TEN GAMES IN, WHAT’DYA GOT?

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

It’s only 10 games into the franchise’s 15th season, but the first full go-around as the Connecticut Whale has been quite pleasing for the man who has been around Asylum Street since Day One.

Except for a few blown leads and ill-timed penalties, coach Ken Gernander has had little to complain about as the Whale (6-1-1-2) moved to the top of the new Northeast Division with a record that’s tied for the AHL’s best and is the best start in team history since they won their first nine games in 2004-05, Gernander’s final season of a stellar 14-year pro playing career.

And the Whale has accomplished those feats despite playing seven of their first 10 games on the road, having only three returning fulltime forwards, playing a forward short five times and losing leading scorer Kris Newbury to a call-up (he returned Saturday night still No. 1 in points) and defenseman Pavel Valentenko and left wings Ryan Bourque and Sean Avery to injuries. In their season debuts Friday night, Avery had a goal and a fight and Valentenko an assist in a 4-2 victory at Adirondack that avenged the Whale’s only regulation loss. The next night, Avery had a game-high seven shots and scored the shootout winner in a 3-2 victory at Worcester. On Monday, he was placed on re-entry waivers, recalled by the parent New York Rangers on Tuesday after not being claimed, largely because of Mike Rupp’s nagging knee injury.

On Wednesday at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, Bourque returned after missing six games and Newbury and defenseman Tim Erixon, making his Whale debut, were in the lineup after being assigned by the Rangers after a 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators. Newbury and Erixon replaced Avery and Andre Deveaux, who made his Rangers debut in a 5-2 victory over San Jose on Monday night. Though Bourque returned, the Whale was short a forward again because rookie Tommy Grant was a healthy scratch.

Despite a topsy-turvy roster, the Whale has earned points in nine straight games, including a 4-3 loss to the Sound Tigers on Wednesday as Tim Wallace completed a hat trick with 1:38 left in overtime to offset two goals and an assist by rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. Gernander & Co. were disappointed by the sting of a fourth game in which they blew a two-goal lead and saw a five-game winning streak end due largely to what the coach called bad decisions by some more experienced players.

“When it’s 3-1 and you’re giving up odd-man chances against, that’s no good,” Gernander said.

Still, the Whale’s overall success can be attributed to the steady goaltending of Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month for October Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot, solid team defense, improved penalty killing, contributions throughout the lineup and terrific mixing and matching by Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller. The only game in which the Whale failed to get a point was the opener at Adirondack on Oct. 8, when Newbury’s second AHL hat trick gave the Whale a 3-1 lead before the Phantoms roared back for a 6-3 win.

“We had a bit of a rough start where we got the leads and were unable to hold them, then we righted the ship and were able to close out games and now are back to where we started the season, unable to finish on the road with the lead,” Gernander said. “You can be pleased with where we are in the standings, but I’m not pleased with today’s outcome, and as the season goes on, you want to grow and improve and squeeze out mistakes.

“It seems instead of doing that today, we took a step backwards. They’re going to come hard, they’re going to pressure, they’re going to forecheck, they’re going to put pucks to the net. But you can’t couple that with poor decision making to be sound in the things that we can control in that regard.”

Gernander said he has been especially pleased with the improvement of Audy-Marchessault, who has played center and right wing and has four goals and four assists in the last five games after being scoreless in the first five. He said both goalies have been “pretty strong,” the penalty killing has become better and tryout Jordan Owens, Chris McKelvie and rookie Scott Tanski “have been a pretty formidable fourth line, been a pleasant surprise giving us some depth, killing penalties and providing energy. There’s has been a lot of improvement, but it’s tough (after such a loss).”

Veteran center John Mitchell, who has found some chemistry with Audy-Marchessault and Mats Zuccarello, also bemoaned the mental lapses that cost the Whale another win but liked that the team has points in nine of ten games while playing away from the XL Center so much.

