DESPITE OT LOSS, BABY RANGERS PLAY FOR TRAVERSE CHAMPIONSHIP WEDNESDAY NIGHT

BY: Bruce Berlet

Having already clinched a spot in the championship game, the New York Rangers prospects looked to enter their bid for a second tournament title undefeated Tuesday afternoon in Traverse City, Mich.

The winless Carolina Hurricanes provided the opposition, and the Rangers failed to show much of the speed, tenacity and play making they showed in their first two games, losing three leads and a 4-3 decision with 41 seconds left in a second overtime of 3-on-3 on Justin Shugg’s breakaway backhander off a turnover by Christian Thomas.

As Thomas, who scored the Rangers’ third goal with less than a second left in the first period, tried to make a play at the Carolina blue line, Skugg deftly poked away the puck, raced past defenseman/captain Dylan McIlrath and center Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and put a shot between the legs of Jason Missiaen (35 saves).

After a lackluster opening 40 minutes, Rangers/Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander implored his young team to try to rectify their play during a televised intermission talk, saying, “We can’t look past this game, it’s not a meaningless game. Let’s get back to using our speed, our strong work ethic, finishing our checks and driving to the net.”

The Rangers responded with the first 12 shots of the third period on the way to a 23-5 advantage, their most shots in a period in the tournament. It was reminiscent of Sunday night, when they had the first 14 shots in the third period on the way to a 10-3 advantage and three goals that broke open a tight game and beat the Dallas Stars, 6-2. But on this day, the Rangers couldn’t beat goalie invitee Mavric Parks (38 saves) with their third-period onslaught, so the game went to a four-minute overtime of 4-on-4.

After the Rangers narrowly missed winning early in the first extra session, McIlrath was called for hooking at 1:48. But Missiaen made four strong saves, three off defenseman Ryan Murphy, Carolina’s first-round pick in June, while the Rangers were shorthanded and then sprawled to stop a bouncing puck off a shot by Brent Benson. After a scoreless four minutes, the game went to a second overtime of 3-on-3 for three minutes, and Shugg took advantage of the Thomas turnover to give the Hurricanes their first win in three tries. The Hurricanes, the 2009 tournament champions who beat the Rangers 1-0 last year, had a 9-1 shot advantage in the decisive overtimes.

“The first two games were pretty sharp, and we got off to good starts in every period,” McIlrath told MSG Network announcer Dave Maloney in a postgame interview. “Today was a little different. We started off strong but kind of lost the momentum as the game went on and then got it back in the third period. Then a tough loss in overtime.”

Still, the Rangers won the Wayne Gretzky Division and will play the Buffalo Sabres, champions of the Gordie Howe Division, for the title Wednesday at 7 p.m. in a game that will be televised on the MSG Network and NHL Network. The Sabres lost 5-2 to the host Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, leaving the Rangers (2-0-1) as the only one of eight teams not to lose in regulation and with a tournament-high seven points. Scott Stajcer, named the game’s top star after making 26 saves in a 6-2 victory over the Dallas Stars on Sunday night, will be in goal against Buffalo as the Rangers try to duplicate the 2007 team that won the tournament and included former Hartford Wolf Pack players Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Michael Sauer and Artem Anisimov, who are all now key figures for the parent club.

“We’ve got to play our best hockey,” McIlrath said. “Buffalo is a really good team with a lot of good, young players in their organization, and so do we. We’re going to use our team speed like we did in the first two games and in the third period (Tuesday night). I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

But the Hurricanes, the tournament’s youngest team with 13 of 21 players under 20 years old, continued to show improvement after an 8-2 loss to Dallas on Saturday and a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. The Rangers again started quickly but were then outplayed for most of the first period while being outshot 15-7 but managed to escape with a 3-2 lead.

The Rangers continued to excel on their first power play as defenseman Tim Erixon made a deft pass to the right circle to Auby-Marchessault, who beat Parks with a screen shot at 2:07. It was the Rangers’ fifth power-play goal in 17 attempts, but they failed to convert on their last four tries.

