John Mitchell has always prided himself in being “a pretty fast skater” and proved it when he won a fastest skater competition with the Toronto Maple Leafs three years ago.
“I think I actually beat the time in the NHL All-Star Game, so I know I can skate,” Mitchell recalled Wednesday night after his first NHL action with the New York Rangers in a 2-1 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils in the preseason opener at the Pepsi Center in Albany, N.Y.
Mitchell was one of the first players used in all situations and also leveled Cam Janssen, one of the Devils tough guys, as he continued to center a line with pesky veteran Sean Avery and fuzzy-faced J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June. The trio was cited as “probably our most effective line, as far as forechecking and having some offensive zone pressure” by Rangers coach John Tortorella, who watched in the upper deck with president and general manager Glen Sather and other team executives while assistant GM/assistant coach/Connecticut Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld ran the bench with assistant coach Mike Sullivan.
But Mitchell’s major asset Wednesday night was a quicker pace from last season, when he often skated at 45 rpm instead of 78 after he tore the medical collateral ligament in his right knee while with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and sustained a broken right foot when hit by a shot while with the Whale after being acquired on Feb. 28 for a seventh-round pick in 2012.
“My right side kind of took a beating last year,” Mitchell said with a smile. “But injuries heal, and I felt like I could get back to my normal skating stride. I try to use my size (6 feet 3, 205 pounds) and my speed to my advantage.”
Mitchell had plenty of reason to smile after continuing his solid play since being traded. Schoenfeld considered Mitchell the Whale’s best player after his acquisition and said his steady play has continued in training camp. Some of the latter can be attributed to summer training with retired NHL veteran Gary Roberts, who is the player development consultant of the Dallas Stars and runs a gym in Mitchell’s hometown of Toronto where they worked out with NHL stars such as Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning, James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins and reigning Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I did a lot more running and kind of sprint work, so that might help with cycling your feet through when you skate,” Mitchell said. “Gary is a great guy who does everything beautifully. He has a top-notch facility and is very good with his workouts. He’s (45), but he’s still huge, a real specimen. Nutrition for him is just as much as your workouts. It’s crazy how he deals with nutrition.
“Another great thing about working out with him was that there was a meal right afterwards, and it was all organic. There was no preservatives, no (potato) chips, none of that, zero. This was THE most organic meal you could possibly eat, and I like that because obviously you need to fuel body right after you work out. So you have protein shake, go shower and do whatever for 20-25 minutes, and by the time you’re done that, you’re starving. That shake didn’t really do much for you, so you want to eat a meal.”
Mitchell said he gained a few pounds, weighed 208 at the start of training camp and is now at 204.
“That’s best for me for optimum strength and speed,” Mitchell said. “Even if I went down to 200, I wouldn’t be opposed to that. You might just be that much quicker.”
It’s all part of a kind of second lease on hockey life for Mitchell after the injuries and being discarded by the Maple Leafs. At the time he was traded, Mitchell had one goal and four assists in 10 games with the Marlies after getting two goals and one assist in 23 games with the Maple Leafs.
“At the end, it was tough (in Toronto) with the injuries two years in a row; my left knee in 2009 and my right knee last year,” Mitchell said. “It just kind of sucked, and things obviously didn’t work out for me there. But it’s a new year and new season and a new training camp, so it’s an opportunity.
“Every time you get traded, obviously there’s some sort of chance. Of course I would have liked to come up and play with the big club last year and have an opportunity to show them what I could do in the regular season. But things obviously didn’t happen for me that way, so I re-signed here ($650,000 at the NHL level for one year) just trying to get myself an opportunity. They obviously showed interest in me, so that’s a good sign and you definitely want to want to sign at that point because they show interest in you and they like the way you play. So I thought there was a definite opportunity there, and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
Mitchell has accomplished that objective so far, getting seven goals and five assists in 14 regular-season games with the Whale despite the broken foot and then adding three goals and three assists in six playoff games. And he scored one of the first goals in team scrimmages while earning plaudits from Tortorella.
