FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

Connecticut Whale rookie defenseman Tomas Kundratek now fully understands the adage that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good.

Despite admittedly knowing little about men’s college basketball, Kundratek was the Whale’s top dog when he won the team’s NCAA pool on his first try.

For a $20 investment, Kundratek skated off with the first prize of $400, edging right wing Chad Kolarik, the only other player to pick the University of Connecticut to win a third national title under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

“I saw No. 15 (All-American guard Kemba Walker) was really good, and they looked confident,” Kundratek said, referring to the Huskies’ historic five victories in five days to win the Big East tournament, the start of a four-week run to the national title.

But the Czech Republic native admitted he had no secrets as to why he won his pool debut.

“It was fun, but I actually didn’t want to play before the tournament because I didn’t know that much about basketball,” Kundratek said with a smile. “But some guys said Europeans usually win the (top) prize, so I said, ‘I’ll go. I can’t not play.’ Some guys helped me because I didn’t know a lot, but I just liked the way Connecticut played, even in the women’s game. I probably took only two or three minutes to (fill out a bracket), so it was crazy how it worked out.”

Crazy indeed. Kundratek said UConn’s one-point victory over Kentucky in the Final Four semifinals was “really crazy” and made him the frontrunner to succeed Swede Anders Eriksson, who played only eight games with the Wolf Pack last season but was the pool winner.

“I watched that game because if UConn won, I won the (first) prize,” Kundratek said. “If they lost, (left wing) Brodie (Dupont) won the (first) prize. So I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was really happy because it was a really good game.”

Kolarik won $150 for second place, and left wing Devin DiDiomete got his $20 entry fee back for finishing last.

With the NCAA tournaments over – Texas A&M beat UConn conqueror Notre Dame for the women’s title Tuesday night – the Whale turned their attention to their pool for the 75th Masters, which begins Thursday at Augusta National on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ memorable sixth victory at 46. Each of 24 pool participant selected four players Wednesday, with the two best scores after 72 holes Sunday determining the winner. At least two players have to make the 36-hole cut on Friday for someone to be eligible for the prizes.

Not surprisingly, defending champion and pre-tournament favorite Phil Mickelson was the No. 1 pick by defenseman Pavel Valentenko. Mickelson is trying to join Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods as four-time champions and get into a tie for second in green jackets behind Nicklaus, the Master of the Masters.

MCILRATH SIGNS

While the players made their selections, defenseman Dylan McIlrath, 18, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, signed an amateur tryout agreement after agreeing to a NHL contract March 16. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, ended his third season in the Western Hockey League when the Moose Jaw Warriors were eliminated from the playoffs last week. He was scoreless with 15 penalty minutes in six postseason games after getting five goals, 18 assists and 153 PIM in 62 regular season games.

WHALE HOLDS TIEBREAKERS OVER SHARKS

The Portland Pirates’ 2-1 shootout victory over Worcester on Tuesday night assured the Whale will hold all tiebreakers over the Sharks in their battle for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. The Sharks’ loss also assured the Norfolk Admirals would be in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

The first tiebreaker in any race is victories, excluding shootout wins. With two teams involved, the next tiebreakers are points in the season series between the teams, goal differential, goals scored in the season series and intra-conference points percentage. With three or more teams in the mix, it’s points percentage in the combined season series, goal differential, goal differential in the combined season series and intra-conference points percentage.

The Whale (39-30-2-6) has the first two tiebreakers with Worcester (36-29-4-9). The Whale’s 39 wins include five via shootouts for a net of 34 with the three games left – at Bridgeport on Friday night and home against the Sound Tigers on Saturday night and Norfolk on Sunday afternoon. The Sharks’ 36 wins also include five via shootouts for a net of 31 with two games to play at Charlotte on Friday and Saturday nights.

So the Whale, who won the season series with the Sharks 5-2-0-1, has a magic number of three points, and they can get them in any manner as Worcester can’t catch them in net wins.

HYNES, BASS EARN PIERI, DUPRE AWARDS

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach John Hynes and Binghamton Senators center Cody Bass were named winners of the AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Award and Yanick Dupre Memorial Award on Wednesday.

In his first season as a professional head coach, Hynes led the Penguins to the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy and one of the best regular seasons in league history with a 56-20-0-1 record with three games left. The 56 wins are a franchise record and tie the third-highest total in AHL history. Hynes has kept the Penguins atop the overall standings while having 11 players called up for 140 games with the parent Pittsburgh Penguins, including nine of the top 10 scorers in Wilkes-Barre. A 36-year-old native of Warwick, R.I., Hynes is the youngest coach in the league after helping Boston University win the national title in 1995 and being a successful coach in the United States developmental program.

