FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

John Mitchell isn’t going to win many fastest skater races. He’s not going to win many fastest shot competitions. He isn’t likely to win many trick-shot contests, though his insurance goal Sunday night defied that premise.

But the Connecticut Whale’s veteran center can play five-on-five. He can play well down low on the power play. He can kill penalties. He can win face-offs in key situations.

In simplest terms, John Mitchell is a pro’s pro.

Mitchell proved that again in the Whale’s 3-1 “must win” over Portland at the XL Center, cutting the Pirates’ lead to 2-1 in the Atlantic Division best-of-seven semifinal series. Game 4 is Tuesday night at 7 at the XL Center, and there will be at least a Game 5 on Thursday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine.

“I’ve been doing well on the penalty kill and face-offs and stuff like that,” said Mitchell, 25, acquired Feb. 28 from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a seventh-round pick in 2012 two days after the New York Rangers dealt center Tim Kennedy and a third-round pick in June to the Florida Panthers for defenseman Bryan McCabe. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but G (coach Ken Gernander) puts me out there for a reason, and I try and do the best I can with what I can do.

“I credit my wingers and defensemen coming in and helping me out on face-offs and either chipping the puck back to the defense or when it is on the penalty kill, we’re for the most part getting it out. Sometimes we’re not, but for the most part we’re getting it out.”

With Mitchell winning several key draws, especially during a 5-on-3 against in the third period, the Whale was 8-for-8 on the penalty kill after going 7-for-7 in a 3-2 overtime loss Saturday night. The Whale is 18-for-20 (90 percent) on the penalty kill in the series after ending the regular season 32-for-45 (71.1 percent) while losing six of their last eight games. Not surprisingly, Mitchell missed five games with a foot injury, was a healthy scratch in a sixth and scored a goal in each of the other two.

“He has been doing a lot of things for us, and when he was out, it kind of changed the look of things,” Gernander said. “He’s a solid, two-way American Hockey League center, takes draws and is a big body (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) so he can defend against bigger players but is skilled enough to play the top lines. He does a lot of things and is a pretty important part of our team.”

To try to reduce the wear and tear on veteran players such as Mitchell, Kris Newbury, Brodie Dupont, Dale Weise and Ryan Garlock, Gernander has been using young penalty killers such as Francis Lemieux and Carl Hagelin, who signed an amateur tryout contract last week after helping the University of Michigan reach the Frozen Four final.

Mitchell, a fifth-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2005, and veteran defenseman Wade Redden, another tower of strength again Sunday, helped set up Derek Couture’s winning goal with 3:37 left in the second period. Then Mitchell corralled a Weise shot that deflected off Pirates defenseman Dennis Persson, a Sunday addition from the parent Buffalo Sabres, and fired a bad-angle shot that went through goalie David Leggio’s legs for the clinching goal 9:22 into the third period.

Mitchell was sent out for a key face-off in the defensive zone with the Whale trying to kill a 5-on-3 with 6:37 left in regulation. A minute later, the Pirates were awarded a penalty shot after Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko threw himself in front of a point-blank laser by AHL Rookie of the Year Luke Adam and crumbled into the crease with the puck underneath him. Referee Jamie Koharski gave the Pirates the penalty shot, which might have been a strict interpretation of the rules but failed to take into account that Valentenko had been stunned by Adam’s shot.

“Rules are rules, apparently, and a couple of rules came out of the rule book that I’m pretty sure anybody would question,” said Mitchell, an eight-year pro who has 69 goals and 107 assists in 388 games with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and AHL’s Toronto Marlies and Whale. “But he (Valentenko) is in the crease and the puck is on top of him, so he has to make some sort of effort to try to get it out of there even if he did taken that shot right in the abdomen. No padding, a pretty hard shot. He put his body on the line to block that shot and virtually save us the game.

“That was huge for us. He had a couple of penalties that he obviously wanted to take back, and he certainly stepped up by blocking that shot. … Every defenseman has to do that. If you’re going to play defense, you have to know at the end of the night that you’re going to be blocking two or three shots, especially if you’re going to be on the penalty kill where shot blocking is obviously a must. So great job by all of our defense blocking shots, and a lot of our forwards put their body on the line, too. It was a great team effort, and we’re just going to come to play the same way in Game 4.”

Fortunately for all involved, former Pirates goalie Dov Grumet-Morris bailed out Valentenko and Koharski when he stacked his pads to stop Mark Parrish’s penalty shot for one of his 29 saves on the way to his first AHL playoff win. Grumet-Morris’ performance earned him the No. 1 star of the game and the No. 3 star in the league.

“That’s huge for our team,” Mitchell said of the penalty-shot stop. “If a right-handed guy is going to come down the right side, that’s a smart, calculated decision that Dov made to come out and take that away from him. Really all (Parrish) had at that moment was a shot, so Dov picked the right thing to do, and Parrish didn’t really have too much (to shoot at). So credit Dov big time for making that split decision at that time.”

