FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

For the past month, the Connecticut Whale proved the tough really can get going when the going gets tough.

The stretch epitomized their coach, Ken Gernander, who has carried his dislike for losing from his playing days to behind the bench.

But Gernander and the players have few complaints about the efforts of the injury-riddled and shorthanded Whale (32-24-2-6), who were 8-3-0-1 during the most demanding stretch of the schedule, 10 road games in 12 starts from Feb. 9 to Tuesday night. That included 7-3-0-0 on the road as they made their only visits to Toronto, Hamilton, Charlotte and Wilkes-Barre, where they capped the run with a 5-2 win over the AHL’s top team to sweep a two-game season series. And they played the last three games a man shy of the 18-skater limit because eight players were ailing.

“Everyone is playing to our game plan,” said center Kris Newbury, who has taken over the team scoring lead (12 goals and team-high 36 assists in 48 games) since returning from his fourth stint with the parent New York Rangers on March 3. “For the most part, we’ve been pretty disciplined and guys are stepping up and playing their roles really well. That and good goaltending (from Cam Talbot and Dov Grumet-Morris) gives you a good chance to win.”

But Gernander and Newbury are more interested in 10 of the Whale’s final 16 games being at the XL Center, starting Friday night against the two-time defending champion Hershey Bears (39-22-2-4). The Whale is 13-13-2-2 on Asylum Street and 19-11-0-4 on the road.

“It was a big win for us (Tuesday night) after a bit of a rough start,” Gernander said, alluding to the Whale escaping tied at 2 despite being outshot 20-7 in the first period. “We can’t rely on the goalie to make that many saves that early, but then we maintained some momentum on the power play in the second period and got the 5-on-3 goal (by veteran defenseman Wade Redden).

“We’ve had pretty good success on the road all season, and I think more importantly is now that we’ve got some home games we’ve got to make a real strong effort to get some wins and some points. … Maybe it’s a case of we don’t play quite as simple as we do on the road. We don’t have ‘a road game’ and ‘a home game’ as far as strategy and personnel, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But we do have to get better at home.”

Newbury concurred.

“We’ve got to find ways to get our home record a lot better,” he said. “I don’t really know what the problem has been, but maybe the guys are trying too hard or trying to be a little bit too fancy. I think we need more of a grinding type game, especially against Hershey, which is a good team. So grind it out, think dirty hockey plays and hopefully we get the job done.”

The Whale’s fourth consecutive victory Tuesday night gave them a standings point in nine of their last 11 games (8-2-0-1) as they reached their high-water mark this season at eight games over .500. They also increased their lead over Worcester to four points in the battle for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, but the Sharks (29-23-4-8) got back within two with a 3-2 victory over the Bears on Wednesday night. But the Whale’s surge also has them within one point of the Binghamton Senators (33-24-3-4), the fifth-place team in the East Division that lost 5-1 at Norfolk on Wednesday night.

Not surprisingly, several veterans have carried the load for the Whale, who have been without eight players, including leading goal-scoring threats Jeremy Williams and Chad Kolarik, that forced them to play the last three games one short of the 18-skater limit. And they lost center Tim Kennedy, their second-leading scorer on Feb. 26, when he was part of a trade in which the New York Rangers acquired veteran defenseman Bryan McCabe from the Florida Panthers. But Kennedy was quickly replaced by six-year pro John Mitchell, a center acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28 for a seventh-round pick in 2012.

“You don’t want to count on any one thing. You want to be strong in all areas,” Gernander said. “But certainly if guys are going to pick up their game or go to another level, it would be those kinds of players because those are the guys who are being given the bulk of the work load and opportunity, so you would think that they would make the most of it.”

Redden, who has played 994 NHL games in a 14-year pro career, had his first two-goal game since before the NHL lockout in 1994-95 in a 7-2 romp at Worcester on Sunday and then had a goal and two assists in the victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Mitchell has three goals, including a last-second winner, and two assists in four games since being acquired. Left wing Brodie Dupont had seven assists in the four-game winning streak, including a personal-high four assists and points on Sunday. Right wing Dale Weise, recovered from an energy-sapping bout with the flu, has two goals and five assists in four games.

