FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale has made the offseason a lot more pleasant and relaxing for Jared Nightingale.

The Whale exercised their 2011-12 option on the AHL contract of the unrestricted defenseman six weeks before the parent New York Rangers had to make an offer by the July 1 deadline.

So instead of wondering his status for next season, Nightingale is free to work out and practice with close friend Zak McClellan while working odd jobs for the business of Zak’s dad in Frankenmuth, Mich.

“I’m excited that they made the decision pretty quick,” Nightingale said Wednesday via cell phone from Michigan. “The last few years I haven’t known where I stood at this time of year, so this gives me some peace of mind. I’m looking forward to another production season. I have no complaints about the organization. Hopefully I can go to Rangers camp and make a good impression.”

The defensive-minded Nightingale certainly made a good impression in 71 games last season, when he scored two goals, tied his career high with six assists and had 204 penalty minutes, tops among defenseman and third overall while often coming to the aid of a teammate. He was scoreless in six playoff games as the Whale was eliminated in the first round by the Portland Pirates.

More importantly, Nightingale and veteran Wade Redden formed the Whale’s top defensive pairing the second half of the season, usually playing against the opposition’s best forwards. And when center Tim Kennedy was traded to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 26, coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller thought so much of Nightingale that he was named an alternate captain with Redden and center Kris Newbury.

“I like his leadership quality and how he approaches the game,” Gernander said at the time. “He’s been a pretty good soldier for us and takes it upon himself to do a lot of things.”

A lot of things indeed. In addition to his on-ice contributions, Nightingale organized many of the team’s off-ice activities, was voted winner of the Bob Girouard Character Award by his teammates and chosen by the front-office staff as recipient of the Mary Lynn Gorman Community Service Award and the team’s nominee for AHL Man of the Year for community service.

“Jared is an outstanding member of the Connecticut Whale community,” said Frank Berrian, the team’s community relations coordinator. “He was always the first one to volunteer for an appearance and even took it upon himself to make appearances at local hospitals. Personally, Jared is a ‘go out of his way’ kind of guy. If I needed anything, he was always a phone call away. I not only considered him a colleague but a friend. Wherever Jared goes, he not only makes fans but he also makes friends.”

Nightingale was tireless in his enthusiasm for the Whale’s increased community outreach. He consistently offered his time to scheduled charitable, school or hospital appearances and frequently initiated his own. He forged strong relationships with area hospitals, especially the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and Gaylord Rehabilitation Hospital in Wallingford, the beneficiary of the Whale’s annual “Tip a Player Dinner and Sports Carnival.”

“I learned from guys who have been here in the past and looked up to,” Nightingale said. “I didn’t always give as much of myself as I should have. Going into the season, I didn’t know how much more I’d be playing, so I wanted to use the platform that I have and the time that I have wisely and as much as I can to get out and help in any way possible.

“I remember growing up and going to college hockey games an hour away at Lake Superior State (in Michigan) in their glory years, and it meant a lot when those guys came out and acknowledged you and talked to you. It was kind of the highlight of our season, and I remember really looking up to them and seeing how they handled themselves, so I know how important that is.”

Nightingale, a 28-year-old native of Jackson, Mich., has seven goals, 17 assists and 485 PIM in 173 games with the Whale/Hartford Wolf Pack the last four seasons. He also played in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons, Iowa Stars and Chicago Wolves, totaling 10 goals, 18 assists and 509 PIM in 197 career games. He signed with the Falcons late in the 2005-06 season after a four-year career at Michigan State and started the next three seasons in the ECHL with Idaho and Charlotte before being promoted. This season was the first he started in the AHL.

Nightingale is spending the summer in Frankenmuth with McLellan, a former teammate in midgets, juniors and college (for two years) who is captain of the Central Hockey League’s Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees. The two are working for McLellan’s father, who owns seven candy shops and clothing stores, and Nightingale even drove a bulldozer for the first time on Monday.

“I’m about three hours from home, and it’s nice to do something different,” Nightingale said. “We started working out and skating last week because I want to be ready when I get to training camp.”