“It was a good power play,” Auby-Marchessault, who advanced to the tournament off a strong showing in the Rangers prospects camp after the NHL draft in June, told Maloney on the bench. “Tim made some nice plays on the top, and me and Ryan (Bourque) had the same thoughts (of switching) that gave me the opening so I went in and took a good shot.”

Auby-Marchessault credited Bourque, a linemate with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with helping him in his first prospects camp and tournament.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and he gave me some good advice to play my simple game,” Auby-Marchessault said. “We talk on and off the ice, and he’s a good teammate and very helpful.”

The Rangers’ lead lasted 41/2 minutes as the Hurricanes tied it off a strong play by Jared Staal, the youngest of the four Staal brothers playing pro hockey, including Marc Staal, an All-Star defenseman named a Rangers alternate captain on Monday. Jared took out a Rangers player behind the net, and Greg Hoffman picked up the loose puck and passed in front to a wide-open Scott Pitt for a quick one-timer past a helpless Missiaen.

The Rangers reclaimed the lead at 11:13 when Thomas forced a turnover in the left corner off strong forechecking and passed to Shane McColgan, one of the Rangers’ fifth-round picks in June who scored from in close.

The Hurricanes tied it again as Tyler Carroll converted a shot from the left point by Murphy, the first goal the Rangers allowed in 13 shorthanded situations.

But the Rangers took the 3-2 lead as Thomas, the high-scoring son of former NHL wing Steve Thomas, played beat the clock. Thomas, who had 41 and 54 goals with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League the last two seasons, took a pass from McColgan after strong forechecking by Tommy Grant and fired a wrist shot that beat Parks with a half-second left in the period.

“It was nice to finally get one,” Thomas told Maloney.

Gernander asked for better skating and pressure in the second period, and his team responded with more puck control. Neither team had many good scoring chances, but the Hurricanes got even for a third time on a power play with 2:18 left when defenseman Tyler Stahl’s shot from the right point found its way through a screen of players and ricocheted in off the left post.

After the stern lecture from Gernander during the second intermission, the Rangers responded again but couldn’t get the goal they needed to enter the championship game on a perfect run.

During a first-period interview with MSG announcers Maloney, Joe Giannone and Joe Micheletti, Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld said he has been impressed with the prospects’ speed and increased talent level, though the former was lacking much of Tuesday’s game.

“I think this is one of the quicker teams we’ve had (in six years in the tournament), and I think our skill level has continued to improve,” Schoenfeld said. “We made a definite decision to continue to add skating and puck-moving skill to our lineup because scoring goals is very difficult in the NHL. So the more players that you have who can do that job for you and compete for those top six positions on your forward line, the better chance you have of filling it with someone who is going to have an impact.

“So we’ve made a concerted effort in our drafting and are trying to do that in our development in Hartford so we can just get better. We have had teams that try real hard, give great effort and generate scoring chances, but it’s paying it off that really matters. Sometimes it’s hard to pay off that effort, but we think we’re getting some talent that will be able to do that. I think we have more quality depth in every position than we’ve ever had in my nine years in the organization.

“I think last season we were six deep in call-ups to the big club and continued to win, and now we think we’re a little stronger. It’s good to have depth, but you need quality depth because you’re going to have injuries. You want guys competing, so even though there aren’t maybe a lot of jobs (in training camp), there are five or six guys that I think have a legitimate chance of making the Rangers.”

They would include Erixon, defensemen Michael Del Zotto, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko and forwards Kris Newbury, Dale Weise, Chad Kolarik, John Mitchell and Carl Hagelin, who played well in five playoff games with the Whale in April after he co-captained the University of Michigan to the NCAA championship game.

Schoenfeld said the better non-marquee players in the tournament have included McColgan, Auby-Marchessault, and defenseman Samuel Noreau, who improved after a so-so first game.

The second-period guests of Giannone, Micheletti and Maloney included former Whalers center and Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ director of hockey operations under general manager Jim Rutherford, who held the same position with the Whalers. Francis, the Whalers’ first-round pick (fourth overall) in 1981, had been an assistant coach to former Whalers coach Paul Maurice.

