FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

In all my years covering the New England and Hartford Whalers, few players were smarter on or off the puck, more engaging or enjoyed themselves more than Brent Peterson.

Whether the Whalers won, lost or tied, Peterson was always available for an assessment of the game, with a wisecrack usually tossed in along the way.

So Peterson’s response as Nashville Predators general manager David Poile choked up when announcing Parkinson’s disease would prevent Peterson from continuing as associate coach under Barry Trotz was vintage Brent.

Poile is known to be stoic in public, but he was having a hard time telling reporters that Peterson would not be on the bench for his 14th season in the organization. Poile’s uncharacteristic emotion was somewhat understandable considering his late father, Bud, had Parkinson’s late in his life, but it had more to do with Peterson.

But after Poile said the 53-year-old Peterson would remain in some capacity with the team that pushed the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks hard before being ousted in Game 6 of the second round on Monday, Peterson lightened the mood in the room when he said, “I’m going to get Trotzy’s coffee next year.”

The assembled media present for the season’s wrap-up session chuckled, but the mood quickly changed again when everyone realized Peterson’s decision two months ago to stay off the ice during practices because his disease was progressing faster than expected was a portent of things to come.

Parkinson’s is a brain disorder, and one of the effects is limited muscle coordination, so a person can get “locked up” physically. That can create a safety issue for anyone standing in skates on ice with no helmet, so Peterson made the most logical decision he could.

“I’m feeling OK,” Peterson said. “My mind is still there, but I can’t do all the physical things that my job entails. I have to back off.”

So instead of on-ice participation, Peterson will continue to watch practice from the stands and break down film in the video room while trying to convey an intelligent style of play that helped him become one of the game’s best defensive forwards and penalty killers.

“There’s nothing wrong with his mind, and he’s got a great hockey mind,” Trotz said. “We want to find something that he can still contribute. And he will.”

Peterson was the Detroit Red Wings’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 1978 and played 11 seasons in the NHL, the last two with the Whalers in 1987-88 and 1988-89. He then began his coaching career as an assistant with the Whalers for two seasons before becoming a co-coach and head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winter Hawks for seven seasons.

The new job description for Peterson, who joined the Predators in 1998, hasn’t been determined, but Milwaukee Admirals coach Lane Lambert is expected to replace him as an assistant under Trotz. But Peterson will remain as active as possible with the Predators, the Peterson Foundation for Parkinson’s and his annual golf tournament that raises money to educate and raise awareness of the disease.

“He’s a great coach, but a better man,” Trotz said. “He’s touched so many people. I believe he has a hell of a lot to contribute. He’ll be part of anything I do as long as I’m here.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Barry. All in the Connecticut Whale and Whalers Sports and Entertainment families wish nothing but the best for Brent, one of the truly good guys in the world, let alone hockey.

HIGH MARKS FOR RANGERS NEWEST SIGNEE

The New York Rangers signing of forward Jason Wilson on Wednesday earned major plaudits from Prospect Park’s Jess Rubenstein, a highly regarded follower and analyst of junior and college players.

“Wilson is a baby gorilla,” Rubenstein said, alluding to the left wing being 6 feet 3, 208 pounds. “Niagara played him with Ryan Strome, who is going to be a Top 10 pick, using him as a power forward/enforcer. He’s a real likeable person who wants to improve his game. He should do well with the Whale.”

Wilson, 21, had career highs in goals (18), assists (25), points (43), games (64) and plus-minus (plus-20) last season with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, and his 93 penalty minutes tied for the team lead. The Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2010 also tied for the team lead in points with eight (three goals, five assists) in helping lead Niagara to a 4-1 series victory over Oshawa in their OHL Eastern Conference semifinal. Mississauga swept the IceDogs in the finals, and Wilson finished with five goals, seven assists and 19 PIM in 14 playoff games.

Wilson, known as an aggressive, all-around forward who can chip in offensively using his size to play a physical game, went undrafted in his first year of eligibility but was picked by the Rangers last year. Now after completing his over-aged year in the OHL, he’s looking to continue to advance his career and is likely to be in Hartford next season.

“It feels great to get signed; it’s definitely a sigh of relief,” Wilson told IceDogs media relations intern Jeff Blay. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing ever since I was a little kid, and since being drafted last year by the Rangers, it’s something I’ve really been working towards.”

