FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

If the Connecticut Whale survives another wild playoff chase better than a year ago, they can look back to a 9-2 drubbing in Toronto on Feb. 9 as the turning point of the season.

After tying franchise records for most goals allowed and largest margin of defeat, coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller had a video session and discussion with the team in Toronto before heading to Hamilton.

The message of the meeting? It’s never too late to back-check.

“If you do back-check, you should have your head down and come back as hard as possible into the defensive zone,” said Daigneault, who handles the Whale defense. “And another thing addressed was the two or three games leading up to the Toronto game was precursors because of the way we had been finishing games, which wasn’t a good sign.”

Daigneault pointed to a 5-1 victory at Springfield in which the Whale allowed 10 scoring chances in the third period before getting one of their own.

“It was a matter of letting the guys know that if you’re winning 5-1 and your opponent is down, you have to keep him down,” Daigneault said. “So we stressed to play the same way for 60 minutes with regards to your defense as well as your offense. If your offense isn’t going well, don’t neglect your defense to try to generate some more because by trying to generate more, it gives your opponent more scoring chances.

“The guys are very professional. They don’t like to see themselves not performing well, not playing up to their potential, but it had to be addressed. At this time of year, everybody has to bring their ‘A’ game, and it goes from the goaltender to all the defensemen and forwards. If you want to be successful and not give too many goals against, the goalie and defensemen have to do their part, the forwards have to come back, you have to attack as a unit and be compact as a unit in your own zone. So those are things that we changed.”

Two nights after the debacle in Toronto, the Whale responded against the high-flying Bulldogs as they scored on their first two shots and appropriately won 3-2 with 1:13 left on a goal by one of their major grinders, Devin DiDiomete, whose skate deflected in a shot by the since-departed Tim Kennedy. The win started a 9-4-0-1 run in which the Whale has allowed fewer than three goals in 11 of 14 games. In the other three, they allowed four goals once (shootout loss) and five goals twice (regulation losses).

One of the other losses was 1-0 at Charlotte as they have averaged 2.29 goals against as they moved into a third-place tie with the Worcester Sharks (31-24-4-8) for the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. The Binghamton Senators (34-26-3-4), the fifth-place team in the East Division, have slumped lately and remained only one point ahead of the Whale and Sharks after a 5-2 loss at Adirondack on Wednesday night.

Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, a major beneficiary of the Whale’s improved play, said the coaches did a good job of getting their point across in the meeting.

“It’s never too late to backcheck is what I got out of it,” Grumet-Morris said. “Back pressure is the key to forcing a good transition and rushing team to possibly forcing a play or taking a shot that they don’t want to take. That’s really what the coaches have been advertising and our players have done a good job committing to. We’re all professionals, and no one wants to go out there and fail. Sometimes we lose close games, and that happens because only one team can win and one team can lose.

“Having said all that, we try to apply the lessons as best we can. Everyone has a different ability level and everyone has a different role, but we try to contribute the way that we feel we can. And I think for the most part, the players on this team have heeded the advice of the coaching staff and attempted to implement what we feel to be a winning game plan.”

Most everyone on the Whale says improvements in all phases of the game have contributed to the fewer goals against the past five weeks.

“The biggest thing lately is our forwards have done a better job of being a high third guy in the offensive zone,” defenseman/assistant captain Jared Nightingale said. “When that happens, defensemen are able to have a stronger gap and cut the space between us and the opposing forwards. Because we feel comfortable that we’ll have a forward back, we can be more aggressive and give up less scoring chances on the rush.

“And I think collectively everyone is playing better in the defensive zone, and the young defensemen have been improving all season. It’s a whole team effort, starting with Cam (Talbot) and Dov making timely saves, the defense having a good gap and the forwards back-checking hard through the middle. And recently our third man high and gaps have been a lot stronger. But we have a lot of competitive guys on this team who are all going out there and giving it our best every shift. We’ve got a little something to prove.”

