FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Hopefully NHL officials will again take notice of the Hartford market’s interest in hockey.

As in the Eastern Conference finals, the Insurance City region ranked fourth in the overnight ratings for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals won by the Boston Bruins, though this time Hartford tied with Detroit at 8.7.

Overall, the game generated a 5.7 overnight rating for NBC, tying Game 7 of the 2003 finals between the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks for the most-watched Game 7 in NHL history, according to The Nielsen Company.

That’s a 14-percent jump from the last Game 7 in 2009 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. The 5.7 also tied for the second-best rating of any Stanley Cup game in 37 years, just behind the 5.8 from Game 6 of the 2010 final between the champion Chicago Blackhawks, coached by former Hartford Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville, and Philadelphia Flyers. This year’s Game 7 also was the highest-rate Stanley Cup game featuring a Canadian team in 38 years.

Not surprisingly, Boston led the way with a phenomenal 43.2 rating and 64 share, the best overnight rating for a hockey game in Boston dating to 1991 and the best overnight rating in the Boston market for a game featuring a hometown team in any major sports title game since Super XLII in 2008 between the unbeaten New England Patriots and New York Giants earned a 55.6 rating. The wild-card Giants won 17-14 to ruin the Patriots’ bid to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the NHL’s only undefeated team.

The 64 share for Game 7 means 64 percent of the households with televisions in the Boston market were watching the game. It was followed by Providence (25.9 rating), home of the Bruins’ AHL affiliate, Buffalo (10.6) and Hartford and Detroit (8.7).

Plus, the average rating in Boston for the seven-game series was 28.1, easily outdistancing last year’s seven-game NBA finals between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers that drew a 25.0.

Whalers Sports & Entertainment has been working for more than a year trying to increase support for the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale. Attendance did increase dramatically after the team was rebranded as the Whale on Nov. 27, and WSE officials have put together an extensive summer program to enhance the team’s exposure and hopefully reach their “Drive for 3,000” goal of selling 3,000 season tickets for 2011-12 and ultimately get back in the NHL.

Having such high ratings in the Hartford market helps the cause, but fan support and continued increased attendance likely will ultimately determine if hockey’s highest level ever returns to the capital city.

MOST BRUINS HAVE AHL EXPERIENCE

Eighteen of the 21 players who appeared in the postseason for the Bruins are AHL graduates. They are goalies Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, defensemen Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk, Tomas Kaberle, Adam McQuaid, Shane Hnidy and Dennis Seidenberg and forwards David Krejci, Patrice Bergeon, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.

The unorthodox Thomas, who liked to roam from the net more than most goalies, set NHL records for most saves and most shots faced in one playoff year and posted a 1.15 goals-against average and .967 save percentage (238 of 246) in the Bruins’ seven-game win over the Vancouver Canucks. That was even better than his 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage through the postseason as he joined Cheshire native and Rangers Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch (1994) as the only Americans to win the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP. Ironically, the Rangers beat the Canucks in seven games to end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought.

A native of Flint, Mich., Thomas was an All-American at the University of Vermont who was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques. He played for nine teams in five leagues in three countries on two continents, winning the MVP in Finland before coming to the Bruins for another shot at the NHL in 2005.

“I didn’t want to think about the NHL because it seemed like it was so far away,” Thomas said of his odyssey through the minors and Europe. “But having said that, I was happy playing where I was playing. I was playing in a very good league, and I had a lot of good friends over there. I’m very happy that I made the decision to come back. It was a tough decision at the time, but it paid off in the long run.”

Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in 2009 and made the U.S. Olympic team last year. But a hip injury cost him his starting job to Rask, who started for the Bruins throughout the playoffs last year, when the Flyers won four in a row to escape a 0-3 hole and eliminate Boston. Thomas was also a backup in the Olympics to the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan Miller, but after offseason hip surgery, he won his NHL job back and isn’t likely to give it up any time soon.

And there’s a good chance Thomas will finish the season with a trio of trophies at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on Wednesday night when he’s likely to take home a second Vezina Trophy. Combined with the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup, he would become the first goalie to win all three since 1974 and ’75 when the Flyers’ Bernie Parent accomplished the feat back-to-back.