And it seems more than just coincidence the Whale increased their intensity and scored 14 goals in three games since Newbury returned and was reinserted between Weise and Dupont. Newbury had only one assist in 11 games on Broadway but received frequent rave reviews from Rangers coach John Tortorella for his grit and determination. With his buddy, Williams, sidelined by a neck injury from being hit in the head by Kyle Neuber’s shoulder in the Whale’s first of back-to-back dramatic wins over Springfield on March 2, Newbury has become the team’s leading scorer after getting three goals and three assists in three games since returning from the Rangers.

It has been a rewarding season for Newbury, who was acquired late last season for Jordan Owens and signed a new two-way contract in the offseason that pays him $550,000 when he’s in the NHL and $250,000 in the AHL.

“(Tortorella) has been very complimentary of me and all my teammates here who have helped me along,” Newbury said. “It seems like he likes the hard-working guys, guys who are willing to get dirty and play the price, so at that level, that’s my job and I don’t back down from it and take a lot of pride when I do those kinds of things. I’m counted on for a lot more down here, put some numbers on the board and help our team have a chance to win. It’s two different roles, but at the same time, I take a lot of honor in doing both when I’m at each level.

“It’s a little stepping stone, but at the end of the day, you want to be at the next level fulltime. I’ll take everything in stride and keep working hard down here. Anytime you sign a new contract you want to go to the best team where you think you have the best chance (to make the NHL), and I thought this would be it. I’m happy that I got a chance, but I’m not satisfied in my play so far. You can always get better every day, so I keep striving towards that and hopefully I can stick up there for good one day.”

Gernander also hopes Newbury continues to improve and strengthen his status as the team’s MVP.

“He’s a hard-nosed, big-energy player, whether he’s at the AHL or NHL level,” Gernander said. “He’s in your face and abrasive, but he has enough skill to play against the skilled guys and make life miserable for them. But if you want to check him, he’s willing to pay the price to get the job done. … I don’t want him to change his game. He has got to be a physical, in your face, energy type of guy wherever he plays.”

The Whale should finally have a full lineup as Williams, Kolarik, center Ryan Garlock and defenseman Tomas Kundratek continued to practice with the team Thursday, while defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Jyri Niemi and forwards Chris McKelvie and Todd White skated on their own, worked out or rested.

“Hopefully some guys will be back, and we’ll know more (Friday),” Gernander said. “We had quite a few guys practicing and skating, so we’ll see how they fare throughout the day and (Friday morning) and hopefully we can have a full lineup. But the guys who have been here have actually enjoyed the extra responsibility and the extra opportunity, and I think they’ve done pretty well. The schedule has also been a little favorable as far as playing short. We’ve had the back-to-back (games), but we haven’t had the three-in-three or four-in-five.”

Several players will return as the Whale returned forward Oren Eizenman on loan to the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals. The Whale acquired Eizenman from the Syracuse Crunch on Nov. 24 for future considerations and had four goals and two assists in 33 games since his arrival in Hartford. The fourth-year pro previously had five goals and 13 assists in 13 games with the Jackals.

The Bears, who have the AHL’s fifth-best road record (19-11-1-2) but are winless in three games (0-2-0-1), won the first meeting with the Whale 4-3 in Hershey on Nov. 21 as Mathieu Perrault scored twice and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brian Fahey had a goal and an assist. The Bears started a four-game road trip with a 3-2 shootout loss at Portland on Tuesday night and the loss at Worcester on Wednesday night.

The Bears practiced at the XL Center on Thursday and are fighting an injury bug as well. Perennial All-Star center Keith Aucoin (15 goals, 48 assists), who was first in the league in scoring last season (106 points) and fourth this season, No. 4 scorer Andrew Gordon (22, 24) and All-Star and former Wolf Pack defenseman Lawrence Nycholat (5, 22) are out with injuries.

