SPOTLIGHT: COREY POTTER

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

It’s nice to see former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Corey Potter finally get regular shifts in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers.

Potter, the New York Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2003, was always a steady presence on the Wolf Pack blueline and among the AHL leaders in plus-minus, even finishing third in the league in 2007-08 at plus-33. But despite showing well with the Wolf Pack and his occasional visits to Broadway, Potter always seemed to be caught in a numbers game with the Rangers.

Potter has been reunited with former Rangers coach Tom Renney, the Blueshirts’ vice president of player development when the defenseman was drafted. Renney now has a handful of fuzzy-faced kids on his roster, most notably the first overall picks the last two years, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hall, 19, and Nugent-Hopkins, 18, play on what could be the youngest line in NHL history with 21-year-old Jordan Eberle, the Oilers’ first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2008.

The 27-year-old Potter is in his sixth pro season out of Michigan State, starting with Charlotte of the ECHL in 2006-07 before graduating to the Wolf Pack that season. But he played only eight games with the Rangers in five seasons before signing a free-agent deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 16, 2110. Then after only one game with the Penguins and getting seven goals and 30 assists and being plus-25 in 75 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, Potter signed a one-year, two-way, $525,000 (NHL) contract with the Oilers on July 1, the start of free agency.

Potter is the lowest-paid Oiler by $275,000, so why was the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder buried in the minors for so long?

“I’ve been asking myself that question for seven years,” Renney told Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. “I’ve felt for a long time that Corey will be an NHL player.”

So did Ryan Whitney, who makes $4 million, tied for most on the team with Tom Gilbert, and was paired with Potter before being injured.

“I played with Corey when we were 17 or 18 on the national development program in the U.S.,” Whitney told Matheson. “He was always poised with the puck and that’s what we’re seeing here. He doesn’t rush to make a poor choice or a giveaway. He’s a smart player, getting it done with what he has. And he’s got a hard shot. No surprise to me he’s made our team.”

Potter was born in East Lansing, Mich., and flew under the radar in Oilers training camp while Renney gave lots of looks to Jeff Petry and Taylor Fedun, who broke his leg against the Minnesota Wild. Potter’s off-season signing hardly registered with other July pickups such as Eric Belanger, Andy Sutton, Cam Barker, Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk.

“It’s good to come in as a nobody,” said Potter, who got his chance when Petry was assigned to the Oklahoma City Barons. “There’s no expectations (from fans), but to perform well and change some minds and persuade them I can play is great.”

Potter had a strong enough training camp to make the 23-man roster, got in his first game Oct. 15 and hasn’t looked back.

“The last couple of years I debated about going over to Europe and maybe giving that a try, but I thought I could play in this league so I wanted to keep giving it a try,” Potter told Joanne Ireland of the Edmonton Journal.

“Now I’m ready to play full-time. It’s just been a real good experience to get a shot right out of the gate.”

Renney had hoped to bring in Potter in his first season with the Oilers because he thought the defenseman could be an NHLer.

“It didn’t pan out too well last year so I decided to give the Oilers a shot,” Potter said. “Now I’m starting to think I should have come here last year.”

“I had never heard of him before this year,” Oilers veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin said, “but he’s stepped in and been very effective.”

Potter is not even in the Oilers media guide, with a picture and a biography, on the NHL team or in the farm system. But now he’s the top-scoring defenseman (two goals, six assists in 15 games) for a team that finished last in the NHL standings each of the past two seasons but is now second in the Northwest Division and fourth in the highly competitive Western Conference despite a three-game losing streak to end a six-game road trip against elite competition. At one point, the Oilers won six in a row and eight of their first 12 games for the first time since 1986 but recently lost to the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings before visiting the Blackhawks, the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.

“I’ve been waiting five or six years for this to put a stretch of games together and feel confident,” Potter said. “I’m really happy for this opportunity.”

Renney isn’t surprised Potter took advantage of his rare opportunity.

“I fully expected Corey to make our team,” said Renney, who coached Potter in his eight games with the Rangers. “I know Corey. I expected he’d make things interesting on the blueline. The Rangers had Dan Girardi come in as a free agent and, all of sudden, Corey was behind him. That hurt him. Then Marc Staal got drafted (in the first round in 2005) and people thought he’d be going back to junior but he made the team right away (at 18 years old).”

Renney predicted good things at the NHL level from here on in.

“He’s a calm guy, he’s an older rookie,” Renney said. “He has a certain maturity level that allows him to feel good about things, whatever the circumstance. He seems to have good vision, he doesn’t get outmuscled too often, and seems to know what to do with the puck when there is really no play.”