Whale veterans such as Nightingale and forwards DiDiomete, Dale Weise, Brodie Dupont, Kris Newbury, Evgeny Grachev and Justin Soryal would like to prove last season was a fluke. It was the first time the then Hartford Wolf Pack failed to make the playoffs in the franchise’s 14-year history. It was by only three points, but it might as well have been 30. Still, missing the postseason in the penultimate game of the season was especially agonizing.

“It’s always seems like you’re fighting to the end, but that’s a good thing,” Nightingale said. “That’s why you like playing hockey. Those games have more meaning as far as the standings, but we look forward to it. It should be an interesting and fun finish.”

Nightingale’s defensive partner, veteran Wade Redden, said the team has competed harder, played smarter and reduced their turnovers.

“When we get in our end, I think everybody is coming back hard, playing hard and not giving up a lot,” Redden said. “We’re working together as five-man units, and that makes it easier for everyone both offensively and defensively. Five guys together usually doesn’t give the other team much room to move when they’ve got the puck, so we’ve done a better job.”

Daigneault is happy his defensemen have done a better job of breaking out of their zone, finding the first available outlet and using the net well for protection from the opposition.

“If you don’t spend time in your end, you most likely won’t get scored on,” Daigneault said. “When everyone is involved and doing their job, I think we play better defensively, and that’s a matter of the defensemen finishing their one-on-one battles, hitting their hits and having good support on the one-on-battles. The games that we play well, the defensemen get good support from the center.”

Talbot said the overall improvement boils down to more confidence in each other.

“The chemistry is better, and we’ve got a lot of our guys back off injury,” Talbot said, alluding to the Whale missing eight players at one point because of ailments and call-ups to the parent New York Rangers. “We’ve got the lines back together where we were winning a lot of games, so I think the team chemistry and believing we can beat any team on any given night has made a big difference.

“Playing with a full lineup of six defenseman and 12 forwards always helps, too. It gets everyone into it, and if your top guys need a rest, you’ve got the checking line out there, and they do a good job of ruffling some feathers and maybe getting under the other team’s skin. Everyone is doing their job, and I think that’s contributing to a lot of the wins that we’ve been getting lately.”

But the Whale is still without forwards Chad Kolarik, who re-injured his hamstring in a 4-2 victory over Worcester on Saturday night, Todd White and Chris McKelvie and defensemen Jyri Niemi and Michael Del Zotto, who said he hopes to resume skating next week. Defenseman Lee Baldwin was reassigned to Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday after going scoreless in 21 games.

The Whale had a chance to open a four-point lead on the Sharks on Sunday, but Talbot admitted allowing a few soft goals that led to a 5-2 deficit before his teammates rallied to make it close.

“The guys came out in the third period and battled hard and tried to get us the win,” Talbot said. “If I play as I normally do, that’s a win for us. I was definitely battling the puck a little, a couple of the goals shouldn’t have gone in so we should have had the win. But we’re still tied with (the Sharks) and have 13 games left so we look ahead.”

Sunday was a rarity for Whale goalies, who Weise credited most for the team’s recent surge. Talbot, a rookie, is 10-5-0-2 with a 2.50 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and two shutouts, and Grumet-Morris is 7-2-1-1, 2.02, .920 while playing on two professional tryout contracts before being signed to an AHL deal on March 2. Chad Johnson (16-18-1-3, 2.72, .901, two shutouts) started the season as the team’s No. 1 goalie but struggled some before being called up on March 2, though Henrik Lundqvist has played every game since Johnson arrived.

“Our goaltending has been deadly,” Weise said. “It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for our goaltenders with three guys rotating in and out, but Cam and Dov have been doing a great job. A couple of games we gave up a lot of chances, but they held us in there. Staying out of the (penalty) box has been big for us, too. We’ve got a good penalty kill (84.2 percent, 10th in the league; 87.5 percent, No. 1 on the road), and the goalies are our best penalty killer.

“And the refs are just letting the boys play a little more lately. Coming down the stretch, they don’t want to be the difference in games, and I kind of like it that way. We’ve got so many division games left (11) so just let the boys decide it.”