It was the first penalty shot save by a Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale goalie since Johan Holmqvist denied Providence’s Jeremy Brown at 39 seconds of the third period in Game 2 of the conference quarterfinals on April 13, 2001. The Wolf Pack won the game 2-1, but the Bruins took the series, 3 games to 2.

“We had quite a few chances, but that’s the playoffs,” said Parrish, who has played in 722 NHL games. “Sometimes you run into goalies that are hot and sometimes you can’t quite find a way to get by them. But you’ve just got to keep that even keep and not get frustrated and come back and get them again.”

Pirates coach Kevin Dineen, the former Hartford Whalers standout right wing and captain whose retired No. 11 hangs in the XL Center rafters, had few complaints about his team’s play in Game 3 when the Whale got some breaks that the Pirates had enjoyed in Game 2.

“Dov played a heckuva game, and it was another tight-checking game,” Dineen said Monday. “It’s no coincidence they’ve all been close games the way the season series played out (5-3-0-0 for the Whale with six one-goal games, including three in overtime). If you were predicting the playoffs, that’s the way these games will be as well.

“Breaks have made a difference, but you work for your breaks, too. Breaks don’t come easy in the playoffs, so you have to take advantage of opportunity and smell offense when it’s there. We’re not upset or frustrated with (Game 3) because Dov played a heckuva game. That’s the way it’s going to play out.”

But if the Whale is to rally to win the series, they have to understand that penalties are a definite no-no, especially when goals are so precious in the playoffs. Despite constant pleading from Gernander, the Whale was the second-most penalized team in the league in the regular season to Albany, which isn’t in the playoffs. Things haven’t changed much in the postseason as the Whale is ranked fifth with 14.7 penalty minutes a game.

“That’s one thing for sure that has to be rectified if we’re going to move forward as a team,” Gernander said.

“We’ve got to stay out of the (penalty) box, it’s as simple as that,” Mitchell said. “We’ve taken way too many penalties (22 to 15 for the Pirates). I wouldn’t say they’re lazy penalties because, yeah, they’re hooking or trips or whatever, but we’re scrambling and putting ourselves in those situations where they’re going to get a 2-on-1 or getting a really good scoring chance so we have to kind of halt that.

“There are a lot of plays like that, so we have to take care of our own end first, make sure we get pucks out, have all of our forwards coming back and just do the little things that are going to make our team successful.”

Then there are breaks that often decide tightly contested playoff games. The Pirates got two to score the tying and winning goals by Derek Whitmore in Game 2, and the Whale got several in Game 3 as Whitmore hit the post, Valentenko blocked the shot in the crease with Grumet-Morris out of the net and Weise’s shot ricocheted right to Mitchell’s for the insurance goal.

“Breaks are really important,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, playing minor league hockey for the Waterloo Wolves of the Alliance Pavilion. “There obviously were some suspect calls (Sunday night), but you can’t get too caught up in it and waste your energy. I was screaming at the ref, a lot of guys were screaming at the ref. It kind of drains you, and you’re probably not going to get any calls if you’re screaming and yelling at them all night long.

“I think we need to just keep our mouth shut a little bit more and just play the game. If we’re going to yell at anybody, let’s yell at guys on their team and let them know it’s going to be a tough game.”

GRANT KNOW ALL ABOUT ‘THE HOCKEY GODS’

Whale left wing Tommy Grant, one of seven college/junior players to sign amateur tryout contracts in the past three weeks, certainly enjoyed Game 3 a lot more than Game 2.

Grant, 24, who had three assists in seven regular-season games after signing out of the University of Alaska-Anchorage on March 26, chalked it up to “the hockey gods,” uttering the words with a laugh.

Yes, “the hockey gods” can act in mysterious ways. In Game 2, Whitmore picked off Grant’s clearing attempt at the left point and took a shot that went into a virtually open net with 7:40 left in regulation after Grant had inadvertently run into Grumet-Morris and spun around the Whale goalie. Whitmore scored the winner at 12:04 of overtime off another broken play, converting a 2-on-1 with Brian Roloff after Whale center Francis Lemieux’s shot hit defenseman Tim Conboy’s shin pad and popped into the neutral zone.

“It obviously was kind of like a brain cramp,” Grant said of his play on the tying goal. “I tossed the puck up the wall thinking I had a guy there and there wasn’t. Then I just turned around to see that their guy had the puck and didn’t see where Dov was and knocked into him. It was an unfortunate thing, but the guys were really good in the (dressing) room about it. And Dov just picked me up right away and said it’s hockey and to just to keep playing.

“It definitely helps having guys like that around. It shows we have good leadership. It was clearly my mistake, and for a guy like that to say that that’s hockey and things like that happen … He’s been around for awhile and is a great leader in our room, so it goes a long way, especially with the young guys.”

