SPOTLIGHT: HARTFORD GRADUATES

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale graduates are helping the parent New York Rangers more all the time.

Take Thursday night, in a 5-3 victory over the host Carolina Hurricanes, in which the Rangers rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits.

Former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer each scored, with McDonagh’s tally coming after a tenacious forecheck by Brian Boyle and the two most recent call-ups, John Mitchell and Carl Hagelin, had a bunch of worn-out Hurricanes scurrying to get to the bench, leading to a bad change.

“You can’t count on two or three guys, or even one line, to carry you every night and have success,” Callahan said. “You’re too easy to shut down. But here everyone is contributing right through the lineup. Guys are stepping in from Hartford and getting points, scoring goals. That’s what you need to have success in this league, contributions throughout the lineup, and it breeds confidence. If you’re down a goal or need a goal you know anyone is capable of doing it. It feels good on the bench (knowing that).”

Callahan, the Rangers’ captain, matched Jiri Tlusty’s goal only 35 seconds into the game with his 10th of the season off an assist from defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who started to revive his game after switching places with McDonagh on the Rangers and Whale rosters on Jan. 3, and before a broken finger sustained in a game against the Springfield Falcons on March 5 ended his sophomore season as a pro. After 2011 NHL Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner reclaimed the lead for the Hurricanes with nine seconds left in the first period, McDonagh tied it off assists from former Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky and defenseman Dan Girardi, to ignite a three-goal blitz in 4:53 of the second that led to a fourth consecutive victory and 11th in 13 games.

Former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov made a brilliant goal-mouth pass on a 2-on-1 to set up a team-leading 12th goal by Marian Gaborik, who then set up the winner with 6:13 left in the second period by Sean Avery, who played two games with the Whale in October in his second stint in Hartford. Anisimov’s assist was his 11th of the season, tying Brad Richards for the team lead. Avery has three goals in 11 games since being recalled from the Whale, after getting three in 76 games last season.

Hagelin made a nifty pass to initiate the Rangers’ final goal by Sauer, his first of the season, before Mitchell had to leave with 6:31 left after diving to block a Joni Piktanen shot that bloodied his face and resulted in seven stitches above his right eye. Hagelin’s assist gave him points in his first four NHL games since he and Mitchell were called up Nov. 24 to help fill the void left by the three-game suspension of right wing Andre Deveaux, who rejoined the Whale for Friday night’s game at Providence after clearing waivers on Thursday. Hagelin tied a team record for most consecutive games with a point to start an NHL career set by Steven King in the 1992-93 season.

Mitchell was upset as he skated to the dressing room under his own power after having one of the Rangers’ 22 blocked shots – the only one with the head.

“You’re just frustrated because, who wants to block a shot with your face, right?” Mitchell said.

But blocked shots are a staple of the Rangers, who have regained the Black-and-Blueshirts style of last season after a sluggish start.

“We’re one of the better teams at blocking shots,” said coach John Tortorella, whose team ranks third in the NHL with 210 blocks on the road. “It’s one of the things we’re asking all the guys to do. It’s part of it, and I think it starts with our leadership. Look at Ryan Callahan, who’s wearing the C. He does all that stuff. When you’re winning as we are right now, people start buying into it.”

A stunning 14 of 18 Rangers skaters, including five of six defensemen and nine who have played in Hartford, figured in the scoring as the Rangers remained three points behind Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh, which beat Washington 2-1 but has played four more games than the Blueshirts. The Rangers’ 14-5-3 record is the best in the NHL, thanks largely to being 7-1-1 at Madison Square Garden.

“It was a good win,” Sauer said. “We hung in there even when they got a couple goals off faceoffs, bang-bang plays, and it got kind of scrambly there in the first (period). So it was good to come out in the second, down one, and capitalize on our opportunities and just keep building. Then the goal in the third gave us some momentum back and we just kept rolling.”

The Rangers won with star goalie Henrik Lundqvist serving as backup to Martin Biron, who made 28 saves as he improved to 4-1-0 with a 1.94 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and one shutout in six games.

“There are not a lot of teams I’ve seen winning games by allowing goals in the first minute of the game and the last minute of the first (period),” said Biron, who remained in the game after being hit under the mask by McDonagh’s stick at 7:47 of the third period. “Those goals are killers. If you give up one, that’s a hard one to let up, and we gave up two of those in the first. But Torts’ message was that we have another gear to go to so let’s just get to that gear right now. And for the better part of the second period we had that gear, and that’s what made the difference.”