“I’ve felt pretty good in camp so far,” Mitchell said. “And I felt pretty good (Wednesday night) trying to use my speed and get some bumps in and checks and try to get some pucks to the net. The first game is always a little bit sloppy, but obviously you can’t use any excuses and you just got to go out there and play the game.
“Obviously it wasn’t going to be a finesse game with the ice being a little wet, so at that point it’s basically just try to get chips off the boards to your wingers or even to yourself with speed. Obviously if you chip it, they can’t hold you up, so that gives you a chance to get around them and get the puck and take it to the net if you can. That’s something that we tried to do.”
Mitchell smiled when reminded of knocking Janssen to the ice.
“I’ve played against Jannie a long time, all the way to the (Ontario Hockey League),” said Mitchell, 26, who played for the Plymouth Whalers in juniors. “He’s definitely a tough guy and likes to take runs at guys every once in a while, so I’ll give a run at him just to let him know.”
Mitchell also had one of the Rangers’ few good scoring chances before Dale Weise started and ended the play that tied the game with 4:21 left in regulation. Mitchell was denied the equalizer when Jeff Frazee gloved his 30-foot shot with 9:34 to go and the Rangers on a power play that was out of sync most of the game.
“The puck kind of came to me, and I just wanted to try and get a shot on the net,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t have a very good angle to get a rebound or anything crazy like that, so I just tried to get the puck on the net and see what might happen. (Frazee) kind of saw it the whole way.”
Mitchell said he has been happy with the way things have gone with Avery and Miller, who excelled in a prospects tournament last week in Traverse City, Mich., where the Rangers lost 5-2 in the final to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres.
“They’re both speedy guys who like to get in on the forecheck, and so do I, so we complement each other reasonably well with just how we play,” Mitchell said. “We’re all kind of in the same boat.”
Mitchell hopes his steady play earned him a trip to Europe for four of the Rangers’ seven preseason games, starting next Thursday at HC Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic.
“I most certainly would love to go, and it would be a honor and benefit me,” Mitchell said. “I’ve never played in Europe, so that definitely would be quite the experience for me. The thought of the bigger ice suits me well because I like to skate and use my speed. You’ve got wider boards and longer rinks, so it certainly helps.”
And it helps when you’ve performed the way Mitchell has the first week of the preseason.
“He has had a very good camp and followed it with a very good game,” Schoenfeld said. “He’s been skating well with more speed, is in great shape and has made some good plays. But it’s all about passing tests, and he’ll have more to come soon.”
But it’s not Friday at 7 p.m. as Mitchell won’t be in the lineup for the Rangers’ second preseason game against the Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. The lineup will include goalies Marty Biron and Chad Johnson, defensemen Brendan Bell, Michael Del Zotto, Tim Erixon, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer and Pavel Valentenko and forwards Weise, captain Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko, Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin, Kris Newbury, Brad Richards, Mike Rupp, Derek Stepan, Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello.
In the 1 p.m. prelim that is closed to the public, the Rangers prospects will play their Devils counterparts. The Rangers lineup will be goalies Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer, defensemen Stu Bickel, Sam Klassen, Tomas Kundratek, Dylan McIlrath, Jyri Niemi and Sam Noreau and forwards Bourque, Miller, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Jordan Hickmott, Shane McColgan, Matt Rust, Michael St. Croix, Scott Tanski, Kelsey Tessier, Christian Thomas, Jason Wilson and Andrew Yogan.
The Rangers play their third and final preseason game in North America when they visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday at 1 p.m. before flying to Europe for four games before their season opener Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden.