The Bears offense is now relying on three other 20-goal scorers – wings Brian Willsie (25, 30), Kyle Greentree (22, 29) and former Wolf Pack Boyd Kane (22, 22). Fahey (3, 18) and NHL veteran Sheldon Souray (3, 14 in 35 games) head the blueline corps and work the points on the power play. 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) and Todd Ford (6-4-1, 3.04, .884, no shutouts) are handling the goaltending. Schaefer came to the Bears via a loan from the Boston Bruins last Friday.

After the Hershey game, the Whale has a home-and-home set with the Sharks 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, capped by the drubbing at Worcester on Sunday that tied their season high for goals. Redden had his rare two-goal game and Weise added a goal and two assists and Dupont had four assists to back the continued solid goaltending of Talbot (10-3-2-0, 2.37 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, two shutouts), who played in his first AHL game since he sustained a high ankle sprain in a 6-3 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 16.

The Sharks 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 fifth consecutive game Wednesday night because of a sore back. The Sharks signed Cheechoo to an AHL contract Sunday that allows him to be on their Clear Day list.

The Sharks’ other top scorers are center Michael Swift (17, 17), left wing T.J. Trevelyan (14, 20), defenseman Sean Sullivan (12, 20) and right wing Dan DaSilva (12, 19). 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. The Sharks have been rotating rookies Tyson Sexsmith (1-2-1, 2.92, .901, no shutouts) and Carton Hutton (5-3-2, 2.97, .896, one shutout) and veteran Daren Machesney (2-3-1, 3.20, .882, two shutouts). The Whale shot 7-for-19 against Machesney on Sunday, a day after he had 34 saves in a 2-0 victory over Charlotte.

Besides elimination from the playoffs two years ago, the Wolf Pack/Whale is 14-4-0-2 at the DCU Center, including 2-0-1 this season. Sunday was the Sharks’ second-worst loss at home to the 7-1 beating they got from the Wolf Pack on Dec. 8, 2007.

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. Announcement of the winners will be at the end of the game. The winners are going down to 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.

THE SHOOTOUT THAT WOULDN’T END

Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, ended one of the longest shootouts in AHL history Wednesday night. MacDermid scored in the 14th round to give the visiting Providence Bruins a 3-2 victory over the Manchester Monarchs. MacDermid also had the Bruins’ first goal at 13:42 of the second period, when all the regulation goals occurred.

Jordan Caron and Trent Whitfield scored in the fourth and fifth rounds for the Bruins to match goals in the second and fifth rounds by Bud Holloway and Justin Azevedo. David Laliberte (Bruins) and Ray Kaunisto (Monarchs) each scored in the first sudden death round, then Antoine Roussel (Bruins) and Justin Johnson (Monarchs) matched goals in the 11th round. MacDermid got the winner after Thomas Hickey missed in Round 14.

Whitfield got the tying goal on a power play with 1:39 left in the second period. Corey Elkins and Oscar Moller scored for the Monarchs, who are 1-6 in shootouts and have one-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the Portland Pirates, who have four games-in-hand and are 7-2 in the skills competition.

Newly acquired Anton Khudobin made 34 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping 10 of 14 shots in the shootout. Jeff Zatkoff was the tough-luck loser, making 31 saves in the first 65 minutes and nine in the shootout. The longest AHL shootout is 16 rounds between Utah and Cleveland on Dec. 3, 2004.

FORMER WOLF PACK WING EXPLODES FOR FOUR-SPOT

Former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman scored an astonishing four goals in a 9:03 span of the third period to rally the Albany Devils to a stunning 5-4 victory over the visiting Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Wednesday night.

The Devils entered the final 20 minutes in a 4-1 deficit before Wiseman, who started the game with six goals this season, went to work. The veteran forward made it 4-2 at 10:25, 4-3 at 16:28 and tied it 55 seconds later. Then with only 32 seconds left in regulation, Wiseman gave the Devils the improbable victory. It was the second four-goal performance in less than 14 months for Wiseman, who accomplished the feat with Springfield on Jan. 17, 2010.

Jesse Joensuu and rookie Rhett Rakhshani each had a goal and two assists for the Sound Tigers. Bridgeport has the AHL’s worst record (21-35-3-4) and lost their sixth in a row to put them even deeper in the Atlantic Division cellar.