Bass beat out Whale defenseman Jared Nightingale and 28 other players named their team’s IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year for outstanding contributions to local community and charitable organizations. The Dupre award, selected by IOA/American Specialty and AHL officials, is named after the former Hershey Bears forward who died in 1997 at 24 following a 16-month battle with leukemia. Dupre, an AHL All-Star in 1995, had 169 points in 207 AHL games and played in 35 NHL games with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Bass has always been involved in the local Binghamton community, but this season, he was even more motivated after the death in November of Daron Richardson, the 14-year-old daughter of Ottawa assistant coach Luke Richardson. Bass established the WINGS (When I Need Guidance and Support) to increase awareness of teen suicide and help raise money to further programs in Binghamton and Ottawa that work to prevent suicide in teens and young adults. The foundation has received overwhelming support throughout the hockey community, and fundraising efforts were highlighted by an outdoor skate in late February in which hundreds of fans braved freezing temperatures to join Bass and his Senators teammates in support of the cause.

The 24-year-old Bass, a fourth-year pro, also continued to volunteer for and participate in various other outreach opportunities. Besides reading to students at local elementary schools and contributing to various charitable auctions, Bass supported teammates in their community relations, including joining defenseman Eric Gryba on an ice fishing trip organized for the Broome Developmental Center, which assists people with developmental disabilities.

Previous award winners announced were Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Brad Thiessen, Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award (outstanding goaltender, 34-7-1, 1.93 GAA, .922 save percentage, seven shutouts in 44 games); Portland’s Marc-Andre Gragnani, Eddie Shore Award (outstanding defenseman, 12 goals, 48 assists, plus-22 in 63 games); and Oklahoma City defenseman Bryan Helmer, Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award (sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey). Whale coach Ken Gernander (1996, 2004), former Hartford Whalers center Glenn Merkosky (1987, 1991) and Murray Eaves (1989-90) are the only two-time Hunt winners. The other winners to be announced are for the Dudley “Red” Garrett Award (outstanding rookie) on Thursday and Les Cunningham Award (MVP) on Friday. … Though not named to the two All-AHL teams, Wethersfield native Colin McDonald of Oklahoma City is having the season of his life. The son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald has 36 goals, which is triple his previous high of 12 in any of his previous three pro seasons. In fact, he had a total of 34 goals as a pro in that span but now ranks second in the AHL to the 41 goals of former Wolf Pack left wing Nigel Dawes of the Hamilton Bulldogs. … Providence Bruins center Trent Whitfield (12 goals, 10 assists, league-best 22 points in 13 games), Syracuse Crunch right wing Kyle Palmieri (12 goals, including five winners, three assists and plus-8 in 13 games) and Manchester Monarchs goalie Jeff Zatkoff (5-3-1, 1.55 GAA, .949 save percentage, two shutouts in nine games) were named the Reebok/AHL player, rookie and goaltender of the month for March. Player of the Month nominees also included Dawes, Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko and South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore (Houston Aeros). Grumet-Morris and Whale defenseman Blake Parlett were among the goalie and rookie nominees. … Former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman of the Albany Devils was named winner of the reGen Muscle Recovery Beverage/AHL Performance of the Month award for March. With his team trailing the Sound Tigers by three goals on March 9, Wiseman scored four times in the final 9:25, tying an AHL record for goals in a period and lifting the Devils to an improbable 5-4 victory. Wiseman has 15 goals and 26 assists in 44 games this season. … Oklahoma City goalie Jeff Drouin-Desleuriers was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week for getting two shutouts with 55 saves in 7-0 and 2-0 victories over Rockford and Texas. The Whale nominated right wing Mats Zuccarello, who had four assists in three games after being reassigned by the Rangers on Friday. Other nominees included Dawes, Rakhshani, former Wolf Pack forward Jeff Taffe (Rockford) and Avon native and former Farmington High/Avon Old Farms/Boston University standout center Nick Bonino (Syracuse).