TALBOT SHINES IN DEFEAT
The tough-luck loser in goal was Cam Talbot, who was exceptional in his first appearance in an NHL game of any kind. Talbot relieved Henrik Lundqvist (17 saves on 18 shots) with 8:47 left in the second period and stopped all 23 shots he faced before defenseman Steve Eminger’s pass intended for Weise was picked off by Zach Parise, who fed a deft pass to the right post to Patrik Elias for an easy redirection into an open net at 45 seconds of overtime. Parise, a three-time 30-goal scorer who signed a one-year, $6 million contract on July 29 to avoid arbitration, played in only 13 games last season because of knee surgery.
“I didn’t have much chance,” Talbot said of the winner. “The guy (Parise) made a nice play. I thought he was coming in to take the shot and he back-doored me. I didn’t really get a good push on it, and when I went to reach for it, I didn’t have enough length.”
But Talbot was rightfully satisfied with his effort, which included bang-bang stops on veteran Petr Sykora at 2:27 of the third period and a glove stab of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 30-foot laser in the slot with 1:12 left in regulation. Several in the pro-Rangers crowd of 9,420 stood to cheer the latter save.
“I’m pretty happy with my performance,” said Talbot, who was 11-9-2 with a 2.84 goals-against average, .902 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games in an injury-plagued rookie season in 2010-11. “I just tried to come in there and follow Hankie’s performance, which obviously isn’t always easy to do. I just tried to get my head into the game early. They kept a couple of the first shots from the outside and let me feel the puck, which is good. That kind of got me into it, and I tried to keep the ball rolling.”
Talbot said he also has been “pretty satisfied” with his play in the first week of training camp while trying to improve in all aspects of his game and working on endurance with goaltenders coach Benoit Allaire.
“I’m just trying to keep my level as high as possible and carry that over into the season,” Talbot said. “Bennie gives me all the tools I need, and it’s just up to me to go out and execute, so the game is pretty easy if you take it from there. I am just glad that I was able to make a pretty good first impression.”
Talbot also would love to be one of the three goalies to be part of the Rangers’ four preseason games in Europe. Talbot and Johnson, who struggled much of last season and played only 20 minutes in two months after being called up Feb. 28 after Biron sustained a broken collarbone when hit by a shot in practice, are the leading candidates to make the trip overseas, which also would be a first for Talbot.
“Two of them (Lundqvist and Biron) are pretty solidified,” Talbot said with a wide smile. “Obviously I would like to go (to Europe), but if that’s not in the cards for me this year, then I’ll go to Hartford and start a few games there. But obviously Europe would be a great experience, even if I don’t get to see any playing time. Just to be over there watching Hank, one of the best goalies in the world, would be quite an experience.
“I’d love to get into another exhibition game to follow up this performance if I can and maybe showcase myself a little more.”
It appears that will happen after what transpired Wednesday night.
“He had some great saves,” Schoenfeld said. “He kept us close and with a chance to win until we had that little mistake. But he made some point-blank saves and did a real good job of tracking the puck and not allowing rebounds.”
WEISE GETS NOTICED
In his fourth pro season after being a fourth-round pick in 2008, Weise wants to take the next step to the next level and try to earn one of the few open forward spots on the Rangers roster. He, Zuccarello, injured Chad Kolarik (knee) and rookies Hagelin and Bourque are battling for one or two spots as veterans Avery and Erik Christensen are on the bubble.
Weise certainly was noticed Wednesday night as he got into several yapping sessions with Devils tough guys Janssen, Eric Boulton and David Clarkson, had a fight with pesky Brad Mills and then started and finished the play that resulted in the Rangers’ only goal with 4:21 left in regulation. Weise leveled Devils defenseman Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick in the June draft, got the puck to former Hartford Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, drove to the net, got a return pass and roofed a shot past Frazee.
“Fight, goal. I thought the third period was probably the best period, at least to see what some guys were doing. So, that’s good for Weise,” Tortorella said.
“I think I showed I can do a little more than last year in spot duty,” Weise said. “Ten games last year was a real good experience, but I’m not strictly a one-dimensional, fourth-line guy. I can play any situation and something I like showing. I’m just feeling more comfortable in everything I do. There are no nerves for me anymore. I know what to expect and what I have to do. I know it’s only exhibition, but I’m taking every game seriously and felt real comfortable out there.”
