FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

It’s never a good time to lose a lead after two periods, but Connecticut Whale picked one of the worst Saturday night.

Despite an error-prone opening 10 minutes of the second period that helped the Providence Bruins to three goals and a 3-2 lead, the Whale got goals from All-Star Jeremy Williams and defenseman Jared Nightingale 59 seconds apart to regain control.

But Bruins goalie Michael Hutchinson’s stop of Dale Weise’s breakaway with 3:08 left in the period and Evgeny Grachev missing an open net 18 seconds later proved a portent of things to come.

All-Star Jaime Arniel’s second goal of the game with 6:08 to go in regulation tied it, then after the Whale failed to convert on an overtime power play, Hutchinson stopped all five shootout attempts and Maxime “Whale Killer” Sauve scored the only goal in the skills competition to give the Bruins a 5-4 victory before an announced AHL record crowd of 21,673 in the highlight of the Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011.

It was only the fourth time in 20 games (16-1-0-3) that the Whale (27-22-2-6) lost when leading after two periods. But Sauve scored in regulation and the shootout after getting two goals in each of the Bruins’ two wins in their previous visits to the XL Center.

“We let them back in the game,” said Whale center Kris Newbury, who turned 29 on Saturday and was recalled by the New York Rangers on Sunday for the fourth time this season after Marian Gaborik left the game in the first period of a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. After the game it was announced that Gaborik had sustained a concussion, but the team remains unsure when he actually got it. “I guess the turning point was when we had the bad 10 minutes or they had the good 10 minutes, however you want to put it. Then their goalie made a big save on (Tim Kennedy) in the shootout, and Dov (Grumet-Morris) played good but they were able to get one (goal) and we weren’t, and that was the difference.”

Everyone’s margin for error gets smaller as the season progresses and teams are going extra hard to try to reach the playoffs in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference. Manchester (75 points), a 4-2 loser to the last-place Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Sunday, and Portland (72) have virtually clinched playoff spots in the Atlantic Division, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (84) and Hershey (74), a 5-0 loser to Charlotte on Sunday, appear shoo-ins in the Eastern Division.

Then it’s a crapshoot among eight teams for four spots. The sixth-place Bruins (25-28-3-2) have crept into seven points of the Whale, who are one point ahead of Worcester (26-22-3-6), a 4-3 shootout winner over Providence on Sunday, in the race for the Atlantic Division’s third and final guaranteed playoff spot. The Sharks have two games in hand on the Whale, while the Springfield Falcons (27-25-3-1), who have won three in a row to get within four points of the Whale, has played the same number of games.

But the Whale (62 points), Worcester (61), Springfield (58) and Providence (55) are also vying for the final playoff berths with Charlotte (70), Norfolk (66) and Binghamton (66) in the East Division. Right now, fifth-place Binghamton in the East Division has the edge on fourth-place Worcester in the Atlantic Division, so it should be a wide scramble in the final six weeks.

“Those little stretches of time can really kill you,” Kennedy said of the Whale’s second-period lapse. “If they don’t get those three goals, we’re still up 2-0, and the game is probably not as close as it was and we probably win. So we have to work on not going through such a lull for those short periods of time.”

Kennedy had a goal and an assist and was robbed by Hutchinson leading off the shootout when the Bruins goalie made a diving glove save. Kennedy and Newbury had scored in a shootout Friday night to give the Whale a 3-2 victory over Adirondack.

“We watched tape on (Hutchinson), and it seemed like when you gave him one move, he kind of went down,” Kennedy said. “So I came in slow, just gave him a fake at the hash mark and he won’t down, and I don’t know how I shot it in his glove. But I’ll give him credit because he stretched out there and there was an open net. He didn’t give up on the play, but that should have been in the back of the net and I shot it right in his glove. He made a good save, but I also shot it right in his glove.”

And those are the type of things that will end three-game winning streaks and decide who reaches the postseason and who starts setting up their tee-off times early.

“It would have been a nice finish to get the two points,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “Obviously two points are critical for us, given where we are in the standings right now and with our efforts for a playoff push, so that was a pretty important point to give up.”

Weise also bemoaned the first half of the second period.

“I don’t think we played well in that span, and it shouldn’t be that way,” Weise said. “We’re playing with the wind. It should be easy for us to get on our horse and get going, and that wasn’t the case at all. They took it to us, we made some dumb plays turning the puck over, and it seems to be the case all year.

