SPOTLIGHT: WHO’S PLAYING AND WHERE?

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Connecticut Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko is sometimes self-conscious about his English.

But the personable Russian has certainly improved on the official language of the United States since arriving in Hartford two years ago. And he was right on in the clearest terms Tuesday night, when asked why the Whale has won five of six games to move into first place in the Northeast Division.

“We had some guys get called up, and the guys (in Hartford) are doing a pretty good job working hard every shift,” Valentenko said after his laser from the left point through a screen broke a 2-2 tie and sparked a 4-2 victory over the Hershey Bears. “And every practice we’re doing a good job, so that’s why we’re winning.”

Well said, Pavel – in any language.

Yes, the Whale (12-5-1-2) had plenty to be thankful for a week after Thanksgiving, despite the veteran defensive pairing of Wade Redden and Jared Nightingale having been sidelined for several games by injuries, veteran center Kris Newbury being suspended for four games and veteran center John Mitchell and rookie wing Carl Hagelin, their leading scorers, missing the last three games while starring on Broadway after being called up by the New York Rangers last Thursday, to help fill the void left by the three-game suspension of call-up right wing Andre Deveaux, reassigned to the Whale on Thursday. Hagelin batted in his own rebound for his first NHL goal, off a rebound of a shot by former Wolf Pack defenseman Ryan McDonagh, set up by Mitchell, in a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Then Mitchell tallied his first goal with the Rangers off Hagelin’s nifty drop pass in a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night. Each has points in the three wins they have played in and were awarded “The Broadway Hat” as the team’s top player in a vote of their teammates.

Meanwhile, the Whale has soldiered on, thanks to contributions from all sides that led to four of the first five victories in their current run coming after they trailed in the third period. Goalies Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot have been solid behind a veteran defense helped by the reassignment of rookie Tim Erixon, who sat out Tuesday night with an injury. Rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault has been a godsend at center and wing while taking over the team scoring lead (seven goals, 11 assists). Wings Aaron Voros, who signed a professional tryout contract on Nov. 15, and Chris McKelvie each scored his first goal of the season Tuesday night, with McKelvie’s tally going into an empty net after unselfish plays by Kelsey Tessier and Jordan Owens, who had two assists.

And fittingly, rookie left wing Ryan Bourque had his best game as a pro in his first game against older brother Chris, the best player on the ice Tuesday night, who had a goal and an assist. The victory ended a six-game losing streak to Hershey, with their last win being 3-1 on Jan. 13, 2008 when they were still the Hartford Wolf Pack.

“I’m proud of the way we worked hard as a unit,” Bourque said. “With the guys that we have out of the lineup, it says a lot for our team to take out a great team like Hershey. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”

Ditto for Bourque, who, like most rookies, is in an adjustment stage of his career after excelling with Audy-Marchessault with the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and for Team USA in international competition.

“I think every game you get more and more experience,” Bourque said. “Your first year as a pro is tough. It’s a grind at first, and you just have to get through that bump and hump in the first part of the season. I’m just trying to work hard every day in practice and progressively get better and better. I think once my confidence comes back, you’re going to see a real improvement with my game and what I do on the ice. I think it’s starting to come in bits and pieces every game, and I think (Tuesday night) was a real good start. You might not see it on the score sheet, but I think I had a pretty solid game and in my opinion – I’m probably harder on myself than anyone – I think it was my best game of the season.”

The speedy Bourque said Whale coach Ken Gernander has been working with him on defensive situations and positioning and on timing the play to be in the right position to receive the puck, not be too ahead of the passing lanes and developing plays.

“I’m just trying to find holes and sit back if I have to and then have bursts of speed,” said Bourque, who has one goal and two assists in 13 games. “He has been really helpful, and I’m thankful for what he has told me so far.”

With Newbury and Mitchell not available and the Whale having only 11 healthy forwards, veteran defenseman Brendan Bell and wing Mats Zuccarello took some shifts at forward, with “The Norwegian Hobbit” playing center throughout Tuesday night’s game. That won’t be necessary Friday night, when Newbury returns for a game at Providence after serving his four-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Bridgeport Sound Tigers wing Justin DiBenedetto in a 3-2 overtime victory on Nov. 18. DiBenedetto missed four games before returning Sunday.