MONTOYA GETS MUCH-DESERVED SHOT IN NHL

Congratulations to former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya on his one-year contract extension from the New York Islanders last week. The 26-year-old Montoya has had a roller-coaster career since being the Rangers’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2004. It started in Hartford and continued through never playing in New York and rarely in Phoenix before being traded to the Islanders on Feb. 9 for a sixth-round pick in June. He played 197 games with the Wolf Pack and San Antonio Rampage, compiling a 96-72-7 record with nine shutouts, and only five NHL games with the Coyotes before a series of injuries on Long Island gave Montoya his first legitimate shot in the NHL. He has responded with a 9-5-4 record, 2.37 GAA, .921 save percentage and one shutout with one of the NHL’s worst teams. One of his wins was his first over the Rangers on March 31, when he made 25 saves in a 6-2 victory in which Henrik Lundqvist was pulled for Chad Johnson, making his first appearance since being called up from the Whale on March 2. It was a bounce back for Montoya, who was shaky in a 6-3 loss to the Rangers on March 15. Kudos to Montoya, for his perseverance. … Nice to hear former New Canaan High and Taft-Watertown standout forward Max Pacioretty took a light skate Friday for the first time since the Montreal Canadiens speedster sustained a severe concussion and broken vertebrae in his neck when checked into a stanchion by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on March 8. Pacioretty skated about 20 minutes in the start of what he hopes will be a successful return to hockey’s highest level. “It is part of the protocol, it’s the beginning of his rehabilitation,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. Before his injury, Pacioretty was having a breakout season with 14 goals and 10 assists in 37 games with the Canadiens after getting 17 goals and 15 assists in 27 games with Hamilton.

GREENWICH’S ATKINSON AMONG HOBEY BAKER FINALISTS

Boston College junior forward Cam Atkinson of Greenwich is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, honoring college hockey’s top player, and has made an immediate impression in his first four pro games with the Springfield Falcons. The other Hobey Baker finalists are University of North Dakota senior forward Matt Frattin and Miami-Ohio senior forward Andy Miele, who signed a free-agent, entry-level contract with the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday and joined the team for practice on Monday. The finalists were selected from the initial list of Top Ten candidates by the 23-member selection committee and an additional round of online fan balloting to determine the winner. The criteria for the award included strength of character on and off the ice, displaying outstanding skills in all phases of the game, sportsmanship and scholastic achievements.

Atkinson, who prepped at Avon Old Farms, led Boston College in scoring for the second consecutive season as the defending national champion Eagles won the Hockey East regular season and playoff titles. Named a first team all-star, Atkinson led Hockey East with 24 goals and was second in scoring with 38 points in 27 games. Overall, he had 31 goals and 21 assists in 39 games and 16 multiple point contests. He is second in the nation in goals and has 61 the past two seasons. The communications major signed a two-year, entry-level pro contract on March 28 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who selected Atkinson in the sixth round in 2008. He also has been active in the community volunteering with youth hockey, hospital visits and several projects with elementary schools.

Last season, Atkinson led the nation with 30 goals, including two in a 5-0 victory over Wisconsin in the national title game. On March 26, he signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets but remained in his Immersive Education class at Boston College, saying, “I just can’t leave those guys in Rocketworld.” He assisted on the game-tying goal and scored the winner in a 3-2 victory over Bridgeport in his pro debut on Friday night and then had another goal and an assist in a 6-2 victory over the Whale on Saturday night. He was shut out in a 6-2 loss to the Sound Tigers on Tuesday. Atkinson’s new teammates include former Yale standout left wing Denny Kearney, who has four points in three games, including a goal and an assist against the Whale.

Frattin, suspended by North Dakota for the first half of last season, earned an opportunity to rejoin the team for the second half and then passed up pro hockey to return for his senior season. It proved the right choice as Frattin was named the WCHA Player of the Year and a first team all-star. He also helped North Dakota to a No. 1 national ranking plus the WCHA regular season and playoff titles and a berth in the Frozen Four, leading the conference in scoring with 22 goals and 40 points in 28 games. The fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2007 has 36 goals, first nationally by five, 24 assists and 60 points, second in the country to Miele.

Miele’s 71 points came in only 39 games as he led the CCHA in scoring with 16 goals and 40 assists in 28 games, the 56 points the most in conference history. His 40 assists were more than the second-place player had points, a first in CCHA history. The CCHA Player of the Year and first-team all-star led the nation in assists, and the RedHawks’ assistant captain is an American Studies major with a coaching minor. He is active in the community, helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity, a volunteer with a Children’s Home and visits to a retirement home and local elementary schools.

The Hobey Baker winner will be announced Friday during the NCAA Frozen Four at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The announcement will be aired live on ESPNU at 7 p.m.

DRURY BACK ON THE ICE – FINALLY

Rangers captain and Trumbull native Chris Drury resumed skating Saturday and practiced with the team Monday for the first time since he went out with an ailing back Feb. 3 after being twice sidelined by a broken finger. He has no goals and four assists in 23 games but hopes to return at least by the playoffs, assuming the Rangers hold on in the Eastern Conference.