“Hartford isn’t the biggest city in the world, but it was mighty big in my life,” said Francis, whose 23-year NHL career began on Asylum Street a few months after he was drafted. “I remember skating with Gordie Howe, and my first roommate was a guy named Dave Keon. It was a great place to play and where I grew up (as a pro) and learned to play. I still have a lot of friends in the area.”

The second-intermission guests include Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark, who settled some of the team’s goaltending questions when he said, “We’ll send (Missiaen) to the East Coast League (Greenville) and see what spits out in a couple of years.”

With Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron penciled in with the Rangers, that leaves the battle for the two goalie slots in Hartford to Stacjer and veterans Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot. Schoenfeld and Clark have said Stajcer would likely be returned to the Ontario Hockey League as an over-aged junior because he missed most of last season because of hip surgery in November, but Stacjer played well for Owen Sound before and after his surgery, helping the Attack win the OHL playoff title and reach the Memorial Cup, and continued his strong work in the victory over St. Louis.

MSG’s third-period guests included former Whalers defenseman Mark Howe, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 28. Howe played with his Hall of Fame father, Gordie, and older brother Marty with the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros before the trio joined the Whalers in 1977.

“When I got the call that I had been chosen, it took my breath away,” said Howe, the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings. “My dad is still around, so that’s really special.”

After the championship game, the Rangers’ traveling party will charter back to New York, and most of the players will report to training camp Thursday at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. Workouts begin Friday, and the first of the Rangers’ seven preseason games, four of which will be in Europe, is next Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the New Jersey Devils in Albany, N.Y., home of the Devils’ AHL affiliate.

The Whale open training camp Sept. 23 or 24 at the XL Center in Hartford, and their first of four preseason games is Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. against Albany at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. The game benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes Gordon, a longtime Wolf Pack fan who died of cancer in 2006 at 19 and asked that the monies set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.

CALLAHAN’S APPROPRIPATE VISIT TO MSG

Former Wolf Pack All-Star right Ryan Callahan, the newly named 26th captain of the Rangers, appropriately got his first look at the new-look MSG on Monday while wearing a hardhat.

After all, no one represents the new Black-and-Blueshirts mentality/attitude better than Callahan. It’s a trait the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2004 demonstrated from his first days as a pro in Hartford in the 2006-7 season, when he had scored the winning goal in the AHL All-Star Game with three seconds left.

And while MSG will have an emerging 21st century look when the Rangers return from early-season to Europe and the West Coast next month, Callahan isn’t about to change a gritty, relentless approach to the game that enabled the Blueshirts to make the playoffs last season despite a plethora of injuries to most of their marquee players, including their new captain.

“The key for me is that I can’t let the captaincy change me at all,” Callahan told reporters while visiting MSG with Derek Stepan and former Wolf Pack players Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, named an alternate captain with newcomer Brad Richards. “Obviously there comes a little bit more leadership role with it and some more responsibility, but at the same time, I have to do what I do and not the letter on my sweater affect my game or how I approach the game. I can’t let it change me on or off the ice, the way I play or the way I act.”

Callahan and Dubinsky were the gems of the Rangers’ 2004 draft in which they chose Al Montoya, Lauri Korpikoski, Darin Olver, Dane Byers and Bruce Graham before they landed the former Wolf Pack linemates at 60th and 127th and are now major cogs in the Blueshirts’ youth corps. Callahan has had some practice for his new duties as captain of his junior team, Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League, in his last two junior seasons and as a Rangers alternate captain the last two seasons.

Again, Callahan is not about to change his style, starting when training camp opens Friday.

“I won’t be shy about (the captaincy),” said Callahan, who signed a three-year, $12.825 million contract on July 27 and is now the Rangers’ first homegrown captain since Cheshire native Brian Leetch in 1997-2000. “There has to be accountability among the players, the coaching staff can say and do only so much. It’s our room. It’s our team.”

Coach John Tortorella said he never doubted Callahan would be the right person at the right time to succeed Trumbull native Chris Drury, who retired Aug. 19 after having the final year of his five-year, $35.25 million contract bought out by the Rangers on June 29.

