FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

By Bruce Berlet

Former Hartford Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes was part of a Winnipeg native daily double for the Hamilton Bulldogs that was a large part of AHL history on Monday night.

Dawes notched his team-leading ninth goal of the playoffs at 6:24 of the third period to tie it, then Dustin Boyd scored only six seconds into the third overtime, ending the longest Game 7 in  the AHL’s 75-year history as the Bulldogs beat the visiting Manitoba Moose 2-1 in the decisive game of the North Division finals.

Boyd, who began the season with the parent Montreal Canadiens, scored the winner unassisted. He won the opening faceoff in the third overtime forward, dumped the puck in, raced around a Moose defenseman and chopped his own carom off the end boards, the puck touching Moose defenseman Chris Taney and going over the shoulder of rookie goalie Eddie Lack (55 saves).

“I was so tired at the end there I was just trying to keep my focus,” Lack told reporters after the game. “I talked to Chris and he said it might have touched his stick. I guess that’s the kind of goal you score in a third overtime. They got a lucky break.

“And Dawes’ shot, it kind of surprised me. I was going for a low shot and it hit (defenseman) Travis Ramsey’s stick and went up. We battled hard, but it was just a couple of bad bounces.”

It was the 17th Game 7 in league history to go to overtime but the first to extend to a second extra session, let alone a third.

“I can’t believe it went in,” Boyd said. “That was a relief.”

Dawes, who played with the Wolf Pack and parent New York Rangers in 2005-09, was the first Bulldog to get to Boyd as the bench cleared to celebrate the marathon game and asked, “You had to wait this long to get your first goal?”

In the Bulldogs’ first 12 postseason games, Boyd had seven assists but no goals. No. 1 validated a relentless attack by the Bulldogs, who outshot the Moose 57-30, including 24-14 in the overtime periods.

The Bulldogs, coached by former Hartford Whalers left wing Randy Cunneyworth, advanced to the Western Conference finals for the second straight spring. They will face the Houston Aeros, who got goals from rookie Casey Wellman and Warren Peters (empty net) 17 seconds apart in the final 1:21 for a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals in Game 7 of the West Division finals Tuesday night. Former Rangers and Wolf Pack right wing Jed Ortmeyer had an assist for the Aeros, who are now 5-0 all-time in Game 7s, all on the road.

The Aeros, who host the first two games against Hamilton on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, got to Game 7 when Kelsey Wilson scored his first postseason goal 1:01 into overtime for a 5-4 victory Sunday. South Windsor native/captain Jon DiSalvatore had a goal and two assists for the Aeros, who are conference finalists for the fourth time in the 10 seasons in the AHL after leaving the International Hockey League.

The Bulldogs are in the conference finals for the fifth time in the last 10 seasons despite the Moose taking the lead 10:09 into the game when their top line converted on a power play. Two-time AHL All-Star Sergei Shirokov scored his seventh goal of the playoffs off assists from Jason Jaffray and Marco Rosa.

Lack, named to the AHL all-rookie team, withstood a 15-4 shots advantage in the second period and held the narrow lead until Dawes got the equalizer. Dawes’ 41 goals in 63 games in the regular season were second in the league to the 42 of Wethersfield native/Oklahoma City Barons’ wing Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald.

Both teams hit the post and had numerous quality scoring chances before Boyd ended the longest game in Moose history, eclipsing the 97:26 needed in 2003 against Hamilton in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Goalie Drew MacIntyre had 29 saves as the Moose, the AHL runner-up in 2009, lost their first game in five when facing elimination, with Lack twice notching a shutout. Hamilton, meanwhile, avoided losing Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series on home ice for a second straight year, having suffered that fate last year to the Texas Stars in the Western Conference finals.

A major post-game question was: Is this the final game for the Moose as a member of the AHL? Reports have circulated for months that the Phoenix Coyotes, one of several financially strapped NHL franchises, would be moving to Winnipeg, one of four World Hockey Association teams to join the NHL in 1979 with the Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers. The Jets were in Winnipeg until 1996, when they moved to Phoenix because of mounting financial troubles. If they reversed direction and rejoined the NHL, they reportedly would remain the Moose, not readopt the name Jets.

The Coyotes’ situation was hurt and then helped Tuesday. First, Ice Edge Holdings withdrew its minority interest in the proposed purchase of the team ahead of a Glendale (Ariz.) City Council vote that would put off finalizing any deal for as long as a year.