“As soon as a team gets one on us they just keep rolling and rolling, and we don’t seem to have a way to counter it. We gotta find a way to, or it’s going to a slippery slope to try to get into the playoffs.”

The Whale actually regained the lead this time when Ryan Garlock picked up a Grachev dump-in and found Nightingale cruising in from the right point for a laser over Hutchinson’s blocker shoulder for his second goal of the season.

But Arniel’s second goal and the shootout loss made it a bummer of an ending for the several thousand who braved brutal weather conditions of 18 degrees and a sub-zero wind chill factor by game’s end. About 28,600 tickets, including 7,000 in sponsorships, were sold, and Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin said 15,234 tickets were scanned. But the 28,600 tickets shattered the record AHL crowd of 21,508 at the first outdoor game in which the host Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators 2-1 at the New York State Fairgrounds a year ago to the day, Feb. 20, 2010. The 21,508 also included sponsorship tickets that are distributed at virtually every major sporting event.

Most of the fans were congregated on the west side of the stadium near the suites and press box, leaving vast areas of the 38,000 seats empty. And with fans allowed to come and go until the Whale-Bruins game started, it was difficult to get a read on the real numbers. Two people said they came to say they saw the event and then left after 10 minutes because it was too cold.

Because of the adverse conditions, Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said Sunday that fans who purchased tickets but did not attend because of the weather could redeem them for a ticket to Gordie Howe Night on March 26 against the Sound Tigers or another game of their choice. To redeem a ticket, contact Baldwin at hlb@whalerssports.com.

“The weather is out of my control, but it was cold out there,” Baldwin Sr. said Saturday. “But the fact this many people came out in these elements is amazing to me.”

Baldwin told other members of the media: “If you’re asking whether I’m disappointed, I can look all of you in the eye and say, ‘Hell, no.’ … I’m thrilled with it, how could you not be? Some of (the fans) came in shifts. A lot of people braved this weather. I don’t have any complaints.

“This is different than anything that has been done. This is the first one over a (12)-day period and 45 games. We didn’t do it just for the AHL or the alumni, but all the young people playing. For me, this is huge and a great thing to build off.”

WHALE CONTINUES TO BE ROAD WARRIORS NEXT WEEK

With Whale Bowl behind them, the Whale went back on the road Sunday, making a bus ride to Portland, Maine, for a Presidents Day game at 1 p.m. against the pesky Pirates. Then they will play their first two games in Charlotte, N.C., against the Checkers, the team’s ECHL affiliate for several years before making the move to the AHL this season, on Thursday and Saturday. The Whale, who have won three in a row on the road since a 9-2 loss at Toronto on Feb. 9 that tied franchise records for goals allowed and margin of defeat, finally return to the XL Center on March 2 to face the Springfield Falcons. The next home game after that is March 11 against the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, ending a brutal stretch of 10 road games in 12 starts.

The Pirates (33-16-4-2) had won four in a row and 15 of 19 starts before a 4-3 shootout loss to the Bruins on Friday night and a 5-4 loss to Manchester on Saturday night that dropped them three points behind the division-leading Monarchs, who lost 4-2 to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Sunday. The four straight wins included a 3-2 victory over the Whale at the XL Center on Feb. 6 that tied the season series at 3 in the teams’ fifth one-goal game. The Pirates are led by 2010 All-Star right wing Mark Mancari, who leads the AHL in goals (31) and is third in points (61). He’s followed by defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani (9, 31), 2011 All-Star center Luke Adam (17, 18) left wing Derek Whitmore (20, 13) and left wing Colin Stuart (10, 22). David Leggio (15-4-0, 2.49, .919) has been tough on the Whale, including his first of two shutouts, 3-0 in Portland on Jan. 14. Jhonas Enroth is 18-15-2, 2.82, .910, no shutouts.

The Whale will be without Newbury, their second-leading scorer (9, 33) to Williams (25, 19), goalie Cam Talbot (high ankle sprain), defenseman Tomas Kundratek (flu) and forwards Chad Kolarik (hamstring) and Chris McKelvie (foot surgery). The Whale signed center Francis Lemieux for a professional tryout contract. He played the last six seasons with Grand Rapids and Hamilton and was leading the ECHL in scoring this season, getting 28 goals and 44 assists in 55 games with the Florida Everblades. He also was scoreless in two AHL games with the Manitoba Moose.