The Rangers continue a two-game road trip Saturday night at Tampa Bay before returning home to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night. The Hurricanes lost for the second time in as many nights under new coach Kirk Muller, hired Monday after former Hartford Whalers coach Paul Maurice was fired for the second time by Carolina. The last-place Hurricanes have lost five in a row since a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 21.

The Rangers are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

“We have some good momentum, and guys have some confidence now,” said McDonagh, who is a team-best plus-10, one ahead of the No. 2 defensive pairing of Sauer and Del Zotto. “Pucks are finding the back of the net. As long as you can ride that out and keep the wins coming, that’s a good sign.”

So, too, was All-Star defenseman Marc Staal skating with his teammates for the first time since Sept. 25 in the morning skate, after being shut down for more than a month because of post-concussion symptoms sustained when hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game at Carolina on Feb. 22. Before Thursday, he last skated with the Whale on Oct. 1. He said he believes he will return this season, but it’s still “a long ways away.”

“I think (given) the rate of improvement the last month or so, I feel that I’ll be back,” Staal said. “That’s the plan. It’s just (to) make sure I’m healthy, get back and start playing.”

Staal skated for about a half-hour with wing Mike Rupp, who was on the ice for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery Nov. 9 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Staal and Rupp also played 2-on-2 against Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld and video director Jerry Dineen, brother of former Whalers standout right wing and captain Kevin Dineen.

WHALE CONTINUE HECTIC SCHEDULE

After playing at Providence on Friday night in the teams’ first of four meetings in December, the Whale continues the most hectic part of their schedule so far with another road game Saturday night at Springfield. That will be the Whale’s 15th road game in 22 starts, but they will play nine of their last 12 in 2011 at the XL Center, starting Sunday at 3 p.m. against the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators.

The Whale has won their first three meetings with the Falcons, capped by a 3-2 victory last Saturday night in which they trailed 2-0 before defenseman Pavel Valentenko scored his first goal of the season on a 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) returned to the Falcons’ lineup Friday night at Worcester after missing losses to the Whale and Albany with an injury sustained a week earlier. With St. Pierre sidelined, 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. Drazenovic is now out injured, so St. Pierre likely will slide back between Atkinson and Giroux. Allen York (1-0-0, 2.87, .907) was reassigned by the Blue Jackets on Tuesday after previously playing with the Chicago Express in the ECHL. He joined 38-year-old Manny Legace (3-5-0, 2.53, .910), the Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993.

The Whale completes their tough stretch Sunday against Binghamton, 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 were last in the East Division and next-to-last in the overall standings to Hamilton entering a game against Manchester on Friday night.

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.

AHL RECOGNIZES KADRI, MIELE AND PETERS

Toronto Marlies center Nazem Kadri, Portland Pirates center Andy Miele and Charlotte Checkers goalie Justin Peters were named Reebok/AHL player, rookie and goaltender of the month for November.

Kadri had six goals and 11 assists in 12 games to help the Marlies maintain first place in the North Division. Miele, the 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner at Miami (Ohio) University who began the month with the parent Phoenix Coyotes, had four goals, nine assists and was plus-7 as the Pirates went 7-2-1-0. Peters was 5-1-1 with a 1.63 GAA and .949 save percentage in seven games. He succeeds the Whale’s Chad Johnson, who was goaltender of the month for October. …

ODDS AND END-BOARDS:

The Islanders recalled former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese from the Sound Tigers on an emergency basis after former Sound Tiger Andrew MacDonald injured his right leg in a 2-1 victory over the host Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. Reese, 27, led Sound Tigers defensemen with 12 points in 21 games and ranks second on the team with 10 assists. He had six assists in 27 games with the Islanders last season. A seventh-round pick of the Rangers in 2003, Reese played his first 10 pro games with the Wolf Pack at the end of the 2006-07 season after completing his eligibility at Harvard. The Islanders acquired him in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 1, 2010. Reese was scheduled to play Friday night at Chicago, where former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya returned to his hometown, as the Islanders sought a third consecutive road victory against a Blackhawks team coached by former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville. After the Islanders lost 14 of 16 games heading into a four-game road trip, Montoya had 24 saves in their first road win of the season on Saturday, 3-2 over the New Jersey Devils, and then made 30 stops in the win over the Sabres.

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