Weise was delighted to be on the Rangers’ No. 1 line this night, playing alongside Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky while filling the spot normally occupied by Callahan, another former Wolf Pack right wing.
“Anytime you play with skilled guys like that, you’re just looking to get them the puck,” said Weise, whose three shots tied for the team lead with Anisimov and Miller. “I thought I did that, and I thought we had some good chemistry down low. Obviously the ice was a little choppy so it was real tough to make plays, so we just tried to keep it simple, and I thought we did that.”
Weise will need more of the same in future preseason games if he is to add to his first 10 NHL games last season in what he admits is a make-or-break time in his career.
“I think that’s the mindset everyone comes into camp with,” Weise said, “but more important for me individually, it’s kind of now or never. I’ve played three years down there (in Hartford), had a little cup of tea last season (in New York) and now I’m trying to show them I’m ready to be here fulltime. In hockey terms, I’m relatively young, just turned 23, but I’ve played three years pro already, and in my mind, I think I’m ready to play here. So I’m just going to continue to work hard and show what I can do.”
Anisimov continued to show his improved all-around play while still recovering from losing dozens of friends and former teammates on the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia that died in a plane crash Sept. 7 on the way to their opener in Minsk, Belarus. Anisimov flew to his hometown of Yaroslavl for the funerals before returning for the start of training camp.
“It was terrible,” said Anisimov, who played parts of two seasons with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization. “I knew most of the team and don’t really like to talk about it. The whole town came out for the funerals. It’s lots of people that they wanted to say goodbye to.”
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl will not play in the KHL this season, and the airline operating the Yak-42 jet that crashed lost its license on Wednesday. The Federal Air Transportation Agency, which took away the license, said it based its decision on a check into Yak-Service’s operations and took the Yaroslavl crash into account. But it cited no violations.
Forty-four people were killed when the Yak-42 carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hit a navigational beacon just beyond the end of the runway and crashed into a small river after failing to pick up enough speed during takeoff. The only survivor, flight attendant Alexander Sizov, has recovered enough to meet with investigators, his doctor said Wednesday. No date for questioning was given. … Tortorella was blunt when asked about “bubble boys” Avery and Christensen: “I thought Sean, along with his two linemates, I thought fore-checked very well. He created some offense. I don’t think there was a lot of scoring chances, but they created some zone time. Erik, you know, not much was happening there with him. Again, I don’t want to get too down on someone, I don’t want to get too high on someone, the first exhibition game, especially with the way the ice was. You could see both teams, it was like a basketball game at times with the puck bouncing so much. We’ll continue. We’ll continue with it.” … Tortorella also had some fun with the media when asked about watching from the stands: “I wanted to because there’s just a lot of players that we need to evaluate, and when you’re ice level, sometimes you just don’t see some of the little things that go on in the game. So I can see why you guys are experts. You get to watch from up there, and see everything. It’s a real easy game from up there, that’s for sure. I guess I’ll have to be more patient with you guys.” … Dubinsky and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi were the alternate captains as the Rangers didn’t have anyone wear a C as a fill-in for Callahan, who didn’t play. … Rookie Keith Kinkaid, who played for nearby Union College, got the start in net for the Devils. He played the first 31:13 and stopped all 10 shots he faced before replaced by Frazee. … Sykora, who is on a tryout with New Jersey, continued to make a strong case for making the team by scoring the game’s first goal on a shot from the right circle that beat Lundqvist to the far corner. … The crowd included the parents of Bourque, Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and his wife. Not surprisingly, several fans asked Ray for his autograph. … Six of the Rangers’ seven preseason games will be televised by the MSG Network. The one that won’t is Tuesday’s game. … All-Star defenseman Marc Staal visited a specialist Thursday because of continued concussion-like symptoms that have kept him out of scrimmages and at least the first three preseason games in North America. … Tortorella said he’s considering a lot of players for left wing on the No. 1 line with Gaborik and newcomer Brad Richards, including Boyle, who normally plays