RICHARDS PAYS MAJOR DIVIDENDS

The Rangers signed the offseason’s major free-agent catch to a nine-year, $60 million contract. Center Brad Richards had had a so-so start on Broadway as he adjusted to his new surroundings and ever-changing linemates, but he struck for the biggest goal as a Ranger Tuesday night on Long Island, firing a left-circle shot past Evgeni Nabokov with 4:55 left that led to a 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

Former Wolf Pack wing Brandon Dubinsky set up the decisive play when he gloved down Josh Bailey’s clearing attempt and got the puck to Richards for his sixth goal of the season. After Islanders defenseman Andrew McDonald hit the post with 1:20 left, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist denied John Tavares from point-blank range with 10 seconds to go before captain Ryan Callahan, another former Wolf Pack wing, played beat the clock with a center-ice shot that found the net with one second left.

“We found a way to get a turnover and score the goal,” said Richards, who has five goals and three assists in the last eight games in which the Rangers are 7-0-1. “Dubie made a great pass to me and I was able to walk into it.”

“That’s why we signed him for nine years,” a smiling Lundqvist (31 saves) said. “A guy like that has the tendency to step up at the right time.”

It was the seventh straight victory for the Rangers (10-3-3), their longest winning streak since the 1974-75 team won eight in a row, which is two shy of their regular-season record. They also got goals from Sean Avery and Steve Eminger (first point of the season) as they improved to 5-2-2 on the road, and they have trailed for only 42 seconds of the 425 in their seven-game winning streak. Frans Nielsen and Matt Moulson (power play) scored for the Islanders.

Richards, Dubinsky and Callahan were each plus-3, as the Rangers improved to 10-2-1 since the previous meeting with the Islanders. Callahan has six goals and three assists in the last eight games, including two goals and two assists in the last two. Though defenseman Jeff Woywitka (assist, plus-2) is averaging only 15.6 shifts and 10:51 of ice time since being claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 6, the Rangers are 10-1-0 when he is in the lineup. The last time the Rangers had an eight-game point streak was when they tallied at least one point in 13 consecutive games from Feb. 9 to March 10, 2008. During the current win streak, Lundqvist has five victories with a 1.77 goals against average and .941 save percentage.

“We’ve been in these situations a lot in the last seven games, where we’ve had opportunities to go the other way and not grab back momentum or not grab back control of ourselves,” Richards said as he wore the celebratory Broadway Hat, his creation, for the first time. “But we’ve been doing it, and I can’t explain why. … I haven’t won seven in a row in a while, if ever. We’re a confident group right now.”

“I thought we were good at periods of time. I thought we were brutal at periods of time,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella, whose team shoots for eight in a row Saturday night in Montreal. “But the thing that stands out is we find a way to win another hockey game.”

The Whale needs to get back to doing just that, as they did earlier in the season.

FORMER RANGERS WING VOROS JOINS WHALE

Former Rangers rugged left wing Aaron Voros, who signed a 25-game professional tryout contract on Tuesday, skated with the Whale (7-4-1-2) for the first Wednesday and could make his Whale debut Friday night when they play only their second home game in 26 days as they host the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Sound Tigers (8-6-1-0) have prevailed in the first two games of the GEICO Connecticut Cup series, rallying from two-goal deficits to win 5-4 in a shootout on Oct. 15 in Hartford, and 4-3 in overtime on Nov. 2 at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport as Tim Wallace notched his first pro hat trick.

“He should bring quite a bit,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said of Voros. “He’s got a bit of grit to his game, he’s got some size (6 feet 4, 210 pounds) and is obviously a capable player having played at the NHL level and having some veteran experience. There’s quite a package there, but he had just been waiting as a free agent and skating kind of on his own, so there’s a difference between conditioning and game shape. We’ll just kind of monitor him over the next couple of days and see how he responds to a good hard day of work and when we can get him in.”

Voros, 30, was an eighth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2001 who received a full athletic hockey scholarship to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he was named to the CCHA All-Rookie team in his freshman year. After the second game of his sophomore season, doctors discovered a half-baseball-sized lump behind his left knee. After an MRI, three doctors diagnosed it as a type of malignant bone cancer, but three subsequent biopsies revealed the tumor to be benign. Voros still required several operations, during which he had part of his femur removed. He suffered a staph infection and had to have a Hickman line inserted into the superior vena cava in his heart for 12 weeks.

