FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

CROMWELL, CT – The Connecticut Whale bus wouldn’t get into gear after a practice in suburban Syracuse during the team’s only venture into Canada this season to Toronto and Hamilton last week.

But Johnny Davis, a bus driver for 25 years and the team’s chauffeur since the birth of the Hartford Wolf Pack in 1997, solved the problem in 90 minutes after calling his boss at Dattco.

“I got instructions on the phone,” Davis recalled Thursday as he waited for the Whale to finish practice so he could usher them off to Glens Falls, N.Y., for a game Friday night against the resurgent Adirondack Phantoms. “I fixed the gear box, the pressure gauge controller for the cruise control, and off we went.”

Ken Gernander, who also has been with the franchise since Day 1 as a player/captain, assistant coach and head coach, said it was the first time the bus broke down since his first season as the main man behind the bench (2007-08).

“We were going to Hamilton or Toronto that time, too, and the bus broke down just outside of Springfield,” Gernander said. “But Johnny fixed it this time. They walked him through it, just like (the action-adventure series) MacGyver.”

Fortunately for the Whale, they don’t have any more trips north of the border this season. And hopefully this bus snafu is the Whale’s last major obstacle to a playoff berth, though it’s doubtful there will be any clear sailing with so many teams bunched for the final spots.

Atlantic Division pacesetters Manchester (72 points) and Portland (71 with three games in hand) appear to be locks for the postseason, while the Whale (59), Worcester (58) and Springfield (54) are vying for the third and possibly only other automatic berth. The Whale is one point ahead of the Worcester, which has three games in hand, and five in front of the Falcons, who also have played 55 games.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (80) and Hershey (72) appear shoo-ins in the East Division, with Charlotte (66), Norfolk (65) and Binghamton (62) in line for the other playoff berths. If the postseason began Friday, fifth-place Binghamton in the East Division would hold the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot ahead of fourth-place Worcester in the Atlantic Division.

The Whale (26-22-2-5) was helped earlier this week when Worcester, Charlotte and Norfolk lost. Prior to that, Worcester, Charlotte, Norfolk and Binghamton were on a combined 16-0-2-1 run. Meanwhile, Manchester and Portland have won a combined six consecutive games and are 15-3-0-3 in their last 21 starts, capped by the Pirates’ 7-0 rout of Providence on Wednesday night, the Bruins’ seventh consecutive loss, worst of the season and only three days after the previous worst, 8-2 to Springfield.

The Whale has rebounded from a 9-2 loss in Toronto on Feb. 9 that tied the franchise records for most goals allowed and worst margin of defeat with road victories over Hamilton (3-2) and Providence (4-1). That gives the Whale four wins in six starts, but they’ve lost ground in the playoff race. Now after four days off, the Whale left on their second trip to Glen Falls, N.Y., and an attempt to complete a four-game sweep of the Phantoms before a ride home for the Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl against the Bruins on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the second outdoor game in AHL history at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

The Phantoms (18-30-3-3) 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 14-7-1-3 since then, including 12-7-1-3 since Joe Paterson took over as coach on Dec. 20, replacing former Wolf Pack coach John Paddock, the interim coach after replacing Greg Gilbert on Nov. 8. The Phantoms, who have occupied the East Division cellar all season, are now tied with Syracuse for seventh place and only one point back of sixth-place Albany.

The Phantoms are led by veteran left wing Denis Hamel (17 goals and 15 assists in 40 games after not signing until Nov. 1), All-Star defenseman Erik Gustafsson (5, 27), who ended an 18-game goal-scoring drought in a 1-0 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday night, defenseman Danny Syvret (6, 18), right wing Ben Holmstrom (9, 13) and left wings Michael Ryan (15, 6) and Eric Wellwood (11, 10). Former Wolf Pack captain Greg Moore has six goals and 10 assists after not scoring until the 33rd game on Dec. 28. But much of the Phantoms’ improvement can be traced to Hamel and 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 champion 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.