center. Tortorella admitted he was hesitant to break up the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line that was the team’s best last season because of their chemistry. … Members of the FDNY and NYPD hockey teams skated with the Rangers regulars in a “game” and then a shootout Thursday. Needless to say, a memorable and enjoyable time was had by all. Kudos to the Rangers for the best preseason move so far. “We went out touring to some of the fire stations,” Tortorella said when asked for the genesis of the fun game. “I just figured some people saw the guys. I just wanted them to practice with us. We just thought it was good timing. I think it’s just a way of us showing respect to them for what they do for us. The game itself was great, but just to watch them with the players afterwards, taking pictures, Pruster (Brandon Prust) showing them how to fight. I was so glad it worked out that way. Look at our guys, look how much fun they had. Not sure who had more fun, our guys, the policemen, or the firemen.” … Defenseman Blake Parlett, who excelled for the Whale after being called up from Greenville of the ECHL on Feb. 17, returned to the ice Thursday for the first time because of a knee injury that had sidelined him since the final of the prospects tournament last week in Traverse City, Mich.
WHALE OPEN CAMP SATURDAY
After the two games Friday, the Rangers will make their first cuts and send an as-yet undetermined number of players to the Whale, who open camp Saturday at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell with physicals and testing.
The Rangers cuts will join several players not invited to camp, including veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who has played 994 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Rangers and was an extremely positive influence on the Whale’s young players in his first time in the minors last season. Redden, 34, wasn’t invited to Rangers camp because his $6.5 million contract doesn’t fit under the salary cap, and it would count toward the cap if he was injured.
The Whale will have their first scrimmage open to the public Sunday from 10:40 to 11:40 a.m. The Whale’s first preseason game is Tuesday 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 longtime Wolf Pack fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 from cancer and asked that the money set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale also will play at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the Falcons and then host the Worcester Sharks at the TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. ($5 admission benefits Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford) and on Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey).
WHALE KICKOFF OCT. 1 IN WEST HARTFORD
The Whale will hold a “Whale Face-off” season kickoff Oct. 1 from 6-9 p.m. at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, weather permitting. The event will include a pep rally, with introductions of Whale players and coaches who will be signing autographs. In addition to offering a chance to meet the players and mascot “Pucky,” the Whale Face-off will include a wide variety of other fun for fans of all ages, including face-painting.
There will be live music and a movie shown on an outdoor screen, with popcorn available. Also, prospective sharpshooters can measure their puck-shooting skills in the Whale’s Comcast Slap Shot Cage. Fans also can enter to win tickets to the Whale’s home opener or a Whale replica jersey.
Admission is free, and the event will be held in the area of Blue Back Square known as “The Square,” on Isham Rd. next to Barnes & Noble. … Whale season and individual game tickets are now on sale. For information on season seats and all the Whale’s many ticketing options, visit www.ctwhale.com or call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366 to talk with an account executive. Individual tickets are on sale at Public Power ticket office at the XL Center. The Whale will play 90 percent of their 38 games at the XL Center on weekends and during vacation and holiday breaks. Tickets, starting at $14 for adults and $12 for youth, are available at the box office Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or online at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMasters charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. For information on season seats and mini-plans, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com. … Former Wolf Pack left wing Justin Soryal and defenseman Chris Murray were among six players that the Carolina Hurricanes assigned to the Charlotte Checkers on Wednesday. … The AHL and Rogers Sportsnet have announced a five-year agreement that gives the Canadian network multi-platform broadcast rights to the AHL All-Star Classic starting in 2012 in Atlantic City, N.J. Sportsnet also will produce and broadcast (in high definition) the first outdoor AHL game held in Canada as the Hamilton Bulldogs host the Marlies at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ont., on Jan. 21, 2012.