While “the hockey gods” can taketh, they also can giveth. On Sunday, Grant was in the right place at the right time when Ryan Garlock raced into the right circle and flipped a backhand centering pass that glanced off Grant’s skate and past Pirates goalie David Leggio 3:03 into the game for his first pro playoff goal.

“Garsy made a great play to drive the guy wide and beat him,” Grant said. “The play never happens if he doesn’t do that. He kind of threw one towards me, and it was just one of those plays where it hits your skate and goes in. Right place. Right time.”

The officials conferred to make sure Grant hadn’t kicked the puck in, and when they agreed that he hadn’t, the Whale had a 1-0 lead.

“I was stopping and didn’t make any kind of kicking motion,” Grant said.

Grant also appreciated that he got to play again after the unfortunate incident in Game 2.

“It would have been easy just to bury me at the end of the bench after a play like that,” Grant said. “It shows a lot of trust in the coach to put me right back out there. It definitely helped my confidence going into Game 3 as well, to know that they believed in me, that it was just a mental error and to learn from it and just be better.”

Oh, “the hockey gods.”

And what did Grant think lies ahead?

“All the games could have gone either way,” he said. “We know every game is going to be tight, so it’s just a matter of getting that bounce and not making mistakes. Like in Game 2, a couple mistakes cost us the game, but if we can avoid that, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

HAGELIN GETTING MORE COMFORTABLE BY THE DAY

Hagelin, another of the recent signees, is feeling more in tune with the Whale program with each passing day. He became the team’s newest member Wednesday after the University of Michigan team he captained lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA title game April 9.

“I’m getting more comfortable each game,” said Hagelin, 22, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in 2007 and a former Michigan teammate of injured Whale right wing Chad Kolarik. “I didn’t have that much ice time the first game (Saturday), but it’s just a good learning experience getting in with the boys, getting to know the systems and realizing what I have to do in the summer to be a good player with this team.”

And what might that be?

“I have to get strong and get more patience with the puck,” Hagelin said. “You’re not going to get more patience over the summer, but just being around the guys and getting more comfortable will give you more patience.”

When Gernander shuffled his four lines Sunday, Hagelin started on left wing alongside veterans Newbury and All-Star Jeremy Williams, the Whale’s top two scorers in the regular season. He also did more penalty killing than in his pro debut Saturday.

“That was fun,” Hagelin said. “They’re easy to play with, and they get the puck a lot. There was a lot of penalty killing, so I had only a few shifts with them, but obviously they’re great players and great with the puck. It was fun to play with them. Too bad we couldn’t get one (goal).”

One of Hagelin’s former Michigan teammates is sophomore defenseman Lee Moffie of Wallingford.

“He probably had more goals than anyone the second half of the season,” Hagelin said. “A lot of power-play goals. He has a great slap shot.” … Monday was the third anniversary of Kolarik notching a hat trick in his second professional game, leading San Antonio to a 6-3 victory at Toronto and the first postseason win in franchise history. Kolarik is skating much better in practice and could be close to returning after missing 26 games with a hamstring injury similar to one he had while at Michigan. … Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who has missed 22 games since sustaining a broken finger in a 3-2 victory over Springfield on March 2, was scheduled to be X-rayed by a doctor Monday, and that could go a long way toward determining when he might return. … Redden leads all active Whale players with 11 points against the Pirates (one goal, 10 assists in 11 games), and Weise has a team-high three goals.

WHALE, RANGERS FOLLOW SUIT

Like the Whale, the Rangers scored a 3-2 “must win” over top-seeded Washington on Sunday as former Wolf Pack wing Brandon Dubinsky scored a fortuitous goal with 1:39 left when his shot off a drive to the net popped into the air, bounced off Capitals defenseman’s Karl Alzner’s shoulder and went in off a diving Alex Ovechkin’s stick.

“Bang, bang, it was in the net,” Dubinsky said after getting the Rangers cut the Caps’ lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series to 2-1. “I was trying to get away from the (defenseman), I was trying to bring pucks to the net and bang something in there, especially with how much time was left in the game.”

Dubinsky had struggled since his former Wolf Pack sidekick Ryan Callahan went out with broken right leg when he blocked a shot by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in a 5-3 comeback win on April 5. But like Grant, Dubinsky was in the right place at the right time when the Rangers needed it the most.

And the Rangers needed Dubinsky’s heroics after Mike Knuble scored a power-play goal with 5:12 left after Vinny Prospal had slammed in Marc Staal’s rebound at 8:01 of the third period.

“This shows that we’ve got a lot of guts, that we’re a gutsy group of guys that won’t give up or give in,” said Rangers center/captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury, who was a staggering 15-3 on face-offs in the defensive zone and 15-4 overall. “I won’t lie, when they tied it with five minutes to go, there was a little letdown. We’re not robots, but we got right back to it.”

The Rangers have to wait until Wednesday night to try to get even with the Caps.

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