FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

It was a doubly good Tuesday for Connecticut Whale center Francis Lemieux.

Lemieux was released from his second professional tryout contract and signed to an AHL deal before being among the 22 players on the Whale’s Clear Day list. Another recent call-up from the ECHL, rookie defenseman Blake Parlett, was also on the list, while feisty left wing Devin DiDiomete, who leads the AHL in penalty minutes (280), and center Ryan Garlock, a regular before being injured last week, were not included but put on the “in-residence” list.

Lemieux, a sixth-year pro, originally joined the Whale on Feb. 20 when he signed a PTO while leading the ECHL in scoring (28 goals and 45 assists in 55 games) with the Florida Everblades. After returning to the Everblades for one game, Lemieux rejoined the Whale on Feb. 28 and got his first point in his sixth game with the team when he set up veteran defenseman Wade Redden’s breakaway goal in a 7-2 victory over the Worcester Sharks on Sunday.

The 26-year-old Lemieux has 45 goals and 69 assists in 257 AHL games with four teams and also played four games in Austria at end of last season. He’s one of 50 players on the 30 Clear Day lists – and only one with the Whale – to win a Calder Cup ring, having done it with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007.

“I think he has been a real good addition,” coach Ken Gernander said before the Whale played at league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Tuesday night. “He’s obviously a good skater, strong on the puck and can probably give us some more offense. Center is where we’ve been kind of thin, so we feel he can help in a lot of areas, including the power play and penalty killing. Plus, he could have had a few more assists if guys had converted some of his passes.”

Parlett has been solid since he was called up from Greenville on Feb. 18 while leading ECHL defensemen in scoring with 31 points (seven goals and 24 assists in 46 games). He got his first AHL point when he deflected in Kris Newbury’s shot with 27.5 seconds left in overtime to give the Whale a 2-1 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Saturday night.

“He has made a really strong case for himself and earned a spot on the Clear Day list,” Gernander said. “Plus he gives us more flexibility and depth if there are any call-ups (to the New York Rangers). We have one or two defensemen who could play up front if need be, so Blake gives us flexibility there.”

The 30 AHL teams had to submit two goalies and 20 skaters by 3 p.m. Monday, and only those players on a Clear Day roster are eligible to play in the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension. Teams may also add signed junior players or players on amateur tryout contracts after their respective seasons are complete.

The Whale’s Clear Day list included goalies Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot, defensemen Redden, Parlett, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto, Tomas Kundratek, Jyri Niemi, Jared Nightingale, Stu Bickel and Pavel Valentenko, and forwards Newbury, Lemieux, Jeremy Williams, Chad Kolarik, Dale Weise, Brodie Dupont, Evgeny Grachev, Kelsey Tessier, Justin Soryal, John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello.

McDonagh and Zuccarello, along with Johnson, are on recall to the Rangers but were reassigned and then recalled last week so they would be eligible for the Whale’s list. Veteran center Todd White, out since Jan. 14 with a concussion, forward Oren Eizenman, defenseman Lee Baldwin and goalie Dov Grumet-Morris also were among Whale players not on the Clear Day list but put on the “in-residence” list with DiDiomete and Garlock. Any of them could be added if injuries occur or players get called up if the Rangers reach the playoffs.

“Our Clear Day list is structured in such a way that we have the flexibility to use guys not on the list if there are call-ups or injuries,” Gernander said. “DiDiomete and Garlock have been good soldiers who have played well, and right now we have plenty of playing time for them so hopefully they’ll continue to do well in case we need them in the playoffs.”

The Whale also could sign junior or college players such as center Ethan Werek (Kingston of Ontario Hockey League) and right wing Roman Horak (Chilliwack of Western Hockey League), the Rangers’ second- and fifth-round picks in 2009, defenseman Dan Maggio (Oshawa-OHL), goalie Scott Stajcer (Owen Sound-OHL) and left wings Carl Hagelin (Michigan), Jason Wilson (Niagara-OHL) and Ryan Bourque (Quebec of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), the son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. All of their teams likely will make the playoffs, and some are expected to advance well in the postseason, with Niagara hosting the Memorial Cup finals.

Stajcer has been sidelined since November because of hip surgery after playing with Talbot in the prospects tournament in September in Traverse City, Mich. But Stajcer hopefully can return before the regular season ends in two weeks. One of Owen Sound’s owners is former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, and the Attack’s coach is former Whalers wing Mark Reeds and his assistant is former Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue.