Talbot said he feels more rested after missing 13 games because of a high ankle sprain that forced him to push himself and work a little harder so when he returned he was at the top of his game. He allowed two goals in his first three games, then five on Sunday.

“Other than the last game, I felt pretty good,” Talbot said. “But with a couple good days of practice, they’ve given us a lot of shots, so forget about that one (Sunday) and move on.”

WHALE VISIT NEMESIS MONARCHS FRIDAY NIGHT

An 80-game marathon over six months has been reduced to a 13-game sprint over 24 days, and it starts Friday night against the division-leading Manchester Monarchs, who have been the Whale’s biggest nemesis this season.

The Monarchs (41-21-2-6) regained the division lead from the Pirates with a 4-2 win at Portland on Sunday and then increased their lead to three points with a 4-2 victory over slumping Springfield on Wednesday night as Oscar Moller scored two goals and Dwight King and Brandon Kozun each had a goal and an assist. But the Pirates (40-18-5-2) have four games in hand on the Monarchs with a little more than three weeks left and could win the division thanks to the shootouts, where they’re 7-2 compared to 1-6 for Manchester.

The Whale will be looking to reverse a 1-5-0-1 record against the Monarchs, their only victory being 5-1 at the XL Center on Dec. 11. The Whale has lost their three previous visits to the Verizon Wireless Center by a goal, the last on Dec. 21 in a shootout. The Whale also lost twice at home by a goal, and a third loss was by two goals with an empty-netter.

“Manchester is a team that doesn’t give you much and competes all night, so we have to do the same,” Redden said. “They never really give up, they check hard and are quick on pucks, and I think at times we haven’t played as hard as we need to.”

“They’re a good team, and I don’t think they fear us at all,” Nightingale said. “But you have to have a lot of respect for a team like them and Portland. They play strong systems, and Manchester has had a lot of players who have been there for three years, especially their defensive corps, and they went to the conference final last year. … They’re well coached, and a very disciplined, good skating team so you have to play 60 minutes to beat a team like that. But we look forward to playing teams like Manchester and Portland because we want to play the top teams. That’s where you’re measured up, and we feel we can play with any of them.”

The Monarchs, who have won three in a row and have points in four straight games (3-0-0-1), have a balanced attack led by right wing Bud Holloway (24 goals, 27 assists), center Moller (22, 27), defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov (13, 32), left wing King (21, 23), right wing Kozun (21, 23) and center Justin Azevedo (17, 26). Voynov is tied for fourth in the league in scoring among defensemen and a leading candidate for the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top blueliner. Captain Marc-Andre Cliché, a second-round pick of the Rangers in 2005 who never played in the organization before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Sean Avery deal, has a career-high 14 goals and 21 assists in 60 games after missing the start of the season because of off-season knee surgery. Former Yale forward David Meckler has 14 goals and 14 assists, but center Andrei Loktionov (8, 23), who spent a month with the Kings, is out for the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. The Monarchs have the solid goaltending tandem of rookie Martin Jones (22-10-1, 2.30, .923, four shutouts) and Jeff Zatkoff (18-12-5, 2.73, .908, two shutouts), who is 5-0-1 with a 1.25 GAA, .950 save percentage and two shutouts in his last six games.

“In three years I’ve been here, we’ve always had trouble with Manchester,” Weise said. “They’ve got a good team, but there are always certain teams that you just can’t beat. I’m not saying that we can’t beat them because the one game that we did beat them is the way we have to play. We have to be physical and make their defensemen face the glass. Then there was the game we led 4-0 and lost 5-4 in a shootout (on Dec. 21). Those are games that are the difference between where we are and being comfortably in a playoff spot. Every game matters from here on out.”