The Checkers (32-20-2-4), the new AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, have won two in a row and are on a 6-2-1-0 run. 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 (22, 23) and Chris Terry (22, 23), center Zach Boychuk (15, 28) and left wing Oskar Osala (13, 28). The Checkers have gone all season with only two goalies, rookie Mike Murphy (17-9-2, 2.80, .911, one shutout) and Justin Pogge (15-13-2, 3.13, .906, no shutouts). Murphy made 20 saves, and former Wolf Pack defenseman and 2011 All-Star Bryan Rodney had one goal and two assists in the romp in Hershey on Sunday.

The Whale hopes to iron out the kinks in the final drive to the playoffs in the last 22 games – 10 at home, 12 on the road.

“We’re not going to change our style, but there has to be a heightened sense of awareness,” Gernander said. “I’m sure things are going to pick up emotionally as we get toward the end jockeying for playoff position, so we have to try to continue to squeeze out mistakes and pick things up emotionally because that’s the nature of season as it winds down, so it becomes all that more critical.

“I’d like to see us generate a little more 5-on-5 and get more shots on the net. Not all of them would have to be scoring chances, but a little more quantity of pucks to the net could lead to second and third chances that would probably increase our 5-versus-5 offense. I don’t see anything that’s absolute deficient where we have to change anything or make some adjustments. I just think we need to squeeze mistakes and raise the bar a little bit.”

Defenseman Wade Redden has been through countless playoff races and runs in 13 NHL seasons, the last two with the Rangers, but doesn’t expect anything to be difference in his first go-round in the minor leagues.

“With the ice bad (Saturday) night, we just tried to keep it simple – dump pucks in and dump pucks out – and I think that’s the style we have to play all the time, just a simple game, especially with the games being tight down the stretch,” Redden said. “One goal is going to make difference, so you don’t want give teams opportunities easily with turnovers.

“And we want to get the forecheck going and play as little as we can in your own end because that definitely adds up to good things when you’re out of your end quickly and in their end and getting pressure on them. I think that’s probably the key to playing at this time of year.”

Teams also play harder, as Adirondack, last in the East Division throughout the season until last week, demonstrated Friday, when the Whale needed a Newbury goal with 2:49 left in regulation to get to overtime and eventually win a shootout on Newbury’s goal.

“They fore-checked hard, played hard, didn’t give us much,” Redden said. “We did a good job to stay with it and keep battling, and I thought our third period was our best period. Just getting the puck in and getting some pressure eventually leads to good things happening for you, so that’s the mentality that you’ve got to have.”

The Whale has had a roller-coaster season, from a 1-9-2-1 slide that included a team-record, nine-game losing streak (0-7-0-2) followed by a 14-2-0-3 run that vaulted them from last place to second. And the Whale has a better road record (15-9-0-4) than at home (12-13-2-2), which again leads credence to keeping things simple.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position to pick up points, so it’s just a matter of bearing down in the important parts of the game,” said Nightingale, who has been Redden’s defensive partner the last few weeks. “Every game is different, whether you need a big save, a big (penalty) kill or your power play gets a goal for you. Each game is a different story, so I think it’s just bearing down and going out and playing.

“Hockey is a game of momentum, and the quicker we can get that back on our side the better. Lulls are natural, but the quicker you get out of the them the better, and easiest way of doing that is keeping it simple. It’s all about teamwork.” … The Sound Tigers’ victory Sunday ended an 11-game winless streak (0-10-0-1) since Jan. 22 and was only their second win in 2011 (2-15-2-2). Rookie center David Ullstrom had his first pro hat trick when he scored into an empty net with 1:08 left as the last-place Sound Tigers (20-29-3-4) scored on two of only three shots in the third period. Justin DiBenedetto had the primary assist on each of Ullstrom’s goals, and Mikko Koskinen made 20 saves. … The Bruins overcame two two-goal deficits to force overtime on power-play goals by Zach Hamill and David Ling before losing a shootout when Dan DaSilva scored in the sixth round for Worcester.

QUENNEVILLE RETURNS HOME

Great to hear former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville, coach of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, has returned home after being hospitalized on Wednesday with a bleeding ulcer caused by the use of aspirin.

“We will continue to monitor him and still anticipate a full recovery,” Blackhawks physician Dr. Michael Terry said in a statement. “We are working to determine when it is best from him to return to his coaching duties.”

Mike Haviland has taken over as interim coach, but Quenneville should be able to return to his spot behind the bench next week. We wish him as speedy a recovery as possible. Fans and former teammates were talking about him over the weekend. Little wonder. He’s one of the classiest guys in the world.

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