“I think our team has handled the first ten games very well,” said Mitchell, an alternate captain who had a goal and an assist Wednesday to tie Newbury and Audy-Marchessault for the team scoring lead with eight points. “Being on the road doesn’t really matter to us because we’re playing well and have come out with a point in every game except the first one. If you can do that, I think you’re doing pretty good, but that’s no excuse for losing some of the leads we’ve lost.

“We DEFINITELY should have come out of this barn today with a win, so obviously it’s disappointing to know we could essentially have a straight-up win in every game. But little mental lapses is the game of hockey. You let up for a second or two, and before you know it, the puck is going to be in the back of your net. Every team has to learn how to play with the lead. A two-goal lead is like the worst lead in hockey. (The opposition) get one, and then the team puckered a little bit and they’re getting going on the offensive. They get another one, and before you know it, everything is flowing in their direction.

“We’ve had one-goal and two-goal leads and let a few slip away from us, and we certainly can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to make sure we bear down in these third periods, and that doesn’t mean playing passive and defensive hockey. You still have to stay on the offensive, you still have to forecheck, you want to keep the puck in their end. We had a couple of good shifts in the third period where we had the puck down low in their end and we were cycling around and they were running around. We have to try to make sure we do that every shift, and when we don’t and we’re not in the offensive zone, everybody has to be aware and be ready in the defensive zone. There’s two ends of the game, defense and offense, and everybody has to play both positions.”

The Whale ranks fifth in the AHL in goals-against average (2.30), led by Johnson (3-0-2, 1.69 goals-against average, .942 save percentage) and Talbot (3-2-0, 2.38, .914), who were immediately fronted Wednesday by Erixon, Valentenko, veterans Wade Redden, Brendan Bell, Stu Bickel and Jared Nightingale and second-year pro Blake Parlett.

Redden said he feels the team has played “really well” and losing only once in regulation “speaks for itself.”

“We’ve been doing a good job getting into tight games, and a few times we’ve been able to put teams away with a few extra goals,” Redden said. “I think we’ve played smart and pretty sound overall. There have been a few games where we’ve kept the pressure on and were able to put teams away, but today was obviously not the case. Instead of keeping the puck ahead of us, moving it ahead and getting it in, we were on our heels a lot and turning it over, and it seemed like they were coming at us all (third) period.

“The goalies have played well and made big stops for us, but I think we’ve been consistently playing better in front of them, too. We haven’t been giving up a lot of chances, but for sure, they’ve won a few games for us.”

Talbot (27 saves) took the loss Wednesday, while Johnson remained tied for the league lead among qualified goalies in GAA and save percentage in being named the first Goaltender of the Month this season. He made 41 saves in his first start, a 1-0 shootout victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, his sixth career shutout. After shootout losses to Albany (28 saves) and Bridgeport (23 saves), Johnson stopped 27 of 28 shots in a 4-1 win over Springfield on Oct. 23 and closed out the month with a 28-save effort in the shootout win over Worcester.

Drafted by Pittsburgh in 2006, Johnson was acquired by the Rangers on June 27, 2009, and is in his third pro season after playing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The 25-year-old native of Calgary, Alta., has a career record of 43-37-7 in 92 AHL games and has appeared in six games with the Rangers. In recognition of his achievement, Johnson will be presented with an etched crystal award before a future Whale home game.

WHALE LOSE TWO, SOUND TIGERS ADD PAIR

While his former team was playing a rare school-day morning game, Avery was practicing with the Rangers in Greenburgh, N.Y., for the first time since he injured his right shoulder in his third preseason game Sept. 30 in Gothenberg, Sweden. He was assigned to the Whale on Oct. 5 while the Rangers were in Europe after losing a battle with Erik Christensen for the 13th forward spot and clearing waivers. Avery was put on re-entry waivers and then recalled because of lingering knee problems for Rupp, who signed a three-year, $4.5 million free-agent contract in the offseason.

“Rupper has a lot to do with this. We’re concerned about that,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York media about Avery’s recall and Rupp’s injury. “This is the right decision. It’s the right hockey decision now and it was the right hockey decision when we sent Sean down. That’s where it’s at.”