Nightingale’s signing was the first of several difficult decisions for the Rangers, who had their organizational meetings last week at president and general manager Glen Sather’s house in La Quinta, Calif. Other restricted free agents include goalie Chad Johnson, defenseman Stu Bickel and forwards Dale Weise, Brodie Dupont, Justin Soryal and Devin DiDiomete, who had a second hip surgery last month.

The Rangers also have to decide if they want to offer contracts to unrestricted free agents such as goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, voted team MVP by his teammates and Fan Favorite, defenseman Blake Parlett and forwards Chad Kolarik, Ryan Garlock and Kelsey Tessier, named the team’s Unsung Hero by the media.

Then there’s Redden, a major help to the Whale as a leader and mentor for a young defensive corps, especially Ryan McDonagh, who spent the second half of the season with the Rangers, Tomas Kundratek and Jyri Niemi before being paired with Nightingale. Redden, 34, was sent to Hartford to eliminate his $6.5 million salary cap hit on the Rangers. He hopes to get another shot at the NHL after seemingly discovering the fountain of youth down the stretch, but it’s only one of several options. He could remain with the organization and likely return to Hartford, take a buyout from the Rangers for the $16.5 million left on his contract or forfeit the remainder of his deal and look for work elsewhere. Redden, who moved to British Columbia this week for the summer, said Wednesday that he preferred to stay in North America rather than go to Europe.

Redden is back on the salary cap from July 1 until he’s waived again, and the cap is recalculated at the start of the season. The Rangers are highly unlikely to buy him out on June 15 and take a $1,833,333 cap hit next season and in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and a $3,333,333 hit in 2012-13 and 2013-14. So if Redden wants to go elsewhere, he could not report to camp, then his contract would be void and he’d be a free agent.

Meanwhile, McDonagh, who signed with the Rangers after leaving the University of Wisconsin after his junior year, isn’t likely to ever return to the AHL after how he improved from the start of the season through the NHL playoffs.

“I didn’t like the thought of playing (in Hartford) at first, but looking back it was invaluable for me to play there,” McDonagh told Blueshirts United. “I just don’t want to go back.”

Such sentiments show how much McDonagh matured and what the Rangers hope happens with Michael Del Zotto, who switched places with McDonagh on Jan. 3 to try to get MDZ to rediscover his form with the Whale after being a member of the NHL All-Rookie team in 2009-10. Del Zotto, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008, started to show some good signs until he sustained a broken finger when hit by a shot in a game against Springfield on March 3 and never returned. After getting nine goals and 28 assists in 80 games with the Rangers as a rookie, he had only two goals and nine assists in 47 games with the Blueshirts and seven assists in 11 games with the Whale.

Del Zotto, who had sports hernia surgery on May 3 and attended Derek Boogaard’s funeral on Saturday, told Andrew Gross, the Rangers’ beat writer for The Record and Herald News in New Jersey, that he went into the offseason as motivated as he has ever been to prove himself next season. Before then, he will celebrate his 21st birthday on June 24 with his first visit to Las Vegas, where the NHL Awards Show will be held two days earlier.

“My finger is still healing, it’s been almost 12 weeks, hopefully it’ll be good to go in another week and a half,” Del Zotto told Gross on May 17. “The hernia surgery went well; it’ll take 3-4 weeks to heal up. I’m doing some cardio stuff, no lifting, but I’m getting back into a routine and getting a workout. It kind of put an exclamation point on how the year went. It was a tough one. I learned a lot physically and mentally. I learned a lot about how I have to play to stick with New York. The biggest thing is, no matter what, keeping that confidence. I know I can help the team. I’m confident of my ability and what I can do on the ice. I have to have that mindset.”

Whale newcomers next season likely will include left wings Carl Hagelin, who performed well after joining the team after co-captaining Michigan to the NCAA title game; Ryan Bourque, the son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and a gritty, hard-working speedster who has played well for Team USA on the international stage and the Quebec Remparts, who advanced to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League finals; and Tommy Grant, a steady contributor in 13 games with the Whale after being one of seven college/junior players to sign an amateur tryout contract in the last month of the season.