After more than three hours of discussion before a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 that included NHL officials and Coyotes president Mike Nealy and general manager Don Maloney, the council voted 5-2 late Tuesday night to pay the NHL up to an additional $25 million so the Coyotes could say in Phoenix for another year while the league and team work together on securing ownership for the Coyotes to stay in Glendale. The council’s approval keeps the team at Jobing.com Arena for the 2011-12 season, and the NHL and city of Glendale intend to continue working on a sale to a potential ownership group led b Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the Coyotes’ ticket sales, season ticket renewals and revenue all improved last season, but the team still lost $37 million and was last in attendance. Still, the Coyotes are the arena’s main tenant, attracting thousands of fans for 41 games.

“This is an important step toward a final resolution and a transition to the permanent ownership the Coyotes need and deserve,” Daly said after the meeting. “We set our sights now on finding a financing structure which will accelerate that transition. We are confident that, working with the City of Glendale, we will attain that objective.

“We thank the City of Glendale for its unwavering commitment to the National Hockey League and to the Coyotes. We have the same level of commitment to the City of Glendale and this franchise, as our efforts of the past two years should clearly demonstrate.”

Earlier in the day, things didn’t look as bright for the Coyotes when Ice Edge CEO Anthony LeBlanc said his organization had been involved in the process with the team “long enough.” Ice Edge once tried to buy the team as the majority owner but accepted minority status when Hulsizer entered the picture.

Hulsizer’s efforts to buy the team from the NHL have stalled in the face of a threatened lawsuit by the conservative Goldwater Institute watchdog group over terms of a lease agreement worked out with Glendale for the team to continue to play in Jobing.com Arena. LeBlanc said his company would focus on its minor league hockey operations in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and that he plans to run for political office there.

The move has no serious implications for the bid by Hulsizer, whom LeBlanc said would be “a terrific owner.” But Hulsizer’s effort hit a logjam that may be impossible to break since he has indicated he has made his last, best offer and the Goldwater Institute has vowed to sue if the city follows through on the deal. The institute is concerned the generous terms of the lease violate the state’s constitutional ban on subsidizing private enterprise, and that thought was expressed again during the council meeting Tuesday night.

The threat of a lawsuit has been a major obstacle in the city’s efforts to sell $100 million in bonds to finance its part of the agreement. If those bonds can’t be sold, there would be no deal with Hulsizer. As it did a year ago, the city would put $25 million in escrow to cover losses over the coming season if no sale is completed. A week ago, the city turned that initial $25 million over to the NHL.

The city may attempt to try to find a buyer that would be willing to invest more money outright in the sale in order to make it more palatable to critics such as the Goldwater Institute. No such buyer has surfaced in two years.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes would be left without a solid ownership for a third season, something that Coyotes coach and former Whalers wing Tippett has said is unacceptable if the franchise is to be viable. Despite the limitations it has operated under, Tippett led the Coyotes to the playoffs the last two seasons, losing in the first round to the Detroit Red Wings each time.

The Coyotes’ situation has been in limbo since then-owner Jerry Moyes took the team into backruptcy unbeknownst to the NHL and tried to sell it to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie contingent on moving the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario, despite the league’s strong opposition. A U.S. bankruptcy judge nixed that plan in September 2009, and the NHL would up buying the team out of bankruptcy with the stated intention of finding a buyer who would keep the team in Arizona. If no local owner is found, the franchise could wind up back in Winnipeg.

Watching and listening to many Coyotes fans plead with the council to keep the team in Phoenix on the Internet elicited memories of Whalers followers in 1997, when Peter Karmanos pulled the plug on the team, moved it to North Carolina and renamed it the Carolina Hurricanes. But there also were fans who said Glendale shouldn’t spend $25 million on retaining a team that is failing financially and some people don’t even want, not to mention it was unconstitutional for the local government to bail out a private institution.

But in the end, the Coyotes and their fans got a reprieve, something that wasn’t possible with the constant demand hikes of Karmanos.

WEREK TRADE QUESTIONED BUT UNDERSTANDABLE

Some Rangers followers have questioned the trade of wing Ethan Werek, their second-round pick in 2009, to Phoenix for center Oscar Lindberg, the Coyotes’ second-round choice last year. Despite a wrist injury, Werek had 24 goals and 28 assists in 47 games for Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League, while Lindberg had only five goals and nine assists in 41 games with Skelleftea HC of the Swedish Elite League before getting three goals and four assists in 18 playoff games.