“I know Cally will do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who privately informed Callahan of his appointment on Friday. “He has instant credibility. He has the respect of his teammates, the respect of his coaches, the respect of the organization. Everybody likes him. He does it the right way on the ice, he does it the right way off the ice, and he’s matured into this. … I know he’ll handle himself the right way. If he ticks somebody off – and he almost certainly will at some point – it will be for the right reason.”

Callahan is the 37th U.S.-born player to captain an NHL team, including three from Connecticut – Drury, Leetch and Chris Clark of South Windsor with the Washington Capitals – and two with the Hartford Whalers, Mark Johnson from Minnesota and Russ Anderson from Iowa.

Despite missing 22 games last season because of a broken hand and ankle, Callahan set career highs in goals (23), assists (25) and points (48) while finishing second on the team in scoring to former Wolf Pack linemate Dubinsky (54 points). He missed the 22 regular-season games and the first-round playoff ouster by the Capitals because he was injured blocking shots, one of his fortes. That, too, isn’t about to change.

“That’s us, and that’s me,” said Callahan, the Rangers’ de facto captain last season while Drury played only 24 games because of injuries. “If we’re winning 3-0 and there are two minutes to go and there’s a shot to be blocked, I’m trying to block it. We take great pride in this identity we created. We’re not backing off it now.”

Now you know why Callahan has been one of my favorite players while covering hockey for more than two decades, right up there with his Whalers clone, Kevin Dineen. Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs, an astute hockey observer and former colleague, likes to call Dineen “the John Wayne of the Whalers.” Callahan has already begun to earn that nickname with the Rangers, and I doubt anything is going to change now that he traded an A for C. In fact, I’d be shocked if his relentlessness didn’t get more intense, if that’s possible.

ONLY SURIVING YAROSLAVL PLAYER DIES

Not surprisingly, Alexander Galimov, the only hockey player from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to survive the impact of last week’s deadly plane crash in western Russia, died in a Moscow hospital Monday.

Galimov, who was 26, succumbed from the severe burns that covered 90 percent of his body. He was one of 37 members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team who boarded a flight last Wednesday and was the only member of the team to survive. Seven members of the flight crew also perished in the crash. One crew member, Alexander Sizov, survived and remains in serious condition. Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, reported Sizov is currently recovering in a general ward at Moscow’s Sklifosovsky hospital. He was recently moved out of intensive care.

Last Wednesday, Lokomotiv bordered a charter plane to fly to Minsk, Belarus, to play in its opening game of the 2010-11 Kontinetal Hockey League season. But the plane crashed just after takeoff and broke into pieces along the banks of the Volga River. The cause of the crash is still unknown.

Among those who died was former Rangers defensemen Karel Rachunek and Alexander Karpovtsev, a member of the 1994 Stanley Cup championship team, and former Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon, who was set to debut as the team’s coach after leaving an assistant coaching position with the Detroit Red wings this spring.

Also not surprisingly, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team won’t be competing in the KHL this season. It will be demoted to a lower league in a gradual rebuilding program, starting with several of the team’s junior players who weren’t on the ill-fated flight. … Thankfully former Wolf Pack center Marc Savard will have his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup. Continued post-concussion syndrome limited Savard to only 25 games last season, and he missed all of the playoffs as the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Savard has had to deal with a concussion and its aftereffects since a cheap, blindside hit by Pittsburgh Penguins wing Matt Cooke on March 7, 2010. Inexplicably, Cooke wasn’t suspended, though his cowardly actions led to the NHL implementing a new rule aimed at prohibiting hits to the head. Cooke did get suspensions of four and 10 games for more headhunting on former Wolf Pack/Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets and McDonagh. In the 2008-09 season, Cooke was suspended for hits to the head of Rangers/former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov and Scott Walker, then a wing with the Carolina Hurricanes. … Chicago Blackhawks standout forward Patrick Sharp underwent emergency surgery Monday night. Sharp, who signed a long-term contract extension with the Blackhawks this summer, had an appendectomy after feeling pain in his abdomen. Sharp is expected to recover in three to four weeks, so he could be back in time for the Blackhawks’ regular-season opener at Dallas on Oct. 7.

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