‘DOUBLEHEADER’ SATURDAY NIGHT STARTS HEAVY HOME SCHEDULE

After the final meeting with the Monarchs, the Whale will play eight of their last 12 games at home, starting Saturday night against the Providence Bruins (30-32-3-2), who have lost two in a row after four consecutive victories to fall nine points out of a playoff spot. The Whale is 4-2-0-1 against the Bruins but lost the last meeting 5-4 in a shootout in the outdoor Whale Bowl game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 19. Maxime Sauve got the winning shootout goal after scoring early in the game. He also had two goals in each of the Bruins’ two wins.

The Bruins have been hurt by the loss of center Joe Colburne, the Boston Bruins’ first-round pick in 2008 who was part of a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs that brought defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the parent team on Feb. 18. The P-Bruins are led by All-Star center Jamie Arniel (17, 24), center Zach Hamill (8, 29), rookie right wing Kirk MacDonald (12, 17) and veteran center Trent Whitfield (11 goals, 11 assists in 33), who didn’t play until Jan. 7 after he blew out his Achilles tendon while exercising in mid-August. Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, the son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has six goals, eight assists and 142 penalty minutes. He also scored the winning goal in a 3-2 shootout victory over Manchester on March 9 that went a team-record 14 rounds.

Anton Khudobin has done a majority of the goaltending for the P-Bruins since the Boston Bruins acquired him from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 28 for Jeff Penner and Mikko Lehtonen. Khudobin is 4-1-0-0 with a 2.29 GAA, .910 save percentage and one shutout in six games after being 19-12-1 with a 2.58 GAA, .911 save percentage and one shutout with the Houston Aeros. His goalie partner now is rookie Michael Hutchinson (10-9-1, 3.25, .900, one shutout), whose emergence allowed the Bruins to loan veteran Nolan Schaefer (9-16-1, 3.11, .897) to the Hershey Bears. Schaefer had 23 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Whale last Friday.

Before the game, the first “Guns & Hoses Cup” between police and fire departments from the Greater Hartford area will be played at 4:30 p.m. to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“Many of the gentlemen who are going to be playing in the event have been playing hockey for several years, and to play on the XL Center ice surface is really going to be a treat for a lot of these guys,” said East Hartford firefighter Tim George, who has been the driving force behind organizing the event with the Whale. “I think that’s one of the reasons why there is such a draw for people to participate in the event.

“And for it to be more than just a bunch of 40-year-old kids that were going to have fun playing on the ice surface, we decided to do it as a charity event, and that’s how we got the MDA involved. Once we found out we could have the opportunity to play on the XL Center ice surface before a Whale game, it just seemed like a natural fit that we would incorporate that into it, as a fundraiser to raise money for a good cause. That’s what we’re all about all the time, trying to take care of people, help our communities and at the same time give back wherever we can.”

The police team will be comprised of players from the police departments of Farmington, led by Police Chief Paul Melanson, Hartford, Middletown, Rockville, Rocky Hill, Newington and West Hartford. The fire team consists predominantly of East Hartford firefighters.

Fans are encouraged to arrive early as pregame festivities include presentation of the Colors by an honor guard, a live performance of the national anthem and a ceremonial puck drop. Following the game, there will be a trophy presentation to the winning team.

Tickets can be purchased at CTHeroescup.com for $20, with half of that going to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Tickets for the benefit game are good for the Whale-Bruins game, and Whale season seat-holders can receive free admission to the police-fire department game by presenting their season ticket at the gate. And 3,000 lucky fans will receive a bobblehead of Whalers mascot Pucky courtesy of Click It or Ticket.

The Whale will complete a busy weekend with the first of two consecutive games against Springfield (30-33-2-3), which is in a season-high, eight-game slide (0-7-0-1) since the loss of rugged wings Tom Sestito and former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers via deals at the trade deadline. The Falcons were challenging for their first playoff berth since 2005 before the freefall that has existed since a 4-1 victory over Portland on Feb. 26. Their only point since then came on March 5 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Whale, who are 4-1-1-1 against Springfield and have won four in a row with three games left in the I-91 series.