Despite missing five games while on recall to the Rangers and the four games because of the suspension, Newbury is fifth on the Whale in scoring (five goals, six assists) and a key figure on the power play, penalty kill and faceoffs. He attended three of the four games that he couldn’t play, missing only a 6-2 loss at Bridgeport last Friday night.

“It (stunk), was awful,” Newbury said of the longest suspension of his nine-year pro career. “I had to skate after practice to stay in shape, and it was tough to watch. It was just one of those things that happened, I guess. It was a split-second decision, and I made the wrong one. So I learn from it and will be more aware, but at the same time I have to stay physical.”

The Whale also will be bolstered by the return of another physical presence, Deveaux, a right wing who cleared waivers Thursday after completing a three-game suspension for an elbow to the face of Florida Panthers center Tomas Fleischmann on Nov. 23. Deveaux, signed to a free-agent deal on Aug. 16, had four goals, two assists and 23 penalty minutes in nine games with the Whale before being called up Oct. 30. In nine games with the Rangers, he played a strong fourth-line role with one goal, 29 penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating.

Deveaux found out at noon Thursday that he had gone unclaimed, and the Rangers assigned him to the Whale, who assigned defenseman Lee Baldwin to Greenville of the ECHL. The Whale welcome Deveaux as they face three games in three days for the second time this season. They visit Providence on Friday night before going to Springfield on Saturday night and hosting Binghamton on Sunday at 3 p.m.

Johnson, who gutted out a 26-save victory Tuesday night while fighting a flu bug that caused him to become ill after the game, feels the Whale has developed an identity that could carry them a long way.

“I don’t feel we played our best hockey the last two games consistently, but I think we have formed an identity and are playing well and sticking to it,” Johnson said. “We’re a team that doesn’t quit, battles to the very end, does what it takes to win and play like a little board hockey. We’re doing the little things like battling in front and battling along the boards.”

Gernander has frequently commended his team for its tenacity and resiliency, and he did it again Tuesday night.

“The guys again stuck with it and got the goal for the win,” he said. “I’m pretty pleased because the guys are continuing to win games, and that’s first and foremost. I’m never going to thumb my nose at a win. There’s going to be mistakes, but I think the guys have shown the effort and perseverance to get the two points. That, maybe more than anything, is encouraging because it’s a character trait. It’s an intangible, but it’s pretty critical to being successful.”

After a much-deserved day off Wednesday, the Whale got back to work Thursday in preparation for their busy weekend. They’ll start against the Bruins (8-13-1-1), who are on an 0-5-0-1 slide since a 3-2 victory over Worcester on Nov. 13. The Bruins have been outscored 25-12 in that stretch, including a 3-2 shootout loss in their only meeting with the Whale on Nov. 20, when third-period goals by Bell and Owens got the visitors to overtime before Mitchell and Hagelin scored in the shootout.

Rookie right wing Carter Camper (5, 11) and veteran center Zach Hamill (6, 7) lead the Bruins in scoring, and rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, four assists and a team-high 50 penalty minutes. Anton Khudobin (7-10-1, 2.98, .913, one shutout) has done most of the goaltending. The Bruins were helped Thursday when the defending Stanley Cup Bruins assigned forward Jordan Caron and defenseman Steven Kampfer to the P-Bruins. Caron, a first-round pick (25th overall) in 2009, had one goal and two assists in 11 games with the NHL Bruins. Kampfer missed the first six games of the NHL season because of an injury sustained in preseason and then had one assist in five games. He had five goals and five assists in 38 games in Boston last season.

The Whale has won their first three meetings with the Falcons (10-10-0-0), capped by a 3-2 victory on Saturday night in which they trailed 2-0, before Valentenko scored his first goal of the season on left-point howitzer and Andreas Thuresson tallied twice in the third period, including the winner with only 21.6 seconds left. The Falcons lost their third in a row Sunday, 3-2 to Albany, though former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers (four goals, six assists) returned from a two-game suspension.

