Trinity-Wesleyan Day” is on Tuesday as the schools’ women’s teams play at 4 p.m., their alumni teams at 6:30 p.m. and the men’s teams at 8 p.m. High school and prep school games fill most of the schedule the remainder of the week until the Whale Bowl at which about a dozen celebrities will mix in with the Hartford Whalers legends team and Boston Bruins legends team as they face off at 4 p.m., followed by the Whale-Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. The day’s activities begin with the Army-American International College game at 1 p.m. All tickets for the event are general admission except for Feb. 19.

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other commitments are Enfield native Craig Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, 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, 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 and Gary Doak 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, Ed Hospodar, Yvon Corriveau 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 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 chairman 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.”

Famed former NHL referee Paul Stewart will officiate the game. Stewart, a Boston native, refereed more than 1,000 NHL games in a 13-year career. On March 15, 2003, he refereed his 1,000th game, becoming the only American-born official to accomplish the feat. He also officiated during the Canada Cup in 1987 and 1991 after an eight-year playing career with teams in the NAHL, AHL, NEHL, CHL, WHA and NHL.

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.

A complete schedule of games can be found at www.ctwhale.com. There will be a free public skate on Feb. 22 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to thank the sponsors and fans who supported the event.

THREE WHALE PLAYERS AMONG PROSPECTS TRADING CARDS

Two Whale players, Johnson and Grachev, and former defenseman McDonagh, now on recall to the Rangers, are in the 150-card Heroes and Prospects trading card set by In the Game.

The three have all played with the Rangers, though Johnson’s five-game stint was last season. They are pictured on those cards in the uniform of the Hartford Wolf Pack, who were rebranded as the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27.

In the Game has been making its Heroes and Prospects hockey set since losing its NHL license after the 2003-04 season and has become a must-have for many hockey fans. This year’s 150-card set includes seven Hockey Hero cards, three international prospects, 90 Canadian major junior hockey league players and 50 AHL players. Many of the players have already been drafted, while others are expected to be early picks in upcoming NHL drafts.

There is a lot of memorabilia, autograph, jersey, game used emblem and AHL 75th Anniversary cards, including the one of AHL Hall of Famer John Paddock, who coached the Wolf Pack to their only Calder Cup title in his first of three seasons, 1999-2000.

Other notable player cards are Logan Couture and Alex Stalock (San Jose-Worcester), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens-Hamilton Bulldogs), Tyler Ennis (Buffalo Sabres-Portland Pirates), John Carlson (Washington Capitals-Hershey Bears), John Moore (Columbus Blue Jackets-Springfield Falcons), Blake Geoffrion (Nashville Predators-Milwaukee Admirals), Jared Staal (Carolina Hurricanes-Charlotte Checkers) and Linus Omark (Edmonton Oilers-Oklahoma City Barons), as well as Calder Cup champion cards Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, Andrew Gordon and Mathieu Perreault; non-memorabilia insert cards such as Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Eric Wellwood; and 75th Anniversary cards Billy Smith, Brett Hull, Bruce Boudreau, Doug Harvey, Eddie Shore, Emile Francis, Gerry Cheevers, John Slaney, Carey Price, Jason Spezza, Larry Robinson, Les Cunningham, Martin Brodeur, Milt Schmidt, Patrick Roy, Pelle Lingbergh, Terry Sawchuck, Mitch Lamoreux, Willie Marshall and Zdeno Chara.

The card sets cost $94.99 and are available at www.theahl.com. All-Star Game jerseys and merchandise are also available.

WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON GOALIE NAMED PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins goalie Brad Thiessen has been named the Reebox/AHL Player of the Week after allowing only three goals in five starts while going 4-1-0-0 with a 0.60 goals-against average and .971 save percentage (99 of 102) while the Penguins had their top seven scorers on recall to the parent Pittsburgh Penguins.

After missing the previous six games because of injury, Thiessen returned to the lineup last Monday and made 21 saves in a 4-0 victory over Albany in Atlantic City, N.J. He stopped 18 of 19 shots in a 4-1 win over Manitoba on Tuesday and earned his fifth shutout with 22 stops in a 2-0 decision at Bridgeport on Friday. After being on the losing end of a 1-0 score against Adirondack on Saturday, Thiessen wrapped up the week with 21 saves in a 7-1 victory over Hershey on Sunday.

Thiessen, a second-year pro from Aldergrove, British Columbia, ranks among the AHL leaders in wins (second, 22), goals-against average (third, 1.87), save percentage (ninth, .925) and shutouts (tied for second, 5) while posting a 22-5-0 record in 29 appearances.

The Whale nominated Dupont, who had three goals and two assists in three games. Other nominees includes Gustafsson, former Hartford Wolf Pack forward Jeff Taffe (Rockford) and former Rangers draftee Nate Guenin (Syracuse).

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