HARTFORD, CT. – The XL Center ice was being scraped away and melted down as most Connecticut Whale players cleaned out their lockers, packed for outposts worldwide, picked up their summer training manuals and had exit meetings with coach Ken Gernander and assistant J.J. Daigneault earlier than desired on Monday.
The Whale ended their one-year – and only – hiatus from the AHL playoffs this season, but failing to advance past the first round for the first time since 2006 still stuck in their craw.
Especially after a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty completely changed their fortunes in Game 6 of their Atlantic Division semifinal against the Portland Pirates on Saturday night. After a dominating 20 minutes that produced a 2-0 lead and seemed to set in motion a winner-take-all Game 7 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland on Monday night, the Whale’s dam burst after the untimely penalty set up Mark Parrish’s power-play goal, the first of the Pirates’ four in the second period that led to a 6-4 victory and a second-round date with the Binghamton Senators.
“On any play, there’s obviously more than one mistake, but I thought we could have got that puck deep and it would have been a non-issue,” Gernander said of the ill-fated penalty. “But we tried to force a pass, it deflected to the bench and we had a guy who was jumping early. It was a pretty good momentum turner when you’re up 2-0 and it goes to 2-1. … The two teams are evenly matched, and when the margin for error is that slim, you can’t afford to make any kinds of mistakes. I thought some of our mistakes were a little bigger than they were in earlier games, and a lot of times that’s what it comes down to.”
Right wing Dale Weise, back after missing nearly two games with a shoulder injury sustained when crosschecked into the boards without a penalty being called on AHL Rookie of the Year Luke Adam five minutes into Game 4, scored the Whale’s second power-play goal with 1:18 left in the first period before Portland tallied three times in less than 71/2 minutes in the second.
“Penalties have been the story all season,” said Weise, alluding to the Whale being the second-most penalized team in the AHL in the regular season. “Untimely penalties were the difference in the series. That’s the only way they gained momentum. And the power play was about the only way they scored in the first game (twice in a 3-2 win). We knew that, but unfortunately we just didn’t change.
“It’s frustrating to come out and have such a good start like we did and get a 2-0 lead. We obviously were feeling pretty good after the first period but not too high. Then they come out and get the power-play goal, and that kind of swung things. Obviously it’s very disappointing to lose that way. You can rest your hat if you go out and play five-on-five and just get beat by a better team, but I don’t think we did that in this series. I don’t think that’s a better team over there. I just think we hurt ourselves.”
Penalties were the Whale’s Achilles heel all season, though they did tie the game at 3 when Carl Hagelin, the last player to join the Whale after captaining Michigan to the NCAA title game, got credit for his first professional goal when Tomas Kundratek’s shot caromed off his shin pad and past Pirates goalie David Leggio.
“I played soccer when I was growing up (in Sodertalje, Sweden),” a smiling Hagelin said Monday.
After Leggio somehow stopped Kris Newbury’s one-timer in front during a power play with 4:40 left in the second period, the Pirates took the lead for good off a 3-on-2 as Parrish dropped a pass to a trailing Alex Biega, and the former Salisbury School standout beat Dov Grumet-Morris to the stick side from 30 feet in the slot with 2:52 left.
The Pirates got the crushing fifth and eventual winning goal when Kundratek and defensive partner Stu Bickel collided at the Whale blue line, allowing the fast-closing duo of Parrish and Paul Byron to break in 2-on-none, with Byron easily scoring his second of the game and series with 9:04 to go.
So instead of busing to Maine on Easter Sunday, most Whale players and coaches stayed home with their families and/or friends before players had exit meetings without general manager Jim Schoenfeld, who was in New York for similar confabs with the Rangers players, who were eliminated by the Washington Capitals about three hours before their AHL brethren. Schoenfeld, Gernander, Daigneault and assistant Pat Boller will meet Tuesday with seven veterans – Weise, Newbury, Jeremy Williams, John Mitchell, Chad Kolarik, Brodie Dupont and Evgeny Grachev – who again could have an impact on the 2011-12 team if they don’t make the Rangers. But the Rangers first would have to qualify Dupont, a restricted free agent, and sign unrestricted free agents Williams, Mitchell and Kolarik.
While Gernander, Daigneault and Boller continued to develop players for the parent club and earned frequent kudos from Rangers coach John Tortorella, the team again failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“For a large of the season our goal was just to make the playoffs because there were a lot of times when we were on the outside looking in,” Gernander said, alluding to a late-season battle with Worcester, Providence and Springfield for the final division postseason berth. “I think making the playoffs is important to developing a winning environment, and after you get in, the next logical step would obviously be winning some games and winning some rounds/
“Part of the charge here and part of our task in terms of development is to develop people who can win in the playoffs, too. Ultimately what are you developing these guys for? To win playoff games and win championships so that’s got to be the next progression. We had some guys who graduated to New York or at times were helpful to New York, but we still have to forge ahead in terms of developing winning habits and that type of character player, too.
“It’s a bit disappointing now, but I think there were some stretches where the guys showed pretty good resolve and pretty good courage to make it to the playoffs. There was the tough start and points late in the season when we weren’t in the playoff picture. There’s always adversity, and if the guys were of lesser character or lesser ilk, they probably could have found any number of excuses to not stay with things at various points in the season. But they did stay with it to get us into the playoffs, and now we have to take the next step and be able to win some series.”
That process began with reflecting on how well the team started in what turned out to be a season that ultimately unraveled because of those all-too-frequent untimely penalties and turnovers that led to allowing the most goals in a game in the series.