After recovering, finishing his college career and playing 21/2 seasons with the Devils’ top affiliate in Albany and then Lowell, Voros was traded on March 1, 2007 to the Minnesota Wild for a seventh-round pick in 2008. After starting the 2007-08 season with the Houston Aeros, Voros was called up and played his first NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 11, 2007. Five days later, he scored his first NHL goal against Roberto Luongo and his hometown Vancouver Canucks,

Voros had seven goals and seven assists in 55 games in his rookie season and was the Wild’s nominee for the 2008 Bill Masterton Trophy, as the player who exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game, by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. On July 1, 2008, Voros signed a three-year, $3.3 million contract with the Rangers, fulfilling a childhood dream to play for team he grew up rooting for 3,000 miles away in Vancouver, British Columbia. Voros had 11 goals, 12 assists and 211 penalty minutes in 95 games with the Rangers before he and forward Ryan Hillier were dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Steve Eminger on July 9, 2010.

Voros, who is of Hungarian descent, was scoreless with 43 penalty minutes in 12 games with the Ducks before sustaining a broken orbital bone above his left eye in a fight with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa on Dec. 8, 2010. He was placed on the Ducks’ injured reserve list until Feb. 11 and then was scoreless in two games with the Syracuse Crunch before being traded on Feb. 15 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, for a conditional seventh-round pick in this year’s NHL draft. He had three goals, four assists and 61 PIM in 26 games with the Toronto Marlies but wasn’t re-signed in the offseason and had been skating on his own in New York.

In May, Voros, best friend Sean Avery and Lundqvist opened their first restaurant in Manhattan called “Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs.” It’s located at 135 West Broadway in the Tribeca district of southern Manhattan and has become a favorite among the Tribeca community. Later in the month, Voros, Avery and future Rangers center Brad Richards vacationed together in Jamaica.

Now Voros has a shot to try to play his way back to the NHL, where he had 18 goals, 19 assists and 395 PIM in 162 games with the Wild, Rangers and Ducks.

WEEKEND PREVIEW

In celebration of Veterans Day, the Whale is offering a “buy-one-get-one-free” discount on lower-level tickets for the game against the Sound Tigers. Any military personnel who present a military/veteran ID at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center will receive the special offer.

Feisty left wing Justin DiBenedetto leads a balanced Sound Tigers attack with 13 points (nine goals, four assists), followed by center David Ullstrom (10, 2) and left wings Wallace (4, 7) and rookie Casey Cizikas (3, 8). Ullstrom has a goal in six straight games, one off Jeff Tambellini’s team record. South Tigers first-year coach Brent Thompson, a former Wolf Pack defenseman who led Alaska to the ECHL title last season, has used three goalies – Mikko Koskinen (0-1-1-0, 2.82, .909), rookie Anders Nilsson (5-2-0, 2.86, .908) and Kevin Poulin (3-3-0, 4.06, .874). But the logjam ended Tuesday when Koskinen, the veteran of the trio, was loaned to KalPa of the Finnish Elite League. The Islanders retain the rights to their second-round pick in 2009, who will be a restricted free agent after the season. Koskinen had played the least of the three this season after missing most of 2009-10 to a torn hip labrum, and a left wrist injury limited his effectiveness the second half of last season, the only time he was the Sound Tigers’ No. 1 goalie. In 41 games with Bridgeport, Koskinen was 13-24-1 with a 3.39 GAA and .893 save percentage. He also played in four games with the Islanders in February.

The Sound Tigers (8-6-1-0) won 4-3 at Springfield and Hershey last weekend to move into a second-place tie with the Whale and Adirondack. Thompson said Nilsson (34 saves) stole the game in Hershey, where the Sound Tigers had lost 11 straight, including three in the 2010 playoffs, since Nov. 3, 2007. But the Sound Tigers will be without right wing Nino Niederreiter and defenseman Calvin de Haan. Niederreiter has completed a two-week conditioning stint and returned to the parent New York Islanders after getting goals in three straight games, giving the fifth overall pick in 2010 four points (three goals, one assist) in five games. He played in the 4-2 loss Tuesday night to the Rangers. De Haan had an MRI on his shoulder, which was injured when he has hit by former Wolf Pack wing Dane Byers in the win over Springfield.

After a rare Saturday night off, the Whale visits the Providence Bruins on Sunday at 4:05 p.m. Rookie right wing Carter Camper (4, 8) leads the Bruins (8-8-1-0) in scoring, followed by center Zach Hamill (6, 5) and right wing Kirk MacDonald (1, 7). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, four assists and a team-high 40 penalty minutes. The Bruins have also used three goalies – Anton Khudobin (7-5-1-0, 2.74, .921, one shutout), Michael Hutchinson (0-3-0, 3.03, .897) and rookie Karel St. Laurent (1-0-0-0, 3.46, .907).