Avery has already been on the minds of fans at Madison Square Garden, where one of the faithful hung a banner during the Rangers’ home opener against Toronto asking the team to bring back Avery. In that game and the next one against the Ottawa Senators, chants of “We Want Avery” rang out at different times. But the fan favorite fell out of favor with Rangers management as his propensity for taking penalties began to outweigh his ability to draw them and create offense. Now that he’s back, Tortorella wants Avery to again attempt to toe the line.

“Sean’s biggest strengths are his legs. He’s a terrific skater,” Tortorella said. “A big part of his game is his forechecking and his play underneath the hashmarks. We want him to play to his strengths and also work on the other parts of the game away from the puck.”

But Avery won’t be in the lineup Thursday night as Tortorella told the media Wednesday that he’s going with the same lineup, though he hadn’t made a decision on his goalie. Avery said he understood why he wasn’t playing after he hadn’t skated for several days and the Rangers had played their best game of the season Monday night.

“I love every game I’ve ever played for this team,” Avery told the New York media. “I love walking into the building. I’m definitely excited about playing in the new building. I just want to help these guys win. I will bring whatever it is that is asked of me at this point. I think my game is pretty self-explanatory as far as what it is and where it comes from, and how it happens. Listen, we are all here because we want to play for the Rangers. I love this team. I want to play. I want to win. And I want to play as hard as I can. That’s what it all comes down to.”

So Deveaux will make his second Rangers start after going scoreless and being plus-1 in 6:50 of ice time Monday night, after he had four goals and two assists in nine games with the Whale.

“He really played well,” Tortorella said. “He deserves to stay in.”

“Deveaux played a great game,” said former Hartford Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, who scored the Rangers’ fourth goal with Deveaux on his wing. “I like to play with him. He’s strong. He can keep the puck. He’s a good player.”

While Avery and Deveaux were promoted to the NHL, former Wolf Pack left wing/enforcer Trevor Gillies and wing Nino Niederreiter joined the Sound Tigers on Tuesday. Gillies, who had one goal and 169 penalty minutes in 24 games with the Sound Tigers in 2009-10, returned to Bridgeport after being placed on waivers by the parent New York Islanders on Monday. He spent last season with the Islanders, amassing 165 PIM in 39 games while scoring his first two NHL goals. This season, Gillies was scoreless with no PIM in three games with the Islanders. He had two assists and 277 PIM in 49 games with the Wolf Pack in 2004-05.

Niederreiter, 19, the Islanders’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 2010 draft, is on a conditioning assignment after being sidelined since the start of the season with a groin injury. He appeared in nine games with the Islanders at the start of last season before being returned to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, where he had 41 goals and 29 assists in 55 games.

WHALE RETURN TO XL CENTER FRIDAY NIGHT

The Whale is home Friday night – Halloween Costume Night – against the new St. John’s IceCaps, the top affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets, the former Atlanta Thrashers. It’s the Whale’s only game at the XL Center in 25 days, from a 4-1 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Oct. 23 to a visit from the Sound Tigers on Nov. 18. It’s also the first of three meetings with the IceCaps in 10 days, as the Whale have a two-game set in Newfoundland on Nov. 12-13, their first visit to The Rock since a 3-1 victory on Dec. 1, 2002. The Wolf Pack last played St. John’s on March 26, 2003, a 7-4 loss in Hartford.

The St. John’s trip is part of the Whale opening with 10 of their first 14 games, and 15 of their first 22, on the road, much like the parent New York Rangers started with a team-record seven straight away from Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing a $850 million facelift over three years. The Rangers are now in the midst of six consecutive home games, while the Whale plays eight of their last 11 in 2011 on Asylum Street.

The IceCaps’ visit to Hartford is their fourth stop in a six-game trip through New England from last Saturday to Sunday. St. John’s was the top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1991 to 2005 before being relocated to Toronto to cut costs and becoming the Marlies, whose roster has included Newbury and Mitchell. The IceCaps are the successors of the Manitoba Moose, who were based in Winnipeg and played in the IHL in 1996-2001 and the AHL in 2001-2011 after the departure of the original Jets to Phoenix, Ariz. As the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, they won the North Division in 2006-07 and 2008-09, when they reached the Calder Cup finals, losing to Hershey in six games.