KREIDER’S SEASON FINISHED?

The season of Rangers’ top prospect Chris Kreider of second-ranked and defending national champion Boston College could be over.

Kreider sustained a broken jaw when his clearing attempt midway through the second period of a 4-0 win over New Hampshire last Friday found its way under his visor. Kreider immediately went to the ice, writhing in pain along the boards. He left blood on the ice, skated off under his own power and went to a hospital for X-rays.

Kreider, the Rangers’ first round pick (19th overall) in 2009 who turns 20 on April 30, will miss the Hockey East Tournament that begins next Friday and at least the start of the NCAA Tournament. He has 11 goals and 12 assists in 31 games for the 26-7-1 Eagles, who are ranked behind North Dakota and ahead of Yale, the former No. 1.

BC coach Jerry York said the injury could end Kreider’s season, and that could make the sophomore’s jump to the pros a bit easier. Kreider has not spoken to the Rangers about turning pro after this season, but he could possibly join the Whale for the end of the regular season and playoffs if he decides to go that route.

The Eagles won the NCAA title last year with a 5-0 victory over Wisconsin, led by Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started the season with the Wolf Pack. Kreider captained and had six goals as Team USA that won the 2010 World Junior Championships. He led the United States with four goals while winning a bronze medal in January. At the Beanpot Championship in February, Kreider was the MVP of the tournament.

A month ago, Tortorella said he hoped Kreider would sign with the team this off-season “so we can get him into learning the pro game and integrate him in the Rangers’ organization as quickly as possible.” Kreider said he would not consider his future until after this season, though the 6-foot-3, 217 pounder is already physically equipped for the pro level.

“I am so focused on the here and now,” Kreider told Jim Cerny of www.nyrangers.com. “If I start looking ahead, I won’t be able to perform. Right now I am not focused on the decisions I will have to make down the road.”

Kreider said he is aware of the core of young players with the Rangers, including Stepan, McDonagh and former Wolf Pack/Whale players Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer, Matt Gilroy, Mats Zuccarello and Chad Johnson. Del Zotto, who played most of the season with the Rangers, is with the Whale but expected to out another month with a broken finger. And Weise, Kolarik, Grachev and Dupont have been among 10 call-ups this season.

“I definitely follow the organization and how it’s doing,” Kreider said. “It’s been fun to follow guys from college that I know like Step and McDonagh. They are both doing great, which is no surprise because they are both great players and great people. It’s an exciting young group that the Rangers have put together.”

THE BALL, ER, PUCK IS IN LUNDQVIST’S GLOVE

The Rangers are on a two-game West Coast swing that began with a visit to president and general manager Glen Sather’s compound in La Quinta, Calif., where they rested and played golf, and a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night. They are at the San Jose Sharks on Friday night before returning home to play the streaking New York Islanders on Tuesday night.

Johnson, called up from the Whale to back up Henrik Lundqvist, will basically be a caddie, barring an injury to the Swedish standout. Lundqvist had 28 saves in his 13th consecutive start Wednesday night, will make it 14 in a row against the Sharks and could finish 27-for-27 if the Rangers stay in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race until the season ends April 9 against the New Jersey Devils. Last year, the Rangers missed the playoffs when they lost a shootout in the season finale to the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Lundqvist is scheduled to do all the goaltending because of his ability, Johnson’s inexperience (he’s in his second pro season and has played in only five NHL games) and effective veteran backup Martin Biron having sustained a broken collarbone when hit by a shot in practice Feb. 28.

“It’s his (Lundqvist’s) ball now,” Tortorella told the New York media. “Marty Biron did the things we wanted him to do, and it’s unfortunate he’s not here with us now, but this is Henrik’s show now.”

Playing a lot is nothing new to Lundqvist, who started 25 of the last 26 games last season, 27 of 29 in 2009 and 22 of 23 in 2008. If he goes 27-for-27, he will finish with 68 starts after getting 70 or more the previous three seasons.

“It’s so exciting at this time of year, you don’t get tired no matter how often they play,” Lundqvist said. “In November and December it can be tough to play all the time, but right now you want to be out there every night, you want to make the difference for your team every game. It was different for me this year, definitely, but in the long run, it’s great. Getting as much rest I did before is one of the reasons I feel so good now.”