Earlier this month, the Rangers signed junior left wings Roman Horak and Jason Wilson, right wing Christian Thomas and goalie Scott Stajcer to entry-level contracts and traded left wing Ethan Werek to the Phoenix Coyotes for center Oscar Lundberg. Stacjer’s signing didn’t bode well for Johnson and Grumet-Morris as the Rangers already have Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Biron, Cam Talbot and Jason Missiaen under contract. Missiaen signed an ATO in March and spent a month practicing and traveling with the Whale, dressing as a backup to Talbot for one game.

The 6-1, 160-pound Horak, a fifth-round pick in 2009, had 26 goals and 52 assists in 64 games for Chilliwack, which lost in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. The 6-2, 205-pound Wilson, a fifth-round pick in 2010, had 18 goals and 25 assists in 64 games with Niagara, which lost in the second round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. The 6-foot, 187-pound Lindberg had five goals and nine assists in 41 games with Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League. The 5-9, 170-pound Thomas, 18, the Rangers’ second-round pick last year, ranked first in the OHL in goals the last two seasons (95) with Oshawa but isn’t eligible to play for the Whale next season. His 54 goals this season made him the first Rangers prospect to score at least 50 goals in an OHL regular season since former Wolf Pack wing Ryan Callahan (52 in 2005-06). He and his father, former NHL veteran Steve Thomas, became the only father-son duo to reach that plateau in an OHL season.

Stajcer overcame hip surgery in December to help Owen Sound win their first OHL regular-season title and reach the Memorial Cup. Stajcer, the Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2009, was 8-1 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in the early stages of the playoffs before being replaced by 17-year-old Jordan Binnington, who helped rally the eighth-seeded Attack past No. 1 Mississauga 3-2 at 3:27 of overtime on rookie Jarrod Maidens’ second goal of Game 7 to capture their first Robertson Cup in the OHL championship series. It was the third overtime win for the Attack, whose first-year assistant coach is former Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue, given much of the credit for the team’s vastly improved defense and part of a championship series for the second season in a row after doing it with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans in 2010.

All the junior players except Wilson could be sent back to their teams next season for an over-age year.

Right wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ No. 1 prospect, said he plans to return to Boston College for his junior year. But Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld said the Rangers still hope to sign the team’s first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009. Kreider’s season was cut short when he sustained a broken jaw when hit by teammate Brian Gibbons’ clearing attempt in a 4-0 victory over New Hampshire on March 4.

“We don’t have a definitive answer on what he’s going to do, but we’ll respect whatever decision he makes,” Schoenfeld said. “I think he’s ready to turn pro, and he’s done just about everything he can do (at Boston College).”

Whale season tickets for 2011-12 are available with special early bird discount. For information on season tickets, group sales and VIP packages, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com.

DISALVATORE GETS AEROS INTO CALDER CUP FINALS

South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore scored the biggest goal – and one of the ugliest – of his career Tuesday night.

The Houston Aeros captain jammed a loose puck from a scrum between Drew MacIntyre’s pads with 1:13 left in regulation to beat the Hamilton Bulldogs 4-3 in the decisive Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

MacIntyre appeared to have covered the puck and then seemed to be pushed into the net, but after discussing the play, the officials ruled it was a good goal. After the Aeros survived a last-time Hamilton push with an extra attacker and the teams had their traditional postgame handshake, Bulldogs forwards Ryan White and former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Nigel Dawes went to the refs and shook their hands.

“That is the story of our team this year; we just haven’t won many games by more than one goal,” said DiSalvatore, who played for South Windsor High and scored twice in Game 3 at Hamilton to give the Aeros a 3-0 series lead. “We are actually pretty comfortable in these situations, and man, it is just an awesome feeling right now.”