The Atlantic Division-leading IceCaps (6-2-3-0) of rookie head coach Keith McCambridge handed Worcester its first regulation loss Tuesday, 6-3, as right wing Kevin Clark had two goals and rookie Edward Pasquale made 30 saves after overtime losses at Springfield and Providence. The IceCaps are led by defenseman Paul Postma (two goals, six assists), an AHL All-Star in 2011, right wing Spencer Machacek (1, 7) and rookie left wing Karl Klingberg (6, 1). The 33-year-old David Aebischer (2-3-0-0, 2.58 GAA, .881 save percentage) is trying to get back to the NHL, where he has played 214 games, including with the 2001 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, after four seasons with Lugano in the Swiss Elite League.

After the home game, the Whale travel Saturday to Albany, where they lost 3-2 in a shootout on Oct. 14 after leading 2-0. Veteran forward Matt Anderson (3, 4), defenseman Matt Corrente (2, 5) and rookie forward Joe Whitney (3, 4) share the scoring lead for the Devils (4-6-0-0), who are last in the Northeast Division. Right wing Steve Bernier, a 2003 first-round pick of San Jose who has played 385 NHL games, signed with the Devils last week after he attended training camp with New Jersey. But the Devils will be without wing Tim Sestito, who will be serving the fourth game of a five-game suspension for an illegal check to the head in Albany’s 4-2 loss at Binghamton last Friday night.

RECORD-SETTING QUICK

Belated congratulations to Hamden native and former Avon Old Farms and UMass standout Jonathan Quick on breaking the Los Angeles Kings’ record for longest streak and becoming the first goalie in franchise history to record three straight shutouts with a 28-save performance in a 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars on Oct. 22.

“We were so happy for him,” Kings defenseman Jack Johnson said after a rousing postgame celebration near the net. “He’s been playing well, not only this season, but ever since he got here. He deserves it as much as anyone.”

Johnson scored the only goal, as Quick’s shutout streak reached 188 minutes, 10 seconds, surpassing Rogie Vachon’s team record of 184:55 set in 1975. Quick previously allowed a goal on Oct. 15 against Philadelphia, and his shutouts against St. Louis, Phoenix and Dallas made him the first NHL goalie to record three straight shutouts since Steve Mason in December, 2008.

The soft-spoken Quick, the Kings’ third-round pick in 2005 who was named NHL player of the week two weeks ago, was typically deflective of his accomplishment.

“The defense, penalty killing and defensive zone coverage has been great over the past couple of games, and it has made my job a lot easier,” Quick, who has 17 shutouts in four-plus NHL seasons, told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times. “It is a great thing, but I’ve never been a guy to look at numbers, shutouts, save percentage, that kind of stuff. Obviously it’s good to have good numbers, but I feel like goalies, you judge them if you win or lose. That’s what’s really most important to me. That’s what’s most important to the team.

“It feels great to get the win. To get it in that fashion is a little icing on top. But it’s a long season, and we’ve got to keep this momentum going. Obviously I do feel good, but we’ve got guys battling in all areas of the rink, especially in the D-zone where they’re battling in front of the wall in front of the net. They’re doing their job extremely well right now and making my job that much easier.”

The streak reached 202:10 before the Dallas Stars’ Trevor Daley scored a power-play goal at 14:01 of the first period in the Kings’ 5-3 victory last Thursday, in which Quick made 30 saves to improve to 6-0-1 and defenseman Slava Voynov had his first two NHL goals, including the winner, and an assist after being called up from the Monarchs on Oct. 18 when defenseman Drew Doughty went on injured reserve with a right shoulder problem. Doughty returned Saturday night against the Phoenix Coyotes after missing five games, and Voynov was returned to the Monarchs. Quick finally lost that night, but his points streak continued when Daymond Langkow’s bad-angled shot deflected off a stick and fluttered into the net with 43.7 seconds left in overtime to give the Coyotes a 3-2 victory. Quick then lost his first game in regulation on Sunday, a 3-2 decision to the Colorado Avalanche, who won their first home game on Matt Duchene’s first goal of the season.

