FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By: Bruce Berlet

Former Hartford Wolf Pack center Jarkko Immonen was at his best in the World Hockey Championships and a major reason that Finland won the gold medal for only the second time.

Immonen scored his tournament-leading ninth goal to start Finland’s rally to a 6-1 rout of archrival Sweden on Sunday in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“This is the highlight of my career,” said Finnish defenseman Sami Lepisto, who plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Of course, the Olympic bronze last year was big, but this is the World Championships.”

The 26-year-old Immonen finished with nine goals and three assists, and the Finns scored five goals in the third period to win their first title in 16 years. An eighth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002, Immonen was sent to the Rangers just before the 2004 trade deadline as part of the deal for Hall of Fame defenseman and Cheshire native Brian Leetch. The Rangers also got defenseman Maxim Kondratiev, who was later traded to Anaheim with the return of a fourth-round pick from the Ducks for Petr Sykora; a first-round pick in 2004, which became forward Lauri Korpikoski, who was subsequently traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for wing Enver Lisen; and a second-round pick in 2005, which became defenseman Michael Sauer.

In two seasons in the Rangers organization, Immonen had 50 goals and 66 assists in 128 games with the Wolf Pack and three goals and six assists in 20 games with the Blueshirts, who didn’t re-sign him in 2007. Immonen returned home and played two seasons in Finland and then two in Russia and helped the Finns win the bronze medal in the 2010 Olympics.

The Rangers still retain Immonen’s rights, and they haven’t forgotten about him. When asked via email Monday if the Rangers might re-sign Immonen, assistant coach/assistant general manager/Connecticut Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld replied from the team’s organizational meetings that began Monday in La Quinta, CA: “He will be part of the discussion.”

Immonen lacked NHL speed and quickness when he previously played in North America, but he might have picked up his pace the last four years and could be the skilled center the Rangers are seeking who could be added cheaply compared to high-priced free agent Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars.

Other scorers for the Finns in the World Championship final were Petteri Nokelainen, Niko Kapanen, Janne Pesonen, Mika Pyoraja and Antti Pihlstrom. Sweden’s Magnus Paajarvi scored the game’s first goal at 7:20 of the second period, but it was all Finland after that.

“It’s easy to say now, but I knew after the semifinal win (over Russia) that we’d won the gold,” said forward Tuomo Ruutu of the Carolina Hurricanes. “We didn’t change a thing. We kept on playing our own game.”

Immonen’s power-play goal that beat Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth high to the glove side with seven seconds left in the second period was the tying tally and catalyst to Finland’s victory.

“If they didn’t get that goal, it’s a different game,” said Swedish left wing Mattias Tedenby of the New Jersey Devils.

Nokelainen scored the winner off a 2-on-1 with Pihlstrom at 2:35 of the third period, and the Finns could soon forget six losses in the finals from 1992 to 2007. Their only title came in 1995 in Stockholm with a 4-1 victory over the host country.

Finnish goalie Petri Vehanen earned the Best of Tournament MVP as Sweden had a 33-32 shot edge. Sweden won the bronze medal last year.

STRONG START FOR MCDONAGH BUT …

A year ago, Ryan McDonagh left the University of Wisconsin after his junior season, figuring he had accomplished about all there was to accomplish in college except a national championship.

The Badgers had lost 5-0 to Boston College and Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, but McDonagh decided to join sophomore teammate Derek Stepan in foregoing their final years of college eligibility.

Stepan, a center, made the Rangers roster, while McDonagh, a defenseman, was among the final cuts sent to the Wolf Pack, who became the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27. McDonagh struggled through about 20 games but then began to improve so much that when the Rangers wanted a call-up to allow Michael Del Zotto to try to regain his All-NHL rookie form with the Whale, he was summoned to Broadway on Jan. 3.

After a short period of adjustment, McDonagh formed a formidable No. 2 defensive pairing with Sauer behind two other Wolf Pack graduates, All-Star Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. But the 21-year-old McDonagh realized he still had plenty of maturing to do.

“I don’t think you ever want to be too confident in this sport because it can hurt you in so many ways,” said McDonagh, a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens (12th overall) in 2009 traded to the Rangers as part of the Scott Gomez deal on June 30, 2009. “There’s a fine line between being confident and doing your job. I’m going to make sure I’m going to work harder than I ever have during the summer to make sure I get in shape and am ready for next season. There are no guarantees about who’s on the team, and what not. The same goes for me. I have to come in good shape, ready to compete and ready to be a player for the New York Rangers.”

McDonagh said he got more comfortable and confident as his rookie season progressed but thinks it was more because of the Rangers’ structure.