Former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre (5, 16) missed games Saturday night and Sunday with an injury sustained last Friday night, so Nick Drazenovic (5, 15) moved to the No. 1 line between Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout right wing Cam Atkinson (5, 15) and former Wolf Pack left wing and 2009 AHL MVP Alexandre Giroux (6, 4 in 10 games), who had one goal in nine games with the parent Columbus Blue Jackets before returning to the Falcons on Nov. 7. The Falcons are expected to be bolstered by the return of St. Pierre, and Allen York (1-0-0, 2.87, .907) was reassigned by the Blue Jackets after previously playing with the Chicago Express in the ECHL. He will join 38-year-old Manny Legace (3-5-0, 2.53, .910), the Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993.

The Whale completes their tough stretch against Binghamton (7-12-1-1), which has had a post-Calder Cup hangover after winning its first AHL title as assistant coach Steve Stirling, former coach of the Sound Tigers and New York Islanders, was in a hospital recovering from a hasty quadruple heart bypass on June 5, two days before the Senators’ clinching victory in Houston. The Senators opened the season with three losses and are now last in the East Division and next-to-last in the overall standings to Hamilton (6-11-1-1).

Veteran right wing Mark Parrish (8, 6) leads the Senators in scoring, followed by left wings Nikita Filatov (7, 5), called up by the parent Ottawa Senators on Monday, and Mike Hoffman (4, 7) and defenseman Patrick Wiercioch (2, 9). Former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke, the AHL MVP last season after getting 21 goals and 65 assists in 69 games, has no goals and seven assists in eight games after starting the season on the injured list. Mike McKenna (3-5-0, 3.01, .912) and Robin Lehner (4-8-1, 3.05, .913) have shared the goaltending. Fans can participate in a post-game skate but make sure you bring your own blades. … With the calendar hitting December, Movember was over and razors out. All the Whale players participated in the month formerly known as November, when people worldwide sprout moustaches to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues, particularly prostate cancer and other cancers that affect men. The only players still sporting some kind of facial hair Thursday were Johnson, Nightingale, Tessier, Owens, Voros, Tommy Grant and Bell, who had shaved the bottom part of his Fu Manchu and planned to get rid of the rest later in the day.

STAAL SKATING AND TALKING AGAIN

After being completely shut down from physical activity for more than a month, Rangers’ All-Star defenseman Marc Staal has resumed skating and light training as he works his way back from a post-concussion symptoms sustained when hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22.

Until skating with his teammates Thursday morning for the first time since Sept. 25 before the Rangers tried for a fourth consecutive victory against the Carolina Hurricanes, Staal’s last previous skate with other players was with the Whale on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. He had had acupuncture treatment, an MRI and a cortisone shot in his neck, but after the skates with the Whale, his recurring headaches happened again, so Boston-based specialist Dr. Robert Cantu told him to shut down all exercise down for a month.

Thursday, for the first time since his skates with the Whale, Staal talked to reporters in – of all places – the RBC Arena, where his brother’s injurious check occurred.

“I think (given) the rate of improvement the last month or so, I feel like I’ll be back (this season),” said Staal, who talked with reporters for 71/2 minutes. “That’s the plan. I just want to make sure I’m healthy, get back and start playing.”

Staal added that he has been symptom-free for seven weeks but even thinking about a return date “is a ways away.” And he holds no resentment toward his brother.

“I put that behind me, maybe the day after it happened, not right away, because I was pretty upset,” Staal said. “It was tough because it was my brother and it’s a whole different situation when that happens and you get hit hard like that and get injured. We play hard against each other, that’s just the way we play. I play the same against Jordan. I caught Jordan in a hit and it could have gone a different way than it did and that’s just the way it is.

“We understand that’s the game and we’re not going to take it easy on ourselves just because we are brothers, and if we did. it would be noticeable and people wouldn’t be very happy about that. We understand it’s a game. It’s been tough but we’ve been fine.”

Staal skated with Mike Rupp, who has not played since Oct. 24 and was declared out for 4-to-6 weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee on Nov. 9. Staal and Rupp, who are on injured reserve, played 2-on-2 against Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld and video coordinator Jerry Dineen, brother of Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, the former Hartford Whalers star right wing and captain.