Bergeron, Chara, Ference, Rask and Boychuk are former AHL All-Stars. Seidenberg became the newest member of an exclusive club with his name on both the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup, having won an AHL title with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005. Ryder lifted the Stanley Cup eight years after his bid for a Calder Cup title fell short in a Game 7 finals loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2003.

Bruins coach Claude Julien guided the Bulldogs from 2000 until his promotion to the Montreal Canadiens midway through the 2002-03 season. Julien, who shared AHL Coach of the Year that season with his then-successor and now-assistant Geoff Ward, became the eighth consecutive Stanley Cup-winning coach to have been an AHL coach, following Quenneville, Bylsma, Mike Babcock, Randy Carlyle, Peter Laviolette, Rangers coach John Tortorella and Pat Burns.

Bruins assistant coach and former Whalers center Doug Jarvis succeeded Ward in Hamilton and spent two seasons (2003-05) at the helm of the Bulldogs. Fellow assistant and former Whalers defenseman Doug Houda was a defenseman on the 1996 Calder Cup champion Rochester Americans and also played in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals.

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli spent seven seasons with the Ottawa Senators, where his responsibilities included overseeing the Binghamton Senators.

CHRIS DRURY SAGA TAKES ANOTHER TURN

The Chris Drury saga has apparently taken another twist, but his Rangers career still seems over.

The Rangers were ready to buy out the final year of the five-year, $32.25 million free-agent deal that the Trumbull native signed on July 1, 2007. But the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported Friday that the Rangers will be unable to buy out his contract because the degenerative condition of the captain’s left knee will render him medically unable to play next season.

Drury has yet to file the necessary paperwork, and the Rangers could file a grievance against him, though that seems unlikely. Winning a grievance would cost CEO Jim Dolan approximately $2.7 million in cash, given insurance ramifications.

Still, Drury’s knee condition could end his 12-year NHL career as he approaches his 35th birthday on Aug. 20. It’s also bad for the Rangers, who will have to contend salary cap issues over the summer and next season. Freeing up $3,333,333 was crucial to pursuing free agent Dallas Stars center Brad Richards and signing key restricted free agents under contract. Instead of dealing with a $3.717 million cap hit over the summer, a full $7.05 million charge will remain on the Rangers’ summer cap, which can exceed the 2011-12 season cap by 10 percent.

Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Drury will have to report to training camp in September for the team physical. If he fails as expected, he would qualify for a long-term injury (LTI) exemption when the season begins. But to gain the full $7.05 million exemption, the Rangers would have to go that far over the cap, which will be set June 30, before the season opener in Stockholm, Sweden. It seems unlikely the Rangers would approach an expected $69.5 million cap unless they give Richards whatever he wants to inflate their cap.

Under a buyout, the Rangers would have approximately $3.717 million of dead space on Drury’s contract through the summer and the season. Drury, who is owed $5 million, had arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 11 that sidelined him for 27 games before he returned for the regular-season finale April 9 against the New Jersey Devils and scored his only goal in a 5-2 victory that kept the Rangers’ playoff hopes alive. They made it when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2 that night.

Drury saw limited ice time as his knee deteriorated as the Rangers were eliminated in the first round in five games by the Washington Capitals. Then on breakup day April 25, coach John Tortorella indicated Drury’s future with the Rangers was on thin ice when he said, “Intangibles always come into evaluating. You just can’t let the intangibles override other things, too. Dru and I have a great relationship. We’ve been very honest with one another. Dru is getting older. That’s why he has a chronic knee (condition). We have to make decisions for what’s best for the organization moving on. It’s certainly not mine, my total decision, but I have my thoughts. These are all conversations we have to have.”

The Post learned conversations between Drury and Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather regarding the possibility that Drury would cite being medically unable to play began when Sather informed the captain last week of the team’s plan to buy him out. The first round of buyouts runs from Saturday through June 30. There is a second 48-hour window in late July or early August after a salary arbitration.

Drury is expected to undergo a physical in the near future, and if his condition is affirmed, insurance will cover $4 million. It’s not known if Drury is contemplating major surgery, but it appears as if Drury’s career could be over after 892 regular-season games in which he has 255 goals and 360 assists. He also has 47 goals and 41 assists in 130 playoff games, including many goals that earned him the nickname “Captain Clutch.”