Former Wolf Pack players on Clear Day lists are AHL leading scorer Corey Locke (Binghamton), Dylan Reese (Bridgeport), Greg Moore and David LeNeveu (Springfield), Nigel Dawes (Hamilton), Alexandre Giroux and Jake Taylor (Oklahoma City), Dane Byers and Ryan Hollweg (San Antonio), Boyd Kane and Brian Fahey (Hershey), Jed Ortmeyer (Houston), Chad Wiseman (Albany), Bobby Sanguinetti, Bryan Rodney and Ethan Graham (Charlotte), David Liffiton and Matthew Ford (Lake Erie), Dean Arsene (Peoria), Tim Kennedy, Hugh Jessiman and Patrick Rissmiller (Rochester), Jeff Taffe (Rockford), Nigel Williams (Syracuse), Garth Murray (Manitoba), Mitch Fritz (Norfolk) and Andrew Hutchinson and Corey Potter (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton).

Players with Connecticut ties include Jaime Sifers of Stratford (Chicago), Nick Bonino of Avon (Syracuse), Jon DiSalvatore of South Windsor (Houston), David Meckler of Yale (Manchester), Colin McDonald of Wethersfield (Oklahoma City), the son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald and Lane McDermid (Providence), the son of Paul McDermid.

Gernander is one of 10 AHL head coaches to have won a Calder Cup as players, head coaches and/or assistant coaches. The others are former Whalers wing Randy Cunneyworth (Hamilton), Jim Playfair (Abbotsford), Don Lever (Chicago), Mark French (Hershey), Claude Noel (Manitoba), Lane Lambert (Milwaukee), Todd Nelson (Oklahoma City), Dallas Eakins (Toronto) and Roy Sommer (Worcester), the dean of AHL coaches.

Sixteen of the AHL’s 30 teams will qualify for the playoffs, which start the second week of April. For Clear Day lists, complete qualification rules and up-to-date standings, as well as Calder Cup history, records and all-time championship rosters, visit theahl.com.

The AHL’s championship trophy is named after Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Calder, who was the first National Hockey League’s president from 1917-43. During the 1920s, Calder was instrumental in guiding pro hockey into the mainstream of the United States’ major cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit, while also helping form the AHL.

In operation since 1936 and celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, the AHL is the top development league for the players, coaches, officials, managers, executives and broadcasters for the NHL and its 30 teams. More than 85 percent of NHL players are AHL graduates, and more than 100 Hockey Hall of Fame members came through the AHL.

WHALE FINALLY HOME FRIDAY NIGHT

After completing a demanding schedule of 10 road games in 12 starts, including their only visits to Toronto, Hamilton, Charlotte and Wilkes-Barre, the Whale plays 10 of their final 16 games at the XL Center, starting Friday night against Hershey (39-21-1-3), which began a four-game road trip at Portland on Tuesday night. The Bears won the previous meeting this season, 4-3 in Hershey on Nov. 21 as Mathieu Perrault scored twice and Fahey had a goal and an assist.

The Bears, who have the AHL’s fifth-best road record (19-10-1-1), are led by perennial All-Star center Keith Aucoin (15 goals, 48 assists), who was first in the league in scoring last season (106 points) and is fourth this season behind Locke (73 points), Giroux (65) and Portland’s Mark Mancini (64), with the latter two on recall to Edmonton and Columbus. Aucoin gets lots of support from wings Brian Willsie (25, 30), Kyle Greentree (22, 28), Andrew Gordon (22, 24) and Kane (22, 22), who had the Bears’ goal in a 4-1 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday.

Fahey (3, 18) and NHL veteran Sheldon Souray (3, 13 in 33 games) head the blueline corps and work the point on the power play, and veterans Dany Sabourin (14-9-0, 2.45 GAA, .908 save percentage, two shutouts) and Nolan Schaefer (10-17-1, 3.06, .898, no shutouts) are handling the goaltending. Schaefer was acquired on loan from the Boston Bruins on Friday. Braden Holtby, on recall to the parent Washington Capitals, is 14-6-2 with five shutouts and shares the AHL lead in save percentage (.930) and is third in GAA (1.98). He was the No. 1 star Monday night when he replaced injured Michal Neuvirth (eye), stopped the 21 shots he faced through overtime and three more in a shootout, including former Wolf Pack and Rangers forward Dominic Moore, as the Capitals rallied for a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the Capitals’ fifth straight win and gave them a two-point lead over the Lightning in the Southeast Division.

The Whale then has a home-and-home set with the Worcester Sharks (28-23-4-8) at the XL Center on Saturday night and at the DCU Center on Sunday afternoon. The Whale is 4-1-0-1 against the Sharks this season, capped by a 7-2 drubbing at Worcester on Sunday that tied their season high for goals and moved them two points ahead of Worcester in the battle for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Redden had his first two-goal game since before the NHL lockout six years ago and Weise added a goal and two assists and Dupont had four assists, setting personal bests for points and assists in a pro game.