Left wing Wojtek Wolski has also resumed skating after sports hernia surgery on Nov. 8 and hopes to return in 10 days. Wolski, who has played in only six games because of a groin injury and the surgery, was expected to be out four weeks and put on injured reserve with Staal and Rupp. The three are on the trip to Carolina and Tampa Bay, where the Rangers play the Lightning on Saturday night before returning to MSG to host Toronto on Monday night.

GRUMET-MORRIS A WORLD TRAVELER

Norway yesterday, Rockford today, British Columbia tomorrow.

That was the hectic last week for goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, the Whale’s MVP last season.

Grumet-Morris was in Oslo, Norway, playing for Loresnskog IF in the Norwegian Elite League, when he got a call to come play for the San Antonio Rampage, not far from where his wife is working in Houston. The six-year veteran hopped on a plane and headed seven time zones west to Rockford, Ill., before he and his new teammates continued on to Abbotsford, British Columbia.

“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Grumet-Morris told John Wishler of the Express News in San Antonio. “All of a sudden, you’re there and playing for your new team. So you want to make a good impression.”

Grumet-Morris did better than good, after signing an AHL contract with the affiliate of the Florida Panthers, the surprise of the NHL under Dineen. After Rampage coach Chuck Weber had Grumet-Morris sit as the backup for a game in Rockford the day after he arrived in the United States to allow him to adjust, he stopped 21 shots in a 5-0 victory over the West Division-leading Abbotsford Heat on Friday night. Two days later, he made 30 saves in a 3-1 victory, knocking the Heat out of first place. The shutout was only the second time in franchise history that a Rampage goalie recorded a shutout in his season debut. Former Rangers goalie Alex Auld blanked the Milwaukee Admirals 7-0 on Nov. 24, 2007.

“We got him acclimated, and the guys played hard in front of him,” Weber said. “He made some big saves at the right time.”

The addition of Grumet-Morris helped the Rampage to a 4-2 record on a road trip, and the back-to-back victories lifted them out of the West Division cellar. Grumet-Morris was the catalyst, but the return of Jacob Markstrom, sent back down Monday, has created a bit of a goaltender controversy. Rookie Brian Foster was sent to the team’s ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati, leaving Grumet-Morris and Markstrom to battle for the top job.

Grumet-Morris is just happy to be back with an NHL organization after being in Norway a few weeks ago.

“I was happy there,” said Grumet-Morris, who played one game with the Rampage in 2005-06. “I’d played in 14 straight games, so I was in a rhythm when I got over here.”

And in nearly perfect rhythm as his AHL career resumed.

WHALE/FALCONS FANS PLAY DOUBLEHEADER THIS WEEKEND

Whale fans will look to get even in their seven-game series with Falcons fans in Game 2 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Saturday at 4 p.m. (doors open at 3:30). Falcons fans notched a 10-6 victory on Oct. 23 at the XL Center in the inaugural game of the historic series originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series.

Tickets include admission to the AHL game. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. Game 1 raised $200, and ticket sales for Games 2 and 3 have already added $400 to the donation. Game 3 is Sunday at noon (doors open at 11:30 a.m.) at the XL Center before the Whale hosts the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators at 3 p.m.

For games this weekend, fans can email whalefalconsfangame@gmail.com and tell Dussault that they want tickets that he can bring on game day. Dussault can’t get more tickets on game day, so fan have to email him by Friday for the game on Saturday and by Saturday for the game on Sunday. Tickets are available in advance for games in Springfield by contacting Damon Markiewicz at dmarkiewicz@falconsahl.com. Advance tickets in Hartford are available by contacting Dussault at whalefalconsfangame@gmail.com. All future tickets must be purchased at least 10 days before the game. Information on all the games and the series is available at www.facebook.com/WhaleFalconsFanGame.

Tickets for Game 4 on Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4 p.m. and Jan. 8 in Springfield at 12:30 p.m. will go on sale Monday. Tickets for the final two games on Feb. 10 in Springfield at 5 p.m. and March 17 in Hartford at 4 p.m. will be available in the near future.

And mark Jan. 22, 2012 on your calendar. That’s when the Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner will be held from 4-7 p.m. at the XL Center. More information will be coming soon.

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