MEANWHILE IN GREENVILLE…

Brendan Connolly (penalty shot), Jason Wilson (first pro goal) and Justin Bowers, all of whom were in Whale training camp, scored as the Greenville Road Warriors continued their recovery from a slow start with a 3-1 victory over the South Carolina Stingrays on Tuesday night, in the close of a season-high, eight-game homestand. Jeff Prough, who also was in Whale camp, had two assists, and Nic Riopel, named the ECHL Goaltender of the Week earlier in the day, made 36 saves as the Road Warriors (7-5-0) won their third in a row game. Defenseman Jyri Niemi, assigned by the Whale last Thursday, got his first ECHL point when Bowers deflected in his shot. Riopel lost his shutout when Sean Dolan scored with only 2:46 left. Earlier in the day, the Road Warriors acquired forward Tim Crowder, brother of former Wolf Pack center Paul Crowder, from the Wheeling Nailers for future considerations. The Road Warriors are now on the road for seven games until Dec. 8, when they face the Gwinnett Gladiators in the first of seven of eight at home.

DEFYING THE ODDS

The adage is if you win 70 percent of your home games and play .500 on the road, you’ll be in good shape, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in the AHL so far this season. Entering the week, road teams were 121-75-12-9, which is .606 percent and more than 100 points better than the home team (96-95-12-14, .502).

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins led the way with an 8-0-0-0 record away from the Mohegan Sun Arena, outscoring the opposition 31-13, but are only 2-3-1-1 at home after a 3-0 victory over Binghamton on Tuesday night behind Scott Munroe’s 25 saves. The winner was scored by forward Nick Petersen, who fulfilled a pledge to his newest fan, daughter Kayla, born at 1:45 a.m. to him and wife Alexandra. Petersen sat in the waiting room for 12 hours before Kayla was born and said, “I told my baby girl, ‘Daddy’s going to play hockey and I’m going to score for you.’ ”

Petersen slept for only an hour before the game and admitted he played on emotion and adrenaline.

“I texted (coach John Hynes) right after the baby was born, and he said I could stay at the hospital,” Petersen said. “But when it came time, I told him I wanted to play and score a goal for her. I was able to come through and actually do it.”

Matt Rust, who signed a professional tryout contract earlier in the day, after a tryout with the Whale in training camp and playing on a line with Whale rookie left wing Carl Hagelin for four years at the University of Michigan, had two assists for his first AHL points. Going back to last season, the Penguins have 12 straight regular-season road games, three shy of the AHL record they set over the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. They will tie that record if they can sweep this weekend’s road trip to Portland, Manchester and Worcester.

ODDS AND ENDS…

The Abbotsford Heat extended their road winning streak to seven games with a 4-0 victory at San Antonio on Tuesday to improve to 9-1-0-0 away from home with three more road games this weekend. The Houston Aeros, battling Abbotsford and Oklahoma City for first place in the West Division, are 5-1-0-1 on the road. The Milwaukee Admirals, 5-0-0-1 away from home, have earned points in 22 consecutive regular-season road games (15-0-4-3), erasing a 63-year-old Cleveland Barons record. And a 6-0-2-0 road record has led St. John’s to the AHL’s best overall record (11-2-3-0). … After losing five of their first six games, a 7-1-1-1 run has vaulted the Albany Devils from last to first in the Northeast Division. It’s the best 10-game stretch for the Devils (8-6-1-1) since an 8-2-0-0 run midway through the 2008-09 season when they were playing in Lowell. The Devils are succeeding with defense, allowing 19 non-shootout goals in the 10 games. Rookie goalie Keith Kinkaid (4-3-0, 2.12 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) stopped 56 of 57 shots in consecutive wins over Norfolk, including a 1-0 shutout Nov. 4, and Jeff Frazee shut out Syracuse 1-0 on Nov. 12. Joe Whitney, a rookie right wing out of Boston College who played on national championship teams in 2008 and 2010, leads Albany in goals (five) and points (10). … The Florida Panthers recalled former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy from San Antonio, where he has one goal and three assists in eight games. He had one goal in seven games in his first call-up.

WHALE BOWL-A-THON NOV. 27

The Whale’s annual Bowl-a-Thon to benefit Special Olympics Connecticut is Nov. 27 at the AMF Silver Lanes in East Hartford.

There will be shifts at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., with a team of four paired with one Whale player for a minimum donation of $200 for two games. There also will be chances to win prizes, including hockey memorabilia, restaurant gift cards, apparel and more.

To register, call 877-660-6667 or visit www.soctbowlathon.com or www.ctwhale.com.

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