Drury had 62 goals and 89 assists in 264 games with the Rangers, but his run on Broadway could end in a way that doesn’t benefit him or the team.

CALLAHAN EDGES ZUCCARELLO FOR TOP MOMENT

According to Rangers fans, the www.newyorkrangers.com Moment of the Season for 2010-11 came down to former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan and wing Mats Zuccarello, who split his first season in North America between Hartford and New York.

By 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, alternate captain/future captain Callahan’s overtime goal on Nov. 15 at Pittsburgh was a narrow winner. Callahan’s goal off a 2-on-1 with former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky capped an amazing come-from-behind 3-2 victory at 3:38 of overtime. Callahan tapped in a brilliant, delayed pass from Dubinsky to win a game that the Rangers led 1-0 much of the way before allowing two late third-period goals 38 seconds apart before tying it on All-Star defenseman Marc Staal’s shorthanded tally with 1:26 left in regulation.

Callahan’s winner came in the Rangers’ first visit to the new CONSOL Energy Center and ended their 0-12-3 slump in Pittsburgh since Jan. 19, 2006.

“Callahan is the heart and soul of the Rangers,” commented Matthew Hitchens of Jersey City, N.J. “Callahan has been great and showed a lot of grit with his comeback after his first (hand) injury. This is just one of thousands more moments to come from a true Ranger.”

“Callahan and Dubinsky represent everything the Rangers are becoming and should be for years to come,” said Eli Perez of Bronx, N.Y.

“This game defined what this team was all year, a hard-working group of guys with a never-give-up attitude,” said Melissa Andus of Staten Island, N.Y. “In other words, a team we have never been more proud of.”

“This moment is by far the most memorable,” said John Grady of Bernardsville, N.Y. “During this game, I remember going from hopeless to interested to excited to ecstatic. This is no contest. This moment defined the 2010-11 New York Rangers.”

But barely, according to the fans, who also liked Zuccarello’s first NHL goal off a rink-length Dubinsky rush that produced a 2-1 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 5.

“What can you say? It’s nothing other than unbelievable,” Zuccarello said after his first NHL goal in his sixth NHL game on a rather unbelievable no-angle laser to the top shelf.

The 5-foot-7 wing known as “The Norwegian Hobbit” picked up the puck from the Hurricanes goal, came out to Cam Ward’s left and launched the puck high past the startled goalie.

DAILY NEWS SPECTOR EVALUATES WHALE CALL-UPS

New York Daily News Rangers beat writer Jesse Spector took a look at the Whale players called up to the parent club last season:

Forward Brodie Dupont: The Rangers’ third-round pick from the 2005 draft finally got to make his NHL debut a couple of weeks before his 24th birthday after 31/2 seasons in Hartford. On Jan. 22 in Atlanta, Dupont played seven shifts for 5:34, registering one shot on goal. This was when the Rangers were at their most depleted, injury-wise, and there really was not anything memorable about Dupont’s cameo. He is a restricted free agent this summer.

Forward Evgeny Grachev: The jury is still out on whether the 21-year-old Russian can become the force that he has been projected as at the NHL level. At 6-4 and 224 pounds, Grachev can bring an element of size that the Rangers generally lack, but in eight pointless games over two stints with the Blueshirts this season, he looked overmatched. The organization was happy with the progress that Grachev made this season in the AHL, where he had 16 goals and 22 assists while showing steady improvement on his defensive game. The 2008 third-round pick may have fallen on the prospect charts but still has youth and potential on his side. Grachev should get a legitimate chance to make the Rangers’ roster out of training camp this summer.

Goalie Chad Johnson: The man known as Dos Nueve made one relief appearance as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup after Martin Biron’s season-ending injury. In 20 minutes at Nassau Coliseum, Johnson gave up two goals on 11 shots on March 31. The game already was out of hand, and that might be the last time that Johnson suits up for the Rangers. The 25-year-old is a restricted free agent after a shaky AHL campaign, and with Biron set to come back for another season, and other goaltenders in the system, Johnson may not fit in the organization’s plans.

Right wing Chad Kolarik: Acquired in a midseason minor-league swap with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kolarik showed an impressive physical edge and good faceoff skills during his four-game NHL look as the Rangers went through their injury crisis. Kolarik had an assist on Brandon Prust’s goal on January 20 at Carolina for his first NHL point. The 25-year-old is an unrestricted free agent and could fit back in the Rangers’ organization as an injury fill-in type of player. (Note: Kolarik was re-signed Friday.)