The Falcons are led by rookie right wing Tomas Kubalik (22, 23), veteran centers Trevor Smith (18, 22) and Ben Guite (13, 24) and rookie left wing Maksim Mayorov (17, 13). Smith has six goals and seven assists but is minus-13 in 21 games with the Falcons since being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 4 for defenseman Nate Guenin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2002 who never played in the organization before signing a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2006 after four years at Ohio State. Former Wolf Pack captain/center Greg Moore has one assist in seven games since being part of the Sestito trade. Former Wolf Pack David LeNeveu (16-18-2, 2.98, .895) and Gustaf Wesslau (12-15-1, 3.11, .900) are sharing the goaltending. Fans are encouraged to bring their skates for a postgame skate that will include some Whale players.

The Whale and Falcons also play Wednesday before the first-year Charlotte Checkers, the Whale’s former ECHL affiliate, make their second XL Center appearance next Friday and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers visit next Saturday to end the homestand. The Whale then plays successive games at Providence on March 27 and April 1.

WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON MARCH 26

The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” when Bridgeport visits. 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.

A new banner saluting the Howes, hockey’s first family, will also be raised to the rafters and area fans will be able to salute the Howe clan for their contributions to hockey in general and the Hartford market in particular.

“In a lot of ways, Gordie Howe really put Hartford on the hockey map,” Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said. “He brought true greatness to the city and helped usher the Whalers into the NHL. We feel that now is the perfect time to honor him and his legendary family with so many great things going on with the Whale, the Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest having been such a momentous event, and so much excitement around hockey in Connecticut right now.”

Prior to the game, fans can meet Gordie and get a personalized autographed book and photo by purchasing a copy of the colorful 185-page book “Howe No. 9.” The book sells for $70, and he will be signing copies starting at 5:30 p.m. in the XL Center atrium. In addition, the first 2,000 fans will receive a free commemorative 36-page Gordie Howe tribute program full of color photos and stories.

Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Kevin 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.

“I think the next test of this market will be on Howe Family Night,” Baldwin Jr. said. “People should come out and show Gordie the respect that he deserves. It’s one of the biggest nights of the season, and I agree with (Hartford Courant sports columnist) Jeff Jacobs that it’s the time when the tire meets the road. It’s a big game on our schedule, and we don’t have a lot of games left. I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t have 10,000 people.”

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.

Tickets for all Whale games are available at the XL Center box office, through Ticketmaster Charge-by-Phone at 1-800-745-3000 and on-line at www.ctwhale.com. Tickets start at $7 at the XL Center ticket office on game day. Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford because of the frigid 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 Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. at hlb@whalerssports.com.

RANGERS SIGN TWO TOP PROSPECTS, COULD JOIN WHALE

The Rangers have signed two of their top prospects, rugged defenseman Dylan McIlrath and feisty left wing Ryan Bourque, to entry-level contracts, and they could join the Whale when their junior teams have finished their seasons.

McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010 now playing for Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League, has five goals, a career-high 18 assists and 141 penalty minutes in 59 games. McIlrath is the Rangers’ second-ranked prospect by The Hockey News Future Watch behind Boston College right wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 who led the Eagles to the NCAA title last year with a 5-0 victory over the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers’ top players were Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was rated third by The Hockey News.

Bourque, 20, is a two-time medalist at the World Junior Championship as a member of the United States U-20 team, including a gold medal in the 2010 tournament and a bronze this year. This season, the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2009 has career highs in games played (47), goals (26), assists (31), points (57) and power play goals (six) with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque was ranked ninth by The Hockey News.

FIRST TEE OF CONNECTICUT DAY ON APRIL 3

The Whale will host First Tee of Connecticut Day on April 3, when the Portland Pirates are at the XL Center at 3 p.m.

Level 200 tickets are $12, with the First Tee of Connecticut receiving $5 from each ticket sold. To purchase tickets and help local youngsters interested in improving their golf game and life skills, contact Nick Criscuolo at 860-728-3366 or ncriscuolo@whalerssports.com.

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