“It was a pretty good day,” Drury said Monday. “The key, obviously, is duplicating the good days as often as we can and just kind of take it day by day. We’ll just see how it reacts.”

Drury has missed more games this season (47) than in his previous 11 NHL seasons combined. He has worked extremely hard to stay in shape but knows it’s not like playing in games.

“I think I always try to keep things in perspective,” Drury said. “I’ve been so fortunate my whole career, and I know I have been, as far as injury goes. I had a little knee sprain in Colorado, I think my third year – I missed 10, 11 games. Other than that and a few concussions along the way – a few concussions where they could have done a lot more damage – I’ve gotten away pretty fortunate over the years. Some guys it happens to them every year, every other year, and they can never kind of get on track. To play as long as I have and have this kind of be my first year with missing a significant amount of games, I still consider myself very lucky.

“There are obviously parts of the game that you can’t duplicate or replicate in a practice. I’m just trying to keep things as simple as I can. Today was good, and hopefully tomorrow’s just as good, if not better.”

Like Tortorella has said on numerous occasions, the hard-working Black-and-Blueshirts have been fun to follow for Drury.

“I think being in the position I’ve been in for most of the year, which is watching, it is a fun team to watch and an easy team to like,” Drury said. “I do think there’s a conscious choice every game, every night, to play hard and work hard. Obviously, there’s nights where it hasn’t worked out, and you have to regroup, but it shows what these guys are made of, with the tough night on the Island (6-2 loss last Thursday night), and bouncing back, going to Philly, which is never an easy opponent for us, to gut one out (3-2 shootout win Sunday). That’s things in a nutshell for us.”

A few hours later and Drury could have added the season’s defining moment, a 5-3 victory over the Bruins in which the Rangers trailed 3-0 but scored three times in the final 3:48 on goals by former Wolf Pack players Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Sauer 52 seconds apart and an empty-netter by rookie Derek Stepan with 53 seconds left. The clinching goal prompted Lundqvist to skate to the bench to high-five teammates as the Rangers won for the first time in 13 games (1-11-1) since the All-Star break in which they trailed after two periods.

“It gives you goose bumps, and it’s a feeling you can’t describe when you hear that many people going crazy and your team is going crazy,” said Dubinsky, who screamed and raced to the boards, sliding on his knees, where he was mobbed by teammates as a deafening roar filled The World’s Most Famous Arena after the tying goal. “I don’t want to sound cliché, but we fought so hard for so many months, and we needed these two points, so that part of it made it that more emotional.”

The decibel and emotional levels went even higher after Sauer took a brilliant pass from Marian Gaborik and shoveled a shot on net that barely crossed the line for his third goal of the season.

“That was unbelievable,” said Sauer, a rookie defenseman who has had a breakout season after two injury-riddled campaigns in Hartford. “I have never scored a goal that big before, that’s for sure. I was so excited, and the fans went nuts. That’s what it’s all about, and getting those two points is huge for us.”

That euphoria turned somber Tuesday when it was learned former Wolf Pack forward Ryan Callahan, the Rangers’ top forward and epitome of the team’s gritty style, will be out 6-to-8 weeks after he sustained a broken right ankle with 1:45 left when he blocked a shot by Chara, who set the NHL hardest shot record of 105.9 mph this year. Callahan earlier missed 19 games with a broken hand after he blocked a shot by Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang on Dec. 15. Ironically, Drury had returned that night.

“There’s no comfort in losing Ryan Callahan,” Tortorella told the New York media Tuesday. “It’s something we’ve handled before. We’ve had to. I think sometimes it galvanizes your team even more. I shouldn’t say it’s a good thing. There’s nothing good about this, but I think you need to try to turn it into something that will help your team even more during this crunch time.”

Fortunately for the Whale, Tortorella elected to move former Wolf Pack defenseman Matt Gilroy to right wing rather than recall Mats Zuccarello, whom he wants to continue to get lots of ice time in Hartford, where he had four assists in three games after being reassigned Friday. Plus, Drury might return for the Rangers’ regular-season finale Saturday against New Jersey or in Game 1 of the playoffs next week if they take care of business.

“(Callahan) plays in every situation, he does all the little things and big things,” Drury told the New York media Tuesday. “You can’t say enough good things about him.”

Not enough indeed. Heal quickly, Ryan. You and the Rangers don’t deserve such a bad break.

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