“There are no small mistakes. There are no little things,” Gernander said. “Maybe in a regular season game you could say it was a disappointing game, something without which we could have won but ultimately the two points that we didn’t get didn’t cost us a playoff spot. But the playoffs are a whole different thing, and the little mistakes that we made in Games 5 and 6 manifest themselves into losses and ultimately ended our season. So one message is there are no small things. You don’t leave anything to chance.”
BACK TO THE PLAYOFFS – ECHL STYLE
Defenseman Blake Parlett and rugged right wing Derek Couture left Hartford on Sunday to rejoin their former ECHL teams in the playoffs.
Parlett, the ECHL’s top-scoring defenseman (31 points in 46 games) when he joined the Whale on Feb. 17, returned to the Greenville Road Warriors, who staved off elimination Saturday night with a 5-1 victory over the Wheeling Nailers. Former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong, who started the season with the Whale, had the winner, his second goal of the series. The teams play Game 6 on Tuesday night in Greenville, S.C., and if the Road Warriors win again, they will host Game 7 on Wednesday night. Parlett, an unrestricted free agent, was an excellent addition to the Whale, getting two goals, both game-winners, and 10 assists in 24 games in the regular season and one goal and two assists in six playoff games while playing mostly alongside Pavel Valentenko, who is signed for next season.
Couture returned to the Victoria Salmon Kings, who begin the Western Conference finals against the Alaska Aces on Wednesday night in Alaska. The unrestricted free agent had eight goals and 11 assists in 25 games with the Salmon Kings before being called up and signing a professional tryout contract with the Whale on March 1. He had six goals and four assists in 20 games in the regular season before getting a goal and an assist in six playoff games. The Aces are coached by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson.
Wing Mats Zuccarello made a brief visit to the XL Center before seeing a specialist to determine if he would need surgery on his broken left hand sustained in a bizarre bit of bad luck in Game 5 in Portland that sidelined him for the season, which turned out to be one game. As “The Norwegian Hobbit” chased a puck along the boards late in the first period, two fingers on his left hand got caught in the photographer’s camera hole in the plexi-glass, resulting in a broken hand that will sideline him 4-to-6 weeks, ending his first season in North America. He also will miss playing for Norway in the World Championships April 29 to May 15 in Slovakia.
Zuccarello was sent down by the Rangers a week ago Monday after being a healthy scratch in two straight Stanley Cup games. It proved to be a costly demotion as he had a goal and an assist in the Whale’s 3-1 victory in Game 4 before being injured and unable to compete for his homeland after playing well in the 2010 Olympics and being named the MVP of the Swedish League, earning him a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Rangers.
Left wing Devin DiDiomete was home in Stratford, Ontario, after having successful surgery on his right hip a week earlier. It wasn’t as severe as the three surgeries he had on his left hip last May 7 and caused him to miss the start of the season. He played with pain in right hip much of the season until he couldn’t tolerate it any longer. He had six goals, four assists and a team-high 303 penalty minutes in 63 games before shutting it down after a game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on March 26. DiDiomete, a restricted free agent, will be ready for training camp.
Center Todd White also didn’t have an exit meeting after not having played since Jan. 28, when he sustained a concussion when he ran into Dupont during a game against the Manchester Monarchs. White had three goals and two assists in only nine games after clearing waivers and being assigned to the Whale on Dec. 29.
HEADED BACK TO MICHIGAN
After his exit meeting, Hagelin headed back to Ann Arbor, Mich., for graduation on Friday. He completed his final course last week, submitting a 15-page research paper on leadership at Michigan via email.
“I interviewed captains from all kinds of teams,” Hagelin said.
Hagelin will be joined at graduation by Kolarik, whose girlfriend is also graduating. Kolarik was a senior captain and Hagelin a freshman when the Wolverines last reached the Frozen Four in 2008, losing 5-4 in overtime to Notre Dame in the semifinals. Michigan lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth on April 9.
Hagelin’s next round of hockey could come at the Rangers’ prospects camp in late June that will include selections in the NHL draft.
“I’ve never been there before because of injuries,” he said.
21ST BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION IN LAS VEGAS
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto will celebrate his 21st birthday on June 24 with his first trip to Las Vegas that will coincide with the NHL Awards Show in Sin City.
“I’m going with some friends from my hometown (Stouffville, Ontario) and (Anaheim Ducks standout) Corey Perry and some of his buddies, so I’m looking forward to it,” Del Zotto said.
Del Zotto is also looking forward to a third pro season that’s less tumultuous as his second. After being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009-10, he struggled at the start of this season, traded places with Ryan McDonagh on Jan. 3 to try to rediscover his game and then returned to New York on Feb. 2 for another month on Broadway because of injuries to Rangers players. But in his first game back with the Whale on March 2, a finger on his right hand was broken when hit by a puck, causing Del Zotto to miss the last 25 games, the longest absence of his career.
“I almost played in Game 3, but the doctor wouldn’t give me clearance at the end for fear that I might break the finger again,” Del Zotto said. “In two days, it’ll be eight weeks since the injury happened, and if I’d know it was going to take this long, I would have had surgery.”
FORMER WOLF PACK DAWES LEADS HAMILTON TO NEXT ROUND
Former Hartford Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes scored twice to lead Hamilton to a 4-1 victory over Oklahoma City on Sunday night, giving the Bulldogs a 4-2 series win and a spot in the North Division finals against the winner of the Manitoba-Lake Erie series, which will be decided in Game 7 on Tuesday night.
Former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux scored the Barons’ only goal in what was likely his final game in North America. The two-time AHL MVP reportedly is going to play in Europe after being on a high-scoring line with Brad Moran and Colin McDonald, the Wethersfield native and son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald whose 42 goals in the regular season led the AHL and were one more than Dawes.