Though the signing is an obvious thrill for Wilson, he knows how much work lies ahead.

“Getting signed is a step but making the team is another,” Wilson said. “But training is something I take very seriously, and I will be working extremely hard at it over the summer.

“In order to make the team I feel as if I have to stick to a simple, aggressive, honest style of play. I try to mold my game after a player like (Rangers feisty left wing) Brandon Prust, who plays in all situations and works hard game in and game out to perform his role.”

In 162 career OHL games with London, Owen Sound and Niagara, the native of Richmond Hill, Ontario, had 47 goals, 48 assists, 29 fights and 299 penalty minutes.

FORMER WOLF PACK MALHOTRA BACK WITH CANUCKS

Former Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack forward Manny Malhotra won’t be playing for the Canucks in the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks, but at least he’s back on the ice with his teammates in a limited capacity.

Malhotra’s surprise return to the ice Thursday was a pick-me-up for the Canucks, who open the conference finals at home on Sunday night. Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998, skated with his teammates for the first time since March 16, when a deflected puck caused a career-threatening injury to his left eye that has had two surgeries and likely will need a third.

Associate coach Rick Bowness said there was “no chance” that Malhotra was coming back in the playoffs unless there was “a complete miracle,” but the Canucks were still happy he was back skating.

“It was a thrill for all of us to see Manny on the ice,” Bowness said. “Getting back in the room and getting ready for practice, there’s always excitement back in the air. We’re getting back at it, we’re getting ready for the next round, but when Manny walks in and goes on the ice with them … it just gave everyone an extra boost and the guys really, really enjoyed having him on the ice with them.”

Wearing a Canucks-colored tracksuit and full face shield on his helmet, Malhotra skated before practice, then joined the team for warm-up drills and took part in a few line rushes before returning to the bench after 15 minutes.

“I had to give him heck right away because he went offside on one our simple little warm-up drills,” Bowness said. “But there is no change in Manny’s status.”

Malhotra was not made available for media interviews, but his teammates were more than happy to comment on his appearance.

“Having him on the ice was a real treat,” said former Bridgeport Sound Tigers forward Raffi Torres, who played alongside Malhotra for much of the season after appearing in the Stanley Cup finals with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. “It put a lot of smiles on guys’ faces, and I think having Manny with a smile on his face was good to see again.”

“Just a couple shifts, but it was exciting for the boys to have him on the ice with us, really special,” goalie Roberto Luongo said. “We’re hopeful that he will be able to recover 100 percent, and he’ll be able to play with us, obviously not this season, but next season hopefully.”

The 30-year-old Malhotra hasn’t been a total stranger. After being named an assistant captain in the first year of a three-year, $7.5 million deal he signed as a free agent, he became an extra coach during the playoffs. He’s in penalty-kill meetings for a unit he helped lead the NHL in the regular season and offers advice on shooting and face-offs, which he was second in the league at 61.7 percent.

Bowness compared it to seeing Pittsburgh Penguins superstar/captain Sidney Crosby, sidelined by a concussion, wearing a headset while watching games in the playoffs.

“He’s helping out a lot,” forward Daniel Sedin said. “Everyone respects his opinion, and he’s been around the league for a long time so guys are going to listen when he talks. He’s being a good, positive impact on a lot of guys.”

Malhotra’s advice could become even more meaningful in the Western Conference finals since he played for the Sharks last season. The Canucks haven’t been this deep in the playoffs since losing to the Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals.

“He gives tips on what’s going on in the game,” defenseman Sami Salo said. “He sees the game from upstairs and the TV so he has little inside scoops.”

Malhotra hasn’t addressed the media other than releasing an April 6 statement thanking the surgeons, organization and fans for their support. His teammates are thankful for his support.

“He’s so positive every day even with what he’s going through,” Salo said.

The often injured Salo knows better than most how difficult it can be after he missed the first 41/2 months of the season recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon sustained in the summer.

“It’s tough, especially when the team is in the playoffs right now,” Salo said. “But he’s been really positive and supportive, and it’s been good to have him in the locker room. That shows you what kind of a great character he is.”