The Whale is 4-2-0-0 against the Bruins (23-28-3-1), whose seven-game losing streak has dropped them into sixth place. They’ve been outscored 33-10 in that stretch, but they’ve 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, 17), 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 MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has four goals, seven assists and 117 penalty minutes. Michael Hutchinson (7-7-0, 3.11, .898, no shutouts in 18 games) rejoined the Bruins on Thursday, switching places with fellow rookie Matt Dalton (7-9-0, 3.20, .894, two shutouts), who was returned to Reading of the ECHL after allowing seven goals Tuesday night. Hutchinson was the P-Bruins’ Player of the Month in November, enjoying a seven-game unbeaten streak from Oct. 31 to Nov. 24 before losing five of six starts and being sent to Reading. He was 9-5-3 with a 2.85 GAA and .917 save percentage with his first pro shutout. Hutchinson and Dalton originally swapped places on Dec. 29. Veteran Nolan Schaefer is 9-15-1, 3.14, .897, 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 defending Calder Cup champion Hershey, ending a brutal stretch of 10 road games in 12.

The Pirates (33-15-4-1) have won four in a row and 15 of 19, including a 3-2 victory over the Whale 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 (30) and is third in points (58). He’s followed by defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani (9, 28), left wing Derek Whitmore (20, 13), All-Star center Luke Adam (15, 17) and left wing Colin Stuart (10, 22). Center Paul Byron (14, 17) is on recall to the parent Buffalo Sabres. David Leggio (15-4-0, 2.49, .919) has been a nemesis against the Whale, including his first of two shutouts, 3-0 in Portland on Jan. 14. Jhonas Enroth is 18-14-1, 2.83, .910, no shutouts.

The Checkers (30-19-2-4), the new AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, were on a five-game points streak (4-0-1-0) before a 3-0 loss to the Albany Devils on Tuesday night. 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 (15-12-2, 3.04, .908, no shutouts).

Goalie Cam Talbot (high ankle sprain), center Todd White (concussion) and forward Chris McKelvie (foot surgery) are out indefinitely for the Whale, though Cameron has resumed full workouts and could return soon. The Whale called up defensemen Lee Baldwin and Blake Parlett from Greenville of the ECHL on Wednesday and Thursday. Center Kris Newbury, the Whalers’ second-leading scorer (8, 33) to All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams (24, 19), is on recall to the Rangers but was scratched Thursday night in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings when wing Wojtek Wolski was able to play after sustaining a rib cage muscle pull in a 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday that ended the Rangers’ season-high, six-game losing streak (0-5-0-1). Erik Christensen and former Whale wing Mats Zuccarello scored in the shootout to improve to 9-for-10 combined, and Henrik Lundqvist had 25 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped two of three shootout attempts. With the Rangers not sustaining any injuries, Newbury could rejoin the Whale in Glens Falls.

The Rangers didn’t have to face Milford native Jonathan Quick (26-14-2, 2.10, .923, six shutouts), who stopped all three shots in a shootout Wednesday night as the Kings beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-3. Quick won his seventh game in eight starts and improved to 7-0 in shootouts as the Kings extended their points streak to 8-0-2, longest since 1980. The shootout loss in the eighth game of a 10-game trip extended that streak to 11 games and gave the Kings points in nine straight road games (6-0-3), their best run since 1984.

 

“We could have stumbled here on the road trip, but we also could have had a homestand last month that went differently,” said Quick, who had 21 saves against the Blue Jackets. “It’s starting to even out, but we’re still fighting for that playoff spot. It’s a real tight conference right now and we have to battle every night.”

WHALE BOWL TO BREAK AHL ATTENDANCE RECORD

More than 26,000 tickets have been sold for Whale Bowl, assuring the Whale and Bruins will shatter the AHL attendance record of 21,508 that watched the host Syracuse Crunch beat Binghamton 2-1 at the New York State Fairgrounds on Feb. 20, 2010. But officials of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which runs the Whale’s business operations and is handling the event, hope to sell out the 38,000 seats to keep intact all the outdoor NHL and college games having sellouts. Saturday is the only day that tickets are not general admission.