The Sharks, who are 1-2-1 in their last four games and wrap up a four-game homestand against Hershey on Wednesday night, are led by All-Star right wing Jonathan Cheechoo (18 goals, 29 assists), a 56-goal scorer for the San Jose Sharks in the 2005-06 season who missed his four consecutive game Sunday because of a sore back. But the Sharks signed Charlotte to an AHL contract after the game, allowing him to be on their Clear Day list.

Other top Sharks scorers are center Michael Swift (17, 16), left wing T.J. Trevelyan (14, 19), defenseman Sean Sullivan (12, 20) and right wing Dan DaSilva (12, 18). No. 1 goalie Alex Stalock (19-17-4, 2.63 goals-against average, .907 save percentage, no shutouts) is out for the season with nerve damage in his lacerated left leg that required surgery, but Daren Machesney (2-3-1, 3.20, .882, two shutouts) and Tyson Sexsmith (1-2-1, 3.15, .891, no shutouts) held their own until the Whale shot 7-for-19 against Machesney on Sunday.

Besides being eliminated from the playoffs two years ago, the Wolf Pack/Whale is 14-4-0-2 lifetime at the DCU Center, including 2-0-1 this season while amassing a 4-1-0-1 overall edge. Sunday was the Sharks’ second-worst loss at home to the 7-1 beating they got from the Wolf Pack on Dec. 8, 2007. … Adirondack’s Denis Hamel scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season on Sunday in a 4-3 overtime victory over Albany, reaching the 20-goal plateau for the ninth time in his AHL career. … Portland’s five power-play goals in an 8-3 victory over Bridgeport on Saturday tied a franchise record most recently attained against the Wolf Pack on Nov. 20, 2005. … In the “so much for statistics” department, Providence entered last weekend’s play ranked 30th on the power play and 29th on the penalty kill. But in wins over Charlotte and Bridgeport, the Bruins’ power play was 5-for-12 and their penalty kills was 15-for-15.

JERSEY AUCTION TO BENEFIT MARCH OF DIMES

Saturday could be a hat trick of pleasure and benefit for Whale fans. They not only can watch their favorites hopefully win only their third XL Center game since Feb. 6 in a key matchup with Worcester, but they also can win players’ jerseys and help a great cause at the same time.

During the game, fans can bid on jerseys on display throughout the evening. Winners will be announced at the end of the game and invited on the ice to receive their jersey, meet the players and have photos taken. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes, which works to help develop stronger, healthier babies. The auction has raised nearly $20,000 in the first two years.

“The annual jersey auction has been a great event for our March of Dimes family and the hockey community,” said Deb Poudrier, executive director of the March of Dimes Greater Hartford Division. “The Whale organization has been an incredible supporter of the March of Dimes, not only with the jersey auction but as a March for Babies sponsor and team as well. They truly are a great community partner.”

The March of Dimes is the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. Visit www.marchofdimes.com or www.nacersano.org for the latest resources and information.

HOCKEY MINISTRIES NIGHT AT WHALE GAME

Hockey Ministries International Northeast is sponsoring 2011 Faith & Family Night at the Whale’s game against the Charlotte Checkers on March 25. Upper bowl seats are $10, and Scarlet Fade will perform a postgame concert.

To order tickets, contact AHL Chapel Coordinator Rick Mitera at 860-817-6440 or rmitera@hockeyministries.org. When someone buys a ticket through Hockey Ministries, they receive a $2 coupon for parking. For more information on Hockey Ministries, visit www.hockeyministriesnortheast.org.

WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON MARCH 26

The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” at the XL Center on March 26 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be lowered and then raised and re-retired as he and his sons, Mark and Marty, whom he played with for seven seasons in Houston and Hartford, look on. The matriarch of the family, Colleen Howe, who died in 2009, will be honored.

“That old (jersey) is a little worn,” Baldwin Jr. said. “I think we’ll have a big crowd. I’m not a morbid person at all. I love Ronnie Francis (the only Hall of Famer to play mostly with the Whalers), but Gordie is the one who put the team on the map. He needs to have the respect of the people coming out to see him, and it’ll be a great opportunity for it.”

Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.

The Howes played together for the first time with the Houston Aeros in 1973 before coming to Hartford and signing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in 1977. Howe ended his legendary 32-year career in the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80), when he had 15 goals and 26 assists and was named a NHL All-Star for the 23rd time while helping the Whalers make the playoffs at 52 years old.

Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford because of the weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin at hlb@whalerssports.com.

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