Lundqvist is 27-24-4 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .921 save percentage and on pace to play the fewest regular season NHL games, 68, since his rookie season in 2005-06.

“(Playing Biron) did what it had to do for our No. 1 goalie, get that rest, not only physically, but mentally, too,” Tortorella said.

Lundqvist excelled in a 4-1 victory over Ottawa last Friday, notched a NHL-leading ninth shutout in a 7-0 rout of the Flyers on Sunday and then allowed three goals in the first period against the Ducks, the first going in off Girardi’s skate, the second off Staal’s arm and the third off Anisimov’s stick. It was the first time in 14 starts that Lundqvist allowed more than three goals and the first time the Rangers allowed more than three goals in 42 games since a 5-3 loss at Ottawa on Dec. 9. Ducks defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky had two goals and an assist and was plus-5. Meanwhile, linemates Callahan and Dubinsky, who scored the game’s first goal, were minus-4.

“There were some bad bounces, but it comes down to that we didn’t play hard enough, weren’t hard enough on the puck,” Callahan said. “There’s no excuse for it.”

Spoken like a future captain.

QUICK STILL GOING STRONG

Hamden native Jonathan Quick continued his stellar season Wednesday night, making 28 saves to lead the visiting Los Angeles Kings to a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. It was Quick’s second brilliant showing at Joe Louis Arena, where he pitched a 51-save shutout in a 5-0 win Dec. 13. This stellar showing came 10 days after Quick was pulled after allowing six goals in a 7-4 loss to the Red Wings in Los Angeles.

“They got the best of me (in Los Angeles),” said Quick, who has stopped 79 of 80 shots in the two games in Detroit. “In your head, you know what happened last time out, but at the end of the day you’re just (thinking about) today’s game. You’re just trying to make one save at a time and make the saves for your team in order to win.”

Quick kept the Kings (37-25-5) in the game in the first period, when they were outshot 11-3, on the way to being named the game’s No. 1 star. He is now 29-17-2 with a 2.20 GAA, .919 save percentage and six shutouts.

Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown scored in the second period for the Kings, who snuck into seventh place in the wild Western Conference playoff race. They moved into a tie with the idle Phoenix Coyotes but have one game-in-hand.

“Great teams win, but we’ve got to keep going,” Quick said. “Just because we get a win doesn’t mean we have any breathing room at all. We want to make sure we’re in the top eight at the end of the season.”

PACIORETTY RECOVERING FROM GRUESOME HIT

Former New Canaan High and Taft-Watertown standout wing Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens sustained a severe concussion and a non-displaced fractured fourth cervical vertebra in his neck after being hit into a glass partition between the benches by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara during a 4-1 victory Tuesday night.

Pacioretty will be out indefinitely, and the Canadiens’ primary concern is his recovery.

“The players feel for their teammate,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. “Max is a popular teammate. He is a young player learning the ropes of playing in the National Hockey League and he had some great mentors here.”

Pacioretty, 22, had 11 goals and six assists in the last 20 games to lead the Canadiens in each category.

“He added another dimension to our team,” Martin said. “It wasn’t only his speed, but he played a very direct game. He did very good work around the net and in front of the goalie. He was strong on our power play. But it gives an opportunity to someone else in our lineup to seize that chance.”

Martin admitted watching one of his young players lying motionless on the ice for several minutes was an uncomfortable sight.

“When he’s showing no signs of life, it’s scary,” Martin said. “But what was reassuring was to see the response of our medical staff.”

Martin said no other details on Pacioretty’s condition will be given for the time being. He also asked the media to respect the privacy of Pacioretty and his family as both his parents were at the Bell Centre to watch Tuesday night’s game and are with him at the hospital.

Chara wasn’t disciplined after a hearing on Wednesday and hoped Pacioretty would recover quickly.

“It’s just one of those things … like glass extensions, doors, even hockey nets are part of the game and obviously players run into them,” Chara said. “It’s just very, very unfortunate that a player got hurt.”

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