There are two high school games Friday, and Enfield native Craig Janney, who will play for the Boston Bruins legends against the Hartford Whalers legends Saturday at 4 p.m., will drop the ceremonial first puck at 5 p.m. before the game between Enfield High, his alma mater, and Northwest Catholic-West Hartford. The legends and celebrities in the Whale Bowl opener will attend a reception at 6:30 p.m., and Wethersfield High plays East Catholic-Manchester at 7:15 p.m.

About a dozen celebrities will mix in with the Whalers and Bruins legends, who play after Army meets American International College at 1 p.m. Tickets ($20 to $85) can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on 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.

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other commitments are 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 World Hockey Association 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, the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne, and former Wolf Pack player Todd Hall of Hamden. Emile “The Cat” Francis, a coach and general manager with the Rangers and Whalers, will be back behind the bench, and Norm Barnes and former Whalers captain Russ Anderson will be assistant coaches.

Celebrities scheduled to play 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 comedy movie “Slap Shot.”

Paul Stewart, a Boston native and only American to referee more than 1,000 NHL games in a 13-year career, will officiate the game. 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.

“The Zambonis,” the most popular sports-rock band in North America from Bridgeport, will perform at the Rentschler Field entrance before the legends and AHL games. The 100 percent hockey-rock band just performed two big shows at the recent NHL All-Star Game, the latest triumph in a career that dates to being formed by “defenseman/guitarist/singer” Dave Schneider in 1991.

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 schedule of games can be found at www.ctwhale.com. There will be a public skate on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with eight one-hour sessions for the public and one from 7 to 9 p.m. for Whale season ticket holders and Hockey Fest ticket holders. Tickets ($10) are available at the Rentschler Field and Bushnell box offices. Participants must bring their own skates, and sessions will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis. Season ticket holders and Hockey Fest ticket holders are encouraged to RSVP by calling Whalers Sports and Entertainment at 860-728-3366.

KUDOS TO THE CURADIS

Former Junior Wolf Pack standout Luke Curadi of Cheshire is following in his parents’ footsteps of helping and serving others.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Curadi, a defenseman on the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, had his flaming red hair shaved off last Friday night at center ice after a 3-2 loss to the Waterloo Black Hawks.

Curadi, who was born at West Point and is going to RPI in September, raised nearly $10,000 for cancer research for the firefighter and police officer group “Cuffs and Hoses” with the help of the Fighting Saints and the special assistance of Curadi. The money, to be credited to Cuffs and Hoses Relay for Life efforts, was raised through a ticket fundraiser with the team, raffle sales at the game, T-shirt sales, a fundraising competition between the firefighters and police officers, and firefighters “passing the boot” at the game.

Curadi agreed to shave his head after the game if fans contributed more than $2,000. When the boots were emptied and the money counted, Curadi was sent to the barber’s chair with $63.15 to spare.

After having a few days to take in his new hairdo, Curadi said he wasn’t quite used to it.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment,” Curadi said. “I need to use a lot less shampoo in the shower. And I have to wear my winter hat at night because I like the room that I sleep in to be pretty cold, but my head’s just not used to it yet.”

Curadi will wear a slightly smaller helmet this Friday night, when the Fighting Saints play the Des Moines Buccaneers.

Curadi’s father is a helicopter pilot in the Marines who has returned from Iraq. He was also cut from the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic team coached by Herb Brooks, a roommate of former Whalers right wing Tim Sheehy on the 1971 team. Curadi’s mother is a former First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

RANGERS TOP PROSPECT STRIKES AGAIN

The Rangers’ No. 1 prospect, sophomore left wing Chris Kreider of the top-ranked Boston College Eagles, has added another notch to his ever-growing victory belt.

Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, was named MVP of the Beanpot Tournament after scoring twice in a 7-6 overtime victory over Northeastern in the title game Monday night. He previously won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2010 World Junior Championship and an NCAA title as a freshman as the Eagles scored a 5-0 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers, whose standouts included Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

Stepan, who is third on the Rangers in scoring (32 points), and McDonagh, a major contributor since his call-up from the Whale on Jan. 3, left school after their sophomore and junior seasons, and Rangers coach John Tortorella hopes Kreider isn’t far behind.

“I wish he turned pro last year. I hope he turns pro next year. … I hope he’s with us,” Tortorella told reporters in New York. “He’s a sophomore now, and we’re anxious to get him involved in pro hockey because we think he’s got some good stuff to offer and want to get him tracked up here with us as soon as possible.”

The 6-foot-2, 214-pound Kreider has the size to compete against pros and might get some playing time with the Whale before making the jump to the NHL. Rangers All-Star defenseman Marc Staal and others joined the Wolf Pack after completing his junior careers, but Kreider would have to sign a contract and forego his last two years of college.

“It’s definitely something that gives me confidence that (Tortorella) said that, but honestly I feel like that’s so far away,” Kreider, who has nine goals and 11 assists in 26 games this season, told the New York Daily News. “We’re just concentrating on winning another championship. You have to put (turning pro) in the back of your mind, and when the season’s over, it’s something I’ll sit down with my family and my coaches and come to a decision.”

Tortorella won’t be applying any pressure, but his wishes are obvious.

“McDonagh and Step decided to come out, and that’s their call,” he said. “And it’s Kreider’s call also, as far as staying in. I don’t get into personal matters. … I think education’s important, and I think this is a family decision. But from a coach, we want to sink our teeth into him as quickly as possible to get him into a situation where he becomes a Ranger as quickly as possible.”

PARENTEAU RE-SIGNS WITH ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders signed former Wolf Pack right wing P.A. Parenteau to a one-year, $1.25 million contract extension on Thursday.

Parenteau, 27, is tied for second on the Islanders in points with 14 goals and 21 assists in 56 games. He signed a free-agent contract on July 2 after playing 22 of his 27 NHL games with the Rangers last season, when he had three goals and five assists. He also had 20 goals and 25 assists in 35 games with the Wolf Pack. The previous season, Parenteau finished ninth in the AHL in scoring with 29 goals and 49 assists in 74 games. In 2007-08, he was a second-team AHL All-Star after finishing fourth in scoring with career highs in goals (34) and points (81) in 75 games.

“I’m really excited to stay on Long Island,” said Parenteau, a native of Hull, Quebec. “The Islanders organization has given me the chance to prove that I belong in the NHL, and I look forward to being a part of the success that is building in our dressing room for the near future.”

Parenteau was a ninth-round pick of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2001 and spent most of his first eight pro seasons with the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, Portland Pirates, Norfolk Admirals and Wolf Pack. He has 166 goals and 237 assists in 450 AHL games.

GET WELL SOON, QUEENEY

The entire Whale family, Howlings – and all of Hartford hockey for that matter – would like to wish a speedy recovery for former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville, coach of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks who was hospitalized Wednesday with an gastrointestinal bleeding. He was stabilized, and it was determined on Thursday that the cause of the bleeding was a small ulcer caused by aspirin. In a statement released by the Blackhawks, Quenneville was said to be resting comfortably and expected to make a full recovery and be released in the next few days. That’s great news for sure for the 52-year-old Quenneville, who began feeling discomfort at his home late Tuesday night. Quenneville is 125-66-25 in three seasons with the Blackhawks, ranks 10th in NHL history with 563 regular-season wins and is one of only two men to coach at least 1,000 games and play 800 in the league. Assistant Mike Haviland was acting coach Wednesday night when the Blackhawks, struggling to make the playoffs, beat the Minnesota Wild, 3-1. Here’s hoping for the speediest recovery possible. There aren’t many better or classier guys than Joel Quenneville.

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