Center Kris Newbury: The fan favorite at the Garden among the players up from Connecticut, Newbury had one assist and 35 penalty minutes in 11 games for the Rangers, his most significant NHL action since playing 28 games for the 2007-08 Maple Leafs. At 29, Newbury is not a prospect but could be a fourth-line contributor under the right circumstances. He has one year left on his contract, but Newbury’s value to the Rangers takes a hit from the necessity of waivers to get him back and forth to the minors if he does not secure a full-time NHL job.

Goalie Cam Talbot: Never played but looked pretty good skating around in warm-ups before the first game after Biron got hurt and before Johnson got called up. Talbot then went right back to the minors. For trivia buffs, he was the first Ranger to wear No. 33 after defenseman Michal Rozsival left town.

Right wing Dale Weise: It’s funny. Newbury played 11 games, and it seemed like more. Weise played 10 games, and it seemed like less. The only really memorable Weise moment in his debut season was a fight with Dan Carcillo in his first game. There were less than four minutes remaining in a game the Flyers led (and won) 4-1, but Weise delivered the beating that pretty much everyone north of Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike thought that Carcillo had coming for a long time.

Center Todd White: Good guy, veteran presence, a solid acquisition for the bloated detritus of Donald Brashear’s contract and most likely finished as an NHL player. White had a goal and an assist in 18 games after making the team out of training camp ahead of Tim Kennedy, a decision that stuck Kennedy in waivers limbo in the AHL, cost the Rangers both salary-cap space and the chance to get anything out of a rather promising young forward – that is, other than packaging Kennedy with a third-round pick for (defenseman) Bryan McCabe in February. John Tortorella talked a few times about his regret at not being able to give White a better shot to show what he could do. Tortorella also had reasons for not putting more on White’s plate. He is the least likely unrestricted free agent in the organization to re-sign this summer.

Right wing Jeremy Williams: The former Maple Leafs prospect had the least time on ice of anyone to play for the Rangers this season, playing 3:43 on Oct. 24 against the Devils. He did make history, though, as the first Ranger to wear No. 86, followed a few months later by Wojtek Wolski. In 75 AHL games, Williams had 32 goals and 23 assists. It said a lot about how the Rangers viewed Williams that they did not call him back up during the injury crunch. The 27-year-old winger is an unrestricted free agent. (Editor’s Note: Williams signed a one-year deal with the EC Salzburg Red Bulls in the Austrian Elite League this week.)

YEO, GULUTZAN NAMED NHL COACHES

Mike Yeo, who coached the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup finals, and Texas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan were named coach of the parent Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars on Friday.

Yeo, now the youngest coach in the NHL at 37, succeeds Todd Richards, fired after failing to make the playoffs in his two seasons as Wild coach. Richards got the job in 2009 after Jacques Lemaire, the only coach in franchise history to that point, resigned.

Yeo won a Stanley Cup as an assistant to Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh in 2009. After being named Aeros coach a year ago Friday, he led them to a 46-28-1-5 record, second in the Western Conference, despite a roster hit hard by call-ups. The Aeros then won the Western Conference playoff title before losing in the Calder Cup finals in six games to the Binghamton Senators.

Gulutzan signed a two-year contract with a club option for a third season. Gulutzan, 39, was Texas Stars coach the past two seasons, leading the team to the playoffs both seasons and to the Calder Cup finals in 2009-10. He was 87-56-17 in the regular season and 16-14 in the playoffs. … The Wild traded Maxim Noreau, the AHL’s top power-play point defenseman and first-team All-Star, from the Devils for Albany Devils forward David McIntyre. Noreau, 24, was scoreless in six NHL games the past two seasons in which he had 28 goals and 78 assists in 152 games with the Aeros after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008. McIntyre was acquired from Anaheim in 2009 and tied for fifth in Albany scoring last season with 12 goals and 18 assists in 78 games.

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One response to “FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

  1. Mr. Berlet:

    Having watched Pavel Valentenko all season for the Whale would you say he is
    NHL ready, with the appropriate skill level?

    Thanks & regards,
    Charles Fishman