But Werek had accumulated baggage after attitude/disciplinary issues during the season and in the playoffs, being suspended for five games by the OHL for a flying elbow to the head that sent Oshawa’s Boone Jenner in the boards with four seconds left in a 6-5 loss and having to be signed by June 1. While Werek might have more offensive upside than Lindberg, the Swede is considered a strong two-way player who won an amazing 69.6 percent of his face-offs this season, tops in Swedish league, and doesn’t have to be signed until next year.

And some believe Werek was expendable with wings Ryan Bourque, son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, and Roman Horak signed, and No. 1 prospect Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 and a standout at Boston College, and Christian Thomas, the Rangers’ second-round pick last year and son of former NHL veteran Steve Thomas who scored 54 goals for Oshawa of the OHL this season, already drafted. Steve and Christian Thomas are the first father-son duo to each score 50 goals in an OHL season.

After a one-hour talk with Maloney, the former Rangers assistant GM and Wolf Pack GM, Werek said he was excited about a new start after a bad finish in Kingston, where The Whig-Standard reporter Patrick Kennedy said Werek “could show flashes of brilliance one night and frustrating indifference the next.”

Even Werek admitted his relationship with Kingston officials was “strained” last season.

“It’s a great city with great fans, but for me, at times, it was a real challenge,” Werek told Kennedy without giving specifics. “But that’s all in the past. I’m excited about going to Phoenix and being part of that organization.”

Werek’s departure wasn’t good news for his former team, which lost a front-line player without receiving anything in return. But it was already a good bet that Werek has played last game for the Frontenacs because of too many “soft” games from the rugged 6-foot-2, 200-pounder that upset the coaching staff.

Jess Rubenstein of Prospects Park said Werek is extremely intelligent as demonstrated by attending Queens University while playing for Kingston.

“When he did his interview with me, Werek set a new record for basically writing a term paper with all his responses,” Rubenstein said via email.

Rubenstein said Werek was well-liked, “a big kid with a huge talent upside on offense. He was prone to injuries, but you know given (former Wolf Pack defensemen Michael) Sauer and (Ivan) Baranka that would not have been a big deal for the Rangers.”

Rubenstein said Werek’s negatives were his battle with injuries, especially to his knees, which hampers his skating, and the issues with Kingston officials and the suspension, which couldn’t have sit well with Rangers officials. While the Whale was in the playoffs, Rubenstein received several emails from people asking why Werek was tweeting about girls in a school library rather than being with the Whale after signing an amateur tryout contract like seven other players. While tweeting girls in a school library might be OK for an average teenager, there are double standards and politics when it comes to sports, especially a prospect coming off a so-so season.

Rubenstein said the Coyotes got “the way better end of the deal on a talent level,” but Lindberg is “a serviceable two-way player who has a decent shot. I feel for the kid because everyone raves about his face-off skills. Everything is vanilla ice cream nice, nothing that stands out except his face-off skills. The only red flag I saw was he does not like the physical part of the game. If that is legit, then his NHL future will be short.”

Lindberg played for Swede’s Under-18 team at this year’s World Junior Championships, where he had two goals and two assists in six games. He is expected to play in Sweden again next season, so the Coyotes got a prospect with an extra year of experience in juniors while the Rangers gained an extra year to let a prospect mature before they have to sign him to an entry-level contract.

If Lindberg does sign, he could be on an All-Swedish line with the Whale with left wing Carl Hagelin, who performed well after arriving in Hartford after co-captaining Michigan to the NCAA championship game, and Jesper Fasth, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick last year who had 11 goals and 18 assists in 49 games with HV71 this season. Fasth also played in the World Junior Championships, tying for the team lead with four goals and adding two assists as Sweden took fourth place. He had the decisive goal and was plus-2 in a 6-5 shootout victory over Canada on Dec. 31.

The Rangers hierarchy begins their annual organizational meetings in preparation for the NHL draft and offseason signings on Monday in La Quinta, Calif. The meetings will last six days as the brass preps for the draft, which will be hosted by the Minnesota Wild on June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., site of the Frozen Four last month. Hagelin and Michigan lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth, which won its first national title.