“We try to be pretty aggressive in the neutral zone and with our forecheck in holding the offensive zone,” he said. “And we want to take time and space in our zone, and I think that bodes well for me because I can use my skating ability and let the forwards have some space.”

McDonagh also thanked his teammates for their assistance.

“You guys (the media) don’t see it as much,” McDonagh said, “but I try to say it as much as I can that the defensive corps when I first started was so helpful. I watched Staal and Girardi like a hawk, and those guys are definitely a top defensive pairing in the league. To be a young player coming up and having them on your squad was huge. I can’t say enough.”

In 40 regular season games, McDonagh had one goal and eight assists and was plus-16, second to Sauer’s plus-20. Del Zotto returned Feb. 2 after the Rangers had more injuries but was reassigned to the Whale on March 3, only to sustain a season-ending broken finger in his first game when hit by a puck.

Meanwhile, McDonagh continued to improve and helped the Rangers clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the season, with help from the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat the Hurricanes later in the day. But the Rangers were ousted in the first round in five games by the Washington Capitals, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference eliminated by the Lightning in the second round.

“It was a great stretch run with intense hockey to get us into the playoffs,” McDonagh said. “We grew so close as a team during that stretch. Everybody came together through the injuries. Guys had to step up, and they did. In the playoffs, I just don’t think we executed. The biggest thing is we had the lead twice in the third period, and we didn’t execute and finish. Then we had another game where we didn’t finish and score enough goals, so the bottom line was just execution. We put that on ourselves, first and foremost.”

So what did McDonagh learn most after being called up from the Whale?

“This is a pretty darn competitive sport, that’s for sure,” he said. “Everybody wants to win, and that’s why you play the game. You want to make the playoffs, want all your hard work in the regular season to be rewarded. But the biggest thing that veteran guys like (captain Chris) Drury and (Vinny) Prospal and (Ruslan) Fedotenko and (Marian) Gaborik and (Bryan) McCabe said is that you never know when you’re going to have that opportunity to be in the NHL playoffs, so you have to take it with full throttle.

“I was fortunate to make the playoffs my first season, but I’m always going to keep that in the back of my mind. You have to work hard for 82 games, and when you’re in the playoffs, you don’t want to regret anything. You want to try to make the best out of everything.”

After the Rangers were eliminated, McDonagh and Stepan joined a young Team USA for the World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. The roommates helped the Americans reach the quarterfinals before losing 4-0 to the defending champion Czech Republic, which got a hat trick from former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr. Team USA also included Kreider, who played in his second straight World Championships.

TIME OF REFLECTION FOR DRURY

While McDonagh is just starting a promising pro career, Drury is winding down after a season in which he missed a personal-high 56 games because of a twice-broken finger and knee surgery. He missed 27 games before returning for the regular-season finale in which he scored his only goal in a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils.

Drury, a 12-year veteran who will be 35 on Aug. 20, had one assist in the playoffs and now has one year at a $7.05 million cap hit remaining on the five-year, $35.5 million, free-agent contract that he signed on July 1, 2007. That’s a lot of money to pay a fourth-liner specializing in penalty killing and face-offs. He didn’t play for the final 13:15 of the elimination game against the Capitals in which he played a team-low 6:49.

A buyout would save the Rangers $3,333,333 of cap space but would cost them $1,667,667 in 2012-13 as the collective bargaining agreement is presently structured. But if Drury needs more knee surgery before the June 15-30 buyout period, the Rangers couldn’t buy him out.

The Rangers hierarchy will be making such decisions this week during organizational meetings that began Monday in La Quinta, Calif. But for now, Drury can only reflect on the most difficult season of a stellar sports career that started with pitching a complete-game, five-hitter and driving in two runs for Trumbull in the 1989 Little League World Series championship game against Chinese Taipei to winning a national pee wee hockey title with his team from Bridgeport the same year to excelling with brother Ted at Fairfield Prep to four stellar years at Boston University that included winning a national championship as a freshman in 1995 and the Hobey Baker Award as a senior in 1998 to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1999 to winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001.

Drury is the only player to win both the Hobey Baker Award and Calder Trophy, holds the record for most goals in B.U. history (113) and is the only Terriers player with at least 100 goals and 100 assists. He also played on one U.S. World Junior Championship team, three U.S. World Championship teams and three U.S. Olympic teams, including in 2010 when the Americans won a silver medal.

But Drury wasn’t satisfied with the Rangers’ ouster in the first round last month.

“You never know when you’re going to be in the playoffs year to year and when you’re going to get back,” Drury said. “I was glad to make it back for the final game and playoffs, but it was a different kind of year because I’d never missed that many games in any sport in any season in my life, so it was a different challenge day to day.”