The Aeros regrouped after seeing the 3-0 lead wiped out to improve to 6-0 in Game 7s, tying the Maine Mariners for the most such wins without a loss. They scored two goals nine seconds apart in the eighth minute, survived a Bulldogs rally and won the Robert W. Clarke Trophy to advance to the Calder Cup finals against the Binghamton Senators, who never trailed while sweeping the Charlotte Checkers in the Eastern Conference finals. The best-of-seven finals in the AHL’s 75th anniversary season begin Friday night in Houston.

The Bulldogs were trying to join the 1960 Rochester Americans and 1989 Adirondack Red Wings as the only teams to rally from a 0-3 hole to win a best-of-seven series. But unlike the Americans against Cleveland and Red Wings against Hershey, the Bulldogs failed to advance in their 100th game of the season as they lost in Game 7 of the conference finals for the second consecutive year. In 2010, they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Texas Stars on home ice.

DiSalvatore has five goals and four assists in 18 playoff games after getting a career-high 28 goals and 33 assists while playing in all 80 games in the regular season. Patrick O’Sullivan leads the Aeros with four goals and 11 assists in the postseason, and 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Hackett (24 saves Tuesday) is 12-6 with a 2.56 GAA, .896 save percentage and one shutout.

MacIntyre had 30 saves but fell to 10-3 in Calder Cup elimination games, including 3-3 in Game 7s. He made 41 consecutive starts since being acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers on Feb. 28, compiling a 23-15-2 record with a 1.92 GAA and .934 save percentage.

Dawes, who won Game 6 at 9:11 of the second overtime, had two assists to finish with 14 goals and eight assists in the Bulldogs’ 19 playoff games. Dawes’ 41 goals in the regular season were one less than league leader Colin McDonald of the Oklahoma City Barons. McDonald, a Wethersfield native and son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, scored only 34 AHL goals in his first three pro seasons with the Springfield Falcons after being a second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2003 out of Providence College.

The Aeros, the top affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, finished second in the West Division and sixth overall in the regular season with a 46-28-1-5 record. Led by rookie coach Mike Yeo, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, the Aeros defeated Peoria in the division semifinals (4-0), Milwaukee in the division finals (4-3) and the North Division champion Bulldogs in the conference finals (4-3) to reach the Calder Cup finals for the first time since winning the championship in 2003.

The Senators finished fifth in the East Division and then beat Atlantic Division runner-up Manchester in the first round (4-3), Atlantic Division champion Portland in the second round (4-2) and Charlotte in the conference finals (4-0). The Senators’ first-year coach is Kurt Kleinendorst, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 1980 who never played in the NHL. His brother, Scot, was selected in the fifth round that year and played in the NHL with the Rangers, Whalers and Washington Capitals.

The finals will match two former Wolf Pack/Rangers players, Aeros wing Jed Ortmeyer and Senators center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer (21 goals, 65 assists) this season. Ortmeyer, who scored with 1:56 left in regulation to send Game 6 to overtime, has four goals and seven assists after signing a professional tryout contract with the Aeros on Jan. 4. Locke, who missed the first three playoff games because of a shoulder injury, has one goal and nine assists in 10 games.

The Aeros will host Game 2 on Sunday, with Games 3-4-5 in Binghamton on June 1, 3 and 4. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will be in Houston on June 7 and 9.

CANUCKS REACH STANLEY CUP FINALS ON BIZARRE PLAY

The Vancouver Canucks are in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 17 years thanks to one of the most bizarre goals in NHL history.

Defenseman Kevin Bieksa scored on a partially whiffed shot at 10:18 of the second overtime to give the Canucks a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night and the Western Conference finals four games to one.

Bieksa’s 50-foot shot beat a stunned Antti Niemi, who was unaware where the puck was after defenseman Alexander Edler’s clear-in attempt ricocheted off a strut in the glass and into the high slot to Bieksa. His fourth goal of the series ended it after former Yale and Rangers center Chris Higgins was stopped on a breakaway off a broken play at 8:20.