MORE BELATED KUDOS TO FORMER WHALER

More belated kudos to former Olympic hero and Whalers center Mark Johnson on being one of four to receive the Lester Patrick Award for contributions to hockey in the United States. Johnson, 54, coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team who guided Team USA to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics, follows in the footsteps of his late and legendary father Bob, who received the award in 1988.

“I was a little stunned at first and certainly humbled with being recognized,” said Johnson, who received the award Oct. 26 in St. Paul, Minn. “It is a real honor and it certainly puts a smile on your face in regards to what has been going on in my life for the last 30 or 40 years. When [my father] received the award and the recognition for what he did, whether it was Wisconsin or USA hockey or what he did in Pittsburgh and Calgary in his career, it was obviously not only a special evening for him but certainly for our family. With my ability to go in and now be recognized, it makes the honor even that much more special. It is a great award, obviously.”

The award has been given to people for their contributions to hockey in the U.S. since the Rangers donated a trophy to honor Patrick in 1966. Other recipients this year were Jeff Sauer, the former Wisconsin and Colorado College coach, former NHL player and Chicago Blackhawks executive Bob Pulford and IIHF council member Tony Rossi.

Johnson’s most memorable impact on the sport was scoring twice in the U.S.’s 4-3 Miracle on Ice victory over Russia in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. But he also has become one of the premier coaches in women’s hockey and helped elevate the profile of the women’s game, played for Team USA more than 80 times, played for his dad at Wisconsin for three seasons and played in the NHL for 11 seasons. That included 21/2 seasons with the Whalers, when he was captain in 1983-85 and represented the team in the 1984 NHL All-Star Game before being traded to the St. Louis Blues as part of a deal to acquire goalie Mike Liut. Several of the national games that Johnson played were also with his father behind the bench.

“The fun part of playing for him was he always made coming to the rink fun and an enjoyable experience,” said Johnson, a fourth-round pick of the Penguins in 1977. “He certainly was as competitive as anybody and wanted to win hockey games, but I think with his teaching ability and upbeat, positive attitude I think a lot of players enjoyed playing in that type of atmosphere he was able to create.”

Johnson followed his dad’s lead and became a coach, first as an assistant to Sauer for the men’s team at Wisconsin before taking over the women’s program in 2002, and the Badgers have been a powerhouse ever since. He won the national title four times in the past six seasons and was also runner-up once. The only time the Badgers didn’t play for the national championship was when Johnson took the year off to coach the national team in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“You try to create a culture that as a head coach you have the opportunity to create because you’re running your own program,” Johnson said. “Whether it is at Wisconsin, with the Olympic team or with the national team, it is that philosophy that what atmosphere you want to create after playing for a long time at a high level with many different coaches. You can use that experience to help create your philosophy and remember what it was like in certain situations when you were a player – how you want to be treated, how you want to be held accountable.

“When you have players understand that and buy into that, you have a chance for something special. As coaches we look at the day-to-day procedure to create good habits and when the season is over you can reflect on what went well and what didn’t. We’ve been fortunate here with kids who are willing to play as a team and we’ve been extremely fortunate to help these kids experience championships a few times, and that makes you feel good as a head coach. It is a process and a journey, and just as players do we learn from some of the mistakes we make as a coaching staff and how we can get better.”

Most of Johnson’s family was in St. Paul to help honor Mark, but his son couldn’t make it, just as he was predisposed when his father was honored. Playing duties kept Mark away, just as it might be the case for his son, Patrick, who is in his first pro season with Wheeling in the ECHL after playing at Wisconsin.

Yes, hockey has always been the lifeblood of the Johnson clan, starting with Bob “Let’s Play Two,” one of the most upbeat people that I’ve met in any walk of life. He was certainly deserving of the Patrick Award, as was Mark, one of the classiest individuals that I’ve been fortunate to meet while covering hockey since the Whalers’ WHA days in the late 1970s.

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