The Islanders select fifth in the draft, the Boston Bruins have the ninth pick as part of a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs for right wing Phil Kessel and the Rangers pick 15th. Defenseman Mike McKee of Kent School is considered the top prospect from Connecticut.

SPECIAL FEATURE FOR CHECKERS

There’s not suppose to be any cheering in the press box, but seeing the Charlotte Checkers reach the Calder Cup semifinals has to make plenty of folks feel good and offered a really good reason for a special feature on ESPN starting Tuesday night.

The Checkers, the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate before joining the AHL this season, stunned the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins when they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to score four goals in less than nine minutes in the third period to win Game 6 of their East Division finals 4-3 on Sunday night and eliminate the regular-season champions.

The Checkers, the top affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, will meet the North Division winner Binghamton Senators, who ousted the Atlantic Division champion Portland Pirates in six games. The best-of-seven series begins Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., but first, the Checkers were part of arguably the best story in hockey – anywhere – this season.

The Checkers and the family of 11-year-old Zach Bennett were featured on ESPN’s weekly news magazine show “E:60” on Tuesday night. The team hosted a viewing party and Fan Fest for the players, staff, Chubby the mascot and the Bennett family at the EpiCentre in Charlotte.

The gathering came a month after the Checkers, with the help of sponsors, donations and fans, purchased a home in Charlotte for Zach and his family. They relocated from Albany, N.Y., for better medical care for Zach and to be closer to the former Albany River Rats.

When the River Rats left upstate New York for North Carolina at the end of last season (sound familiar Whalers fans?), Zach was determined to follow his favorite hockey team. Bennett fell in love with hockey and the River Rats about the time he was suffering the worst of his neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue and creates skin and bone abnormalities. The tumors can be removed, but there’s no cure for the disease.

Bennett has had more 20 operations, including the amputation of both legs, but he never lost his love for the players he idolized who had moved 700 miles away. And the AHL franchise didn’t forget one of its biggest fans.

At their final regular-season game, the Checkers presented Zach and his family with keys to a new home. The Bennetts had put their house up for sale after deciding they had to follow Zach’s team to Charlotte. Hockey was important, but there also was better specialized care for Zach.

But money was a major problem. Zach’s mother, Danielle, had a stroke when she was pregnant with Zach that left her paralyzed on her left side and unable to work. His father, Randy, has been out of work since February 2010 when he had back surgery.

The Checkers’ gesture was a godsend.

“Stuff like this you don’t hear about all the time,” Randy Bennett said. “It’s hard to even come up with the words. They’ve done so much for us. We knew they were doing some fundraising and thought that would cut the mortgage down. But then to turn around and have them tell us we have no mortgage, that right there was very emotional for us.”

But not as emotional as watching Zach walk into their new home.

“When they presented us with the house, he literally walked into the house with his prosthetic stumps,” Bennett said. “He has a deal with some of the guys. If they win, he has to work with his stumps, he has to practice walking. But he made a decision even if they don’t win he’s going to practice. That tells me what kind of influence they have on him and what they really mean to him.”

The Checkers decided they had to do something for Zach when they brought him and his family to Charlotte in January for a weekend reunion with the players.

“Once we met the family and this wonderful little child, Michael Kahn, our owner, said, ‘I think we all know what we need to do here. Figure out a way to get them to Charlotte,’ ” Checkers chief operating officer Tera Black said. “At the risk of sounding a little emotional, there are very few relationships that you get to witness as part of being a professional sports organization that are actually very moving to you.”

Zach is close to six or seven players, especially Brad Herauf, a hard-nosed forward who texts him every day to check on how he’s doing and how school is going.

When asked his favorite thing about hockey, Zach quickly said, “The fights.”

The answer didn’t surprise his father.

“I think that’s how he relates to them,” Randy said. “They’re fighters, and he’s been fighting so long.”

Even in the worst of times in Albany, Zach almost always went to the Times Union Center to cheer the River Rats.

“Zachary’s the type of person, when he was in the hospital he literally told the doctor he needed to get out by 3 o’clock on a Saturday: ‘You need to let me go home because I have a game to go to,’ ” Randy said. “We as parents didn’t really want to take him because he was a little in that loopy state coming off a surgery. But he wanted to go. We couldn’t deny him because we know how much it means to him, and he was just as loud that night.”

After viewing the emotional “E:60” episode, a Calder Cup trophy would be a fitting – and appropriate – reward for the Checkers.

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