A celebration erupted while the officials conferred, but video clearly showed Bieksa’s goal, while bizarre, was good and fittingly earned the Canucks a spot in the Stanley Cup finals on the 17th anniversary of Greg Adams’ double-overtime winner in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Rangers, who ended a 54-year drought led by two future Hall of Famers, captain Mark Messier and Cheshire native Brian Leetch, who won the Conn Smyth Trophy as the playoff MVP.

“What a fortunate bounce,” Bieksa said. “I’ve been here for seven years and I’ve never seen a puck go off the partition and come right out like that. It bounced right to me, and I tried to make sure I got enough wood on it to make sure it got to the net.

“The puck was a knuckleball coming back. I’m not usually the best at one-timing pucks – I usually need a nice flat one. I just tried to get it on net, and what it went in, I don’t even think the goalie was looking. I think he was looking behind the net. No one could really find it.”

Sharks coach Todd McLellan said, “The only guy who knew where the puck was was Kevin Bieksa, and he almost fanned on it. It’s one of those things you have no control over. We can talk about it all we want. There is nothing we can do about it.”

The Canucks got to overtime when Ryan Kesler, who missed several minutes with a lower-body injury sustained in the second period, scored a disputed goal with 13.2 seconds left in regulation. It came after an icing call on the Sharks, but replays showed the puck shot around the glass by Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle actually deflected off the Canucks Daniel Sedin. But it was ruled an icing, and the Canucks took advantage with Kesler winning an in-zone faceoff from Sharks captain Joe Thornton, who played with a separated shoulder, and then racing to the net.

“It was an icing call that went off one of the Sedins’ shoulders, I believe,” McLellan said. “It happens real fast. It may be hard to catch with the naked eye. Obviously an error, but there’s nothing we’re doing about it now.”

Kesler’s goal was all that more dramatic after his injury and return with 3:19 left in the second period, though he was clearly bothered by what was considered some kind of pull. He played the third period and was on the ice after the Canucks pulled Roberto Luongo for a sixth attacker with 90 seconds left and the Sharks iced the puck with 29 seconds to go. Kesler got good position in front of the crease and got his stick on Sedin’s shot to keep the Canucks alive.

The Sharks had been 5-0 in overtime but were thwarted by 54 saves by Luongo, the winning goalie for Team Canada that won the gold medal in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Niemi (31 saves) had been 6-0 in playoff series after backstopping the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last year. He wasn’t re-signed by the team coached by former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville because of salary-cap problems.

Luongo made 20 saves in overtime, including 16 in the first extra 20 minutes, before Bieksa scored the winner. The top-seeded Canucks will host the opener of the Stanley Cup finals next Wednesday against the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, which became tied at 3-3 when the Tampa Bay Lightning rallied to beat the Boston Bruins 5-4 Wednesday night. The Lightning got two goals from Ted Purcell and Martin St. Louis and 16 saves from Dwayne Roloson, who returned after being the backup to Mike Smith in a 3-1 loss in Game 5 and improved to 7-0 in his career in elimination games, including 4-for-4 this year.

“We just let loose,” St. Louis, a part-time Greenwich resident, said of the Lightning’s power play, which produced three goals. “We knew it would be a long series and the fourth win as always the toughest to get, but fortunately we’ve been through this already.”

St. Louis scored the winner against his former University of Vermont teammate Tim Thomas (21 saves) with 9:45 left and only 29 seconds after David Krejci got the second of his three goals, giving him 10 for the postseason. Steven Stamkos had a goal and two assists, and Vinny Lecavalier and Steve Downie each added two assists for the Lightning.

Krejci, a former standout with the Providence Bruins, got the first post-season hat trick for the parent Bruins since Hall of Fame right wing Cam Neely in 1991. Krejci and St. Louis share the playoff goal-scoring lead with 10, and the Lightning have scored five goals in each of their wins.

Decisive Game 7 will be Friday night at 8 at TD Garden in Boston, the first time a conference final has gone to the limit since 2006. It will be the second seven-game series of this postseason for each team. The Bruins defeated Montreal at home in the first round, and the Lightning eliminated the host Pittsburgh Penguins in their opening series.

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