Still, Drury said he took some solace in how hard the Rangers battled to get in the playoffs and was happy that coach John Tortorella got a three-year contract extension.

“It was good to get in but certainly we would want to still be playing,” Drury said. “But (the nucleus of the team) is in pretty good hands. When you look around the (dressing) room, you see a lot of terrific young players and we have great goaltending. … I think (the commitment to Tortorella) is great. Obviously the plan was to draft well, and I think things are only going to get better.”

Most of the Rangers’ top young players were developed in Hartford under Wolf Pack/Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller, and Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the world. The Rangers’ major concern moving forward is adding some scoring punch, though that was hurt dramatically by the loss of former Wolf Pack wing and alternate captain Ryan Callahan with a broken leg late in the season. Despite missing 20 games, Callahan’s 23 goals were second on the team to former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky’s 24, and he tied Gaborik for second in team scoring (48 points).

“I think there’s more and more talent in the locker room, and as more guys play in big games and play in big situations, they’re only going to get better at it,” Drury said. “I think a lot of guys took huge strides this season, but losing Callahan was huge. We all know how huge he is for our team on and off the ice and certainly in a playoff series where he brings so much every night.”

SPECIAL TRIBUTE FOR BOOGAARD

Larry Brooks, the longtime Rangers beat writer for the New York Post, wrote a terrific column in Monday’s paper about how Derek Boogaard receiving counseling through the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program in the weeks before being found dead in his apartment in Minneapolis on Friday night added, not diminished, the legacy of the 6-foot-7, 280-pound gentle giant.

Neither will the results of the autopsy of the cause of the death of the Rangers’ 28-year-old left wing/enforcer that likely won’t be released by the Hennepin County (Minn.) medical examiner for at least two weeks.

Brooks wrote: “Boogaard lived his life as a friendly, generous, giving man who enriched the lives of those who knew him personally and those who only knew him by his uniform number, or maybe only by the number of fights in which he engaged during his six-year NHL career.

“He was – and it’s applying the past tense here that just makes no sense at all – an everyman with the size, ability and punching prowess to make it to the world’s greatest hockey league without ever forgetting his roots, without ever assuming a guise, without ever forgetting to smile.

“The knowledge Boogaard had problems for which he sought professional help does not change who he was or the positive impact he had on those who knew him and counted him as a friend.

“It does not detract from his generous nature that manifested itself through his charitable work in Minnesota and in New York, his connection with members of the military and their families, his rapport with his teammates and his fans.

“Instead, it reminds us that Boogaard was man enough to seek help when he needed it.

“That should only add to the appreciation of his 6-foot-7, 280-pound man, whose life was celebrated at a memorial service (Sunday) night at the Excel Arena in St. Paul arranged by fans, a service his family had planned to attend. Boogaard will be laid to rest on Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan.

“It’s easy now to recognize form where and whom Boogaard inherited his generous nature given the decision of his parents, Joanne and Len, to donate their son’s brain to the team at the Boston University Medical School conducting research on brain disease in athletes.”

To read the entire column, visit www.nypost.com. I highly recommend it.

Schoenfeld, who skated with Boogaard after practice during his rehabilitation from the shoulder injury and concussion, added his thoughts, saying, “There have been many richly deserved accolades from a large group of men who had a deeper and more personal relationship with Derek than I. To me, his passing was a tragic shame, and my heart goes out to his family and the many friends who will greatly miss him.”

Several hundred fans attended the public memorial Sunday night, along with his parents, several Wild front office officials and team employees and former Wild teammates Nicklas Backstrom, Andrew Brunette, Brent Burns, Stephane Veilleux and Nick Schultz.

Boogaard played 255 games in five seasons with the Wild before signing a four-year, $6.5 million contract with the Rangers on July 1, 2010. But he appeared in only 22 games last season, getting one goal, one assist and 45 penalty minutes while participating in seven fights. One of hockey’s most feared brawlers, Boogaard sustained a concussion in a fight with Ottawa Senators’ defenseman Matt Carkner on Dec. 9 and missed the final 52 regular-season games.

Boogaard had a difficult time recovering as it took nearly three months before he could resume skating. He rarely left his West Side apartment in New York for weeks, had to wear sunglasses outdoors because he was bothered by sunlight and took solace in walks around Central Park. With about a week left in the season, the Rangers gave Boogaard permission to leave the team in order to receive counseling in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program to help him deal with unspecified issues. Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather also remained loyal to Boogaard when he said his signing would become positive for the team.

Unfortunately, all those positive deeds and thoughts came to sudden and sad ending Friday night, again emphatically proving how fragile life can be.

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