Character is a major reason the Rangers drafted Malhotra, who helped the Wolf Pack win their only Calder Cup in 2000. But after shuttling Malhotra between New York and Hartford for four seasons, the Rangers sent him and Barrett Heisten to the Dallas Stars for Martin Rucinsky and the late Roman Lyashenko at the 2002 trade deadline. After three seasons with the Stars and four with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Malhotra signed a one-year contract with the Sharks in September 2009. He had a career-high 14 goals with San Jose before signing the three-year deal with the Canucks.

Unfortunately, barring the “complete miracle,” Malhotra won’t play the rest of this season, but here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for another of the world’s really good guys.

SHARKS AVOID UNWANTED PIECE OF RECORD

The Sharks won’t be part of a trivia answer they wanted to avoid after beating the visiting Red Wings 3-2 Thursday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

The Red Wings were trying to join the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers as the only teams to win a series after losing the first three games. The Canucks avoided joining that other side of the coin in the first round when they won Game 7 in overtime against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, coached by former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville.

Patrick Marleau’s rebound goal with 7:47 left, his first point of the series, proved the winner as the Sharks led from start to finish after Devin Setoguichi and Logan Couture, a leading candidate for NHL Rookie of the Year after several good seasons with the Worcester Sharks, scored in the first period. Setoguchi’s goal off a brilliant pass from captain Joe Thornton ended the Sharks’ 0-for-10 drought on the power play. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk scored for the Red Wings, who were seeking their fifth Stanley Cup in 14 years.

“He’s a world-class player and was a difference-maker tonight,” Sharks coach Todd McLelland said of Marleau, who also made a key defensive play in the final seconds after being under fire for his lack of scoring. “We obviously believe in him immensely. For him to end up with the winning goal is special, for our team and for him. I think the monkey will be off his back, and he’ll be even that much better in the next series.”

The criticism of Marleau had come from all angles, including former teammate and Versus analyst Jeremy Roenick, who called the Sharks wing “gutless” after a loss in Game 5.

“It felt good to be on the score sheet and be able to get the game-winner,” Marleau said. “But we still have a long ways to go here and another month to play. We’re just going to get better.”

What about the criticism?

“It’s all background noise,” Marleau said. “You try to put it in the background and just focus on what I can control and what I need to do to get ready for the game. I still got better games ahead of me.”

Sharks goalie Antti Niemi improved to 6-0 lifetime in playoff series by making 38 saves and surviving the charging Red Wings the last two periods. Niemi backstopped the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup title in 49 years a year ago but wasn’t re-signed because of salary-cap problems.

The Sharks were helped by the return of leading scorer Ryane Clowe, who missed Game 6 with an upper-body injury. He didn’t have a point in 18:30 of ice time, but his presence allowed McLellan to return to the line combinations that worked so well in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, the Red Wings lost forwards Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary to injuries during the game after Johan Franzen was scratched.

“I’m pleased with the effort,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I’m pleased with the growth of our young players. Our high-end forwards, Datsyuk and Zetterburg, were fantastic in this series and showed great leadership qualities.

“You’re disappointed because you think in your mind you’re winning for sure and moving on and having an opportunity in Vancouver. I thought the team that came out of this series would have a real shot at winning (the Stanley Cup). You get very few chances to win, and you have to make good on your opportunities.”

FORMER WOLF PACK CENTER HELPS FINLAND REACH FINAL

Former Wolf Pack center Jarkko Immonen scored his tournament-tying eighth goal to clinch Finland’s 3-0 victory over Russia on Friday in the semifinals of the World Hockey Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Immonen’s power-play goal assured the Finns would face for the title Sunday against Sweden, which beat the defending champion Czech Republic 5-2 as Patrick Berglund of the St. Louis Blues scored twice.

Russia will play the Czechs for the bronze medal Sunday in a replay of last year’s final.

Mikael Granlund scored 5:13 into the second period to give Finland the only goal it would need. Jani Lajunen made it 2-0 in the third period before Immonen cemented the win. Immonen had two goals in Finland’s 4-1 victory over Norway in the semifinals. The Norwegians were without star wing Mats Zuccarello, who played with the Rangers and Whale in his first season in North America before sustaining a broken hand in Game 5 of the AHL playoffs against the Portland Pirates, who won in six games.

Sweden rallied from an early deficit on two second-period goals from Berglund to avenge a semifinal loss to the Czechs in a shootout last year. Berglund also has eight goals for the Swedes, who will be seeing their first title since 2006 after finishing third last year.

It was the first loss for the Czechs, who had opened with seven victories.

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